A few weeks before her death, Megan Short logged onto Facebook and clicked on a story about emotional abuse. The article, titled “He didn’t hit me. It was still abuse,” resonated with her.
In it, author Leigh Stein described the peculiarities of surviving an abusive relationship that was profoundly painful, but lacked physical violence. Stein’s ex-boyfriend wielded an inexhaustible range of abusive tactics against her, she wrote, including isolating her from friends and family, manipulating her, controlling her every move, embarrassing her in public and gaslighting her.
But Stein didn’t realize that she was being abused. She had no broken bones. No police reports. No late-night trips to the emergency room. Her perception of domestic violence as purely physical blinded her from the reality of her own predicament.
“I didn’t know what to name what I couldn’t see,” she wrote.
For Short, reading the article, something clicked.
“It really does a number on your mental health for sure,” she wrote in a comment on the article, posted on her friend’s Facebook wall. Later, she added: “This is why I am leaving my marriage … 16 years.”
She never got the chance.
On the day she was planning to move out, police say her husband shot her, along with their three young children, before turning the gun on himself.
Short’s death offers a startling example of how emotional abuse ― often perceived as less serious than physical abuse ― can turn fatal.
Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said it’s a common misperception that only relationships with physical violence turn deadly.
“Just because someone is being emotionally abusive and not necessarily physically abusive, doesn’t mean that the same dynamics don’t exist,” she said.
Abusers gain power and control through their abuse, she explained, regardless of whether they are using physical or psychological tactics. When a victim attempts to separate themselves from the relationship, it can become a potentially lethal situation ― even if the abuser has no history of physical violence.
Experts say it can be difficult for victims of emotional abuse to seek help from the criminal justice system. Women may struggle to meet the requirements of a protective order if they lack evidence of physical abuse, and police are limited in what they can do without evidence of injuries.
Ellen Kramer, deputy director for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, urged victims of emotional abuse to seek free and confidential help from their local domestic violence organizations.
“Even though it may not be grounds for a criminal charge or grounds for a protective order, it’s always grounds for a victim to go to a local domestic violence service provider for help with safety planning and counseling,” she said. “Domestic violence is so much broader than actual physical injuries.”
Experts say the most dangerous time for victims is when they are attempting to leave the relationship.
Three weeks before Short’s murder, she reached out to the cops for the first and last time, calling 911 to report a domestic dispute at her house.
She told police that she was afraid of her husband. They advised her how to apply for a protective order and left. But, as Berks County District Attorney John Adamssaid during a press conference, there was little else they could do. There were no physical injuries and no evidence to bring charges.
The next day, her husband went out and bought a gun.
In the United Kingdom, there’s been an attempt to hold abusers accountable for non-physical types of domestic violence. In 2015, it passed a law making “coercive or controlling” domestic abuse a crime punishable by up to five years behind bars — even if there is no physical violence present in the relationship.
Evan Stark, a forensic social worker and professor emeritus at Rutgers University, popularized the term “coercive control” to encompass the pattern of behaviors that abusers use to intimidate victims.
Domestic violence is not about a single incident, he explained, but an abuser’s attempts to control a victim’s life by depriving them of resources, threatening them, isolating them and disabling their ability to effectively leave.
It’s those behaviors that put a victim at an extremely high risk of being killed, he said, even when there is no physical violence, or physical violence is minimal.
“Based on my research, if you rely on physical injury before you identify a case as serious, you miss 95 to 98 percent of all domestic violence,” he said. “Often the severe assault is the fatal assault. It comes as a culmination.”
After Leigh Stein’s article about emotional abuse was published in the Washington Post, she said she was flooded with comments about how she wasn’t a “real” victim of domestic violence.
“They were all about how I didn’t have it that bad, and I was just young and stupid,” she said. “It gives me chills to think about how badly it did turn out for this other woman who related to my story.”
Stein said she hopes her new book, Land of Enchantment, which examines her abusive relationship, can help others recognize the subtle warnings signs that she herself overlooked for years.
“There is no physical domestic violence without the psychological abuse,” she said. “That’s how it starts.”
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.