What Is Emotional Abuse?

Feb 5, 2021 | RELATIONSHIPS, STRESS & TRAUMA, WELLBEING

WELCOME

People often look for signs of violence to determine whether a relationship is unhealthy or abusive, which is why emotional abuse is often not recognised when it’s happening right in front of us, or to us.

All relationships have challenging times, so as long as there is no hitting involved, it’s easy to just think things are normal, or at the very least – not that bad. So the truth is you may not realise you are in an emotionally abusive relationship at all.

In a truly healthy, loving and supportive relationship, you should always feel emotionally and psychologically safe.

Understanding My Past

I experienced many years of emotional and psychological abuse and I didn’t know it until a few years ago when I happened to read a book that explained trauma in all its forms. Even though I actually studied psychology at university, and had psychotherapy and counselling sessions at different points of my life, nobody ever mentioned it or pointed it out to me. I had no idea it was even a thing. I knew I had some difficult times, but reading that book was the first time in my life that I felt validated, like I wasn’t crazy, that what I experienced was real and not acceptable.

I ask myself now, how it was, that two separate psychotherapists over a period of months, at different points in my life, who heard my story and my past, did not pick up on the fact I was talking about abuse without knowing it. But I know the answer to that.

The thing about people who have experienced emotional or psychological abuse, is that they may self-edit their stories and present a strong and emotionally healthy persona to the world.

It’s not intentional.

The truth is, they are very strong. They might be the exact kind of person you would want around in a crisis, because they can handle anything you throw at them.

In all my therapy sessions, I told my story in such a matter of fact and balanced way, showing understanding for the other party and a striking level of objectivity and maturity. I was taking on a lot of the responsibility to make the story appear balanced, because I needed to feel balanced. And it’s far too exhausting to recall or relive any of it. It doesn’t even seem necessary dredging all of it up again, because after all, no physical harm was done and the past is the past. “Let’s move on!” they may say.

I haven’t yet arrived in the place where I feel ready to share the details of my story, except to say that I am so lucky to be in a very loving and supportive relationship that supports my healing. It’s the rainbow I have needed in my life. It was the belief I would one day have a healthy loving relationship that helped me start again.

But I’m aware that lockdown is a terrible time for many who might be experiencing abuse and feel trapped and so utterly alone and abandoned by the world.

I feel it’s important to share what I can because it could be happening to you, or a friend.

It can happen to anyone.

Signs Of Emotional Abuse

A person who is emotionally abusive will display some, or all, of these behaviours towards you:

  • Criticises, demeans, undermines, belittles, humiliates and/or lectures you;
  • Is unsupportive, unkind, inconsiderate, dismissive;
  • Bullies you, is two-faced;
  • Tells you you are not good enough;
  • Expects you to improve yourself for them;
  • Is controlling, expects you to do as they wish, may ask you to dress and behave in a way that pleases them and may say they are doing it for your own good;
  • Tries to make you dependent on them – they may offer to support you financially and then uses it to make you dependent on them so you can’t leave;
  • Gets angry or makes you feel guilty and selfish if you ask for anything;
  • Is needy, though you are not allowed to be;
  • Is jealous and accuses you of being dishonest;
  • Withdraws and ignores you if you try to be assertive;
  • Accuses you of being too sensitive, of twisting their words or not having a sense of humour when you are hurt by their words/actions;
  • Rarely apologises, and if they do, they deflect responsibility: “I’m sorry that you are upset, next time you should tell me xxx, how was I to know that you’d take it so badly” rather than “I’m so sorry, I should have been more considerate”;
  • Isolates you from others, shows a disinterest in your friends and loved ones;
  • Puts, or leaves you, in physically or emotionally vulnerable situations;
  • Makes threats, shouts at you, wakes you up in the night to lecture you;
  • Behaves unpredictably and is prone to sudden outbursts, mood swings;
  • Blames you for their problems;
  • Gaslighting, denies the truth, accuses you of being brainwashed or crazy;
  • They may say no one would believe you if you told them, that everyone thinks you’re crazy and your friends don’t even like you;
  • They may threaten to kill themselves if you don’t do what they want, or if you leave;
  • If you leave or assert yourself effectively, they may become super sweet, needy, tell you how much they miss you and need you, become hypochondriacs, desperately find anything to get your sympathy, pity and attention;
  • It often feels like you are living with Jekyll & Hyde – they can be really nice much of the time and do lots of good things in the world and then suddenly turn on you as though they are a whole different person.

Not everyone experiences all of the above, and there could be other signs I’ve not included.

Emotional abuse is not always aggressive, angry or nasty on the surface. Some abusers are very cool, calm and somewhat reserved and you barely notice how manipulative they are.

Emotional Abuse Can Be Subtle

Many times, no one, least of all the outside world, will detect the slightest signs of emotional abuse. Some abusers are very calm, composed, respectable people they may even appear mild mannered.

Here’s an example of such a person:

X appears to be very friendly, easygoing and popular. They are successful in their work, well respected and liked by all who know them. They never lose their temper and are very independent. But they like to have things their own way. They are nice, possibly also very generous, so you agree to their suggestions most of the time, but anytime you make a request or suggestion, they don’t like it. Their confrontation style is avoidance and they may run away, emotionally withdraw, dismiss you or simply change the topic of conversation so that you just go with their suggestion.

In conversation it sounds like the person supports you, they say nice things, but you cannot say that you believe with your whole heart that they would be there for you when you really need them. Sometimes you are not sure they are really listening to you even though they are asking you questions and engaging. They are spontaneous and unpredictable at times, which is exciting you might have some fun adventures as a result. However this can also turn on it’s head and lead to sudden abandonment or disappearance. They may suddenly leave you in a situation without discussing or telling you, they don’t even seem concerned about you, even though you have made firm plans together. When they return they act like nothing happened and deflect your annoyance by either distracting you with flattery and affection, or telling you you overreacted.

They may resort to gaslighting if you assert yourself further. Over time things can evolve and escalate. The level of control increases, they continue to want everything their way, always inflexible to your wishes and they will think nothing of making decisions that affect you, or on your behalf, without consulting you. They make and break promises easily. You begin to notice they lie to you frequently and never apologise for anything.

There is no emotional safety or support in this kind of relationship and all the controlling and manipulation comes through avoidance of conflict, emotional distance, gaslighting and when really pressed they will throw the blame for everything on you. They know exactly what triggers you and how to flatter you and will use this always to their advantage. They may actually make you feel like you’re going crazy sometimes. Their persistent avoidance of anger or confrontation makes it easy to overlook the possibility that this is in fact an unhealthy and emotionally abusive relationship.  

The Difficulty In Detecting Emotional Abuse

You may not know you are in an emotionally abusive relationship because when things are good, they are amazing.

Things are not always bad in your relationship. They can be mostly good. To the outside world all looks happy and well in good times. As long as they generally always get their way, there can be little reason for conflict. Everyone else may really respect and like your abuser and sing their praises frequently. You genuinely enjoy the good times and see something in them that shines. They might treat you so well, downright spoil you, they may even apologise and make promises for a happy future.

The good times can sometimes be so good that it makes you feel like you were just overreacting in the bad times – as though they were just little blips – nothing to worry about.

You might also think that the idea of “emotional abuse” is overly dramatic and you hate drama. So therefore it cannot be happening to you because you’re not a drama queen.

And you may tell yourself that it’s all ok because there is no physical or sexual abuse. But it’s definitely not ok.

Signs Of Codependency

You may also find it difficult to recognise your situation because you may have developed a level of codepency in your relationship. You may:

  • Feel that you need their approval and affection and do things to try to please them;
  • Even if you are not happy, you defend them if anyone tries to tell you the way they treat you is not right;
  • Take responsibility for the times they get upset or when things are bad in the relationship;
  • Give and make all the sacrifices but they never do the same for you;
  • Needing to hear them say “I love you” frequently;
  • You see the good in them and are convinced they don’t mean it;
  • Want to try and help or save them;
  • Feel unworthy of love;
  • Feel like you deserve to be treated this way;
  • Feel guilty or ashamed if you try to assert yourself;
  • Not believe that things could be better if you leave;
  • Feel scared of being alone and therefore prefer to stay.

Again, codependency can be hard to detect especially if you consider yourself quite independent. I’ve always believed that in relationships you are supportive of one another and encourage each other – which is true – but in an abusive relationship you may not notice that they are actually trying to control you.

The other person might say: “If you lost 5 kgs you would be even more beautiful. You might even have star potential” – which is subtle and it seems like they are saying you are beautiful and that you could be a star. You both get excited. Until you begin to notice they never compliment you without a suggestion that you could still improve. They don’t accept you simply as you are.

But in the meantime you think, “oh this person is amazing, I will be able to become a better person with their encouragement and all these other doors will open for me.” It might feel like they are your personal coach or guru, as well as partner/friend/etc. So you might go for a run or actually lose 5 kgs and the main motivation is not to feel good for yourself, the first thing you’re thinking about is how excited you are to tell them you did it.

You can become so motivated and think it’s an amazing time of personal growth for yourself, but if their approval matters to you more than you own sense of personal achievement or satisfaction, then it’s probably not. I sometimes felt like an excited puppy dog trying to please it’s owner for a treat and lots of praise.

I am now in a safe and healthy relationship with an incredibly loving and supportive partner, who never once has suggested I do anything to improve myself or to change. When he supports or compliments me, it’s for me as I already am. There are no strings attached to his words and I know he loves me because his actions consistently show me that. We tell each other we love each other, but I don’t need to hear it for a “fix“.

The Impact Of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is psychologically traumatic and it can lead to anxiety, depression and PTSD. It is an extremely unhealthy situation to remain in. You may not necessarily notice your own trauma because your body is doing everything it can to protect you. Your inability to notice your stress could be a coping mechanism. The three natural responses our bodies have to stress and trauma are fight, flight or freeze. You may frequently experience any or all of these when you are with your abuser.

It’s true that relationships, even healthy ones, have difficult times. The problem with an abusive relationship is that it could feel like the ups and downs are part of the thrill, love and affection becomes like a drug or a fix. Some of your behaviour patterns may start to resemble that of someone with an addiction.

It does also depend on the kind of relationship you are in. You could be in an abusive relationship that you think you want to be in, so you might be looking for love and approval all the time, you love the highs and therefore accept the lows. But you could also be in an abusive relationship that you know you don’t want to be in, but are somehow so embedded in it that you feel trapped.

I’ve experienced both. In both cases you will feel flight, fight or freeze responses in your body – which is trying to tell you you don’t feel safe. But when you feel trapped by your circumstances you are most likely to feel frozen.

I was never aware of experiencing anxiety or depression, I just became emotionally flat. I became stuck in “freeze”. And it didn’t resolve itself just because I left and started over. You carry it with you until it heals.

Outwardly I was cheerful and friendly to the world that even I was convinced I was fine and happy, but inside I didn’t know how to feel joy. My sociability was a perfect mask. If you look happy, or at least calm, on the outside, people leave you alone, including your abuser. This is an important survival mechanism.

I never cried, except in Pixar films. I was not very empathetic of others like I am now. I didn’t understand why some women are so in touch with their emotions and not me. Neediness and vulnerability in others disgusted me. If I witnessed someone who was really excited by something, or who felt spontaneous joy and delight, I thought they were childish and immature. I could never relate to people of my own age group. I never felt comfortable in my body and struggled to enjoy it. It was like I was an alien who didn’t know how to feel human.

If I felt anything it was emptiness and the longing for loving connection. That longing is why you might want to stay in the situation, or end up in similar relationships time after time. Once you’ve experienced the trauma of emotional abuse, if you haven’t had a chance to heal, it can express itself repeated patterns.

You may have the inability to be single for any significant period of time. Maybe you swing from one relationship to another. Or the opposite, you are not able to let people close or make commitments. It’s often a cocktail of contradictory feelings and actions. Wanting to be close to someone, but even in a safe relationship you might feel the need for an emergency exit all the time. You keep attracting the same kind of people into your life. You hope it will be different or better next time, in the same unhealthy way people feel with addictions.

In hindsight, I know that I was always anxious because I never knew what mood the other person was going to be in that day and whether they would get upset at me. So I could just never relax, even when I was on my own. Because I felt trapped, I was a tightly wound ball, holding it all in, holding it all together. It was only until so many years later, when I was ready to start healing that I began to relax and unfold.

Why Leaving Is Never Easy

Although leaving might be the best thing to do, it is also one of the most difficult things to be faced with. For those who don’t understand why someone doesn’t just pack up and start again, here are just some reasons:

  • Because you don’t realise you are being abused;
  • Because you have been manipulated and demeaned to the point you believe YOU really are the bad person who needs to be better for your abuser;
  • Because your abuser is so well respected and liked by the community that no one would believe you;
  • Because you see all the goodness in the other and think they just need another chance;
  • Because you have nowhere to go;
  • Because you don’t have the financial or material means to leave;
  • Because it’s better than being homeless on the street – we all know how badly people treat the homeless;
  • Because you might feel shame, scared, like a failure, afraid of being judged;
  • Because you might need support and don’t know how or where to ask for it;
  • Because you don’t want to be a burden on others and don’t know if any of your friends would really care and help you; OR
  • Because you have been isolated from your friends and loved ones for so long and don’t know if anyone would still care for you or help you, or if you even deserve to ask for help;
  • Because you don’t have the emotional energy to deal with the potential aftermath;
  • Because you don’t want to create a drama or be seen as a drama-queen;
  • Because you don’t want people to treat you like broken goods;
  • Because you are scared of losing your identity, it may be closely tied up with the other person;
  • Because you’re scared of being alone;
  • Because you might be a child;
  • Because your abuser might be a family member;
  • Because nobody takes you seriously;
  • Because you fear for your safety if you leave.

The Difficulty In Accepting The Truth

Accepting the full reality of my story and coming to a point where I can share it honestly has been hard. The reason I was scared to fully accept and share my story for all these years was because:

  • I didn’t want to re-traumatise myself, remind myself of it or relive it;
  • I didn’t want it to be the thing that defines me or that people know me for. There are so many things I’d love to be remembered for, being a “survivor” is not one of them;
  • I wanted to appear like I had it together and to live up to everyone else’s idea of me of being confident, strong, calm, resilient and so on. I didn’t want to lose that identity, because I like the idea of being all these things. Maybe I was scared of falling apart, but the truth is both happened. I fell apart to become stronger than before;
  • In one case, friends had flagged their concerns to me about warning signs of a very unhealthy relationship, which I ignored. When I finally realised they had been right, I felt so stupid for having not seen the truth for myself. But I felt that I’d made my bed and had to lie in it – for a while anyway. What was stupid about it was not that I discovered the truth, the real stupidity was seeing the truth and staying anyway just because I thought I felt stupid. That made no sense whatsoever. But it was because I had experienced emotional abuse before and I was still tied into that helpless behaviour;
  • I also knew it might make me unpopular amongst those who would want to defend the abusers (I don’t use the possessive pronoun because I want no attachment to them). I have concerns even now about hurting them somehow by speaking my truth. The truth is, to everyone else, these people are just ordinary, seemingly lovely people, who carry trauma of their own. They are not evil monsters. They rarely are. They are someone’s loved one, someone’s friend, neighbour, they were once cute little children just like we all were. In going through my own healing process, I have come to understand that we are all experiencing the unintended effects of unresolved trauma repeating and re-enacting itself over many generations.

I don’t want to start a blame game, I am no longer angry, that is not what it’s about. I have carried my anger and hurt for long enough, I let that burden go a while ago.

Sharing my story is about shining a light to anyone who is in need of a lighthouse to help get them back to safety.

You are not alone.

Trust your intuition and listen to you body. It always has your safety and best interests at heart. If you start feeling the fight, flight or freeze in response to your relationship dynamics, that is a loud signal that you are not emotionally safe.

I know there are millions of untold stories like this and I also know it would have been so much easier for me to leave if I had known I was not alone, that I was not crazy, that it wasn’t my fault, that I could be safe and find support.

I was surrounded by people who had no idea of the severity of my situation. I often looked to their reactions to try and determine whether they noticed something wrong, to help me verify my own confusion and uncertainty. I prayed to the universe for signs if there was something wrong and if I should leave. I hoped one day someone would just come out and tell me that I was in an unhealthy relationship and that I should leave. But they didn’t.

I did get signs from the universe, however. Better said, my intuition and my body were giving me all the signs. My biggest regret is that I didn’t listen.

Seeking Help & Support

If you think you might be in an abusive relationship, you need support and you need to leave when it is safe to do so.

I don’t have experience helping others out of abusive relationships, I am not qualified to do so, so the best thing is to seek the support of organisations who can help give you the best advice.

My life was never in physical danger as far as I knew, I didn’t necessarily recognise the seriousness of my situation and I didn’t have many options – homelessness was a serious concern every time. Friends might let you stay for a few weeks, but I didn’t know if anyone would really be able to help out for longer if it came to that.

I decided that my ability to start life again depended completely on getting a good job and moving away. It was also partly because I still naïvely believed the other person would change and I kept giving them another chance. I felt maybe I could help them become the person I thought I saw in them. I put up with years of trauma to get to the point I felt I could step forward into a new life. But that wasn’t necessarily the right way to do it.

The danger is that we don’t realise the seriousness of our situation and whether it could lead to something worse. In hindsight, I should have asked for help, back then information wasn’t as readily available as it is now.

I really needed support but I wasn’t great at asking for help, or welcoming it in, because I had experienced years of being told no one else would ever care about me or love me.

But people did care for me. People do love me.

You are loveable, you will be loved.

To admit that you are in an unhealthy or abusive relationship is not something to feel ashamed about, nor are you a failure. You are simply someone seeing the truth of a situation and navigating your way towards safety and a new horizon.

The Road Ahead – Starting Over

It is possible to find forgiveness and healing, but not by staying in those unhealthy relationships or situations. You cannot help or save an abuser by staying. They may never learn, they may never be saved, and it is not your job to save them. You don’t owe them anything, certainly not your wellbeing, even if they are a family member.

Leaving & Finding Safety

You must, first and foremost, focus on protecting and looking after your own wellbeing. I cannot promise the journey will be easy, you may lose friends and the support of those who don’t want to take you seriously. You may literally have to give everything up to start again. It’s all baby steps. But the positive transformation can be huge. And you make space for beautiful things to enter. Like genuinely loving relationships.

Leaving, or running away, is not the complete solution, it’s just the first step. You can travel to the complete opposite end of the planet, but if you don’t find healing for yourself, the trauma and the unhealthy patterns will continue to follow you.

Time For Healing

Healing is only possible when you feel safe, physically, mentally and emotionally. You need to listen to your body and do things in your own time. This may be hard because in an abusive relationship you’ve probably learnt to ignore what your body and your intuition tells you. You will need to stop trying to please others and honour your wellbeing.

Healing is a journey. There is no quick remedy for it, and it isn’t resolved after a little holiday – although that might be a great start.

Find support and healing in whatever facilitates it best for you. If you need to find a therapist, spend time in nature, do some bodywork, find a creative outlet, learn T.R.E., whatever works for you, do it. Find what it is that makes you feel safe in your body and to feel joy again.

It has been a long and ongoing process for me and I now take pleasure in learning to feel joy again. I follow my healing journey with great curiosity and even delight. You will get to this point eventually too.

My life is proof that not only can you start again, but that you can also thrive. And that there are genuinely kind and loving people in the world who will treat you the way you deserve. The one promise I made to myself was not to tarnish my view of people based on my past experiences. I had to believe I could trust the goodness of others. And my belief has been rewarded.

What Do Healthy Relationships Feel Like?

I made the conscious decision to not commit to any new relationships for at least 2 years after leaving my last abusive relationship. I didn’t want to bring my baggage into a new relationship and I wanted to give myself time to heal. I also made a very conscious decision to be open minded when it came to my future relationships.

A friend had once told me a piece of advice he had learnt: “If you keep doing what you always did, you’ll keep getting what you always got“. That stuck with me and helped me as I started my life anew.

I realised when I came to meet someone new, I needed to be mindful of how things unfolded. If everything just felt the same as previous relationships I might want to be careful. I made a clear intention of the kind of relationship I wanted to have and I patiently waited. I dated, but only a little. It’s easy to feel like you just want to go wild and have fun, or because you’re scared you’ll never meet someone, but in my mind that wasn’t very helpful in my healing. I also feel the scattergun approach is not very intentional. By focussing on my intention for a healthy, loving relationship, and not being distracted by lots of dating, I found that I was better able to recognise when the right person came along. And then one day, there he was.

Things were very different. It was refreshing.

Healthy relationships feel so different because they feel safe, nurturing and reliable. Be ready for that. Because it doesn’t feel like the drama and excitement that you may have become accustomed to by now. If it does, that’s a potential warning flag that you are repeating a pattern that you don’t want anymore. At first, a healthy relationship it might feel a bit boring to you.

A healthy relationship feels lovely. Uncomplicated. Sometimes the uncomplicated part trips us up, like when you put your foot down expecting a step that isn’t there. It’s just level ground. You can trust it, it supports you and it grows stronger as you both contribute to building the relationship.

A healthy relationship is enriching, it grows and blossoms. Like a beautiful glowing ember burning brighter and brighter. It is supportive, you are there for each other, like a team, encouraging, respecting and celebrating each other, not criticising. Being together feels good.

Even healthy relationships have difficult patches and there are emotions, there are still moments of anger and frustration. But there are healthy ways to express and deal with these emotions. Listening to each other, acknowledging each others emotions, discussing and working through the issues is possible.

In healthy relationships, the goal is to hit a win/win solution most of the time, you feel like a team, not adversaries. When compromises need to be made, they are not always in just one person’s favour. It is balanced.

In healthy relationships, you feel the freedom to be truly, authentically yourself and you are accepted and loved just as you are. Even when you don’t feel that you are at your best.

You are enough.


If you are, or know of, someone who might be the victim of abuse, please contact the following organisations:

In the UK:

  • If you are worried about a child, please contact the NSPCC 0808 800 5000
  • Women’s Aid
  • National Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0808 2000 247 – www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/ (run by Refuge)
  • The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327 (run by Respect)
  • The Mix, free information and support for under 25s in the UK – 0808 808 4994
  • National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0800 999 5428 (run by Galop)
  • Samaritans (24/7 service) – 116 123
FURTHER RESOURCES:

https://www.healthline.com/health/signs-of-mental-abuse#what-to-do

https://www.nspcc.org.uk/what-is-child-abuse/types-of-abuse/emotional-abuse/

https://www.relate.org.uk/relationship-help/help-relationships/arguing-and-conflict/what-emotional-abuse

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