Emotional abuse can be extremely difficult to identify due to the subtleties of the abuse. Many men and women deal with emotional abuse in their relationship, whether it is in a marriage, a friendship, and even in the work environment. Emotional abuse is considered one of the most difficult forms of abuse to identify.

The first step in addressing the abuse is being able to identify the signs, but if you do not know how to identify it how do you stop it? One of the first signs of emotional abuse may be a vague feeling that something is wrong or an uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach. It is only by assessing your feelings as well as the relationship that you can determine whether the abuse is real and can be stopped.

An emotionally abusive relationship is not about love, it is about control and dominations of the other party by using abusive techniques. Abusive relationships become imbalanced due to one partner’s need to exercise power and control over the other. Despite the very real feeling of being powerless, the victim can find the power to stop the emotional abuse. This can be quite difficult.

Emotional abuse can happen at any point in our life cycle. Children, teens, and adults can experience this type of abuse from a loved one. Emotionally abusive relationships can have devastating consequences on all involved. This type of trauma does not leave a physical mark, but it does leave an enormously powerful internal wound that can take years to heal.

The definition of emotional abuse is “any act including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilization, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth (Tracy, 2012). It is also known as psychological abuse or “chronic verbal aggression” by mental health researchers. Emotional/psychological abuse can be equally as devastating as physical abuse.

This type of abuse can affect how you think and feel and can wield control over your entire life. Those who experience emotional trauma will show personality changes such as becoming withdrawn, may demonstrate depressive symptoms, become anxious or suicidal. The individual’s self-esteem tends to be exceptionally low.

This type of abuse can vary and can occupy any part of your life, which is why it can sometimes be difficult to identify. The most common signs include:

  • Yelling or swearing
  • Name-calling, insults, or mocking
  • Threats and intimidation
  • Ignoring or excluding
  • Isolating
  • Humiliating
  • Denial of the abuse and blaming the victim
  • Lying
  • Intentionally misinterpreting traditional practices
  • Telling an individual that they are too much trouble
  • Making derogative or slanderous statements about an individual to others
  • Repeatedly raising the issue of death
  • Being overly familiar and disrespectful
  • Treating the individual like they are a servant or child

All types of abuse tend to be cyclical and emotional abuse is no different. The cycle begins when one partner demonstrates emotionally abusive actions to show dominance. The abuser may feel guilty, not because of their actions, but because of the resulting consequences of those actions. Excuses for the behavior are made to avoid having to take responsibility for their actions.

“Normal” behavior is then resumed as if the abuse never happened. The abuser may be giving, wonderfully charming, and possibly apologetic, misleading the abused person into believing they are sorry. Once the abuser feels confident in their position of power and control, they begin to fantasize about abusing the partner again and will create a situation for it to occur.

The effects of physical abuse are obvious – a bruise, black eye, or a cut, but the effects of emotional abuse are much harder to identify. Emotional abuse affects mood, school, work, sex drive, and other areas of an individual’s life. The effects of emotional abuse are just as severe as physical abuse and, in some cases, it can be more traumatic due to the subtleties.

One of the most terrible about emotional abuse is that the victim tends to blame themselves and minimize the abuse with thoughts like “at least I didn’t get hit” or it was “only” emotional. The minimization of emotional abuse does not hide the devastating and long-reaching effects.

The victim is often surprised at how the situation has evolved. Some emotional abusers are not abusive at the beginning of their relationship, and it only evolves once the relationship is established. Men and women can find themselves in an emotionally abusive relationship, much to their surprise. The thoughts and the behavior of the abusee then change in response to the abuse.

Some of the short-term effects include:

  • Surprise and confusion
  • Questioning one’s memory
  • Anxiety, fear, or hypervigilance
  • Shame or guilt
  • Aggression (as a defense to the abuse)
  • Becoming overly passive or compliant
  • Frequent crying
  • Avoidance of eye contact
  • Feeling powerless and defeated – nothing you do ever seems to be right (learned helplessness)
  • Feeling like you’re “walking on eggshells”
  • Feeling manipulated, used, and controlled
  • Feeling undesirable

Emotionally abusive relationships also have long-term effects on the individual’s self-esteem resulting in the individual feeling as if they cannot leave their abuser and they are not worthy of being treated better. Emotional abuse in adulthood, just as in childhood can leave the victim believing the terrible things that have been said about them. Victims can feel as if they are going crazy.

The long-term effects include (Tracy, 2012):

  • Depression
  • Withdrawal
  • Low self-esteem and self-worth
  • Emotional instability
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Physical pain without a cause
  • Suicidal ideation, thoughts, or attempts
  • Extreme dependence on the abuser
  • Underachievement
  • Inability to trust
  • Feeling trapped and alone
  • Substance abuse

Another common issue that can result in long-term emotional abuse is Stockholm Syndrome. Stockholm Syndrome becomes so terrified of the abuser to the point that the victim overly identifies with the abuser and becomes bonded with them to stop the abuse. The bond becomes so enmeshed to the point of defending their abusive actions.

There are treatments for the victim to help them in being successful in their life. Many individuals attempt to hide or minimize the extent of the abuse – even from their therapist – because of shame and guilt that they allowed the abuse to go on. However, successful treatment includes honesty about the abuse.

There are a few things that can be helpful to remember when seeking therapy (Tracy, 2012):

  • The abuse is not your fault, you did nothing wrong.
  • Feeling guilt and shame over the abuse is normal but it is not warranted.
  • The desire to hide the details of the abuse is normal but will be counterproductive in treatment.
  • Even if you do not leave the abuser, it is okay to get help.

The most common treatment types include (Tracy, 2012):

  • Individual therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Journaling
  • Psychotherapy (talk therapy)
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
  • Somatic therapy

Additionally, there is treatment available for the perpetrator of the abuse if they are willing to accept it. Individual therapy can be helpful only if the emotional abuser acknowledges their problematic behavior and does not attempt to charm or coerce the therapist into seeing them as the victim.

The reality is that most abusers are not ready to admit to their sinful behavior nor are they ready to change. The lure of power and control is too great for the abuser to give up, even if it means a healthy relationship. Sometimes the only thing to do is help yourself and start the process of healing to find a better future.

Tracy, N. (2012, July 24). Emotional Abuse: Definitions, Signs, Symptoms, Examples, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, May 24 from https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/emotional-psychological-abuse/emotional-abuse-definitions-signs-symptoms-examples
Tracy, N. (2012, July 24). Effects of Emotional Abuse on Adults, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, May 26 from https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/emotional-psychological-abuse/effects-of-emotional-abuse-on-adults
Tracy, N. (2012, July 24). Effects of Emotional Abuse on Adults, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, May 26 from https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/emotional-psychological-abuse/effects-of-emotional-abuse-on-adults
Tracy, N. (2012, July 24). Emotional Abuse Treatment and Therapy, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, May 26 from https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/emotional-psychological-abuse/emotional-abuse-treatment-and-therapy
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