I recently discovered that October was National Domestic Violence Awareness Month which inspired me to write about another form of abuse that is often overlooked but can be just as damaging. The signs of physical abuse are obvious, but emotional abuse is much more common and insidious.  Words can be a powerful tool. They can uplift us or tear us down. I’ve come to realize not only from talking to clients, but from my own experience, that what people say to us can impact us greatly. Emotional or psychological abuse can be as painful and detrimental as physical abuse. When a person is abused in this way over an extended period of time it can cause them to lose trust in everyone around them, whittle away their self-confidence and cause them to mistrust their own judgment. Long term effects can change the way one approaches relationships for years to come.

What is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional or psychological abuse is when someone repeatedly belittles, insults, criticizes, verbally threatens, rejects, or ignores someone they love in order to manipulate or control them. The abuser will exhibit ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ behavior, being exceptionally loving one minute and extremely cruel the next. This will leave the victim often confused and feeling at fault, which will lead them to forgive their abuser, allowing the cycle to repeat itself again and again.

What are examples of Emotional Abuse?

Do you feel like you are walking on eggshells around your partner, never sure of how they will react in a given situation or do you see extreme reactions to seemingly mundane events?  The abuser may live in a constant state of drama, picking fights for no reason at all. The abuse may take the form of name-calling, or pushing buttons repeatedly that they know will elicit a response in you or cause you emotional anguish. Dealing with drastic mood swings, or unpredictable and differing reactions to the same situation from one day to the next is not part of a healthy relationship.

Does your partner frequently use sarcasm, or cryptic messages to insult you, or manipulate your emotions in some way?  This could take the form of something as benign as song lyrics, or they may use language that makes them feel superior and leaves you feeling like you must be an idiot because you don’t understand what they’re trying to say, when in fact, that is actually their intent.  

Do you feel like no matter what you do, or say to your partner to express your love and affection for them that it is never enough?  When you express your love and commitment to the abuser they may challenge you, or minimize or invalidate your feelings. For example: you tell them you love them, and their response is, “I love you more.” At the same time, if you make a move to end the relationship, they will tell you that “you’ll never meet anyone who will love you like I do.” They may even turn your love affair into a Shakespearian tragedy, and display inappropriate emotion at the mere thought of having to live without you for even a short period of time. They may even become incapacitated by their emotion, unable to go to work, or even get out of bed when you are gone. Although this may seem rather romantic and flattering at first, this is not healthy behavior.

Does your partner require constant reassurance, instant gratification, or for you to be at their beck and call?  For example: even though they may shut down communication with you for days, if you don’t respond instantly to a phone call or a text, they are deeply injured and suddenly accuse you of cheating on them.

If caught in an act of deception or called on their hurtful behavior does your partner turn the situation around by being angry at you or blaming you?  Rather than admit fault they may resort to name calling and throw their indiscretion back on you. The abuser may even resort to retaliation by threatening to expose something that you have confided in them to other people that care about you – a fear tactic used to manipulate and make you feel guilty in order to assuage their own guilt. They may also threaten to abruptly end the relationship or abandon you when you may be at a disadvantage, rather than being accountable for their own indiscretions. A more subtle tactic the abuser may use is to skim over or ignore any stand you make to declare your boundaries and take your power back in the relationship. They may trivialize what you have communicated to them, no matter how heartfelt, as though it is inconsequential or totally off-base, making you doubt your own perception of reality.

After a ‘bad scene’ does your partner suddenly do an about-face and make some grandiose gesture just to prove what a ‘good’ person they really are? The gesture is often something that will benefit them, by getting you back in line or under their control, or make them look like a saint to all of your friends. When called on their bad behavior, the abuser will often deny what he or she said and twist what actually occurred causing you to question your memory, your judgment, and even your own sanity. This often includes them telling you that you are being too sensitive, thin-skinned, or are overreacting. Their bad behavior sent you over the edge, and now they will be your hero/heroine by swooping in to save the day, which just reinforces your helplessness and dependency on them.

Does your partner seem to ‘disappear’ or disconnect when you need them most? This may include emotional shutting down, physical avoidance or the silent treatment if you live with them, or no response to your texts, emails, or phone calls, if you are just dating. Denying your emotional needs, particularly when you have expressed that you need their support the most is another way that the abuser will hurt or punish you, making you feel undeserving of their love and attention. This results in feelings of unworthiness and abandonment at a time when you are most vulnerable. Afterwards, when the abuser shows up again and decides to communicate, they will make you feel pathetically needy or neurotic for being upset because you couldn’t reach them for a few days. This control mechanism invalidates your feelings and causes you to again mistrust your perception of reality.

Is your partner jealous of your interactions with others, maybe even with family, co-workers, and friends? Do they ever put down your friends trying to make you mistrust and alienate yourself from them? If your friends and family are telling you that your entire demeanor shifts when you are either around this person or in communication with them – listen to them. Your real friends and those who truly love you, want you to be happy. It is much easier to see this sort of dysfunction from the outside looking in.

What can you do about Emotional Abuse?

Unfortunately, victims of emotional abuse are overwhelmed with feelings of worthlessness, and often times so paralyzed by their fear of being alone, that they cannot muster the courage to leave the abusive relationship. If you are just dating the abusive partner, the best thing you can do is to disengage entirely. If you are married to, or living with your abuser, I suggest you seek professional guidance, enlist the support of your family and friends, or find a local support group. At the very least, read some books to learn what a healthy relationship looks like, work to rebuild your self-esteem, and take the steps necessary to heal yourself.

Even the most self-aware individuals can find themselves a victim of this type of abuse. All it takes is one or more failed relationships, and a few hard knocks to put you in a state of vulnerability where you can become susceptible to this insidious self-esteem killer. When a relationship starts out as a whirlwind, passionate romance where a partner puts you on a pedestal, it is easy to become absorbed. But when they worship you one minute, and spew hurtful words the next, it is a sure sign of a problem. If you are a kind and caring individual it is easy to get sucked into a situation like this since the abuser is often times a very hurt individual themselves, filled with self-loathing and reaching out desperately for love and affection. If you are by nature a considerate person who wants to help others, it is easy to think that you can ‘fix’ the situation if only you can offer the abuser enough love and understanding to correct the problem – but at what cost?

Being ‘in love’ can be a wonderful thing. Having a partner in your life who says things that encourage you when you’re down, or make you feel sexy and desirable, and make you feel valued, can be wonderful indeed. But having a lover who turns on a dime and hurls angry comments and accusations at you can have far-reaching effects on your psyche. Surround yourself with loving people and know that you deserve more from your intimate relationships. If you have never been in a healthy relationship, I will close with an excerpt from a book called The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to Respond by Patricia Evans, which lists the rights that every human being is entitled to in a relationship:

  • The right to good will from the other.
  • The right to emotional support.
  • The right to be heard by the other and to be responded to with courtesy.
  • The right to have your own view, even if your partner has a different view.
  • The right to have your feelings and experience acknowledged as real.
  • The right to receive a sincere apology for any jokes you may find offensive.
  • The right to clear and informative answers to questions that concern what is legitimately your business.
  • The right to live free from accusation and blame.
  • The right to live free from criticism, judgment, put-downs or ridicule.
  • The right to have your work and your interests spoken of with respect.
  • The right to encouragement.
  • The right to live free from emotional and physical threat.
  • The right to live free from angry outburst and rage.
  • The right to be called by no name that devalues you.
  • The right to be respectfully asked rather than ordered.

If you are currently seeking coaching to help you move on from an emotionally or psychologically abusive relationship, please contact me at [email protected]