Emotional abuse can occur in any relationship and is especially common in dating and marriage. Whereas in physical abuse, there are often marks on the body as evidence of violence that are easy to notice, with emotional abuse things are much trickier.
That is because emotional abuse usually involves toxic mind games and behaviors that can be difficult to understand, let alone identify as a form of abuse.
What follows is a breakdown of:
- what is emotional abuse
- how you can identify an emotionally abusive person
- what steps you can take if you’re a victim of emotional abuse
Let’s dive right in.
. . .
What Is Emotional Abuse?
It’s important to mention that emotional abuse occurs when a specific pattern of toxic behavior is exhibited repeatedly over time — a single incident doesn’t constitute emotional abuse.
This pattern of toxic behavior involves a person using a series of manipulative and humiliating tactics in an attempt to control, insult, isolate, and instill fear in someone.
According to Psychology Today, emotional abuse can be defined as:
Or, according to this article in Verywell Mind:
While some signs of emotional abuse can be easily identified by someone outside the relationship, a person in it may miss them, be unaware they’re a form of abuse, or close their eyes to them.
Let’s look at some of the signs that can help you identify a person who exhibits emotionally abusive behaviors.
. . .
#1. They Exhibit an Uncontrollable Desire for Control
Emotional abuse centers around power and control. So, a huge red flag that indicates emotional abuse is when your partner exhibits an uncontrollable desire for control.
You might notice them being overly-invested in your personal life, trying to control who goes in and out of your social circle, your daily activities, what you’re going to wear, and how you’re going to spend your money.
Some other, more subtle signs of controlling behavior are:
- making various demands/requests and expecting them to be fulfilled immediately
- demanding immediate responses from calls or texts, and getting very angry when that doesn’t happen
- constantly checking your phone, texts, and browser history
- often “randomly” reminding you what you will lose if you ever leave the relationship
- subtly isolating you from family and friends, usually with the excuse that “they love you so much they want you all for themselves”
. . .
#2. They Manipulate Your Feelings by Gaslighting You
Gaslighting constitutes a form of emotional abuse and is a common technique used by abusers to manipulate and gain control over their victims.
In simple words, when someone gaslights you, they make you question your sense of reality and your sanity. They keep denying having said/done something and make you feel as if you don’t remember a situation correctly.
Psychology Today defines gaslighting as:
Here are some common gaslighting phrases:
- “That’s not how it happened, you’re crazy.”
- “You’re always making a big deal out of things.”
- “That’s not a real problem. Stop making such a big fuss about nothing.”
- “We already discussed this. Don’t you remember? I have to keep repeating myself.”
- “It’s not my fault you’re bad at communicating.”
- I only criticize you because I love you/want the best for you.”
. . .
#3. They Use Emotional Distancing as a Form of Punishment
When punishment is involved in a relationship, you know right away that something is wrong.
An emotionally abusive person often uses emotional distancing, like withholding affection, stonewalling their partner, or giving them the silent treatment as a form of punishment.
The worst thing is that they can punish you over the most trivial things, like not answering one of their calls, or canceling your plans.
They might choose not to talk to you for days, or talk to you but treat you like you are an acquaintance or a stranger to them. They might refuse to have sex and even tell you not to touch them.
In some cases, they might not punish you right away, but make threats of future punishment by saying something along the lines of:
“If you ever do *that thing* again, I’ll disappear from your life/You’ll see a whole different side of me/I’ll break up with you.”
. . .
#4. They Humiliate You in Every Possible Way
A big sign of emotional abuse is when your partner’s actions or words aim to humiliate you in public or in private…in every possible way.
They might treat you like you’re an inferior, name-call you, criticize you, insult you, patronize you, or make sarcastic comments and jokes at your expense.
If you ever try to confront them or tell them you think their behavior is offensive they’ll tell you things like:
- “Come on, I made a simple joke.”
- “I was just being sarcastic, babe. No harm done.”
- “You’re oversensitive.”
- “You shouldn’t take things so seriously.”
- “You obviously lack a sense of humor.”
. . .
#5. They Love To Create Chaos
Emotionally abusive people love to create chaos and watch the people around them trying to pick up the pieces, in a state of confusion and desperation.
You could say that for them, chaos is like cocaine — they simply can’t get enough of it. They’re also incredibly unpredictable; you never know when they’re gonna snap, and have a drastic mood change, or an emotional outburst.
Some examples of “chaos-creating” behavior include:
- Picking up fights out of nowhere
- Starting arguments for the sake of arguing
- Making confusing statements that contradict their previous ones
- Denying facts, even though you have proof
. . .
How You Can Respond
If you think you were able to identify some of these signs in your own relationship, congratulations — you already took the first, and most important step towards changing your situation.
What I mean by that is that the first step in dealing with an emotionally abusive person is to recognize the abuse. You can only start a path toward a better future by being honest about what you are experiencing.
Here are some things you should do next:
- Reach out to friends and family. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone close to you, you can speak with a counselor, or call an anonymous hotline. For example, if you live in the US you can call this one, and if you live in Europe, here’s a list of national helplines.
It’s important to build a support network that will help you feel less lonely and create a plan of action.
- Don’t blame yourself. Your abuser might have made you think that what you’re experiencing is somehow your fault, but it’s not. There’s nothing to feel guilty about — anyone could find themselves at your place.
- Don’t try to change the other person. When love is involved, we tend to close our eyes to the other person’s mistakes and weaknesses and continue to live with them in hopes that they will change. Unfortunately, you can’t change your abuser. Trying to do so will only bring you further emotional pain.
- Be brave and exit the relationship. I know that, despite what many people think, leaving a toxic relationship can be incredibly hard — even if you recognize you’re being abused. The situation gets even more complex if you’re married, have kids, or are financially/emotionally dependent on the other person.
However, you should know that emotional abuse progressively worsens as the relationship continues and can even turn to physical abuse. Even if you can’t see it now, staying in the relationship will bring you much more harm in the long-term than exiting.
- Give yourself time to process your trauma, heal, and find yourself again. Going through emotional abuse is a traumatic experience. Victims of emotional abuse often lose their identity and it might take time to find themselves again.
Make sure you have a safe network of supportive people and some emotional outlets that can help you process and express your trauma (like going to support groups, creating art, or writing).
This post was previously published on Hello, Love.
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