Last Friday, actress Amber Heard appeared in Los Angeles Superior Court with a bruised face. According to Heard’s lawyers, her injuries had been caused by soon-to-be-ex husband Johnny Depp, whom Heard’s representatives claimed had a long history of physically and psychologically abusing his partner.
In the wake of Heard’s accusations, much of the media conversation has focused on “proving” the details of the assault. Were Heard’s bruises real? Did Depp actually hit her? Were there any witnesses? But our culture’s focus on the physical evidence of abuse, to the erasure of everything else, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics—and effects—of abuse. Photos of bruised arms and black eyes may seem like documentation of an abusive relationship at its worst. But the emotional trauma inflicted by an abusive partner, even one who never raises a fist in anger, can do far greater long term damage than any physical pain. And in our “pix or it didn’t happen” culture, we not only tend to ignore the impact of this type of abuse—we actively make it more difficult for victims to recognize, identify, and escape from.
Abusive relationships are often divided into two distinct categories: physically abusive and emotionally abusive. The former is what most people think of when they talk about intimate partner violence; it’s the stories of battered bodies and black eyes that make the news and send people to jail. No one’s deeply damaged sense of self worth will ever wind up plastered across the pages of TMZ the way photos of a bruised and bloodied Rihanna did. Because physical abuse has concrete effects, and is punishable through the legal system, it’s often seen as more serious than emotional abuse. A partner who physically threatens you poses a risk to your safety and possibly even your life; one who humiliates, belittles, and gaslights you is just a bad relationship.
When I was eighteen, I met the man who’d become my first serious boyfriend. Within days of knowing each other we were already dating, four months in we’d moved in together. Over the course of our three-plus year relationship, he systematically chipped away at my sense of self worth, undermined my social safety net, and manipulated me so badly I began to question my very perception of reality. My relationship with my sister began to crumble as my partner openly insulted her and tried to convince me she was actually an enemy. I lost confidence in my abilities, becoming convinced that I was tone deaf, sexually undesirable, and utterly incapable of finding someone else to love me. And every time I would fight back, angry at yet another violation of my boundaries, my partner would come back even harder, turning my accusations against me and twisting the truth until I became convinced that I was the one at fault.
So much of what I went through exemplifies the classic model of an abusive relationship. And yet for over three years—during which I worked at a rape crisis center and ran workshops on intimate partner violence—it didn’t occur to me that I was the victim of abuse. To put it bluntly: I was never a victim of physical violence, and as a result, whatever I was subjected always seemed like it must not be that bad.
It’s a mistake to see physical and emotional abuse as two separate categories when they’re deeply interconnected aspects of one abusive dynamic. All abusive relationships contain an emotionally abusive component—it’s that intense manipulation that helps an abuser convince their victim to stay. Physical violence isn’t a separate type of abuse, it’s just a symptom of that same toxic dynamic; a symptom that not all damaging and dangerous relationships will end up manifesting.
And the fact that one abusive relationship might result in physical violence while another does not is not an indication that one relationship is “worse” or more abusive than the other. A number of abuse victims that I’ve spoken with find that the emotional damage done by their partner is as bad as, if not worse, than the physical pain they were put through. Bruises will fade and broken bones heal, but a shattered sense of self and ability to trust can be incredibly difficult to piece together again.
Twelve years after that first serious relationship, I still have a difficult time talking about my experience with abuse. It’s not because I’m embarrassed or ashamed, but because trying to explain the details of an emotionally abusive experience ultimately replays the dynamic of abuse all over again. So much abuse is an exercise in minimization—my partner wasn’t being cruel, he was just being honest; the violations of my physical and emotional boundaries weren’t actually that big a deal.
Opening up about what I went through feels like walking on a tightrope: Reveal too little, and it doesn’t sound that bad, leading outsiders to question and undermine the reality of what I went through, leading me to question all over again if it was really that bad. Reveal enough to “prove” I was actually abused, and my deepest humiliations and shame become fodder for public consumption—a public that will, as history has shown time and time again, almost definitely continue to question the severity of my claim.
Abuse victims are often put in a no-win situation: Come forward, and you’ll be accused of lying; stay silent, and whatever you suffer is your own fault. And the more we fixate on expecting survivors to “prove” their abuse, the more difficult we make it for many to recognize that they themselves are being abused by their partners—and the more we increase the likelihood of victims staying in a relationship that might literally be the death of them.
Lux Alptraum is a writer, comedian, and consultant with one thing on her mind. Follow her on Twitter at @luxalptraum.