Emotional Abuse Often Hidden in Jewish Family Life

Emotional Abuse Often Hidden in Jewish Family Life

By Amy Lewis Bear

Special for the AJT

When we think of abuse in families, we think of physical abuse. I’ve been to domestic violence meetings at synagogues and other organizations where the emphasis is on physical assault. This sends the message that unless bodily harm is present, hurtful treatment is not abuse. But emotional abuse is just as harmful because it breaks down self-esteem and can lead to emotional, mental, and physical decline.

From Charm to Harm by Amy Lewis Bear

Jewish families experience emotional abuse in the same ways as other cultures and religions. It can occur between spouses, parent and child, siblings, or extended family members. In my psychotherapy practice, I’ve treated members of Jewish families who sought therapy for anxiety and depression. After questioning them, I discovered that many didn’t recognize they were victims of emotional abuse because there was no physical violence.

Emotional abuse is a pattern of psychological intimidation to gain control over another for personal gain. An effective way to dominate others without physical aggression is to manipulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Abusers blame the trouble on their victims, filling them with confusion, shame, and self-doubt. Those on the receiving end of the abuse may take the blame or mistake the treatment as part of a normal relationship.

In healthy relationships, people may say and do things they don’t mean, but there is recognition of offensive behaviors, genuine remorse, and attempts to improve. In emotionally abusive relationships, abusers feel justified and rarely take responsibility for their conduct. They have a systematic intention to dominate another.

To recognize emotional abuse, look for a pattern of the following behaviors:

  • Constant blaming and accusations
  • Failure to take responsibility for insensitive treatment
  • Discounts or ignores your feelings, needs, and opinions
  • Alternates between loving and hurtful behaviors towards you
  • Makes promises and then fails to fulfill them. Becomes angry when held accountable.
  • Ridicules your personal traits such as how you eat, what you wear, how you look, or how you express yourself
  • Confusion tactics: twists your words; distorts the truth; insists you are feeling or thinking things you aren’t; and lies or misleads you about his or her actions or intentions
  • Avoids meaningful conversation to discuss and resolve important issues
  • Lack of respect for your independence, activities you enjoy, or time on your own
  • Isolates or alienates you from other family members or friends
  • Likable and well mannered with other people, but insensitive and cold when alone with you
  • Downplays your accomplishments, talents, and abilities
  • Excessive control of the family’s finances

Emotional abuse can lead to anxiety, depression, self-reproach, erosion of sense-of-self, and a feeling of losing sanity. It can also cause physical ailments such as headaches, body aches, gastrointestinal distress, fatigue, and more serious illness. When children grow up in emotionally abusive families, they often have developmental deficits and lifelong psychological issues. They have a higher risk of becoming perpetrators or victims of abuse.

The first step to stopping emotional abuse is to be aware that there is emotional abuse in your family. Read informative books and know what you’re up against. The effects of emotional abuse in families are commonly underestimated.

Second, acceptthat the abuse is not likely to stop unless you face the issues and take steps to hold the perpetrator accountable. They must take responsibility for their actions and work to change their core belief that mistreating others is okay.

Third, take action and get help. In “Jewish Pastoral Care,” edited by Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, the chapter on domestic violence cites the work of the late Rabbi Julie Spitzer and other Rabbis. They say keeping peace in the home (shalom bayit) is better served by addressing the abuse, and there are exceptions to speaking ill of another person (lashon hara) when failure to get help results in more abuse.

Exposing abuse, whether it’s physical or emotional, helps families and weakens a serious social malady that thrives on secrecy.

Amy Lewis Bear is an Atlanta psychotherapist. She has appeared on television and radio talk shows across the country to raise public awareness of emotional abuse in families. This article is adapted from her book, From Charm to Harm: The Guide to Spotting, Naming, and Stopping Emotional Abuse in Intimate Relationships (2014)



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