“You can blame me / Try to shame me / And still I’ll care for you
You can run around / Even put me down / Still I’ll be there for you
The world / May think I’m foolish / They can’t see you / Like I can
Oh, but anyone / Who knows what love is / Will understand”
These are the lyrics to artist Irma Thomas’ 1964 hit, “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand).” On the surface, the song seems so innocent—Thomas’ soulful singing of unwavering love and captivation is set amidst music which, if notes could fly, flutters into a quiet evening. The instrumentals are pristine, and even the background vocals with their intermittent shrieks of “anyone!” mid-song is a little thing that’s pleasant to hear. In listening to the music, one can never suspect of anything wrong; everything seems to be perfect, and playing along the major key. Delving deeper into the lyrics, however, tips the song to a minor, much darker, and depressing scale.
Though the music is heavenly and free from distraught, Thomas’ words reveal an ugliness behind its angelic sound—“Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)” speaks of an abusive relationship, guised in the habiliments of a love song. Suffering and putting one’s self down for another person is romanticized as an act of love, and the persona even stretches to a point wherein he or she “[feels] so sorry for those who pity [him or her]” as they “don’t know what happiness or love can be.”
It’s no mistake that a song tackling abuse would sound so inviting and calming and endearing. In fact, those very qualities parallel that of people stuck in abusive relationships—they stay, drawn in by its sweetness, not minding the razorblades hidden in candy wrappers and poisonous seeds in the center of lollipops. The harm in the kind of abusive relationship Thomas portrays is layered under saccharine coats, and is only revealed in a very subtle way. Much like the song’s message, the subtleties of Thomas’ hit reflect that of the subtleties in emotional abuse.
One misconception people have of abuse is that it has to be physical; that it has to leave visible marks on the victim’s skin—but that is not always the case. Abuse is generally defined as a pattern of behavior used to gain and maintain power or control over an individual. Although not clearly seen, emotional abuse can still be as controlling and tormenting as physical abuse. It may not leave marks or bruises on skin, but the manipulation involved can still leave scars. Threats, insults, and words themselves can be volatile, and could scathe a person as if they were physically beaten.
The face of emotional abuse can appear in different situations, all non-physical, which involve threats, insults, constant monitoring or “checking in,” excessive texting, humiliation, intimidation, isolation, or stalking. It can be seen in how the abuser calls their partner names, or brings them down. It can be seen in how they dictate what their partner should do or wear, or who they should or should not hang out with. It can be seen in how they threaten harming their partners or the people they care about, or how they threaten them with thoughts of committing suicide if they break up.
It is no surprise, then, that victims of emotional abuse cannot easily leave the relationship—their abusers manipulate them in believing that they need to stay. Although it’s easy to discern the aforementioned situations as problematic, things may not be as clear in reality as they are on paper, the same way practical applications may not align with their theoretical principles. It all boils down to how abusers draw in and manipulate their victims—such as employing the technique of gaslighting.
The term “gaslighting” comes from the 1938 stage play “Gas Light,” wherein a husband tries to drive his wife insane by dimming the lights (which were powered by gas) in their home. When his wife points out that the light has changed, he denies it. Gaslighting is a very effective form of emotional abuse, attempting to make the victim doubt their own feelings, instincts, and sanity. Once the victim loses sight and control of one’s self, they are made more susceptible to the manipulations of the abuser and are convinced in staying in the relationship.
One can notice the lights dim in the things abusers say or do. “I don’t want to hear this again,” or “You’re trying to confuse me!” is a sign of withholding, wherein abusers pretend not to understand or refuse to listen to their partners. They can also practice countering, wherein they question their partner’s memory of events, even if they remember them correctly. Blocking or diverting involves changing the subject, or questioning their partner’s thoughts. Statements such as “You’re too sensitive!” or “You’re getting angry over a little thing?” reflect trivializing, wherein the abuser disregards their partner’s feelings. Forgetting or denial involves the abuser pretending to forget what actually occurred or denies things like promises made to their partners.
Gaslighting is a gradual thing, usually starting off as harmless and then getting worse as time passes by. The goal of the technique is to break the victim’s sense of trust in one’s self, making them rely on the abuser to shape their reality—and that can be something difficult to escape from.
Abuse does not necessarily have to be manifested in bruises. It can be subtle, it can be hidden. Emotional abuse is a perfect example of that—just because a person does not have marks on their skin does not mean they are spared from the torments of abuse. It is important, then, to see the chains, without denial or doubt, and do the hardest to break free from them. As Stephen Chbosky said in his book “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “We accept the love we think we deserve.” People can always try to see that they deserve more.