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Examining France's Psychological Abuse Move

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Psychological abuse is often called the wound no one can see. Because of that, it tends to get less attention than physical abuse. We called on psychologist Steven Stosny, who has written several books on the subject, to help us understand what exactly is psychological abuse.

D: You have to distinguish between abusive acts and an abusive relationship. Psychological abusive behavior is just hurting the feelings of someone, trying to make them feel inferior; they are not as good as you. And that can happen in any relationship. You're upset, you say the wrong thing, you call a name, you're insulting or demeaning. But then you apologize for it and you reconnect. An abusive relationship is where you do those behaviors systematically to control or dominate another person, to get them to submit to what you want. And you don't apologize. You feel self-righteous. You made me do it or you had it coming, or if you were a better person, I wouldn't have to do that.

NORRIS: How prevalent is that in relationships?

D: Well, psychological abuse is very prevalent. It's probably - about one in four relationships go through some period where they will have psychological abuse.

NORRIS: One in four?

D: Yes. It's a precursor to violence; about 40 percent of them will become domestic violence. But psychologically speaking, it actually does more damage than physical abuse. The only time that's not true is if the physical abuse does some kind of crippling or maiming or disfigurement. Otherwise, psychological abuse is more - has more psychological effects. You feel worse about yourself for longer.

NORRIS: What kind of toll does it take over time, then?

D: It impairs your ability to sustain interest, trust, compassion and love. In another words, you can't love without hurt. We are actually programmed to believe what people we love say and how they treat us, to be about us. I call it the mirror of love. The only way you know how lovable you are, and how valuable your love is to other people, is by interacting with people you love. So if somebody hits you, it's a little bit easier to see that that person has a problem, at least an impulse-control problem. But when they're demeaning you or making you feel inferior, you're actually psychologically programmed to believe that's your problem.

NORRIS: Are there triggers?

D: Yes. There is an interesting gender distinction of whether a man is abusive or a woman is abusive. If a woman is abusive, she will usually hit the male vulnerabilities of dread of failure as a provider, protector, lover or parent. So she will say, you know, I could have married somebody who made more money than you. I had better sex with my last boyfriend. You're a terrible parent, and I don't feel secure with you. When a man is abusive, he tends to hit fear vulnerabilities. He'll make her afraid that he is going to hurt her, or he'll trigger her fear of isolation that nobody will love you, nobody will care about you; and her fear of deprivation: She can't have a nest, she can't buy anything for the house, she can't buy anything for herself.

NORRIS: If someone is listening to this and they recognize what you are describing in their own household, what should they do?

D: It's really hard to stop on your own once it becomes habituated behavior. So, they are going to need help to do it. If it's not too entrenched, ordinary marriage counseling can help. If it becomes habituated, though, they need something more heroic. Like, we do three-day boot camps where it's eight hours a day for three, sometimes four days. It needs something that drastic to break through the habits. Once you're in the habit of hurting someone you love, it's very hard to stop the habit.

NORRIS: Mr. Stosny, thank you very much for talking to us.

D: Thank you.

NORRIS: Steven Stosny is an expert on psychological abuse. He is also the author of the book, "Love Without Hurt." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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