Do you feel like when you try to talk to your partner about a situation in which they hurt your feelings that the conversation turns into a conversation about how you hurt them and all of the things that you did wrong that caused the situation? Or that they make you feel like you are somehow at fault or crazy for how they made you feel? We may know the obvious signs of physical abuse but sometimes we might not recognize the subtle forms of emotional abuse, such as manipulation and gaslighting, especially when it is in our own relationships. We also may not recognize how these subtle forms of abuse affect us and how they can have devastating impacts on our daily lives. Relationships aren’t always easy and it is normal to have conflicts but there are several “signs” or red flags that may indicate an unhealthy, emotionally abusive dynamic between you and your partner.
When we think of the word abuse, many of us think about physical violence but emotional abuse is much more subtle. It can come in many forms such as humiliation, criticism, control, shaming, blaming, accusing, gaslighting and isolation. Humiliation and criticism undermines an individual’s self esteem by making them question their own worth or capabilities. Low self esteem increases anxiety, stress, the vulnerability to substance abuse, and the likelihood of developing depression. While in some relationships there may be teasing of each other, if you are feeling hurt or unhappy about the interaction, then that is never okay. If your partner makes fun of the things that are of interest to you, belittles your accomplishments as if they aren’t as meaningful, or uses sarcasm or name calling to “jokingly” put you down in public or in private, they are using humiliation and criticism. A key indicator of health is if you have the ability to communicate with your partner about how that interaction is making you feel and they listen and respect your feelings. If they try to turn the tables on you and question your character by telling you things such as “you’re too sensitive,” “you’re too needy,” “you can’t take a joke,” “you’re so argumentative,” or that “you always have some problem” then that is a warning sign that they aren’t really trying to hear or understand what you are saying nor are they taking responsibility for how they are making you feel. If you are not confident in yourself and your own abilities than you are less inclined to leave the abuse and less inclined to realize that you deserve better than how your partner is treating you.
Control and shame is a way for an abuser to make you feel inadequate and insecure. An abuser knows that if they can make you feel inadequate about making decisions and insecure about yourself than they can foster your dependency on them. They can make you feel like you are incapable of living without them which allows for them to feel like they have absolute control and know that you aren’t going anywhere. When an individual feels like they have little control in their life it can lead to an increased likelihood of depression and anxiety. The abuser may try to monitor your movements or demand the password for all of your devices so that they can “make sure that they can trust you.” It is often framed in a way that makes you feel like they are just worried about you or “that if you have nothing to hide, then this is no big deal.” They may start accusing you of lying or being unfaithful and demand that you must always answer their phone calls or texts messages immediately. If you don’t comply then, they may explode with angry outbursts, more accusations, or make you feel guilty even when you have done nothing wrong and there is a perfectly good reason that you were unavailable. It’s natural to be a little concerned or worried if your partner doesn’t answer you but it is not okay to yell or make you feel shameful if you were unable to do so at that moment. The angry outbursts that the abuser may respond with are just another form of control in which they make you fear what they may do so you act in a way to prevent their anger. This causes fear and anxiety in the individual, which can contribute to the development of anxiety disorders such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Blaming and isolation are used to unhinge your trust in yourself and to withdraw from your social world and, in essence, your support systems. Everyone needs a support system to help us stay balanced and healthy, which means more than just your partner. Without a solid support system, an individual is more likely to experience stress and be isolated from others. This prevents the individual from talking to anyone about their abuser which decreases the chance of the individual finding help to get out of the situation or even to understand that the situation is wrong. They may try to make you question your own sanity and sense of reality by pushing your buttons until you react and then blaming you for “overreacting” or having an anger problem. They may trivialize your feelings when you try to communicate how they made you feel such as saying “you make mountains out of molehills.” They may cause a fight by saying something nasty or treating you with disrespect and then turn the tables and blame the fight on you while taking no responsibility in the situation. They may even deny that the argument, or another situation you know to be true, took place in the first place making you question your own memory; this is referred to as gaslighting. While they are making you question your own character and sanity, they may start to isolate you from your friends and family. They may get mad at you when you try to make plans with friends that don’t involve them or even when you do involve them because they don’t want to spend time with your friends but just you. While quality time is very important in a relationship so is having an interest in your world and what makes you happy. Socialization is a good thing and if someone only wants you to socialize with them and no one else, then that is a red flag. An abuser may even try to cause problems or amplify problems that you have with others in order to control who you spend time with. They may cause fights with you before you hang out with someone without them in order to ruin the time that you have visiting someone else. When all else fails, they may even start spreading lies about you or calling you crazy or a liar to other people to try to undermine you in case you tried to reach out to someone for help.
The toll that emotional abuse takes on you is emotional, mental and physical. You may start doubting yourself and feel confused, hopeless, and shameful. This can cause moodiness, issues concentrating, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, insomnia, social withdrawal, fatigue, muscle tension, racing heart rate, and even aches and pains. Over time, these things can lead to major depression, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, substance use disorder, and even stress related conditions like fibromyalgia.
If you or someone you know is experiencing emotional abuse, please know that no one deserves to be treated that way nor do they deserve to feel that way. An abuser can be any gender and so can the victim. They can be an intimate partner or another form of relationships such as friendships, business partners, and family. Emotional abuse has serious impacts on our lives and you deserve to be happy. You deserve help and YOU ARE WORTH IT. Please seek a therapist to help aid you in whatever you need to do to be safe. You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.