How to Identify Emotional Abuse in Your Life

When we think of abusive relationships, we often image someone with the physical manifestations of abuse: a black eye, bruises, scrapes, even broken bones. Physical abuse is visible, and hard to overlook.

Emotional abuse, on the other hand, is as damaging, if not more so, than physical abuse. But it often goes undetected.

How to Identify Emotional Abuse in Your Life

There are no observable scars for victims of emotional abuse. No black eye, no evident bruises on the skin. Instead, the wounds damage the very core of the person — their sense of identity. There are bruises — deep bruises. We just can’t see the marks with our eyes. This makes emotional abuse harder for the victim to detect, and even harder for people close to them to see.

Physical abuse is almost always accompanied by emotional abuse. It’s the emotional component that makes it so hard for victims to leave. There’s no denying physical abuse, even though victims often stay, giving perpetrators one more chance, and another, and another.

Perpetrators are contrite after a violent outburst, and as the cycle of abuse persists, victims are so broken down they need to believe this will be the last time. Friends and family members express exasperation: How can you stay? Look at what he or she is doing to you.

But it’s not that simple. The part that is unseen — the emotional part — keeps people stuck, sometimes in dangerous, even lethal, situations.

Let’s look at why.

Emotional Abuse Is Subtle

Emotional abuse begins when the perpetrator makes comments that slowly chip away at the victim’s confidence, autonomy, self-worth, and eventually their entire sense of self. It starts slowly and is insidious. That is, it begins so subtlely that individuals don’t even realize what’s happening. By the time the abuse escalates, the victim’s self-esteem and sense of volition over their own life is so depleted, they feel they can’t leave. They are confused and helpless.

Darlene’s Story

Darlene was 65 when she came to see me. She had been dating Perry for three years. She felt unhappy, but wasn’t sure why. As we started our work together, she described an instance in which Perry told her she looked unattractive in a particular outfit. You should change. That outfit makes you look frumpy. He said it with concern, but she felt hurt by the comment. After contemplation, she decided it was good of him to be so honest.

That was only the beginning. The more she listened, the more Perry tried to control her, and the emotional abuse got worse. Perry started criticizing her appearance, her choice of clothing, her eating habits, even the friends she chose to spend time with.

One night while they were out with friends, Darlene laughed. Perry leaned over and whispered, Dar, your laughing sounds childish and it’s too loud. Everyone in the restaurant is looking at you. Another time, he said, It’s hard aging, isn’t it? Your skin really has gotten wrinkly since we met. You should try some age-defying cream. I like smooth skin.

By the time Darlene came to see me, Perry had so much control over her that he was able to tell her, Dar, no one wants to date an older woman. If she confronted him about the harsh nature of his words, he’d say, You can’t leave me. No one else will want you.

Perry also used intimacy to control her. If you loved me you would stay home with me, instead of going out with your friends. Maybe you don’t really love me. Maybe you just say you do.

After three years, Darlene — once a confident, self-assured woman — believed him. She felt confused, angry and trapped.

Signs of Emotional Abuse

It’s rare for a patient to tell me outright that they’re in an emotionally abusive relationship. Instead, it usually becomes apparent when they begin describing the ‘problems’ in their relationship. This is how insidious the abuse is. I have seen patients who have survived an emotionally abusive marriage for 25 to 30 years and still don’t see they are being abused.

People who are in emotionally abusive relationships report a variety of stories and forms of distress. These are some commonalities to look for:

Constant Criticism

This includes insults, criticisms and disparaging comments. Any statement that makes the other person question their worth, is abusive. Again, these comments often start subtly, and by the time the comments are obviously abusive, the victim has begun to believe the perpetrator.

Conflicts that occur within the relationship are confusing, and the victim often feels it’s all their fault. They feel like they can never satisfy their partner, and are constantly to blame for the relationship issues. Walking on eggshells is a phrase that isn’t exclusive to emotional abuse, but it’s one that I have heard over and over from people in emotionally abusive relationships. The result is someone who suffers from low self-esteem, and has difficulty making decisions. They experience shame, confusion, depression, isolation and even self-hate.

Control and Isolation

Perpetrators of emotional abuse need to maintain control over the victim and the relationship. The love and commitment from the perpetrator is conditional: I love you, as long as you behave exactly as I say to. There is the semblance of love and companionship, but at a very high price: give up your right to be loved as an independent and unique person. Essentially, give up your whole self.

In extreme examples, victims believe the perpetrator is right, and come into therapy wanting to know how they can be better. In addition, perpetrators are able to use their control to slowly sever the victim’s other important relationships, keeping them isolated from others who could otherwise provide emotional support. Victims are left alone in their despair. They’re broken, and don’t have the support they need to leave.

Again, emotional abuse is as damaging, if not more so, than physical abuse, And no matter how contrite perpetrators may seem, unless they get help, it always gets worse. Always. I can’t stress this enough.

If any of this resonates, help is available. There are many free clinics that exclusively help victims of domestic violence. There is a way out and people do rebuild their lives. Recognizing the abuse is a vital first step.

Darlene’s and Perry’s names were changed to protect their anonymity.

About the Writer

Jacqueline Simon Gunn

Jacqueline is a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and author. She holds master’s degrees in both forensic psychology and existential/ phenomenological psychology, and has a doctorate in clinical psychology. Her specialties include eating disorders, trauma, interpersonal and relationship difficulties, alternative lifestyles and sports psychology.

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