There 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.
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