Now, more than ever, I feel the importance of addressing the issue of emotional abuse in relationships, sometimes referred to as psychological abuse.
Why? Because, given the current social climate where bullying, demeaning and abusive behavior have been emboldened, there is a significant increase in the distress that I am seeing my patients experience.
They are more likely at this time to either remember past incidents of emotional abuse or have become more aware that their partner’s behavior may be emotionally abusive.
The light that has been shone on emotional abuse enforces the notion that degradation, intimidation, manipulation of others should never be normalized or tolerated.
I have met with countless individuals over the years that painfully assume responsibility for being treated poorly in a relationship, unaware that what they are experiencing is emotional abuse.
Anna came to therapy three months after the birth of her child realizing she did not want her husband to treat her daughter the way he had been treating her.
In our first session together she described how he was disrespectful, frequently angry, swearing and name -calling. Yet, she rationalized his behavior. She felt like it was her fault.
She walked on eggshells, afraid of making a mistake, feeling as if she could not do anything right. She claimed he attempted to distance her from her family and friends. After incidents of emotionally raging at her, her husband would apologize and be repentant, only to repeat his behavior again. These episodes were confusing and contributed to Anna questioning her reality of what had occurred. Was it really as bad as she thought?
Rachael sought therapy due to having problems in her relationship with her boyfriend. She described him as being moody and angry when things didn’t go his way and constantly critical of her. As a result, Rachael was anxious all of the time. ‘What am I doing wrong? Should I just accept his behavior? What can I do?”
Both Anna and Rachael struggled with self-doubt, blame and anxiety. What could they do to change their partner’s behavior, they wondered?
You are never responsible for the abusive behavior of your partner.
Simply stated, emotional abuse is when your partner attempts to control you through verbal assaults, intimidation, humiliation, and manipulative and belittling behaviors.
Having a safe place to share their thoughts and feelings, both Anna and Rachael were enabled to gain strength and self-assurance to trust their emotional experience in order to take measures to protect and care for themselves.
Following are some of the signs of emotional abuse:
- Humiliating and shaming you, making fun of you in front of others
- Frequently criticizing you
- Name calling, yelling, swearing
- Making everything your fault and not taking any responsibility
- Controlling who you see, where you go
- Isolating you from family and friends
- Controlling you with money
- Threats and intimidation
- Manipulation and lying
- Being told your feelings are wrong and ridiculing you
- Belittling your appearance, your ideas, your accomplishments
- Gaslighting – an extreme tactic used by your partner to gain more power and cause you to question your own judgment and reality of facts and events, i.e. “ I never said that,” or “ That did not happen."
Emotional abuse is insidious in that it erodes your self-esteem, sense of safety and has the effect of causing you to believe that you are responsible for the mistreatment you are receiving.
You are never to blame. You deserve to be treated with love and respect.
You may find yourself feeling anxious much of the time and/or emotionally numb.
Perhaps you feel unsure and confused about the relationship and are fearful of your partner’s reaction in response to you differing with them, or confronting them about how they are behaving.
You may feel as if you cannot do anything right.
Your partner is extremely critical and over time you begin to believe you are a bad person, that you are constantly doing something wrong.
Depression can set in as you struggle to wonder how someone who says they love you can treat you so poorly.
Therapy can be helpful in supporting you in your wish to feel strong again.
1. It is so valuable to know you are not alone in this. You do not have to figure this out by yourself.
It will feel like a weight has been lifted when you receive validation for your experience. It is the beginning of taking care of yourself and trusting your instincts.
2. Therapy will support and guide you in listening and paying attention to your instincts.
To identify your heartfelt emotions underlying the anxiety and/or self-doubt that you have been living with will then give you direction and clarity. Making decisions in your best interests will come more easily.
3. A safety plan is essential to ensure that you can protect yourself and family if needed and a therapist can assist in developing that.
4. You will learn how to set limits and maintain healthy boundaries.
5. It will become apparent to you that behavior you might have been rationalizing, you no longer have to accept.
6. Addressing the issues surrounding emotional abuse is a process and takes time. A supportive therapy will respect your pace and need to go slowly in reaching your goals.
Taking the first step to speak to a trained professional is a courageous act and will provide much needed relief and direction.
*The case studies are an amalgamation of several clients. All identifying information has been changed or removed so as not to divulge the identity of any client, while still retaining the pertinence of the issues.