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Women’s experience of emotional abuse in intimate relationships: a qualitative study

This study investigated emotional abuse that occurs without physical abuse in the context of heterosexual, committed couple relationships. It examined the ways in which men abused women and the impact this had on women’s lives. This research was based on memory-work, a feminist technique that enables researchers to make explicit the ways in which human experiences and identities are socially constructed within specific socio-cultural settings. The seven participants wrote individual memories of experiences from their past relationships, triggered by cue words they had chosen, and they then theorized about the memories together. Similarities and differences were explored. The women found that their partners saw themselves as superior to them and set the standards at home, thereby forcing, expecting, or manipulating women to take a subordinate position in the relationship. The misuse of gendered power in the relationships led to all seven women becoming depressed and resulted in lowered self-esteem for six out of seven women and diminished identity for two out of seven women. The only woman whose self-esteem was not negatively affected was aware of her partner’s unequal gendered practices, which seemed to have protected her somewhat from the severity of impact of the emotionally abusive behaviour. The degree to which a woman’s self-esteem was diminished by her partner’s behaviour seemed to be related to how covert and ambiguous his controlling behaviour was. Three forms of control emerged from the data. While all forms involved similar impacts, such as loneliness and lowered self-esteem, they also affected the women in different ways. Dominant men intimidated women into conforming through fear, while passive controllers expected women to conform to gendered norms, silently rejecting them for non-conformance by becoming cold and distant. Manipulative controllers undermined women in subtle, indirect ways, which made women compliant because increased uncertainty had made them dependent on their partners for their feelings of self worth.The first two forms of control were directly related to prescribed gendered roles, which men rigidly adhered to and demanded or explicitly expected of partners. The long-term effects were that women felt increasingly depressed, because gendered roles made women responsible for men’s needs while their own needs were not met in the relationship. Their self-esteem decreased because they felt unloved. The third form of control, the subtlest and most covert form of abuse, was not overtly related to traditional gendered roles, but these men still wanted to be the centre of attention and subtly undermined women's confidence by destabilizing and confusing them, in order to have better control. This research may have extended the knowledge of emotional abuse by showing that social practices that are accepted as the norm can obscure the emotional abusiveness of gendered practices. The method of memory-work was useful in exposing socialized belief systems and gendered behaviour, but left a gap in knowledge that direct questioning may have answered.
Type of thesis
Lammers, M. (2002). Women’s experience of emotional abuse in intimate relationships: a qualitative study (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/14047
The University of Waikato
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