Emotional Abuse: Hard to recognize but its impact is devastating

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Although there is much research and statistics about domestic or family violence; what is rarely discussed is the emotional abuse that generally precedes the physical violence.  Not all emotional abuse leads to physical aggression.

Emotional abuse is speech or behavior that is degrading, belittling, controlling, punishing, or manipulative.  Examples include withholding love, refusing to speak, spying, stalking, etc.  These are ways of controlling and maintaining power over a partner.  When someone tries to control where you go, to whom you talk, or what you think they are disrespecting your right to autonomy.

An abuser may deny that agreements or conversations took place or that promises were made and instead express affection or make declarations of love and caring.  This is crazy-making, manipulative behavior that undermines your mind and your perceptions.  Emotional abuse is not restricted to romantic partners.  You may experience it from a relative, friend, co-worker, or supervisor.  It is not likely to be any less devastating.

Verbal abuse is the most common form of emotional abuse and often not recognized for what it is.  Abusers often try to disguise it as a joke, sarcasm, or teasing.  If it is hurtful - it is abusive.  More direct forms of verbal abuse include threats, criticism, blaming, name-calling, ordering, and raging.

When experienced over time, emotional abuse has an insidious, pervasive, and poisonous effect.  The person being abused begins to doubt and distrust themselves.  Many individuals don’t even recognize that what they are experiencing is abuse.

There are several reasons why emotional abuse is hard to recognize:

  • The abuser blames you for their behavior.

  • You may have been treated like this in past relationships, maybe even as a child, and since it’s familiar, you don’t label it as abuse.

  • The abuser may be loving between abusive episodes so you excuse, deny, or pretend to forget the abuse.                                                                                                                            

  • Abusers typically want to control and dominate – they feel powerless and that sends them looking for ways to overpower others.  They tend to be self-centered, impatient, insensitive, unreasonable, lack empathy, and generally feel jealous, suspicious, and angry.  Their mood can shift from fun-loving and romantic to angry and abusive.  They punish and manipulate through guilt, anger, or silence. 

  • Emotional abuse generally starts out as mild and subtle and the intensity builds as the abuser becomes more assured that you won’t leave the relationship or tell their friends and family.  The more serious abuse may not start until after the engagement, the wedding, or when a child is on the way.  The arrival of a baby can send the abuser into panic at losing control or having the baby become the center of attention.

    For some individuals, a partner who is jealous or controlling can lead them to feel special, wanted, or even interpret these behaviours as signs of love.  However, if you find yourself “walking on eggshells,” not wanting to rock the boat, or always trying not to “upset” your partner; you are being emotionally abused.  If you are wondering if what you experience is abusive, it probably is.  Living with emotional abuse over time leads to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as a multitude of physical ailments.

    If you have allowed yourself to be abused in the past, you can put an end to it by becoming assertive, self-confident, knowing your rights, and building your self-esteem. 

    Individuals stay in abusive relationships for many valid reasons: maybe the partner’s behaviour  is not defined as abuse; or the abuse takes place behind closed doors and the partner may think that no one would believe them; or because of financial dependence, etc.

    If you feel guilty for inciting the abuser, if you are a people-pleaser, if you blame yourself, if you don’t feel like you have a voice, there is help available for you and the abuser.

Anne Marie Hartford is the executive director of Family Enrichment and Counselling Service in Fredericton.  Please send your comments to info@familyenrichment.ca


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