Emotionally Abusive Relationships Can Be Hard to Recognize. Here’s Why


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“Was I overreacting?” I asked myself. “Was I being too sensitive? Was he right that I was acting crazy?”

Four months into a college relationship and I knew something was wrong: The man I was dating was no longer the romantic person I’d fallen in love with.

There were no more ice cream dates or bouquets of roses or long strolls by the river anymore — just belittling insults, manipulation, and heaps of blame for taking up so much of his time.

He rewrote my papers, ruined relationships with my other friends, and prohibited me from doing anything that he disapproved of.

After one particularly horrendous argument, I found myself unable to think clearly. I felt panic and fear and I couldn’t breathe, so I stormed out onto the balcony.

Feeling dizzy, I slid to the ground, laid my head on the cold balcony railing, and tried to calm myself. Was I overreacting? I asked myself. Was I being too sensitive? Was he right that I was acting crazy?

But under all the doubt and pain, a tiny voice at the back of my head was telling me that this wasn’t OK. I didn’t deserve to be treated this way.

I wish I can say that I left that night, but the next morning, he apologized and I forgave him. I stayed with someone who frequently tore me down and controlled what I did because I struggled to believe that the relationship was really toxic and emotionally abusive until long after it was over.

“Emotional abuse is one of the hardest forms of abuse to recognize,” says LeNaya Smith Crawford, licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Kaleidoscope Family Therapy.

“It can be subtle, covert, and manipulative. It chips away at the victim’s self-esteem, and they begin to doubt their perceptions and reality. It is a vicious cycle that many, unfortunately, never escape.”

What is emotional abuse?

“Healthy, interdependent, and caring relationships include taking care of one another, prioritizing the relationship and intense affection and love,” says Louis Laves-Webb, a psychotherapist based in Austin, Texas.

“An emotionally abusive relationship is one where there exists a misuse and abuse of power aimed at isolating, manipulating, and controlling the victim for the primary purpose of meeting the vacuous and stilted emotional needs of the abuser.”

Who’s susceptible?

Everyone.

“Most people are susceptible to being in an emotionally abusive relationship,” says Laves-Webb. “True narcissistic, sociopathic, and psychopathic personality types can be difficult to detect initially. They can be charismatic and engaging beyond reproach, fooling even the most astute among us.”

If you’ve been emotionally abused, it’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything to cause it.

Emotional abuse can come from romantic partners, as well as parents, friends, colleagues, and managers.

In romantic relationships, it is also possible for both partners to be emotionally abusive to each other.

“While anyone could experience emotional abuse, some people are more likely to stay in an emotionally abusive relationship,” says Patricia Celan, a psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University in Canada. “If someone has experienced any form of abuse in the past, or witnessed abuse in the family home during developmental years, then that person may be unable to recognize when behaviour is abusive.”

What are the red flags for emotional abuse?

Some signs of emotional abuse include:

  • name-calling
  • attempting to make you question your own memory, perception, or sanity, otherwise known as gaslighting
  • invading your privacy
  • extreme attention-seeking behaviors
  • lack of empathy
  • objectification
  • isolation from friends, family, and support systems

“A sense of fear around upsetting the partner tends to be a warning sign of emotional abuse,” explains Celan.

“Threats of punishment are also a form of emotional abuse, such as threatening to not hug or kiss a partner if he or she does not comply with expectations.”

It’s not a ‘normal’ argument

It is different from a “normal” argument because there’s no attempt to listen or understand the other’s position. There’s no attempt to compromise without punishments or threats.

Emotional abuse involves frequent and persistent yelling and screaming. It will include personal insults, humiliation, or even subtle or overt threats.

The abuser may accuse you of being overly sensitive if you try to express hurt, say it was just a joke, or accuse you of starting the argument even when it took you by surprise.

How is it different from physical abuse?

Emotional abuse is just as serious as physical abuse and often precedes it. Sometimes they happen together.

“There will always exist emotional abuse in physically abusive relationships, but you will not have physical abuse in solely emotional abusive relationships,” explains Laves-Webb. “They are almost identical in presentation, course, and direction. Physically abusive relationships simply expand on the fear and control by ratcheting up the physicality of the abuse.”

Like physical abuse, emotional abuse can have several short- and long-term effects on mental health, giving rise to feelings of anxiety, guilt, and low self-esteem. “It is subtle and often the effects last longer and cut deeper than a physically abusive relationship,” says Crawford.

Emotional abuse can be harder to spot because it doesn’t leave a bruise. This has meant that it’s not as well recognized by society.

“The court systems do not recognize it in custody and divorce cases, except in rare circumstances where the victim has provided years of clear documentation,” says Cat Blake, a psychotherapist and certified divorce coach. “This is why many deal with their abuse in silence.”

So why is emotional abuse so hard to recognize?

It starts with something called ‘love bombing’

“If abusers made their abusive tendencies clear from day one, they wouldn’t get very far with anyone,” says Celan. “Intentionally or not, abusers show you extreme affection to build that initial connection.”

This is called “love bombing.” My college boyfriend excelled at this: He lavished me in gifts, compliments, and paid for lavish dinners out. I felt wooed.

“Remember, life is not Disney where it is clear who is the bad guy. Life is more complex than that and most people are a combination of both,” says Blake. “Just like any relationship, people are often on their best behavior in the beginning.”

“Abusers will charm their victims and win them over so hard that when they act abusively, the victim is shocked,” she continues. “The victim then tries harder to ‘win’ back the ‘good’ side of the abuser.”

At the beginning of the relationship, we can ignore red flags

“When we meet somebody, in the beginning, our brain is flooded with ‘feel good’ [hormones],” says Blake. “We focus on the similarities between us and our love interest.”

“Most victims will say, I saw that ‘red flag,’ but I ignored it in the beginning.”

Abuse doesn’t happen overnight

“There’s an old joke that asked, ‘How do you boil a frog?’” Laves-Webb says. “You place him in cold water and slowly turn the heat up until boiling.”

“As horrifying as this image may be, it is analogous to an abusive relationship.”

This is something that Lizbeth Meredith, a domestic violence advocate and author, knows firsthand.

“My former husband initially began with joking insults about me that had a tinge of truth to them, like comments about me being clumsy or about my skills doing laundry and other household tasks,” she says. “Initially, I laughed along with him. I felt they were based in reality. I was clumsy. I didn’t know how to cook.”

“Whatever the insults were, I merely committed myself to a self-improvement regime. I’d become the person he wanted,” she continues. “[But] as they slowly morphed into more general terms about me being stupid, about being unlovable, incapable of being self-supporting… it all made sense. I believed the lies.”

“I felt inadequate and it confirmed suspicions I’d long held that I was unlovable.”

And this is exactly the point. You’re not supposed to notice the change.

“Slowly over time, there is a flavor of jealousy or a little control, or just enough of a push towards isolation,” says Laves-Webb. “It’s nothing over the top and nothing blatantly reprehensible, but it’s just enough that the screws begin to tighten and the fear begins to take root.”

“Over time, the love begins to fade and is replaced with a cloud of control, manipulation, and fear. The Fisher King wound is that by the time you fully realize what’s going on, you are consumed in an abusive relationship with relatively little external support.”

Gaslighting will make you question whether anything is truly wrong

“Gaslighting is aimed to make a person doubt their own thoughts and feelings,” says Crawford, as well as doubt their own perception of reality.

“The gaslighter may convince their partner that their memories are wrong or that they are overreacting or catastrophizing a situation or event,” she continues. “The abuser may then present their own thoughts and feelings as the truth. This is key because it causes the partner being abused to doubt themselves and mistrust their intuition.”

This hampers your ability to be sure the relationship is abusive, to get angry, or to make a firm decision to end a relationship.

Without a support system, gaslighting is even more powerful

Our support systems — be they family or friends — are incredibly important. They’re a sounding board for us to talk through our fears and thoughts.

But, Laves-Webb says, “Abusive relationships thrive when there is little to no other influence or support. This isolation dynamic creates a void in the usually ‘litmus test’ of normalization versus absurdity.”

“Because of this isolated state, the abused partner only has the abuser to help gain a sense of reality,” he continues. This creates confusion, even before you throw gaslighting into the mix.

We rationalize

“Human beings justify and rationalize their behaviors as a way to negotiate this large and overwhelming world,” explains Laves-Webb. Because emotionally abusive relationships — just like physically abusive relationships — are not always abusive, it’s tempting to rationalize away bad behavior, especially when the abuser apologizes and makes amends and things get better for a while.

In the good times, it’s easy to tell yourself that the bad isn’t really as bad as it is — even if that’s not true.

It’s also easy to blame yourself when you rationalize. You might tell yourself that maybe you did cause that argument and if only you act differently, it won’t happen again.

“A person might try harder and harder — research online, ask friends — in order to understand why their partner is being so mean,” says Blake. “They will blame themselves versus blame their partner because they are so invested in keeping their relationship going.”

We get used to it

“Our relationships actually change our brain chemistry and we become conditioned to respond to our partners,” explains Blake. “The victim is used to the roller coaster ride.”

“It takes great activation to get off that addiction — literally like getting sober — and understand the value of stability.”

We love them

This is one of the most difficult things to fight, even if you realize — like I did on that balcony — that the relationship is toxic.

“Abusive relationships may be ‘unhealthy,’ but our human propensity toward connection and attachment can cement us emotionally to just about anyone, even something or someone undeniably abusive,” says Laves-Webb. “Attachment is extremely powerful.”

So what should you do if you think you’re being emotionally abused?

First, remember that you didn’t do anything wrong

Let me say that again.

You did not do anything to deserve this.

It’s not your fault that someone is mistreating you. It’s never your fault. Nobody deserves to be insulted, berated, shamed, or abused.

It’s OK if you aren’t ready to leave immediately, but ask yourself why you aren’t

Sometimes, the idea of leaving is too overwhelming that it prevents victims of emotional abuse from actually reaching out for help.

Know that no one is going to make you do something you don’t want to do. It’s ultimately your choice.

“If you are not ready to leave, explore that,” says Crawford. “What is keeping you there? Are there resources that can help or replace the part of the relationship you think or feel you can not live without?”

It can also help to sit down and make a list of pros and cons about staying in the relationship.

“Most of the time, the cons have more weight,” says Celan. If that’s the case, it’s a good indication that you might want to end the relationship for your mental health. Seeing it all written out might help that sink in.

Therapy could help you prepare to leave

“If you think you may be an abusive relationship, I definitely think talking it through, individually, with a therapist who specializes in couples and trauma would help immensely,” says Crawford.

This is often the first and important step toward change, especially if you’ve become isolated by your relationship and don’t feel like you have a support system. Your therapist can become your sounding board.

Crawford doesn’t recommend couples therapy, though. You can’t change your partner unless they want to change.

Therapy is also only effective if you feel safe and comfortable enough to speak openly about the abuse. “This is nearly impossible in an actively abusive relationship,” she says.

If you’re afraid, reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline or a local shelter

Call 1-800-799-7233 or reach out through their 24-7 online chat.

“Reaching out for support can break the isolation and is a game-changer,” says Meredith.

“Leaving an abusive relationship, even an emotionally abusive relationship, comes with some risk to safety,” she continues. “There’s no replacement for connecting with a domestic violence advocate and getting safety information and support on online forums (during COVID) and in support groups with people who’ve had similar experiences.”

Treatment after you leave the relationship is healing too

“Being able to sit with, process, and understand your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is a healing experience,” says Crawford. “Therapy helps with perspective and uncovering things we do not know or choose to avoid about ourselves.”

There are also coaches, like Blake, who are trauma informed. They, too, can help you grieve past traumas and learn to self-forgive.


Simone M. Scully is a writer who loves writing about all things health and science. Find Simone on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.


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