Emotional Abuse: Beneath Your Radar?

Verbal abuseThere are three million cases of domestic violence reported each year. Many more go unreported.  Emotional abuse precedes violence, but is rarely discussed. Although both men and women may abuse others, an enormous number of women are subjected to emotional abuse. Unfortunately, many don’t even know it.

Why is Emotional Abuse Hard to Recognize?

Emotional abuse may be hard to recognize, because it can be subtle, and abusers often blame their victims.  They may act like they have no idea why you are upset. Additionally, you may have been treated this way in past relationships, so that it’s familiar and harder to recognize. Over time, the abuser will chip away at your self-esteem, causing you to feel guilty, doubt yourself, and distrust your perceptions.

Other aspects of the relationship may work well. The abuser may be loving between abusive episodes, so that you deny or forget them. You may not have had a healthy relationship for comparison, and when the abuse takes place in private, there are no witnesses to validate your experience.

Personality of an Abuser

Abusers typically want to control and dominate. They use verbal abuse to accomplish this. They are self-centered, impatient, unreasonable, insensitive, unforgiving, lack empathy, and are often jealous, suspicious, and withholding. In order to maintain control, some abusers take hostages, meaning that they may try to isolate you from your friends and family. Their moods can shift from fun-loving and romantic to sullen and angry. Some punish with anger, others with silence – or both. It’s usually “their way or the highway.”

Are You Being Abused?

Emotional abuse may start out innocuously, but grows as the abuser becomes more assured that you won’t leave the relationship. It may not begin until after an engagement, marriage, or pregnancy. If you look back, you may recall tell-tale signs of control or jealousy. Eventually, you and the entire family “walk on eggshells” and adapt so as not to upset the abuser. Being subjected to emotional abuse over time can lead to anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, inhibited sexual desire, chronic pain, or other physical symptoms.

People who respect and honor themselves won’t allow someone to abuse them. Many people allow abuse to continue because they fear confrontations. Usually, they are martyrs, caretakers, or pleasers. They feel guilty and blame themselves. Some aren’t able to access their anger and power in order to stand up for themselves, while others ineffectively argue, blame, and are abusive themselves, but they still don’t know how to set appropriate boundaries.

If you’ve allowed abuse to continue, there’s a good chance that you were abused by someone in your past, although you may not recognize it as such. It could have been a strict or alcoholic dad, an invasive mom, or a teasing sibling. Healing involves understanding how you’ve been abused, forgiving yourself, and rebuilding your self-esteem and confidence.

What is Emotional Abuse?

If you’re wondering if your relationship is abusive, it probably is. Emotional abuse, distinct from physical violence (including shoving, cornering, breaking, and throwing things), is speech and/or behavior that’s derogating, controlling, punishing, or manipulative. Withholding love, communication, support, or money are indirect methods of control and maintaining power. Passive-Aggressive behavior is covert hostility. The passive-aggressor is “A wolf in sheep’s clothing.” To learn more and get tips in how to respond, read, “Dealing with a Passive-Aggressive Partner.

Behavior that controls where you go, to whom you talk, or what you think is abusive. It’s one thing to say, “If you buy the dining room set, we cannot afford a vacation,” verses cutting up your credit cards. Spying, stalking, invading your person, space, or belongings is also abusive, because it disregards personal boundaries.

Verbal abuse is the most common forms of emotional abuse, but it’s often unrecognized, because it may be subtle and insidious. It may be said in a loving, quiet voice, or may be indirect – even concealed as a joke. Whether disguised as play or jokes, sarcasm or teasing that is hurtful is abusive. Obvious and direct verbal abuse, such as threats, judging, criticizing, lying, blaming, name-calling, ordering, and raging, are easy to recognize. Below are some more subtle types of verbal abuse that are just as damaging as overt forms, particularly because they are harder to detect. When experienced over time, they have an insidious, deleterious effect, because you begin to doubt and distrust yourself.

Opposing: The abuser will argue against anything you say, challenging your perceptions, opinions, and thoughts. The abuser doesn’t listen or volunteer thoughts or feelings, but treats you as an adversary, in effect saying “No” to everything, so a constructive conversation is impossible.

Blocking: This is another tactic used to abort conversation. The abuser may switch topics, accuse you, or use words that in effect say, “Shut Up.”

Discounting & Belittling: This is verbal abuse that minimizes or trivializes your feelings, thoughts, or experiences. It’s a way of saying that your feelings don’t matter or are wrong.

Undermining & Interrupting: These words are meant to undermine your self-esteem and confidence, such as, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” finishing your sentences, or speaking on your behalf without your permission.

Denying: An abuser may deny that agreements or promises were made or that a conversation or events or took place, including prior abuse. The abuser instead may express affection or make declarations of love and caring. This is crazy-making and manipulative behavior, which leads you to gradually doubt your own memory, perceptions, and experience. In the extreme, a persistent pattern is called gas-lighting, named after the classic Ingrid Bergman movie, Gaslight. In it, her husband used denial in a plot to make her believe she was losing her grip on reality.

Confronting Abuse

In order to confront the abuse, it’s important to understand that the intent of the abuser is to control you and avoid meaningful conversation. Abuse is a used as a tactic to manipulate and have power over you. (See “How to Spot Manipulation.“) If you focus on the content, you’ll fall into the trap of trying to respond rationally, denying accusations and explaining yourself, and lose your power. The abuser has won at that point and deflected responsibility for the verbal abuse.

Sometimes, you can deflect verbal abuse with humor. It puts you on equal footing and deprives the abuser of the power they seek in belittling you. Repeating back what is said to you also has an impact, followed by a calm boundary. For example, “Did you say you think that I don’t know what doing?” You may get a defiant repetition of the insult. Then follow up with, “I disagree,” or “I don’t see it that way,” or “I know exactly what I’m doing.”

In some cases, verbal abuse is best addressed with forceful statements, such as, “Stop, it,” “Don’t talk to me that way,” “That’s demeaning,” “Don’t call me names,” “Don’t raise your voice at me,” “Don’t use that tone with me,” “I don’t respond to orders,” etc. In this way, you set a boundary of how you want to be treated and take back your power. The abuser may respond with, “Or what?”, and you can say, “I will not continue this conversation.”

Typically, a verbal abuser may become more abusive, in which case, you continue to address the abuse in the same manner. You might say, “If you continue, I’ll leave the room,” and do so if the abuse continues. If you keep setting boundaries, the abuser will get the message that manipulation and abuse won’t be effective. The relationship may or may not change for the better, or deeper issues may surface. Either way, you’re rebuilding your self-confidence and self-esteem, and are learning important skills about setting boundaries. (See “The Power of Personal Boundaries.”)

Abuse can slowly chip away at self-esteem. Usually, both the abuser and the victim in a relationship have experienced shaming in childhood and already have impaired self-esteem. Confronting an abuser, especially in a long term relationship can be challenging. It usually takes the support and validation of a group, therapist, or counselor to be able to consistently stand-up to abuse. Without it, you may doubt your reality, feel guilty, and fear loss of the relationship or reprisal. If it feels daunting, you can try a different, educative approach outlined in Dealing with a Narcissist: How to Raise Self-Esteem and Set boundaries with Difficult People.

Once you take back your power and regain your self-esteem, you won’t allow someone to abuse you. If the abuse stops, the relationship will improve, but for positive change, both of you must be willing to risk change. Build your self-esteem and learn to be assertive by using the tools in my ebooks, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem and How to Speak Your Mind: Become Assertive and Set Limits and webinar, How to be Assertive. To go deeper and explore the seeds of low-self-esteem, see Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.

Copyright Darlene Lancer, MFT 2010, 2017

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34 thoughts on “Emotional Abuse: Beneath Your Radar?

  1. I’m about to leave my wife after about 4 years of abusive and co-dependent behavior, on both our parts really but her being the main instigator. I’ve had second thoughts so many times over the last few months, but reading this article really puts it in perspective; most of the reservations I’ve had have been about her being left alone, unable to cope etc. even though we’re settling finances in a way that leaves me in more debt and her with a pile of cash. I’m stuck in an enabler role I’ve trained myself into, and I have just enough self understanding right now to get out. Not sure how to avoid being an enabler in the future though.

  2. Not all people who ‘enable’ abuse were abused in children. My daughter is married to a man who fits all the criteria you’ve outlined. He would never consider seeking help – for he is the perfect one, right? My daughter is stuck in the US with two children living with this bully. I can’t email her your advice as he reads her mail. But I can lead her to your site the next time we talk.

  3. You mentioned that some cannot access their anger. I am that person. How does someone go about accessing their anger. I’ve been struggling with this for quite some time. I have a very difficult time recognizing the abuse and thinking it is my own fault in some way (ex. if I was better this wouldn’t happen). How does a person move past this confusion and see it for what it is and become angry about it?

  4. My ex seems to fit both passive aggressive & abusive descriptions – can they be both? A passive aggressive abuser? They do seem to go hand in hand. He also fits well into narcissism.

    I’m healing myself after 18 years with him, and realizing how much my alcoholic father & passive-aggressive critical mother left me with low self-esteem, just waiting for a guy like him to come along! I have taken it on myself to stop the cycle of abuse in my family – my 2 daughters watched as their dad belittled, insulted & abused me on a daily basis. Imagining them growing up and getting into a similar relationship made me grow a backbone & kick him out.

  5. I suffered from emotional abuse on every level. Sadly I didn’t know what was happening until I finally started searching sone of the things he was saying and some of the emotions I was feeling. It made sense. I didn’t realize I was actually living a nightmare. I thought his jealousy was love for me. We have just recently broken up. Tough times. I still am struggling with the fact that I believed it was another woman cause he would pick a fight, call me fatass and leave. Do emotional abusers usually cheat? I have a 9 year old. He never abused her. She misses him. Is it okay for them to have a visit or phone call. He is not her dad.

    • I don’t know of any correlation between adultery and emotional abuse. Consider your needs and emotional and physical safety before continuing a relationship with him if he’s not the father. Read my blogs on boundaries and breakups and ebook, How to Speak Your Mind, and watch my webinar, How to Be Assertive to set healthy boundaries with your ex.

    • Toni, I am sad to hear you are going through this and I can relate because I too was clueless for a long time. Sometimes I wish I could go back to that point where I thought things were fine. I can’t and neither can you. In my opinion you should protect your daughter. She will miss him for a while but you can comfort her and soon she will find other kind people to be in her life. Good luck to you both.

  6. In the past 6 months, I have had growing anxiety and sadness being around my partner of 17 years. Surprisingly, he was the one to suggest couples counseling. We met with the therapist together and then I met with her alone. She said from just the short interaction he had with her and seeing him relate to me, she said he doesn’t let you speak, he is manipulative and controlling and if you want out, I’ll help you. I was shocked but burst into tears with relief. This is how subtle this type of abuse can be. I have always thought he did things for me because he loved me so much. I’m learning that it was another way to control. I’m still reeling.

  7. Is repeated stonewalling a form of abuse? I have been with my partner for 8 years. If I want to talk about an issue or the future I will ask him when it would be convenient and he will say later/at the weekend. Then he will say he is too busy. Alternatively, he will change the subject, leave the room or respond with complete silence as if I have not spoken. I have asked if he will go to counselling or read self-help books with me about communication but he has refused. I cannot see a way to resolve this and am unsure if this is abuse.

    • Yes, it is! And particularly hard to stop, because it’s withholding rather than an action. Try acting natural. Ignore his behavior – don’t address it directly. Just because someone is not speaking to you doesn’t mean you have to do the same. When you speak to him, even lovingly, he’ll see his tactics aren’t working. More information is in Codependency for Dummies and How to Speak Your Mind.

  8. I was emotionally abused by my husband for years and have no self esteem and mental problems which resulted. I didn’t leave because of my codependance on him. I’ve threatened to go twice now and he says and does the right things every time but it has always gone back to the way it was. Now that I’ve told him I’m leaving again, same response from him but he says it’s different this time because he truly understands because I left for 6 weeks to be with my mom. I see the change but I feel broken from before and have huge emotional barriers.He says he can heal me but idk if I want him to. What should I do, stay and hope or leave and heal myself?

  9. Me and my boyfriend have been together for about 2 years and he is constantly telling me how stupid my decisions are and always calling me a bitch. It wasn’t often he would, but now it’s an every day routine. Any time I leave the house and come back, he accuses me of cheating. And acts the same way anytime im on my phone. When I want to go to stay or hangout with friends he makes me out to be the bad one, but I have been diagnosed with bi polar and am mean to him at times at well but he blames us fighting on me everyday. Is this considered emotional abuse or just in need of some couple therapy?

    • Yes, it’s definitely emotional abuse. That doesn’t rule out couple’s counseling. You should also see a psychiatrist to get treatment for bi-polar. Early intervention can improve your functioning and sense of well-being, as well as your relationships.

  10. My husband calls me dumb fat b*tch daily. He tells me I am worthless and I do nothing all day. We have 4 children and I’m not able to work due to daycare being to expensive. He works part time and goes to school. I get no money unless he gives it to me. He won’t watch the kids for me to even go to the store. I love him and want my family to be happy again. What should I do? I can’t leave because I have no money to go anywhere. We can’t go to counseling because it cost to much. Please give advice.

    • Start going to CoDA meetings immediately and do the exercises in my books to raise your self-esteem. Learn to set boundaries with your husband to stop the abuse, and look for ways to have fun that are free. There are also low-fee clinics in most cities. Daycare can be costly, especially for 4 children. Meanwhile, perhaps working would pay for a part-time nanny.

  11. My husband and I have been together for four years and married just over a year now. When we first got together it was amazing he was kind and a real gentleman. Then a few months in he showed a really angry side to me. The anger wasn’t directed TOWARDS me and I felt like I understood him because of his abusive childhood. Everything started out little. Him not liking what I wore. The friends I chose and always suggesting I do this instead of that. When we got married it all changed. His family was allowed to put me down and my family was nothing. Then all hell broke loose.

  12. This article sums up what happened to me and my girls. I got out almost 6 years ago and saw a counselor to heal. The depression was something I never want to experience again because it affected my happiness and my girl’s as well. I love my relationships now and I am not afraid to speak my mind and stand up for myself. I am currently pursuing the court for several contempt charges and find my mind may wander back to what he did. Your articles are very helpful in keeping my focus away from this and the negative. Is there anything you can recommend for children dealing with emotional abuse and abandonment?

  13. This article pretty much sums up the marriage I just got out of. It’s a shame a lost so many years and have been financially devastated.

    If you are reading this because you think maybe this is my partner……..get out of the relationship yesterday.

  14. Thanks for your insight. I see what you mean about keep quiet when around him. He is very nice when others are around. He tries to appear the perfect gentleman. Later she will tell me the horrible things he says to her. I have never seen the abuse, just heard the stories.
    She said, “I never thought I would be dating an abuser.” She is aware but afraid of being alone again. Very sad.

      • My ex would never really talk to me about his feelings. If I said “you don’t talk to me” he’d say “yes I do.” May times I got a blank stare if I asked him about something he didn’t want to talk about. He’d say “men don’t think about that kind of stuff.” It was so frustrating. I just wish I’d have recognized this type of behavior as abusive. He left me after 32 years when he became involved with a married coworker. He told me she was someone he could “share his feelings with.”

        • THANK YOU SO MUCH, Nannette, for sharing this….my now ex-boyfriend of the last 8 months did the SAME behavior and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I thought I was being too emotionally needy…I didn’t realize it was abusive either, even though it sure did hurt A LOT. Thank You, Darlene, for another SPOT ON and necessary article!!!!!

  15. This is the abuse my sister suffers. It is under her radar mostly. Things go fine until it’s too much. Then a blowup for a while, then back together. When will she see that this isn’t love?

    • Sadly this is the case for the majority of abused women. If she’s inclined to seek support such as therapy or CoDA meetings for other issues, she might realize the truth. If you witness it, you can always say, “That made me uncomfortable,” or “I didn’t like that.” Make reference only yourself, and don’t involve your sister, or she may get the blame later.

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