by: E.B. Johnson
Emotional abuse is a very real epidemic that plagues the corners of many intimate relationships. Ranging from withholding to controlling, the term "emotional abuse” includes everything from manipulation to verbal abuse. When one partner emotionally abuses the other, it has astronomical consequences that resonate on a number of different planes — but it isn’t always easy to spot the rot, or stop it.
Admitting that you’re a victim of emotional abuse takes a lot of courage, but it also takes a lot of understanding. This type of abuse is insidious, and it eats away subtly at our sense of self until we’re left feeling hollow and helpless. Know the facts and know when it’s time to cut the cord and walk away. Emotional abuse will destroy your mental wellbeing and your health, if you let it. Find your way back to freedom and health by cultivating the understanding you need to fight.
What is emotional abuse?
Just like physical abuse — emotional abuse is an attempt to control another person. Rather than hitting or kicking the other party, however, the perpetrator uses emotion as their weapon of choice. The abuser might be aware or unaware, but they generally are keenly aware of a deep-rooted insecurity (which drives them to belittle, harass and demean their partner, spouse or family member).
A typical emotional abuser might accuse a spouse of cheating when they're feeling insecure about their lovability, or they might be compelled the blame their partner for something unrelated or insignificant; inspiring conflict that more-often-than-not proves their darkest prophecies true. They might also constantly trying to control every move, he /she becomes an incessant criticizer and might verbally attack the other person when they feel as though they are not being “obeyed”.
Emotional abuse looks different, however, from partner-to-partner and case-to-case. Being able to spot the signs of emotional doesn’t just start with an understanding of the concept, it starts with understanding what an abuser can look like, as well.
What an emotional abuser looks like.
Unfortunately, there’s no one hard-and-fast recipe for what an abuser looks like. There are, however, some central signs to look for and some facts that can help deepen your understanding of their behavior. Though it may not seem it at first glance, abusers feel powerless. Rather than fessing up to their securities, they over-compensate and conceal the truth behind a nasty wall of overbearing attitude and behavior. A personality profile which often looks a little something like this:
- Need to be correct or in control.
- Very jealous.
- Doesn’t trust anyone.
- Extremely insecure.
- Verbally abusive.
- Blames others for everthing.
- Cruel to animals or children.
- Very possessive with partners and “things”.
- Has a history of aggression.
- Hypersensitive to criticism.
- Suffers from untreated mental health problems.
- Needy with unrealistic expectations.
At first, it’s easy to rationalize and respond to this type of abuse in a logical way. Over time, however, that becomes harder to do as your resilience is worn down by the constant stress of conflict and confrontation. Knowing what abuse is, and knowing what an abuser looks like isn’t enough, though. You need to be able to spot the signs of abuse, especially the more subtle ones.
The subtle signs of emotional abuse you might be overlooking.
Physical abuse comes with obvious physical signs that are instantly recognisable to the trained and untrained eye alike. Emotional abuse doesn’t work that way, however, and many of the signs (warning or otherwise) aren’t so easy to spot — or fess up to.
Opposing occurs when the abuser argues against anything and everything you say. They challenge your perceptions, your opinions and your thoughts; they’ll even challenge how you carry yourself or live your life. Emotional abusers don’t care whether you’ve volunteered your thoughts or not, they treat you like an adversary and say “no” whenever they can.
Abusers love to deny the things that they’ve said or done. They’ll deny a conversation took place, and deny entire events altogether. They deny their abuse and, often, when confronted, resort to declarations of love and caring where once there was only scorn or vitriol. This manipulative behavior leads the abused party to doubt their own memory, perceptions and even experience — leading eventually to an extreme and persistent pattern more commonly known as gaslighting.
Blocking occurs when an abuser switches topics, in order to avoid a conversation or confrontation that they don’t like. Abusers might also use accusations or blame to block you from the point you’e trying to make, and they do it with an ease that is almost breathtaking.
Undermining & interrupting
Those who abuse are fundamentally broken people, who are incapable (in the current moment) of facing their own inadequacies in any kind of meaningful way. Because they can’ face their own insecurities, they focus on the insecurities of others; working hard to undermine any sense of self-esteem or self-confidence the other party might have remaining. They’ll tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about and even interrupt your sentences.
One of the more subtle techniques used by emotional abusers is minimization. This practice isn’t just about making someone feel small — though that’s definitely a major part of it. More realistically, it’s the downplaying of important things, or the rendering of meaningful things as insignificant. It doesn’t matter if you’e expressing your emotions, feelings, views, problems or experiences. To the emotional abuser: it’ all worthless, and nothing to be fussed about.
Emotional abusers are all about tearing their partners down, even when they appear to be building them up. Unreachable expectations are one of the way abusers zero in on their prey and destroy the last facets of their self-esteem. They do this by putting their partner on a ridiculous pedestal, which then allows them to react with constant disappointment and disdain. Feeling disappointed, the abuser then feel empowered to amplify their behavior, heaping even more scorn over an already scorn-filled relationship.
Walking on eggshells
The term “walking on eggshells” refers to the tendency of victims to to judge everything in their environments against how their abuser will react to it. If you find yourself making decisions based entirely around whether or not they upset your partner — you might be dealing with an emotionally abusive situation.
Abusers need isolation in order to successfully destroy the self-esteem of their partners. For this reason, they work hard to isolate their victims from the activities and people that they love, leaving them rudderless and without help, perspective or guidance in the midst of a very turbulent unravelling. If your partner is keeping you from seeing or contacting your friends and family, then you’re in danger of dissociating from the critical support system that you need.
The dangers of emotional abuse.
Some dismiss emotional abuse because they don’t believe it bears the severe physical toll or scars the physical abuse does. The problem with that way of thinking, however, is that it’s completely wrong. Emotional abuse has a number of devastating consequences, all of them both disruptive and undermining to our internal psyche and wellbeing.
The short-term effects of emotional abuse.
You don't have to undergo years of abuse to see the effects on your life. We respond quickly to the negativity in our lives, and the same goes from emotional abuse. Even if you're in denial at first, there are some pretty shocking short-term side effects to this type of abuse.
- Feelings of despair or hopeless.
- Feelings of shame and inadequacy.
- Confusion or fogginess.
- Fear of disappointing everyone.
The long-term effects of emotional abuse.
Those who suffer with a long history of emotional abuse often find themselves struggling with a number of long-term effects that impact not only their wellbeing and sense of self, but their other interpersonal relationships as well. These effects can include:
- Social withdrawal and isolation.
- Guilt and shame.
- Chronic pain conditions.
- Anxiety conditions.
- Insomnia or trouble sleeping.
Over an extended period of time, abusers imply that their victims are bad or stupid or ugly. They do it for so long that — eventually — their victims come to believe it. Emotional abuse is more personal than physical abuse, and that’ why it cuts so deep. It can be overcome, though, with some radical self-acceptance and a huge dose of courage.
Why emotional abuse is so damaging.
There are a couple of reasons that emotional abuse is so damaging. The first is that, unlike physical abuse, emotional abuse is not cyclical. Physical abusers tend to take a break of “remorse” from their behaviours, going into honeymoon periods that are filled with affection, attention and even generosity (though never true compassion).
Emotional abuse, however, plays by different rules. It happens every day and is hardly ever buried away by a period of remorse or affection. It’s also an internalized form of abuse, with its victims taking on responsibility for their poor treatment despite the glaringly obvious facts of the situation.
How to take your power back from an (emotional) abuser.
If you’ve found yourself in an emotionally abusive relationship, there is hope. You can find your way back to freedom and happiness, but you have to tread carefully and make sure you’re doing your research. Abusers — by their very nature — are volatile and unpredictable, making it critical to plan carefully before you draw the battle lines and take your power back again.
Step 1: Take your time.
Time is one of the biggest factors when it comes to emotional abuse, and one of the biggest facets of power when it comes to a one-sided and emotionally abusive partnership. Abusers want their partners to feel lost, scared and hopeless, and they achieve this by picking away at them over time. Take the time you need to wake up from the nightmare and regather your strength. Escaping from an abusive relationship is a long journey.
You have to remember that your life is your own. You can go where you want, when you want. You can be friends with the people you want to be friends with, and you can lead whatever type of life you want to lead. Take care of yourself and live life on your own terms. Your time is your own, so heal and get back to your happiness how and when you’re ready.
Step 2: Rework your boundary lines.
Boundaries are an essential part of a happy, healthy life. Our boundaries form the basis of our security in this chaotic world, and they'’e the primary means by which we protect ourselves from ne'er-do-wells and abusers who want nothing more than to take advantage of us in our weakest moments.
Your boundaries allow you to define your limits, and they also define the terms by which you interact with the world around you. If you're struggling with someone manipulating your emotions, or pushing you around — rework your boundary lines (slowly) and make it clear where the line stands for you.
In order to set workable boundaries for yourself, you first have to recognize that your needs matter and second that they are your responsibility. Take your time and create enough space between you and your abuser that you can honestly assess your feelings and needs. Once you've got your requirements to hand, communicate those needs to your partner in a frank and honest conversation that makes it clear you have a right to respect.
Step 3: Learn how to forgive (yourself).
It doesn't matter how you cut it, abusers are in the wrong 100% of the time. There is nothing that you did to deserve the way they treated you, and the sooner you realize that, the sooner you'll be able to take back your power. Allow yourself to let go of the grief, guilt and shame and start forgiving yourself. You're broken because they broke you, not the other way around.
Of all the things victims deny themselves — chief on the list is usually forgiveness. Forgiveness is absolutely necessary in order for you to heal, but it can be hard to see that beneath the insidious onslaught of negativity that comes from an emotionally abusive partner.
No matter what happens, abuse is never okay, and there is no justification for manipulation and conflict. It doesn't matter who it is or what happened before or after. Emotional abuse is abuse and you are never at fault for the abuse someone inflicts on you. They are responsible for that on their own.
Step 4: Learn, Learn, Learn
Victims of emotional abuse often suffer confusion, caused by being forced to know and understand the world through their abuser's perspective. They try to make sense of the abuse, but they can't. Their brains have been rewired.
Therapy can be one powerful tool in combating the recovery that comes from abusive fallout. Therapists can help you get to the root of deeply buried issues and do so from the comfortable distance of an unbiased stranger. They can also teach you how to ease into the deep waters of emotional trauma, and teach you how to take breaks when you need to; coming back to things when you're more efficiently able to deal with them.
If therapy isn't something you're comfortable with, however, there are a number of other options out there that can help you take back your power through knowledge. Many areas now offer workshops, classes and seminars on overcoming emotional abuse, and online there are even more options. It all depends on you and what you need in order to be able to heal effectively.
Step 5: Rewrite your story.
Abusers creative false narratives that can completely blind their victims, leaving them lost and stumbling through a fog that leaves them miserable. The lie that abusers love to tell the most, however, is the lie that their victim is incapable of living their life any other way. This is yet another manipulative tool, meant to keep the victim too reach out for the things they deserve.
In order to take your power back, you have to rewrite your story. Once you've removed the abuser from your life, take the opportunity to take your narrative back by undoing the lies and manipulations you've heaped up on yourself over the years. This is a highly personal step, but one each of us most overcome in order to thrive. You can tell your story publicly, or keep it close to your heart. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that you rewrite the ending to one that makes you happy.
Putting it all together…
Are you in an emotionally abusive relationship? There are a lot of subtle clues you might be missing, but emotional abuse is a complex process that takes months and years to unravel. Healing takes a lot of work, and it takes a lot of radical self-acceptance. More than anything, it takes understanding; of yourself and your partner and their behaviors.
Look out for personality flaws that might point to a controlling or dominating nature, as well as the ever-present (and always hidden-in-plain sight) insecurities that are the trademark of every abuser. Be honest with yourself about yourself, and fess up when your boundaries are being violated. Once you've freed yourself, take your time and focus on forgiving yourself. No one asks for emotional abuse and no one can predict the behaviors of an abuser. Learn everything you can and rewrite your own story. No one has control of your destiny but you.