This story is part one of a series on domestic violence that highlights the experiences of Black survivors of domestic abuse who now support and help current victims.
Before domestic abusers physically hit or beat their partners, Katina Davis says they often verbally demean you. They say things that make you feel like nothing — a form of abuse many victims may not even realize they are experiencing.
Davis suffered emotional abuse that later turned to physical abuse from her ex-partner — who is now locked up for violating a protective order. “At the time, I didn’t identify it as emotional abuse,” Davis says. “I thought we were just like any other couple. I didn’t really realize what was happening.”
Like many other survivors, she says emotional abuse is more dangerous than physical because “it feels like you’re going crazy.”
What is emotional abuse?
Emotional abuse in a relationship involves one partner controlling the other by criticizing, embarrassing, shaming, and manipulating them. A common tactic is to use abusive words to tear down a person’s self-esteem and erode their mental health — and this type of domestic violence is experienced by too many in the Black community
In particular, according to a 2017 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Black women “experience significantly higher rates of psychological abuse — including humiliation, insults, name-calling, and coercive control — than do women overall.”
The American Psychological Association says women with a history of domestic violence are three times more likely to consider their mental health to be poor. And, domestic violence victims are 70% more likely to drink excessive amounts of alcohol than individuals in healthy relationships.
After enduring months of abuse, Davis finally decided to leave. She then founded The Melanin Motherhood in April 2021, a nonprofit initially geared towards providing single mothers with diapers and utility assistance. But after relocating, her organization now works to support African American individuals, families, and communities impacted by domestic violence.
Emotional abuse is not limited to women or Black women — men can be and are often victims too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 43 million women and 38 million men have experienced psychological aggression or emotional abuse by a partner in their lifetime.
Unlike physical violence, which can result in a victim pressing charges, filing a restraining order, and a perpetrator going to jail or prison — Davis points out that emotional abuse has no legal repercussions.
“In some states, emotional abuse isn’t even a chargeable offense,” she says. “Emotional abuse … is worse than the physical and it leaves scars that you can’t see, but they’ll always be there.”
How emotional abuse can start
Davis grew up in an environment where arguing and toxic behavior were seen as normal. But she says she pushed that under the rug when she got into a relationship with her ex-partner. The relationship started out long-distance, but after Davis’s then less than 1-year-old son fell ill, her ex-partner stayed around for support.
She lost her job, her house, and everything she had as a result of her son being sick — and that’s when Davis says the emotional abuse started.
“He started tearing me down with his words, calling me names, just saying things that were very unpleasant and things that will debilitate your self-esteem — not only as a woman, but as a human being, period,” she says. “Eventually I started to believe those things about myself.”
With little family support, no friends, and three children to raise, Davis decided to stay because he was all she had. But, after making a good friend who started to encourage her, Davis was able to get a new job and get back on her feet.
Almost immediately after, the physical abuse began.
“Everything just kept getting worse and worse and worse,” Davis says. “I began to call back home to his family to ask his mom for help, and the attitude I got from them was basically ‘he’s your problem now’.”
For victims who are dealing with emotional abuse, Davis says it’s important to know what the warning signs are and acknowledge that it is abuse. If your partner lashes out with their words during a disagreement and is trying everything to tear down your self-esteem, she says that should never happen.
Because emotional abuse is often the gateway to physical violence. Davis encourages people to pay attention to warning signs. One sign she initially missed was her ex-partner showing up at her job, and persistently asking her out — something she later realized turned into full-on stalking.
The Ananias Foundation, an organization working to help abusers change their behavior, identifies signs of emotional abuse, including accusing your partner of flirting, having an affair, or being unfaithful when there is little or no evidence they have done so. Getting angry or resentful when your partner is successful in a job or hobby, and threatening to hurt yourself, especially when things are not going your way are also indicators.
Everyday impact of emotional abuse, how it develops
Hope Gilchrist, a mental health therapist in Baltimore, Maryland, says victims of domestic violence often have low self-esteem and have a history of being exposed to some form of domestic violence. In her more than 20 years of experience, she’s worked with both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence — and she’s noticed a few things.
Those who are victimized by an abusive partner are often less confident and more apprehensive about living —meaning they’re less likely to go for a job promotion and don’t know how to be the best version of themselves, she says.
“(Low) self-worth could cause them to continually get into relationships … where they are a victim because they are so used to being victimized, so to speak. So, they develop a pattern of behavior,” Gilchrist says.
A common statement in the Black community is that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Gilchrist says this is one of the most untrue statements that exists.
“Growing up that sounds strong and powerful … you’re being taught that words don’t hurt,” she says. But “words cut; words sometimes have the potential to last longer than some of the physical abuse that we deal with because you don’t ever forget that someone said that to you.”
This “sticks and stones” mindset can have a ripple effect on children growing up in a domestically abusive environment, Gilchrist says — some children develop self-worth issues, post-traumatic stress disorder, and not feeling worthy. Learned behavior can result in children growing up and repeating the abuse in relationships, but she says people in the same family can all react differently.
“You got some people who become more timid, you got some people who develop alcoholism, drug (addictions), or something of that nature to cope with having been exposed to so much trauma,” she says.
When asked if perpetrators of domestic violence also come from abusive homes, Gilchrist says a few factors could be at play. In some instances, she says it can be learned behavior, but in other cases, it can be the only place a perpetrator can find control, or it can be an undiagnosed mental illness like intermittent explosive disorder. Although this disorder is not diagnosed very often, she says it shows up in people who are just angry and incapable of controlling themselves.
“It’s one of those diagnoses that’s very commonly missed,” she says. “It sometimes may seem like it excuses a behavior, but it doesn’t necessarily excuse the behavior.”
Gilchrist says perpetrators of abuse tend to date people they think they can control. But she believes these harmful behaviors often come from a place of trauma.
As a regular advocate for mental health care, Gilchrist believes both perpetrators and victims of domestic violence can heal. Specifically, for folks who have been emotionally abused, she says it’s important for survivors to get the proper therapy and support so they can be empowered and deal with those underlying issues.
“The stigma of mental health, especially in the Black community really holds us back — that I would say is something very generational. We have built situations — like the saying what happens in this house stays in this house,” she says. “We have to stop with the stigma so that we can … reduce the trauma in our Black and brown communities, including domestic violence.”
Breaking the strong Black woman stereotype
The strong Black woman archetype is characterized by three main components: emotional restraint, independence, and caretaking. Davis says the persona people have often given her is that of the strong friend, the strong Black woman. But she says this stereotype heavily contributes to the longevity of domestic violence relationships in the Black community.
People view Black women as being able to get through everything and anything. But, Davis says an abusive relationship is not something that you can get through on your own. You need help. The stereotype also causes women to not want to ask for help out of fear they will be viewed as weak.
“That’s what kept me silent for two years,” she says. “It kept me silent for seven months after the relationship. I was worried about what people would think of me. Would people start calling me weak, would they start calling me stupid?”
A journal article published in the journal “Psychology of Women Quarterly” found that the strong Black woman stereotype contributes to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Some of the women interviewed in that study disclosed depression as being a reality of life that resulted from exhaustion from not attending to their own needs and repressing vulnerable emotions.
“I always tell people don’t call me a strong Black woman. Please do not call me that. I hate that,” she says. “If anything, call me a powerful Black woman, I’ll take that any day.”
Another problem Davis says is big in the Black community is parents who don’t want to get involved when their adult children are hurting others. She experienced this when her ex-partner’s family refused to help her get out of the abusive relationship.
“A lot of these moms, they don’t want to take accountability for their grown sons or their grown children,” she says.
Support is critical
When Davis realized her ex-partner’s parents were not going to help her, she turned to the police, especially during COVID-19 when her abuse was at its height due to constantly being in the house together. She says she called the police more than 20 times in a three-month period, but they told her there was nothing they could do.
Davis says part of the problem was that the police never properly identified her as a victim, and officers would question her in the presence of her abusive ex-partner. If the police officers had separated her from her ex-partner during those domestic violence calls, she says she would have been more likely to press charges.
Eventually, Davis says she defended herself — “It had gotten to the point where it was going to be him or me that day, and he ended up calling the police on me.” Davis says one of the same officers who had previously come to her home in response to her 911 calls for help ended up arresting her.
“Something really changed and shifted inside of me. I was so angry but no longer at my abuser,” she says. “I was angry at the judicial system because these are the people who were put in place to protect me, and I called them several times and asked for help. And they come back out here and arrest me.”
During the few hours she spent in jail, she says her ex-partner destroyed everything in her home, bleached the inside of her car, flattened her tires, and ruined her kid’s clothing. She tried to file a temporary protective order and was denied. Her ex-partner subsequently showed up at her job, stalked, and called her more than “175 times” in one night.
“The last day when things really escalated, he appeared at my back window at 3 a.m. and told me he was going to kill me,” she says.
The following morning, Davis returned to the police station with documentation of all the abuse her ex-partner had put her through — and a judge finally approved a temporary protective order. But, her ex-partner violated the protective order within two hours and has been incarcerated ever since she says.
One of the things keeping Black women and men in abusive relationships, Davis says, is the lack of community support and the unwillingness to have difficult conversations. In the same way there are neighborhood watch meetings, she says there needs to be a domestic violence task force put together by specially trained court officials, police officers, and advocates.
“If you constantly have that support around you, it won’t be so difficult to leave those abusive relationships because you know you have the community support and backing that you need — and the genuine love.”