“Did it ever get physical?”
This is often the first question we ask someone we know or suspect is in an unhealthy relationship. While starting a conversation about physical abuse is essential, an issue arises when it is the ONLY question we ask. Stopping short of inquiring about other forms of abuse implies that physical violence is the defining factor of an unhealthy relationship. Even worse, it conveys the message that whatever else might be going on is not that bad. This is a huge issue, because emotional abuse is as bad – and can often be worse.
Why don’t we hear more about emotional abuse? Many people simply aren’t sure what emotional abuse actually entails. Understanding emotional abuse is complicated for many reasons.
Emotional abuse is any abusive behavior that is not physical, which may include (but is not limited to) verbal aggression, intimidation, manipulation and humiliation, which most often unfolds as a pattern of behavior over time that aims to diminish another person’s sense of identity, dignity and self-worth, and which often results in anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts/behaviors, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Emotional abuse is difficult to comprehend because it encompasses so much. This list delineates some, but certainly not all, behaviors that are potentially emotionally abusive:
Some of the above can be part of a healthy relationship. However, in the context of emotional abuse, the intent is malicious and these behaviors can be extremely cutting, especially when disguised as affection or an innocent remark.
The key word here is “may.” Not only is the list of emotional abuse tactics incredibly long and dependent on context, but also the particular combination of behaviors can vary greatly from relationship to relationship. As a result, we have another layer of complexity: emotional abuse doesn’t have one specific look. For example, an emotionally abusive relationship where overt aggressing behaviors like yelling, threatening and blaming are predominantly used will look very different from a relationship where only very subtle forms of abuse like gaslighting, passive-aggressive put-downs, and minimizing are used.
Emotional abuse is rarely a single event. Instead, it occurs over time as a pattern of behavior that’s sustained & repetitive.This is one of the reasons it is so complicated and so dangerous. Even if you’re the most observant person in the world, emotional abuse can be so gradual that you don’t realize what’s happening until you’re deeply entangled in its web. As a result, the abuse can go unchecked as the relationship progresses, building for months, years, even decades, especially if the abuse is more covert. In such instances, the target’s self-esteem is steadily eroded and their self-doubt becomes so paralyzing that they often have only a vague sense that something (though unsure what) is wrong.
Regardless of how emotional abuse unfolds, the effects can be devastating. Unfortunately, these effects as well as each harmful act of abuse are largely invisible. This makes it difficult for most people to comprehend the very real risks and damage of emotional abuse. Try to picture a scene of emotional abuse, specifically someone whose self-identity has been annihilated. Can you see it? Generally, one’s mind does not know where to begin. While describing physical wounds is pretty straightforward, it is much harder to articulate emotional trauma. The parts of a person that sustained emotional abuse destroys—identity, dignity, and self-worth—are abstract and virtually impossible to picture or measure.
Emotional abuse is essentially invisible, singling out the abuse as the culprit of its destructive effects is another kind of challenge and frustration. Even in cases of extreme emotional abuse, there are no bruises or gashes where the victim can point to as proof or validation. Instead, what emotional abuse ends up looking like is a person suffering from painful yet not uncommon afflictions like anxiety or depression. It can therefore be heartbreakingly easy for anyone—whether the person inflicting the emotional abuse, a third-party observer, or even the target of the abuse—to misattribute its damage to some other cause or even blame the target who has escaped from a relationship. In fact the abuser, tends to reach out to friends/acquaintances and even family of the victim, and devalue that person or make them appear ridiculous, insane or off-base.
Many women and men who are emotionally abused have no choice but to rescue themselves or continue to live with the abuse. Because others cannot see signs of abuse, these victims often have little or no social support. In fact, their abuser is often quite charismatic and charming, especially to mutual friends, which is a technique often used by the abuser to further disparage their target.
Why would someone emotionally abusing you and think it’s okay? It may be a part of their behavior to control others by any means necessary to get what they want. Certain personality disorders are common among those who emotionally abuse others. They may have an authoritarian personality – these people admit to no faults because they see themselves as right and others as wrong. If you are being emotionally abused by someone with an anti-social personality (a sociopath), you should seek immediate safety and remove yourself from the relationship, since those with an anti-social personality can become violent when they don’t get what they want. Another personality disorder in which emotional abuse may be evident is narcissism. The abuser makes everything about their own needs and desires. Narcissists may frame their actions as being helpful to their victim, but they all revolve around building their ego.
Often, abusive behavior is a direct means for the abuser to get what they want without taking responsibility for their actions. They may feel intense anxiety about losing you, so they close off your avenue of escape. Whether your abuser understands what they are doing or not, they know that they do not want you to think your own thoughts, make your own decisions, or live your own life without putting them ahead of yourself. In some way, your thoughts and behaviors are a problem for them. They do not think of you as an independent adult who can think for yourself and is entitled to your perspective. And they do not want you to think of yourself that way either.
•Countering: telling you that you remember something incorrectly
•Trivializing: making you feel like your thoughts and feelings don’t matter
•Withholding: pretending they don’t understand what you’re saying
•Stonewalling: refusing to listen or engage with you in conversation
•Blocking: changing the subject
•Diverting: questioning the validity of your thoughts
•Forgetting: pretending to forget things that happened
•Denying: telling you something never happened
•Faking compassion: telling you they’re doing something harmful for your good
•Discrediting: convincing others, you’re insane or unstable
•Reframing: twisting your thoughts, behaviors, and experiences to favor their perspective
Certain phrases come up often in relationships where someone is being emotionally abused. These phrases and others like them can convince you that your mind isn’t trustworthy. If you hear these often when you know deep inside that they’re unfair statements, it may be time to seek help:
•”I don’t want to hear that.”
•”You need to stop trying to confuse me.”
•”You remember it wrong.”
•”Where did you get that crazy idea?”
•”Your imagination is getting the best of you.”
•”It didn’t happen that way.”
•”You know I’m right.”
•”You’re too sensitive.”
•”I only do it because I love you.”
•”You get angry so easily.”
•”You’re too sensitive.”
•”I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
•”You’re making that up.”
When someone emotionally abuses you, your thoughts, feelings, and actions may change dramatically. Where once you felt self-assured, you may now feel like you cannot trust your mind. Take some time to examine how these parts of you have changed since being with the person or in the situation. The National Domestic Violence Hotline describes what to watch for. Here is a quick checklist to guide you:
•Do you second-guess yourself often?
•Do you find yourself wondering whether you’re too sensitive?
•Do you feel confused a lot of the time?
•Do you feel like you’re ‘going crazy?’
•Do you notice that you apologize to someone often?
•Do you wonder why you can’t seem to be happy when you have so much?
•Do you make excuses for the abuser?
•Do you have an overwhelming sense that something’s wrong, even if you don’t know what it is?
•Do you often lie to avoid your partner’s, boss’s, or co-worker’s criticisms?
•Is it hard for you to make simple decisions?
•Do you feel hopeless?
•Do you feel like a loser who can’t do anything right?
•Do you question whether you’re good enough for your partner or job?
People who have endured emotional abuse (no matter how long a person was exposed to it) always find it challenging to leave the relationship, have any self-confidence at all after leaving the relationship and can often struggle to have a healthy relationship with another person in the future. The real question is how to deal with emotional abuse before it reaches that point. Here are a few suggestions for dealing with emotional abuse in relationships: