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What is Emotional Abuse?

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Never feeling “good enough.” Feeling as though you can’t say how you feel or what you think without a fight. Feeling like anything “wrong” in the relationship is your fault. Being told you have mental problems, and that’s “the problem.” Feeling trapped and too wounded to leave the relationship.

These are some ways to describe emotional abuse, an abuse that may not be physically visible, but is just as damaging and destructive (if not more so) than physical abuse. Even worse, most people suffering as victims of emotional abuse don’t even realize that what they are experiencing is abuse at all.

Emotional abuse occurs when the abuser tries to obtain control through manipulation and fear tactics that cause extreme damage to the victim’s self-esteem. The victim is made to feel “crazy, worthless, and hopeless,” and that they are responsible for the abuser’s words and actions.

Although difficult to measure, research shows that between 50 and 80 percent of adults may experience emotional abuse in their lifetime. In addition, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention labels emotional abuse as an adverse childhood experience that affects 11 percent of children.

Emotional abuse often accompanies physical, sexual, or financial abuse, but not always. Emotional abuse is just as damaging on its own.

Types of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is not always easy to spot. In fact, you can spend years in a relationship and never realize it is occurring. If you are not sure you are experiencing emotional abuse, think about how the interactions in the relationship make you feel. Here are some types of and examples of emotional abuse:

Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse is a form of emotional abuse that accompanies emotional abuse and can consist of the following:

  • Yelling
  • Swearing
  • Name calling
  • Threatening
  • Starting arguments

Unrealistic Expectations

Emotional abusers put unrealistic expectations on their victims. Some examples include:

  • Expecting you to put their needs before anything else in your life.
  • Not allowing you to disagree with them.
  • Criticizing you for not living up to their standards.
  • Showing dissatisfaction no matter how much you effort you put into the relationship

Invalidating Behavior

  • Telling you how you should feel and not accepting that you would feel any other way.
  • Distorting your perceptions of reality.
  • Refusing to acknowledge that your feelings or opinions are valid.
  • Accusing you of being “too sensitive” or “crazy.”
  • Dismissing your wants or needs as undeserved or “ridiculous.”

Erratic Behavior

Emotionally abusive people are often unstable and described as a “ticking time bomb.” You may feel as though you need to walk on eggshells because you never know how they react on a day-to-day basis. Some examples include:

  • Making outrageous and contradictory statements
  • Having drastic mood shifts that seemingly come out of the blue
  • Behaving in unpredictable ways that make you constantly fearful

Emotional Blackmail

Some examples of emotional blackmail include:

  • Making you feel guilty or shameful about things that are not your fault
  • Humiliating you in front of others or alone
  • Using your fears to control you
  • Exaggerating your flaws in order to shame and blame
  • Lying about something to make you think you’re crazy
  • Withholding affection to “punish” you
  • Giving you the silent treatment

Controlling Behavior

All emotional abuse stems from the desire to control. Here are some specifics on how an emotional abuser attempts to control:

  • Telling you who you can and cannot talk to
  • Accusing you of cheating or being jealous of other relationships
  • Monitoring your phone, computer, social media, etc.
  • Demanding to know where you are at all times and that you send “proof.”
  • Attempting to isolate you from your family and/or friends

Getting Support for Emotional Abuse

The first way to get out of an emotionally abusive relationship is to recognize it for what it is: abuse. Because emotional abuse affects the mind of the victim and rewires his or her thought patterns and feelings, it can be difficult to realize that what is happening is abusive.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers help by phone, text, or online chat. This hotline is available 24/7 and will help a victim find further services. If you are in immediate danger, call 911.

Put Yourself First

Your mental and physical health should be your top priority. Seek out help to build a support network. Be honest about what is happening and start working on affirming who you are. Stop blaming yourself for the abuse and start the healing process. Get professional help from therapy and support groups.

Establish Boundaries

Set boundaries with the abuser. They are no longer allowed to control you. Tell them specifically about how they have hurt you and that they cannot do this anymore. If they continue to try to control you, tell them what will happen. For example, “If you start yelling at me, I will leave.”

The key is to follow through with boundaries. If you set them, you must keep them in order to show the abuser that they have no control over you.

Know that You Cannot Fix Them

The problem lies in the abuser. You cannot fix them or change them, no matter your best efforts. An abusive person chooses to abuse others. You cannot control their actions, nor are you to blame for their choices. You only have control over your own responses.

Leave the Relationship

If your abuser does not respond to your boundaries and has no intention of working on him or herself, you need to leave the relationship. If you don’t, the situation will get worse, and you will continue to suffer. Each situation is different, and you may need help to leave the relationship. Talk to a trusted friend, family member, or counsellor, and make a plan.

Emotional abuse takes many forms, but the goal of an emotional abuser is always to control. Anyone suffering from the effects of emotional abuse should seek help in ways they feel most comfortable. If you are the victim of emotional abuse, get help immediately.

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Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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