Emotional abuse may not be as obvious as physical or sexual abuse. However, its power can be just as damaging to one’s well-being. It can be difficult to know which behaviors qualify as emotional abuse.
An experienced Christian counselor can help you understand the traits that emotional abusers use to gain the upper hand. Your counselor can also help you break free from emotional abuse and live the life God intended for you.
The Emotionally Abusive Relationship
Often, a relationship between an emotional abuser and victim will look “normal” on the surface. Many abusers are high functioning, living productive lives in their communities. However, at home, where no one will suspect wrongdoing, the abuser targets the victim. This can make the abuse even more difficult for the victim to identify.
The common denominator for all emotional abusers is that they seek power and control over their victims. Many abusers came from abusive homes themselves. They may have never learned how to connect in healthy ways. Their unresolved past conflicts can cause them to crave control since those past issues feel out-of-control. Unfortunately, the victim pays the price for the abuser’s irresponsibility.
Emotional abusers use a cycle of traumatic bonding to keep victims in play. They aren’t horrible people 100% of the time, because no one would stay with them in that case. Emotional abusers can sometimes be warm, friendly, and loving. But most of the time, they act in negative ways to keep the victim off-balance.
The victim may second-guess her actions, words, and thoughts. She may tell herself things like, “Maybe I overreacted” or “He’s got such a sweet side.” By transferring the blame to the victim, the abuser stays in control of the relationship and delves out love only on his terms.
Examples of Emotional Abuse
Emotional abusers can be men or women of any age or socioeconomic class. Many emotionally abusive relationships are between married couples, but the abuse can occur in other types of relationships as well. These are a few examples of emotional abuse in various scenarios. If you see yourself in any of these situations, it may be time to call a counselor for help.
- A wife walks on eggshells every time her husband is home. She never knows what mood he will be in when he arrives. Most of the time, he is distant and cool. But sometimes he explodes in anger over unexpected triggers.
- A mother constantly berates her teenage daughter. Her daughter can never perform up to her mother’s standards. The daughter craves her mother’s love but also hates her mother for the endless stream of criticism.
- An adult son manages his elderly mother’s property and finances. He withholds information from her, telling her she is not capable of understanding how to handle her checkbooks any longer. She worries that he is making irresponsible decisions against her will.
- A woman’s boyfriend gives her the silent treatment when she doesn’t go along with his plans. Their relationship revolves around his wants, needs, and preferences. When she does what he wants, he’s happy. But if she speaks her own mind, he shuts her out.
- A young executive is eager to please at work. But his boss piles on expectations for work that no single person can handle alone. In meetings, his boss makes subtly critical remarks in front of others about the executive’s work ethic.
Emotionally abusive relationships exist in homes, workplaces, churches, schools, and organizations. They can operate between relatives, friends, coworkers, or volunteers. The abuse will be subtle in nature, hard for victims to recognize themselves.
Signs of Emotional Abuse
At first, emotional abusers will appear loving, kind and supportive. This is a process called grooming, so they can hook their victims. During the traumatic bonding cycle, an abuser will return to this phase and use “love bombing” to win the victim back.
These are the most frequent signs of emotional abuse. If you notice several of them in your relationship, you may need professional help to overcome the problems. A compassionate Christian counselor will be able to help you.
Emotional abusers want to avoid responsibility for their poor choices. Even when an abuser is clearly in the wrong, he or she will find a way to blame the victim. An abuser will not take responsibility until the consequences are severe enough to elicit change.
To stay in charge, an emotional abuser will detach from the victim’s wants and needs. These abusers are deeply self-centered. They refuse to connect with the victim on an equal emotional level.
If an abuser senses that a victim is standing up for her rights or pulling away, he may make threats to keep them under his control. Threats can include withdrawing emotional or financial support, destroying property, telling others the victim is imbalanced, and so on. The abuser may not intend to carry out the threat but use it to terrorize the victim back into submission.
This is the death blow to any relationship. Contempt is a form of deep disrespect. It is the product of many hours of ruminating over perceived or real faults, then viewing them with disgust. Emotional safety is not possible where contempt is present in a relationship.
Emotional abusers are often jealous people. An abuser may unfairly question his victim about how she spends her time, who she is with, and how she handles money. When threatened, an abuser may make accusations to keep the victim off-balance and questioning herself.
Discounting feelings, needs, and opinions
Since emotional abusers are deeply selfish people, they tend to elevate their own feelings, needs, and opinions over those of others. An abuser may engage his victim in a long monologue about his feelings but refuse to listen when she wants to express her feelings. In the abuser’s eyes, the victim’s perspective is not as important.
Teasing and name-calling
An abuser will go beyond fun and playful banter. His “jokes” will only be half-funny, and always at the victim’s expense. Yet when confronted, the abuser will normally accuse the victim of being overreactive or too sensitive.
Silent treatments are deadly to relationships. They are a form of emotional abuse because relationships depend on communication. An abuser may use silence to control the victim, especially when the abuser feels threatened.
An emotional abuser may withhold information, affection, approval, money or other needs to stay in charge of the relationship. Withholding can progress over time, which can cause the victim to feel powerless.
Denying the truth
It’s common for abusers to deny or lie in the face of actual evidence in order to avoid responsibility and stay in control. For example, a husband may lie about working late when he is drinking with friends. Another example is saying that they called when the phone shows no missed calls. Lies and denial are techniques to make the victim second-guess the truth.
Refusal to cooperate
Whether you ask the abuser to help with chores, go to counseling, or enter rehab, he or she may resist and stay stuck in the abusive cycle. An abuser may refuse to help with physical tasks that you can’t complete alone, resist signing a contract, or leave the mess for the victim to clean up later. This causes a power imbalance that can be difficult to overcome.
Anger is a normal emotion for most people to experience. But an emotional abuser uses hostile anger as a control measure. When the abuser gets loud and angry, the victim may cower or accede to the abuser’s wishes. Emotional abusers don’t handle their anger in appropriate ways; they use it to manipulate their victims.
To create an atmosphere of control, an abuser may destroy the victim’s possessions. For example, if the abuser unfairly accuses the victim of having an emotional affair with an online friend, the abuser may smash the victim’s computer. An abuser may also throw away things that are important to an abuser while denying any wrong.
Emotional manipulation and blackmail
Manipulation is one of the abuser’s favorite tactics because it is so subtle. One of the main ways abusers manipulate their victims is through gaslighting, which is an attempt to twist the facts so the victim feels like he or she is going crazy. When an abuser feels threatened, he may resort to emotional blackmail to keep the victim trapped and subdued.
Help for the Emotionally Abusive Relationship
Emotional abuse creates tangled webs of relationship problems. These can be nearly impossible to understand on your own. If you suspect that you are a victim of emotional abuse, please contact a Christian counselor. They can help you find the freedom you deserve.
“Trapped”, Courtesy of _Mxsh_, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Finances”, Courtesy of Austin Distel, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Withdrawal”, Courtesy of Sharan McCutcheon, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Alone”, Courtesy of Raychan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License