A bird in a gilded cage

I would like to dedicate this article to all of you as violence can be noticed in all countries, among all social classes and religious groups, in families with university degrees and those not educated at all, experiencing poverty or living a luxurious life. Violence is visible inside families, at school, in public institutions and workplaces. Among its perpetrators we can find men, women, teenagers or even children. We usually learn violent behaviors since our early childhood and then it is passed on to next generations.

The definition of violence is constantly being discussed, in particular when it comes to emotional violence. But every type of violence: physical, emotional, intellectual, sexual, economic or religious results from the intention of the manipulator, these are intentional behaviors/acts of the perpetrator aiming at maintaining control over the other person in order to satisfy own needs, build the feeling of power or control.


Violence is usually connected with emotional, physical or social neglect. It consists in each act violating somebody’s personal freedom, forcing them to some behaviors or activities through manipulation, influencing feelings and thoughts, through verbal or physical aggression, up to behaviors which are in contradiction with their needs and own will. Humiliation, criticism, omission, controlling, shaming, accusing, blaming, “silent days” – it all adds up to violence. Emotional violence, without leaving any physical wounds, touches a person in an extremely cruel way. As Eric Hoffer wrote: “Our sense of power is more vivid when we break a man’s spirit than when we win his heart”.


In this article I would like to tell the story which I heard from a woman, the wife of a man who for many years was using emotional violence, the results of which reach very far, as far as into the world of feelings and thoughts concerning our own value. For this reason I am writing my article concerning emotional violence from a feminine point of view. The abuse of emotional violence is more subtle as it does not hurt the body, at least directly. Nevertheless, the traces it leaves last much longer than bruises on the body, they are deep wounds of the soul. In order to protect the privacy of the woman I changed her name and the circumstances of events which she was describing.


Maria used to be in a relationship with a man who was totally different “in public” than in private life. In her relationship the woman was every day experiencing the outbreaks of anger, humiliation, sarcastic comments, ruthless domination, manipulation, extortion, intimidation and in particular penetrating cold, indifference and distance. Maria was suffering alone, without any witnesses, she did not have anybody with whom she could share her story, her feelings. In the eyes of her friends and family her husband was perceived as a really decent guy. So how to believe a woman whose husband always hugs her in public, buys flowers and presents, takes on holidays, ensures financial security and takes care of his parents and in-laws, paying for their trips abroad, medical tests or stays in sanatoriums? Her husband’s social and professional position was high, which gave him the possibility to search for jobs for their common friends. If needed, without hesitating a minute, he was also supporting them financially.


In this way  he was thought to be a cheerful and helpful man. His sense of humor and interest in the life of the family as well as their colleagues and friends made the people feel good while spending time with him. Maria’s birthdays or other anniversaries were a good occasion to show the best of himself. Charming, witty, sociable, intelligent, reliable, able to assess interpersonal situations in a very appropriate way – “a husband of every woman’s dreams”. Women liked him very much, as he would complement them in a charming way, give flowers and he would never forget about women in whom he had fallen in love before. He was taking care of their professional development, supporting them in the moments of crisis, remembered about important dates and was looking at them in a warm way full of acceptance. He used to say thank you for beautiful moments spent together or nice conversation so that Maria could hear it. He would accuse his wife of jealousy every time when she pointed out such behavior, which according to her constituted the source of insecurity in their relationship as he would never thank Maria for a nice day or conversation.


Maria lived in a beautiful house with a huge garden and the entire tragedy was happening within these four walls, without any witnesses. “I am a bird in a gilded cage” – this is how Maria described herself when she sat on the turquoise armchair in my office. Her sad eyes were the announcement of a depressing story. “I dream about freeing myself from this cage, but I’m scared, I won’t be able to do it on my own. I was still hoping because he used to be different. I was all the time thinking that maybe this time he will really change, but now it has come so far that my wounds do not heal, he sprinkles them with salt so often. Lately, in the frenzy of suffering, I shouted: “Do you know how I feel with you?”. He answered: “Yes, I know. Unloved, left, unwanted, lonely, betrayed, valueless”. These words were the reason of my final breakdown… I need to rescue myself”, Maria said.


Maria visited me in the state of extreme emotional exhaustion, with sleep disorders as well as the symptoms of tension and very low mood. Her husband was the perpetrator of emotional violence. A few days earlier he met her mother and told her that he worries about her daughter as lately she has mainly been sleeping and has not been eating nearly anything, she is not taking care of the children, behaves in a strange way and does not want to talk with him. During the meeting he started to cry, he was begging his mother in law for help and repeating how much he loves Maria. When the mother called Maria in order to ask her what was going on, terrorized Maria denied that the relationship with her husband was in terrible condition. She was afraid that her influential husband would take her children and she will find herself in a psychiatric ward with the diagnosis of paranoid syndrome, without any means of livelihood.


She felt left alone. His words: “One tiny snap and you don’t exist. Nobody would believe you. I can prove your strange behaviors. You are a low-life woman. If you leave me, I’ll ruin your family and you’ll find yourself in the street” – were making her extremely scared. Oppressed for so many years and weak enough in order not to find in herself the power to leave, Maria was stuck in a toxic, more and more destructive relationship. Some aggressors do not manifest their anger in a direct way, resorting to disguised forms of aggression. These “hidden oppressors” also manifest anger and hostility, even if they do not express their emotions. Their cruel method consists in making long-term plans on how to control and manipulate the victim. Sometimes, when the oppressor realizes that his reaction was too strong, he makes an attempt to change himself, and it lasts two or three weeks. At such moment he says: “We don’t talk enough, this is where all these difficulties come from”, “I’ll make our future better” etc. The victim becomes stronger and more courageous, starts to believe in the possibility of change again. This is when intimacy, talks and interest appear. Unfortunately the victim, catching from time to time a sip of hope, remains in this emotional trap for years.


“Even if psychological bullying may never transform into physical violence, relationships infected by physical violence in which psychological violence did not constitute a prelude are rare and its results reach much further than a broken bone […]. World Health Organization differentiates four types of intimate violence: physical, sexual, emotional or psychological as well as control-enforcing behaviors. All four types are often co-existent and verbal aggression often precedes violence.


Some studies show that bullying consisting in humiliation, arousing fear and abasement in a longer perspective results in deeper mental traces than physical violence; psychological violence may even make the relationship last longer, as the victim becomes absorbed by self-doubts, depression and low self-esteem. Lenore E. Walker, the first psychologist to diagnose the “cycle of violence”, compared its psychological results to tortures experienced by prisoners of war: isolation, manipulation, humiliation, use of alcohol and drugs as well as randomly mentioning from time to time, to keep the victim hoping, that the torture will finish one day”.


The following fragment of the article concerns Maria’s life behind the curtain. She used to have breakfast mainly on her own or with the children, her husband would enter the kitchen when she already finished, and would go to work in silence. When he was coming back from work, he was passing her as if she did not exist. He was unavailable for her, he did not share his feelings, thoughts, plans. She felt like an object, he was only expressing curt messages: “We’re having dinner with our friends tomorrow”, “The car is being repaired”, “I’ll be back late”, “I bought some bread”. When she was asking him to talk with her, he would say: “I have nothing to talk about with you”, “I have nothing interesting to tell you”, “I need to take care of more important things” or was having  a superficial talk.


When she was asking about his life, he would growl: “I don’t have to inform you about my life”, “Why are you asking me like this?”, “It isn’t your business”. When he was going on a business trip, sometimes he did not contact her for as long as two weeks. He would not reply to her messages and phone calls. When she was asking why it looked like this he would say that he was busy and was working for the family’s living and she was getting news about his trip by incident from his father, the children or friends. When they were travelling somewhere together he was reserved and indifferent.


Maria visited many beautiful places on earth, but when he was by her side, these places were becoming sad and dull. During their common trips he would walk a few meters in front of her or behind her. On a plane he listened to music and did not talk to her. When it was difficult for her to choose a dish in a restaurant, he would order only for himself and say: “The undecided don’t eat”. Then she would leave the restaurant and wait until her husband finish eating. He would ask her: “Why did you leave so suddenly?”, “Has anything been wrong?”. She was coming back home exhausted. Upon their return her husband used to invite friends for dinner and begin by saying: “Last weekend I took Maria to Rome” and he was talking hours and hours about their “fabulous trip”.


When she was telling him what she felt, he would answer: “Don’t complain!”, “So feel different!”, “You’re too sensitive!”, “You’re oversensitive”. Maria was many times trying to find a job, but her influential husband would do everything to make it impossible. He would tell her that she is hopeless at everything and that she wouldn’t manage with it. It resulted in Maria’s lowered self-esteem.


Maria was taking care of the house, which always had to be perfect. Her husband would punish her for every mistake. When he found one shirt which did not satisfy his requirements in the context of its ironing, he would throw the clothes away from the closet, crumple them and tell her to iron them all once again. When he didn’t like the dinner, he would throw it on the floor. Maria’s work was to take care of huge house and garden.


When they were together at a party, he was asking her questions of this kind: “Do you know that beautiful woman in red dress?”. Then tears would appear in her eyes and he would comment them coldly: “You look tired and I think you’ve forgotten to put on your makeup”. He was extinguishing her femininity, she felt unattractive and was losing her glam. Concern and suffering would appear on her face. Deprived of love – she was becoming more and more introvert. While receiving gifts, she had the impression of becoming an object as well. Her mood was influencing those around her.


She was considered to be a dissatisfied and depressed woman. She felt guilty that she was unable to be a good mother, that her daughters were observing the negative image of a couple, that they saw a woman who was afraid and agreed to violence. She was so tense that it was nearly impossible for her to concentrate on learning, reading a book or talking. It happened many times that she had to leave a meeting with friends because her husband was whispering to her, with a smile on his face, such humiliating words: “Pass me the wine, you’re making me have a glass” or “You look stupid when you’re smiling”. By presenting such behavior, she seemed emotionally unstable for her near ones. He, in turn, would apologize to their friends, saying: “I’m dreaming about a peaceful relationship”. This mutual dance lasted many years.


The range of emotional violence is very wide, below I present several typical examples.



In order to create a good relationship, something more than just the exchange of information is necessary. The exchange of crucial messages is of course important, but it may not constitute the only form of communication in a relationship. A good relationship requires intimacy, listening to each other, understanding other person’s feelings, reacting to words, asking, i.e. being interested in what has happened or is happening in our partner’s life, what are his or her plans for the future. Keeping our thoughts, hopes, dreams and feelings for ourselves as well as adopting a silent, cold and dominant attitude makes us feel lonely in a relationship. Withdrawal hurts as much as words, sometimes even more.


“I many times heard my husband share with other people for example how impressive some film was for him or what was happening at his work, or else tell about his trip. I told him many times that it’s great that he can express his opinions and that I would like him to share his experiences with me and that I’m really interested in his thoughts. He used to answer with piercing cold in his eyes: “I didn’t think it would be interesting for you”. There was of course no change, I felt isolated, undignified to live in his world”, Maria says.



Opposing and questioning everything that the other person says, undermining all their opinions is a type of verbal aggression consisting in refusal to accept someone’s different point of view. The aggressor can’t stand the opposition and questions the victim’s thoughts and remarks. He may not lose control, so he is forcing to share his opinion. Opposition efficiently undermines all attempts to reach an agreement and create intimacy.

“Nearly every time when I was expressing my opinion about a given topic, he would think differently. After years I stopped expressing my opinion in order not to get humiliated. He would say: “No way!”, “It isn’t true!”, or “You have no idea what you’re talking about”, “You don’t understand anything”, “Before you say something, think it over”, “Don’t be ridiculous”. He just always knew better what I should like, what I should think, how to behave and how to interpret the reality or even weather. “It’s cold”, I said. He would reply: “No, it isn’t. It’s cool”. “It’s 11:00”, and he would add: “It isn’t! It’s 11:01”. I remember that I once told my husband that I had an idea to write a book. He listened to me and then added: “I don’t think anybody would like to read something like this”. All my excitement and enthusiasm was vanishing. I couldn’t stand it”.



Ignoring somebody is an extremely destructive form of violence as it undermines the victim’s reality and experience. With time the victim has difficulties with self-esteem and with assessing what they feel. He or she may even start thinking if everything is OK or maybe he or she really does not have any sense of humor. Such conclusions may lead to increasing frustration and the feeling of hopelessness. Let us imagine a product in a shop, the price of which was changed from 100 euros to one cent. The price is reduced to the level of a nearly valueless item. And this is exactly how the aggressor reduces his victim’s feelings – to meaningless sensations.

“When I was saying that I felt hurt or I didn’t consider something funny, that I felt humiliated, he would say: “Feel different.”, “Your feelings and sensations are worthless”, “It’s just your vivid imagination” or “You’re exaggerating everything”, “You’re provoking me”, “You’ve found a great man. You’re lucky. You would be nothing without me”, “It isn’t that I don’t care about your feelings, these are your delusions”, Maria recalled.


Violence under the guise of a joke

Violence under the guise of a joke takes place when the aggressor tells his victim something which hurts, but puts it into decorative frames of a joke. It often happens among mutual friends, in order to say next that it was just a joke, that the intention was just to entertain everyone. The joke tells about the victim’s behaviors which took place in their relationship. This type of verbal aggression is not of a funny character at all, as it addresses the victim’s most sensitive points, while the rest, totally, unaware of it, is laughing out loud. It hurts, reaching the victim’s most sensitive points. Violence in the form of a joke often concerns intellectual abilities, appearance or skills.


Selective blocking / distraction

Blocking and distraction constitute another form of violence hidden in words. The aggressor wants to take over the communication inside the relationship, to decide which topics can be discussed and which should be forbidden. These topics are often important for the partners, they should be discussed. In this way, the attempts to solve a conflict become impossible. The partner may directly order to stop the conversation or change its topic in a witty way. The victim may hear: “You talk too much”, “I don’t understand what you’re aiming at”, “The conversation is over, I’m leaving”, “Oh no, we aren’t going to talk this way”, “I’m not interested in your opinion, it’s a load of nonsense”.

When according to me, there was a problem in our relationship which we should talk over, I used to ask for a chat, which would quickly finish by the words: “We’ll come back to it in a few days, I don’t want to talk to you anymore” or “We can talk, but only on my conditions”, then my husband would leave the room. It made me feel desperate, the load of unexplained problems was growing and our relationship was becoming worse and worse”, Maria claimed.



Trivializing consists in reducing the value of what somebody did or said. The aggressor shows that what is important for the victim in fact does not matter at all. The humiliating party feels like a winner and the humiliated one is experiencing emotional frustration.

“After many years of studies, my friend got her doctor’s degree, which made a lot of people happy, including me. I prepared a small surprise for her, I was proud of myself that I made her happy. After the event, my husband said: “Some people get their doctor’s degree, others are only able to prepare mediocre parties”, Maria recalled.


Insulting and threatening

Through threatening, the aggressor manipulates the victim. Threats usually concern somebody or something. “If you don’t do it as I said, others won’t treat you as a credible person”, “If you don’t change, you will have to earn your living in the street”, “Do what I’m telling you or else the children will be visiting you in a psychiatric hospital” – these are the words that Maria often heard. “He would call me an insane and disturbed woman, a low-life woman, I felt inferior and valueless and I was scared of his anger and piercingly cold look”, Maria said.



It happens that the victim, sometime after experiencing the humiliation, makes an attempt to talk it over with the aggressor, who in turn tries to forget about what happened and claims not to know anything about it. “I told my husband that I felt bad all day after our argument in the morning. He attacked me because he claimed that the coffee I gave him was not the usual one, he poured it on the floor, insulted me and left, slamming the door. He answered: “What argument? I don’t know what you’re talking about…”, “You feel bad? Are you crazy?”, “I feel great and you just want to provoke me”, Maria admits.

Forgetting constitutes an entire sequence of “games” referring to gaps in memory. We can hurt somebody by forgetting about common arrangements, rules important for the relationship. We can forget about other person’s preferences or important dates. Maria’s husband used to say: “I’ve planned a surprise for us for this evening”. And they would go to the cinema to see a brutal and bloody sensational movie. He knew it very well that Maria doesn’t like this kind of films. She told me: “I was coming back sad and low-spirited from the cinema”. When she was referring to facts – he used to say: “I didn’t say that…”, “I didn’t do it…”, I can’t recall it…”.

The aggressor does not consider himself to be aggressive. He denies obvious facts. It results from the internal conflict between who he considers himself to be and the need to wreak his anger or aggression. Through denying he tries to protect his image, protect himself against the crisis of identity, inevitable in the future. He may be compared to the Wizard of Oz, who deprived of his image, is not a terrifying force controlling others any more, but a cowed and frightened individual.

Through his behavior the aggressor influences the victim’s perception of himself or herself. If the victim more and more often hears that their thinking is illogical, that she is oversensitive, looking for reasons to start an argument, that she is the only person to think about him in this way, that she is competing with him, she feels wrong, that she always wants to be right and other similar words, she may in the course of time begin to tolerate higher doses of aggression, losing the faith in her own feelings. I think that it may be stated that emotional violence is also the configuration of manipulative and discriminative possibilities.


The results of violence may take different forms. The experiencing of violence may lead to lowered level of development in comparison to a person’s potential. Children experiencing violence, in turn, develop a distorted way of perceiving, experiencing the world and building relationships. They may have problems at school as a result of tiring emotions, problems with concentration and memory. Their ability to establish friendly relationships is lowered as well. In their adult life they will probably copy behavioral patterns from their childhood. They may find it difficult to make decisions, set limits, they may also have significantly lowered motivation. Children stop believing in themselves, in their capabilities. The repeating scenario might make little ones believe in it and agree with adults’ opinion about themselves, they tend to reject their own person. I think that people experiencing emotional violence need bigger access to education, information on where to look for help. They need to understand their situation better, learn about the mechanism of violence. They need to be strong to make hope and strength win over fear and shackling.


I hope that we are now experiencing the evolution of consciousness, which is manifested by attributing more and more value to a human, by the growth of interest in human capabilities and by treating human life and dignity with more and more respect. Old hierarchies and thought stereotypes are fading away. We do not accept slavery, exploitation of minors, violence towards children and women. Physical violence is easier to prove and in this way it is easier to react to it, while the perpetrators of emotional violence often use camouflage and by violating moral law, do not violate penal law.


In my opinion we are still not aware enough of increasing emotional violence, which often emerges instead of physical violence. The systems of any oppression exist as long as they remain undiscovered. The phenomenon of emotional violence still requires a lot of research which could contribute to the modification of stereotypes concerning it. So let us take a close look at our own life and become the beginning of a small change which will make it possible to break the chain of violence being passed on from generation to generation.


Children who are already born and those who will be born in the future will become adults who will take care of us when we get old, who will be involved in education, industry, politics, science as well as will support us. How will they be when they grow up? Will they be open to the needs of the other? Will they have the skill to share their talents? Will they be able to build close relationships? Will they be making appropriate decisions? You are where it all begins, you are the model of a mother, father, wife, husband, partner, grandmother, grandfather, finally – of a HUMAN. You may help your children grow up to be mature adults, capable of empathy and involvement. Words are very powerful – use them wisely.


Translated by: Agnieszka Zielińska

Zdjęcia / Photos by : Anna Fotyma