It's no secret that midlife or "gray" divorce is skyrocketing. And, according to the AARP, 66 percent of these divorces -- which have doubled since 1990 -- are initiated by women. But the numbers, without any narrative, are just numbers. They don't tell us why so many women, seemingly in droves, are making this heartbreakingly difficult decision. My interest piqued, I designed and distributed a survey to find out more. Hundreds of women took the survey and told their stories. And I am very grateful they did.
Because I'm a psychotherapist who has worked with dozens of divorced and divorcing folks, I wasn't prepared to be surprised by the results. As it turns out, I was both intrigued and enlightened by many of the findings. But the one piece of data that most astonished me was this: A whopping 53 percent of women said they divorced their spouses because of emotional or psychological abuse. This was the number one reason women gave for leaving their marriages.
What is emotional (or psychological) abuse exactly? It's the systematic manipulation of one person by another -- through intimidation, bullying and criticism-- in order to gain control. Emotionally abusive partners do this by making their spouses feel inadequate, stupid, guilty, lazy or ugly. There's practically nothing the victim can do to win the favor of the abusive partner. She may be on her best behavior (defined by him), cook his favorite food every night, or lose 20 pounds so he'll find her more attractive. Newsflash: None of these things will make a whit of difference. It often takes time before the victim realizes the futility of her efforts, so she will continue to dance like a marionette to please her implacable spouse.
Emotional abuse is always present at the start of a relationship, despite how cleverly cloaked it may be in humor or concern or love. It never magically appears overnight. People with a propensity to emotionally abuse carefully select partners who seem susceptible. Emotional abuse can, at least initially, fly below the radar. And emotional abusers are so masterful at their insidious craft that they're expert in not scaring potential victims away.
How do you know if you're in -- or heading into -- an emotionally abusive marriage? Simply put, if you don't have healthy autonomy -- in speaking or socializing or living -- then you're already in a danger zone. Are you watching what you say, who you engage with, or how you dress in order to contain his reactions? Do you limit what you tell others about the relationship because it's an unspoken rule you shouldn't talk about it? Emotional abuse begins with rules put in place by your partner. Rules designed to ultimately diminish and control you.
For over 50 percent of the survey respondents, years of being chastised and belittled finally took their toll. Enough of a toll that they ended their marriages because of it. Here's what some of the respondents had to say, post-divorce, about being free from the emotional abuse they endured in their marriages. Their relief is palpable:
"I am free to pursue my interests without being made to feel guilty."
"The best thing is not having someone to say no to things you want to do."
"Being able to be my own person with my own goals and dreams without being told I'm 'silly and pointless' for the first time since I was 16 years old."
"Not feeling as if I have to live my life under someone else's 'rules'."
And while we now know over half of women surveyed left their marriages because of emotional abuse, even more -- a full 70 percent -- said they had married because they were in love. But as sure as the love was there, so was the flagrant abuse, lying in shadow until the unique insularity of marriage gave it license to show its full face.
The wise, insightful women who took my survey are no different from me, you, your daughter, your manicurist, your physician or your favorite actress. Emotionally abused women aren't weak or stupid. Almost anyone can be a victim of emotional abuse at some point during her life. To be clear, there's no shame in being vulnerable to your spouse or working hard on your marriage. But it is problematic when you flail away at improving an irretrievably broken relationship while watching any semblance of self-respect disappear in the rearview.
Change can't happen without insight. And a victim of emotional abuse may temporarily lose her capacity for insight as everything she ever believed about herself -- and about basic human kindness and decency-- becomes skewed and distorted as a result of the abuse. But the data here is hopeful. The numbers tell us that somehow, some way, victims of emotional abuse are finding their way back to health and self-love. More than ever before in history, women are making it abundantly clear they're no longer willing to stay married to partners who abuse them.