Emotional abuse is quite common and can be really hard to detect. I've taken care of countless men and women - smart, beautiful, amazing women - who have found themselves in very abusive relationships. They all worry that they're the damaged one for not seeing this beforehand. That they should have predicted it, they should have seen the signs, that they shouldn't "have been so stupid."
Please know that if you are in an abusive relationship, or think you might be, it is absolutely, positively NOT your fault. No one deserves to be abused, no one deserves to be humiliated, controlled, or hurt. No matter what you might have done, abuse is never, ever justified.
Abusers are often very smart and very sneaky. They don't walk up to you on day 1 and say, "So the deal is... after a period of time, I am going to start treating you poorly, cutting you off from your family and friends, and start calling you names." If they did, you'd run for the hills! They know this... so they present themselves as Prince Charming. They seem so wonderful, kind, and a miracle.
Abusers tend to pick partners who have suffered some abuse in the past or who are somehow emotionally hurt. They gravitate towards people who have been in pain because they know they can take advantage of this pain. They can pretend to be the answer to all your problems, so you'll fall deeply in love, and once you do... they know they have you and then the abuse can begin.
What is emotional abuse?
Emotional abuse is also known as psychological abuse and it is any pattern of behavior that is designed to intimidate, isolate, and control another person. The purpose of emotional abuse is to create psychological weakness by undermining your confidence, self esteem, and self worth.
The true goal of most abusers is to make you feel so weak, so inferior and damaged that you stop questioning them and defer all of your thinking and decision making to them. It's their way of gaining complete control over you.
What are the effects of emotional abuse?
-Very low self-esteem, high self-doubt, loss of sense of self, questioning one's judgment.
-Feeling "crazy", like a failure, unlovable, always feeling on edge/nervous.
-Shame, fear, irritability, constant worry, trouble sleeping, migraines, headaches, stomach issues.
-Hypervigilance (this is a state of hyperarousal, where one is on edge and overly sensitive to everything in their surroundings, i.e., jumps out of the chair when they hear a noise).
-Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, feelings of hopelessness, dread, self-harming, suicidal thoughts and attempts.
What are different kinds of emotional abuse?
-Intimidation, threats of physical violence or abandonment.
-Invalidation, dismissing your thoughts, feelings and/or judgment.
-Isolating, controlling where you go, what you do, limiting access to money.
-Criticism, character assassination, name-calling, insulting, mocking.
-Shaming, guilt-tripping, pointing out all of your failures and faults, making everything your fault.
-Lying, silent treatment, stonewalling/ignoring you.
-Tracking, spying, monitoring your behavior and communication with others.
What are the big, red flags that you're being emotionally abused by a partner?
I would be very concerned about these behaviors:
1. Someone who is trying to isolate you from family or friends (because they don't want you to talk to your support system and get feedback that the abuser's behavior is out of line).
2. Someone who is very controlling about your appearance, where you go, what you do, how you spend time, and/or how you spend your money.
3. Someone who encourages your complete dependence on them and asks you to give up things, activities that are important to you.
4. Someone who disrespects your boundaries, spies on you (when there is no reason to do so), goes through your things, looks through your phone, contacts your friends/family without your consent.
5. Someone who threatens you, your family, friends, pets, property.
What are the big, red flags that you're being emotionally abused by a parent?
The goal of an abusive parent is the same as an abusive partner - they want to control you, so to do this, they must get you to doubt your own judgment so much that you will defer all of your thinking and decision-making to them. A parent or other family member is being emotionally abusive when they:
1. Frequently violate your boundaries, i.e., come over without permission, use your property, borrow your money, take liberties that most people do not take with each other.
2. Constantly criticize you, where they make you feel guilty, bad about your decisions, incapable of doing things on your own.
3. Humiliate, embarrass or shame you - they may share inappropriate stories, divulge private details, post unflattering pictures.
4. Physically threaten or intimidate you, threaten to harm you, someone or something you care about (pets, cars, your home).
5. Withhold affection or access to family gatherings/members as a punishment.
Can a relationship survive after emotional abuse?
Yes, but it is critical to get help for yourself and for your relationship. Most abusive relationships do NOT improve without outside help. If you need help, please reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. They're available to you, 24/7 completely free, no judgment. Call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 for TTY, or if you’re unable to speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.
What should you do if you suspect you're being emotionally abused by a partner?
1. Reach out to a trusted family member or friend for support; tell them what you have realized and that you need help staying on track.
2. Start asserting some boundaries and insisting on being treated with respect. Point out unhealthy or controlling behaviors.
3. Enter therapy for yourself, ask you partner/spouse to also go to individual therapy. (Only start couples therapy after you've done some individual work.)
4. Increase time away from the relationship and spend more time with family and friends.
5. Increase doing things that boost your mood, confidence, and independence. (Remember that someone who truly loves you wants you to feel happy, strong, safe and confident.)
It was my honor to contribute to Marisa LaScala's piece for Good Housekeeping on emotional abuse and you can read it here: If You Recognize These Emotional Abuse Signs in Your Relationship, It's Time to Get Help.