Relationships come in many forms, and some are healthier than others. As social beings, humans are deeply relational. Our relationships form the spaces where we find our richest experiences and most meaningful joy. By that same token, when relationships are broken or carry the seeds of our brokenness, they become the sites of some of our deepest wounds.Our words can either build up the people around us, or they can wound and destroy them. There is incredible power in our words (something the Bible reminds us of in several places), so, we must use our words wisely in our relationships with others, and for us to be discerning in how others use their words toward us.
We know that none of us is perfect, and we’re bound to sin with our words here and there. When we sin, we need to confess it and commit to doing better. What we need to watch out for is a pattern of behavior that signals there’s something deeper going on.
When a person we’re in a relationship uses their words toward us in a harmful way, and when that verbal cruelty is the rule and not the exception, that might indicate verbal or emotional abuse.
What exactly is emotional abuse, who is affected by it, and how can you tell whether emotional abuse is taking place?
What is emotional abuse?
Emotional abuse, sometimes called verbal or psychological abuse, is what happens when words are used to undermine, demean, manipulate, denigrate, and otherwise diminish another person and their sense of self-worth. Emotional abuse is broader than simply the use of words, however, as it encompasses a broad range of behaviors as well. Emotional abuse, like other forms of abuse, is about power and control.
Through their words or other actions, an emotional abuser tries to gain power and control over the other person. What is even more insidious about emotional abuse is that the individual who suffers the abuse is taught to think and feel that the abuse is their fault and that they deserve it.
It can happen in romantic relationships, between siblings, between parents and children, and in other contexts as well. Because it is often quite subtle, any one of us could find ourselves in an emotionally abusive relationship. People of all genders, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds are caught up in emotionally abusive relationships.
Is my relationship emotionally abusive?
For the person in an emotionally abusive relationship, they may not recognize that this is the nature of their relationship. For one reason, it’s because emotional abuse is subtle at times, and what passes for normal behavior in the relationship is problematic in deep ways.
One of the side-effects of emotional abuse is that the person who suffers it starts distrusting their feelings and perceptions. So, while other people looking at the relationship objectively point out that it is emotionally abusive, the person in it will doubt their instincts that something is wrong and begin to defend or justify their partner’s actions. Part of the process of healing from emotional abuse is learning to value and heed your thoughts and emotions.
Signs of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship
So, what are the signs that a relationship or partner is emotionally abusive?
- They try to assert control over your feelings, finances, or friends. This happens in many ways, such as cutting off access to your friends by making you move. They may exert control over areas of your life by demanding information like your bank codes, access to your phone, taking away the car keys to limit your mobility, or demanding to know your whereabouts or checking the GPS to see where you’ve been.
- Undue criticism. Emotional abuse is present when one partner constantly criticizes the other and over trivial things. They may criticize the other partner’s hair, clothes, makeup, body, eating habits, speech patterns, etc. This may leave one partner constantly feeling under attack.
- Manipulation. One partner manipulates the other into doing what they want, and they can do this by withholding affection, refusing to keep a promise, or couching things in terms such as “If you love me, you’ll do this.”
- Unreasonable expectations and demands. An emotionally abusive partner makes undue demands on your time, attention, and person, and they lay unreasonable expectations on you. They may expect you to drop commitments at a moment’s notice to meet their needs, they are dissatisfied with everything you do regardless of how hard you’ve worked at it, and exact standards you can’t meet.
- Intimidation or threats. In an abusive relationship, part of the design to control the other party is to intimidate or threaten them to get them to do what you want. They may threaten to hurt themselves, you, your children, or the family pet. Or they may threaten to take the kids and just leave without telling you. They might physically intimidate you by posturing (getting in your personal space), banging on the walls, or brandishing a weapon.
- Insults and humiliation, whether in private or in public, mark an abusive relationship. These verbal jabs undermine one’s sense of worth, and at times they are used to emotionally blackmail the other person into doing their partner’s bidding.
- Gaslighting. This is where a person denies your perceptions or sense of reality. They may deny that an event or conversation took place, even though it did. Or, they may say your memory is flawed or that ‘you’re crazy’ or deny that you feel what you say you feel.
- Making jokes at your expense, shaming, or blaming you for their failings is another mark of an emotionally abusive relationship. In an emotionally abusive relationship, belittling is also a feature. This is when they talk down to you as if you cannot understand, or they dismiss your ideas, values, feelings, and thoughts as stupid or unworthy. They may also behave as though they know what is best and their judgment is superior to yours in everything.
- Violation of boundaries. Each person has a sense of their individuality, what they like or do not like. In an emotionally abusive relationship, one’s boundaries are violated and not taken seriously. Your opinions and feelings are invalidated.
- Silent treatment and passive-aggressive behavior
- These and many other behaviors may signal an emotionally abusive relationship.
Dealing with Emotional Abuse
Emotional abuse can generate an enormous amount of self-doubt and loss of a sense of self. A person’s sense of reality becomes distorted, twisted to fit whatever reality suits the abuser. The emotionally abused person may pull away from relationships, becoming isolated. Physically the person may seem fine, but they are far from it.
The damage done by emotional abuse requires a lot of work and time to undo, so it is important not to delay starting that work. Below are a few pointers on how to deal with emotional abuse:
Recognize what’s happening.
Be honest about what you are feeling and experiencing. While emotional abuse can make you doubt your mind and feelings, that’s precisely where you need to begin. Stop blaming yourself for what’s happened – it wasn’t your fault, and in no way did you deserve that treatment. Naming what is happening and calling it out is an important first step toward regaining control over your life.
Get support, including therapy.
Tell a trusted family member or friend about what is happening. It may be tough to let someone in on what’s happening in your relationship but building a support network is also vital to your journey. Having a trained therapist as part of your support team is an invaluable resource in giving you the tools you need to begin healing and put things into perspective.
The abuser must realize that their behavior is not okay and that you will no longer tolerate it. You must establish consequences if your boundaries are violated and follow through on them if it occurs. For example, if they mock or insult you, you will no longer take part in the conversation and leave the room. If they violate that boundary, follow through and walk out.
Double down on what affirms you.
Taking care of your emotional and mental health is important. In this case, it means you should do the things you want to do that you enjoy and that boost your mood and sense of independence.
Don’t be preoccupied with pleasing the person who was abusing you. Take care of yourself and your needs – reaffirm your sense of self. Spend time with friends, get good rest, eat healthy, and take in some exercise – all of these are great ways to elevate your sense of well-being.
If your partner or the person you’re in a relationship with has no intention of changing their behavior toward you, you must prepare an exit strategy. They are responsible for changing themselves, and you shouldn’t bear that burden. Don’t argue with them or try to soothe their feelings.
Situations will have different levels and types of complications, so it’s important to discuss your ideas with trusted individuals in your support network. Sometimes the possibility of you leaving the relationship can escalate the abuse, so be wise in what you communicate to the abuser and have a safety plan in place.
“I can’t hear you!”, Courtesy of Counselling, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Shame”, Courtesy of johnhain, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Blank Face”, Courtesy of geralt, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “The Worry Puzzle”, Courtesy of johnhain, Pixabay.com, CC0 License
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