One of my clinical specialties is relationships (and abuse within them). So naturally, many of my clients come to me because they are struggling in their marriage or partnership.
Of all the reasons for a relationship to be in trouble, one that consistently leaves people the most confused and causes the most damage is an invisible form of domestic violence called emotional abuse.
What Is Emotional Abuse?
Emotional abuse can be generally defined as using manipulation, fear, intimidation and guilt (among other things) to control someone and undermine their self-confidence and sense of autonomy. The reason it causes so much confusion is because it can be subtle, elusive and insidious. People often don’t realize it is happening, no matter how smart, capable or self-aware they are.
Why Is It Considered Abuse or Domestic Violence?
Because the term “abusive relationship” carries so much negative stigma, people often deny they are in one. There are two reasons for this:
- it’s difficult to admit someone you love is abusive
- people tend to blame themselves and feel shame about not recognizing it sooner or not doing something about it
Despite this denial, emotional abuse is a form of domestic abuse because it has similar signs and dynamics as other forms of abuse.
What Are The Signs?
Once you know what to look for, the signs of an emotionally abusive relationship are unmistakable. Here are a few:
1. Walking on Eggshells to “Manage” or Avoid Your Partner’s Moods
Abusers use their moods in a controlling manner. When things aren’t going their way, they sulk or lash out. You might find yourself changing your behavior to prevent their moods.
2. Feeling Isolated from Family or Friends
Emotionally abusive partners tend to alienate friends and family so you have less of a support system, giving them more control.
3. Consistently Beeing Called Selfish or Inconsiderate When You Ask for What You Want
This is another way to control you and undermine your sense of self, as well as ensure you are always focused on them.
4. Being Ridiculed, Dismissed and Made to Feel Like You are Imagining Problems
Abusers will deny facts, challenge your memory, change the subject and minimize your experience. This is called “Gaslighting” and it commonly makes people question their judgment and perception of reality.
5. Withholding Attention or Affection to Punish You
This is another way to control. Abusers will withhold love to “teach you a lesson.”
6. Obsessive Blaming
Abusers blame others for their problems and refuse to take responsibility for their feelings and lives.
7. Paranoia and Accusations
One example is using your normal need for privacy as proof you are hiding something or being dishonest.
8. Constant Criticism, Name-Calling, Sarcasm and Harsh Tone
This is verbal abuse and is not normal or healthy, but actually a way to diminish your self-esteem. Verbal abuse is its own form of abuse as well as a part of emotional abuse.
9. Other Controlling Behaviors Such as Fear and Intimidation
As long as you are fearful and intimidated by your partner, they are in control.
If you recognize your relationship in these descriptions, by the time you end up in a therapist’s office, you will probably be exhausted and confused; questioning yourself and your perceptions, not sure about what’s real and what’s not.
You’ve learned – because you’ve been trained – to stop bringing up issues, stop inviting people over, and stop asking for what you need, because it isn’t worth the emotional cost. You’ve made yourself small and are wondering how to find your way back. You might also be blaming yourself or wondering what you did to deserve this kind of treatment from the person you love.
A Brief View Into What Is Happening Inside The Abuser’s Head And Heart
As long as the abuser is getting what they want, they are loving and kind. As soon as they feel threatened or insecure, they might see small decisions like going to the gym after work as betrayal. They can then become controlling, critical, withdrawn, angry, accusatory, and irrational; all to try and make themselves feel better by blaming you for their feelings.
As long as the focus is on you and how you are letting them down, they don’t have to look at themselves or deal with their own complicated emotions. And if you are a kind and loving partner, you try to stay open and receptive, which in a normal and healthy relationship is perfectly fine. It’s important to remember this is not your fault. This is not normal or healthy behavior, and abusers are masters at getting you to think it is your fault.
How Will Therapy Help?
A therapist can and should validate what you’ve been through. You’ve presumably spent months, if not years, hearing you’re wrong and imagining things. It’s time for someone to hear your story and help you figure out the realities of it. They’ll help you understand the dynamic in your relationship and make sense of what happened. You will start to feel stronger and like you have more choices.
You’ll also work on self-esteem. Emotional abuse takes a toll on self-worth, and it is common for victims to feel responsible for how they have been treated. Ultimately therapy will help you find your way through the confusion and rebuild your self-esteem and confidence so you can make healthy decisions.