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What is Emotional Abuse and What are the Signs?

Walking on eggshells. Constant criticism. Doubting your own mind. If any of that sounds familiar, you might be in an emotionally abusive relationship.

Unfortunately, it’s one of the trickiest forms of abuse to spot. To help you better understand emotional abuse this post will take a look at what it is and explore why it’s hard to pin down, the impact it can have, some common signs to look out for and what to do if you think you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship.

While emotional abuse can happen in the workplace, within friendships and parent/child relationships, for the purpose of clarity this post will describe abuse in terms of intimate relationships.

What is emotional abuse?

When most people think of abuse their minds often jump to the physical. It’s not hard to see why; if someone gives their partner a black eye there is no question that it constitutes abuse. When it comes to emotional abuse, there is more room for confusion, but just because you can’t see the wounds inflicted by it doesn’t mean it isn’t damaging.

It can also prove difficult to spot as it’s often subtle and in many cases disguised as other things such as humour (“Can’t you take a joke?”) or love (“I’m only saying it because I care about you you”). The abuse can also wax and wane over time, a pattern which can result in a trauma bond. This is where the emotional and biological process known as bonding takes place in a toxic relationship, and instead of create a healthy bond it creates an unhealthy bond instead. Unfortunately, these bonds can difficult to break.

In addition, some of the tactics employed by the abuser can obscure reality. For example, gaslighting makes the victim question their own sanity and suicide threats make them feel stuck. When the victim feels discredited and trapped they are unable to leave, and so the cycle will continue to repeat itself.

It should be noted that while emotional abuse may remain a grey area in public consciousness, the severity of this behaviour is reflected in the law. The Serious Crime Act 2015 states that behaviour which is controlling or coercive towards another person in an intimate or family relationship can result in a prison term of up to five years.

While many people remain in the dark about emotional abuse, the tide is slowly turning and there is more public discourse on the topic than ever before. Popular culture is playing an important role in pushing emotional abuse into public consciousness. For example, the popular Radio 4 drama, The Archers, included a coercive control relationship storyline and bestselling novel The Girl on the Train does a wonderful job of highlighting the devastating effects of gaslighting.  

 The impact of emotional abuse

According to Domestic Violence UK, a not-for-profit organisation which provides information and support on domestic and emotional abuse, some of the effects of emotional abuse include, but are not limited to:

·       Anxiety

·       Depression

·       Feelings of shame

·       Crying frequently

·       Low self-esteem and confidence

·       Emotional unpredictability

·       Poor sleep

·       Suicidal thoughts

·       Alcohol and/or drug abuse

Spotting emotional abuse

A relationship may be emotionally abusive if one person in the relationship holds the majority of the power and wears down the other’s self-esteem and sense of well-being through a pattern of bullying tactics. To help solidify the definition, here are a few concrete examples of what emotional abuse can look and feel like in a relationship.

1.       Intimidation: One way an abuser can make their victim comply is through the use of intimidation tactics. This could involve shouting, acting aggressively or making them feel scared. They may even use threats to get what they want and, in some cases, go as far as threatening suicide (e.g. “If you ever leave me I’d kill myself). The end game? Their victim will be too frightened to do anything other than comply.

2.       Gaslighting: This technique aims to undermine the victim’s perception of reality causing them to second guess themselves and their memory, leaving them feeling confused. The abuser might blatantly lie, spread rumours, minimise feelings, shift the blame elsewhere and twist words. They might demand specifics, such as dates or times, and if not supplied with them dismiss the event entirely.  

3.       Criticising: Most relationships will involve an element of criticism from time to time, it’s how relationships evolve and develop. But in a mutually respectful relationship, this criticism is given compassionately. It becomes abusive if it isn’t constructive, feels constant or is delivered cruelly. This might look like nasty name calling, mean-spirited comments or constantly dismissing someone’s opinion as invalid.

4.       Isolation: In order to maintain control, the abuser will often try to isolate the victim. This might look like controlling who they spend time with, reading private communications, social media monitoring, criticising their family and friends, controlling all finances or guilting them into spending all their free time together.

5.       Pressuring: In an emotionally abusive relationship one party will have to constantly compromise while the other enjoys getting their own way for the majority of the time. This can result in the victim doing things they don’t want to do, just to ‘keep the peace’. Examples of this could be as simple as never getting to choose what to watch on TV, to moving to a new country.

6.       Belittling: The point of emotional abuse is to wear away at the victim’s self-esteem so they become reliant on the abuser. One way this can be achieved is by constantly acting superior to and belittling the victim. This might look like frequent jokes at the victim’s expense, rubbishing their ideas, being sarcastic and constantly trying to prove the victim wrong.

What to do if you think you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship

1.       Recognise the problem

When you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, what you consider ‘normal’ shifts. Treatment you once would have found unacceptable might now feel quite ordinary, so you may need to take a step back to gain some perspective. Remind yourself that you have the right to be in an equal partnership and treated with respect. You deserve more than a life spent walking on eggshells.

2.       Talk to trusted friends or family

If you feel up to it, share some of your feelings with a trusted friend or family member. If a loved one has expressed concern about your relationship before, they could be a good first port of call.

3.       Seek professional help

Contact a specialist organisation, such as The Freephone 24 Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, for immediate help and support.

To find out what local support is available to you in Kent, click on your district on the Kent and Medway Domestic Abuse Strategy Group map.

In the longer-term you might like to consider one-to-one counselling to help support you through a recovery process.