The Many Faces of Abuse: Treating the Emotional Abuse of High-Functioning Women

The Many Faces of AbuseThe Many Faces of Abuse: Treating the Emotional Abuse of High-Functioning Women, Jason Aronson (now Roman and Littlefield Publishers), New York, 1998. Price: $50.00 / Order

Defining Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is defined as an on-going process and differs from physical abuse in that one person psychologically, either consciously or unconsciously, attempts to destroy the will, needs, desires or perceptions of the other. Although emotional abuse has been inextricably linked to physical abuse, it is viewed as a separate entity. The most salient feature of emotional abuse is its insidious nature. Physical abuse is usually cyclical and intermittent, whereas emotional abuse is often continuous and omnipresent. Psychological abuse has been defined by as including verbal and behavioral means to undermine someone's sense of self, resorting to such tactics as ridiculing, shaming, blaming, criticizing, threatening and neglecting the partner's emotional needs.

According to Loring (1994), there are two types of psychological abuse: overt and covert. Overt abuse is openly demeaning and defacing (e.g., verbal remarks, put-downs, constant criticisms), but covert abuse is more subtle, hidden, but no less devastating. Until now, we have not had a clear definition of what constitutes emotional abuse or therapeutic guidelines for treating the distinct problems as it impacts on the high-functioning woman who is verbally and psychologically mistreated.

Defining the High-Functioning Woman (Exposed)

Not every emotionally abused woman exhibits the same level of early trauma or a proclivity toward developmental arrest. So I have divided into two categories: (1) the "higher level" HFW and (2) the "lower level" HFW. The level of functioning is in accord with the level of splitting or regressive mechanisms ranging from the degrees of impulse control, acting out, addictive or compulsive behaviors, capacity for reality testing, and the structure and level of defense mechanisms.

The "higher level" HFW operates at a more advanced level of ego functioning. She is AWARE that she is being abused, does not feel deserving of it, has a resilient and intact ego and superego. She may not have been exposed to early trauma, and reality does offer her relief. Her judgment is not obscured or impaired. But because of her high functioning status she may feel too shameful to admit she is being abused; when she does, she is either ridiculed or not believed. Her external life often reveals a highly motivated, energetic, well-educated, and career-oriented woman using many creative capacities to achieve status and to become successful. In her work, she may be decisive, comfortable with her autonomy, and extremely competent in the fulfillment of her decisions and responsibilities, but in her personal and family life, she may operate at many different levels of ego functioning.

The Lower Level High-Functioning Woman (HFW)

The "lower level" HFW, theoretically operates at a more primitive level of superego functioning, is characterized by many unresolved preoedipal struggles, and dominated by such primitive defenses as splitting, projection, projective identification, envy, shame/blame, magical thinking, omnipotent denial, and persecutory anxieties. She has been exposed to traumatic experiences, and reality testing DOES NOT offer relief. These women often feel deserving of the abuse and imagine that everything is their fault. "Is this really happening to me or am I imagining." These women have often played the role of caretakers or parentified children, those forced in early years to relinquish their childhood and to perform adult functions for their parents or siblings. They are the "little adults," the mediators, the children who grew up too early and much too soon (Lachkar, 1992, 1997, 1998).


Psychodynamic Book News, June 1997: "A Masterful Job of Focusing on Emotional Abuse, Which is Generally Sidelined"

Vinala Pillari: Dr. Lachkar does a masterful job of focusing on emotional abuse, which is generally sidelined when abuse is discussed. Her classification of personalities in marriages in intriguing. Since this is a book that integrates rich theory with vivid case example and also elaborates treatment issues, every practitioner engaged in couple therapy should read it."

Psychodynamic Book News, June 1998: A Psychodynamic Approach to the Dance between Abuser and the Abused. The subject is emotional abuse - the ongoing process whereby one person attempts to destroy the will, needs, desire or perceptions of another. The object is the well-educated, high-functioning professional woman.

Dr. Joan Lachkar examines the origins and early warning signs of the psychological violation she describes as a dance between abuser and the abused. She goes on to introduce typologies of each (the narcissistic or g abuser, the unentitled self) and to explore the bases for their collusive attachments.

Addressing therapeutic functions like empathy, containment, and counter-transference, and following a couple's evolution from a state of fusion through transitional two-ness to ongoing separateness, dependent and interdependent, Dr. Lachkar applies her psychodynamic approach to treatment, informed by object relations and self psychology, for technique and practical suggestions for the couple.

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Dr. Lachkar is the author of numerous published books and articles including The Narcissistic / Borderline Couple, How to talk to a Narcissist, How to Talk to a Borderline, Courts Beware of the Borderline, and Common Complaints that Bring Couples into Therapy. For more, visit our Books section for more details and to order.