Why Is Emotional Abuse So Difficult to Recognize?

Troubled-looking person with long curly hair looks up above the center of photo, chin in handsEmotional abuse can be every bit as devastating to individuals and relationships as physical and sexual abuse. And the pain of experiencing emotional abuse can be heightened when you feel unsure whether what you are experiencing is normal or okay. You may feel something is wrong but be unable to identify what it is. You may find yourself spending a great deal of time trying to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and understand where they are coming from. You may notice you are altering your behavior in order to keep the peace or avoid conflict.

Emotional abuse occurs when one person—intentionally or otherwise, consciously or unconsciously—engages in behavior that insults, threatens, rejects, neglects, blames, manipulates, isolates, degrades, punishes, humiliates, or exerts control over another. Fear, guilt, and shame are among common responses to, and goals of, emotional abuse.

Although it is most often thought of in terms of intimate partner relationships, emotional abuse can occur in other types of relationships as well. Parent-child relationships, for example, can be marked by emotional abuse, sometimes continuing well into adulthood.

Although physical and sexual abuse can also be considered forms of emotional abuse, the latter tends to be more subtle. Physical or sexual abuse may be easier to identify, as they often have physical evidence and a clear incident to reference. Emotional abuse is more often characterized by a pattern or collection of behaviors over time that can be difficult to recognize. Some of these behaviors, when taken on their own, might not necessarily be thought of as abusive. It is the systematic application of these behaviors, with an intention to change the way another responds, that is destructive.

A few examples of emotionally abusive behaviors include: putting you down or calling you names, cutting you off from other sources of connection and support, demanding to know your whereabouts at all times, limiting your access to finances or financial decision making, making threats to harm you or damage property, making you feel constantly unsettled or wary, or leading you to doubt reality.

People who are emotionally abusive can be expert manipulators. They may be very intentional about choosing behaviors that cannot be proven or that come close to crossing lines while retaining deniability.

People who are emotionally abusive can be expert manipulators. They may be very intentional about choosing behaviors that cannot be proven or that come close to crossing lines while retaining deniability. They may manufacture or maintain a chaotic environment, so that it is hard to pin down or describe exactly what is happening. They may also lie about what has happened or rewrite history in order to avoid responsibility for their actions.

Individuals who behave in emotionally abusive ways typically do not respect boundaries. This can be problematic on many levels, but never more so than when you try to leave the relationship. Attempts to leave the relationship or to diminish contact may be met with an increase in abusive or manipulative behaviors intended to convince you to stay. These behaviors may be threatening or intended to induce guilt. However, they may also feel positive, like promises for change or admissions of responsibility for problems in the relationship. Unfortunately, promises for change and responsibility taking may be short-lived once you compromise your boundary and return.

Perhaps the most perplexing phenomenon of all is the ability of abusive individuals to be remarkably kind, caring, and generous at times. Few people would remain in relationships that always felt bad. Fewer would choose to begin relationships with people who treated them poorly all the time. The confusing fact of the matter is individuals who are capable of cruelty are also capable of kindness. They may be charming and generous at times. These instances of kindness or generosity may be good, but abuse is never okay. It cannot be offset.

Emotional abuse often comes packaged with trauma, and while your first priority in any emotionally abusive situation should be to seek a safer environment, therapeutic interventions can also help. Consider contacting a licensed therapist as you make sense of what has happened and begin the healing process. Therapy is a safe space for you to work through any unprocessed feelings and can guide you toward appropriate resources in your community.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Betsy Smith, MEd, LPC-S, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Amber

    January 27th, 2017 at 7:46 AM

    This is one that is so difficult to face mainly because you never choose to believe that someone could ever want to hurt you this badly. The wounds from physical abuse, and I am not saying that one is better than the other by any means, but those bruises on the outside. The ones that are on the inside, that come from both physical and emotional abuse, those bruises are slow to heal, if they ever really do.

  • heatherBme2

    July 1st, 2017 at 11:16 PM

    Amen sister!! Im one of the dumb ones that stay though so I will never heal :(

  • harper

    January 28th, 2017 at 7:17 AM

    In some ways it is like emotional abuse could be harder for many to talk about because who will believe you? There are no cuts that visibly show

  • Xander

    January 28th, 2017 at 4:49 PM

    For me much of my apprehension about talking about it and being honest to someone about what was going on in my relationship was because I’m a guy and my then girlfriend was being horribly abusive to me. It would start with little things but then over the months and years it would then get bigger and bigger.
    I literally felt like I was trapped, because you know, what guy lets them happen to them? And my answer after living through it for years is more than you could ever know. It happens to men and women alike. Just because it doesn’t fit the traditional norm of what you would think would happen in an abusive relationship, there are no boundaries to what hate can do.

  • McCall

    January 29th, 2017 at 9:40 AM

    It can be a very difficult thing to talk about, because you aren’t even sure many times how you let yourself get dragged into a situation where this is even possible. You have always done everything right and been good to others so why now should someone feel like they have the right to trample on you?

    It can be a hard one to get out of too, because just like any abuser this is going to be a person who tries to play it cool, says that they will never do it again. And so you stay only to find yourself back in the very same spot some time later.

    It can be a vicious cycle to break free of.

  • Mary D.

    January 29th, 2017 at 2:42 PM

    too many people think that this is normal because this is all they know

  • Sandra M

    January 30th, 2017 at 1:44 PM

    I poked the bear last night. I tried to joke and get my grouchy husband to smile yesterday. I was pestering him and he doesn’t like if I get “annoying “(as he calls it) we had company and I tried to dance with him. Instead of dancing, he squeezed me in a really painful bear hug. When I told him he hurt me he minimised it. I persisted in talking about it and he got really angry and I got really scared and banked my emotions. We have been married close to 40 years and only now am I realizing how I have allowed myself to become invisible. I feel dead inside and cornered. I need to save myself and no one can rescue me. It won’t be overnight but I need to leave. No money…no job….severe health issues….and isolated. How did I let this happen? He has total control of finances. No vehicle. I have to not give up. Suicide isn’t an option. …tried that and complicated my life more. Waiting to hear from a therapist. …long waiting list. Thankful for my phone and Internet. I don’t feel so alone. Thanks for listening and sharing your stories. I’m hoping to be able to encourage others as I break free to save myself.

  • Diana

    March 14th, 2017 at 2:16 PM

    If you need to leave, and you’re broke and unemployed, and your partner is abusive–you may have access to priority placement in social housing based on domestic abuse, depending on what country you’re in. It will likely take several months to be offered an apartment once you’re on the priority list, so you may want to get on the list as soon as possible. It’s a hurry-up-and-wait situation. On the upswing, in those last few tense months, you will have hope, and lots of time to pack up everything you’ll want to bring to your new, affordable apartment.

  • John Lee LMHC

    June 29th, 2017 at 10:19 PM

    In Palm Beach County and most other States, that would be the county’s Department of Victim Services.
    The National Domestic Abuse Hotline is 1 800 799 7233.

  • Lucille

    January 31st, 2017 at 8:20 AM

    I have been a witness to my sister’s abuse for years but no matter what I say or how close we get her to getting out of it in the end she backs out and winds up staying with him.
    I guess that because I have not lived in an abusive situation I don’t know how hard it can be to break free from that. I would love for her to know her own self worth and to see that she can make it without him, that we will help her, but she’s not there yet and as many times as she has started the process and then stopped I doubt for sure that she will ever go through with it.

  • Jo

    January 31st, 2017 at 1:06 PM

    so tricky to really admit and understand as abuse is also so every day, so often seeing a child repremanded or even pulled hard by the arm to “control them”, get them into the car or whatever, or a dog yanked on its lead in an angry way. The way our parents spoke and dealt with us is key I think and it grows from little things and depending on life, how stressful, difficult etc. I had alot of siblings so it was treatment from various sources and both genders that shaped me and my expectations – expecting to be barely tolerated is one I recall. I know lots of people who are lovely but who are also abusive in ways and I don’t live with them so I don’t experience it but I can imagine it would bubble over every now and then. Especially wth some fire water and or stress or both! I would like to point out that no one is abuse free and that women especially who end up with partners that abuse them are attracted to that controlling aspect at some level. Thats why they can’t be rescued from it, its part of them too. Its so human to care for others and want to be with them.

  • Sandra M

    January 31st, 2017 at 10:45 PM

    I am learning to value my worth now, this is why I am able to recognize abuse. I didn’t realize I am worthy of respect, attention, and the right to express myself. Because I am treated better than growing up (ie not physically beaten) I felt my feelings were wrong and I was too damaged to know I was being abused. I have to speak to be heard. I have to change old behaviours ,and be healthier when communicating. It’s scary speaking out and making changes. I need to be the changed one in this relationship. It won’t be overnight.

  • muggsy

    February 16th, 2017 at 8:41 PM

    What about Therapist Abuse…. Emotional… Verbal…. Physical and Sexual ?

  • BoyMomx2

    March 11th, 2017 at 6:39 PM

    I am just starting to get an understanding of my childhood abus (I’m 42). Physically abused when I was younger, but as I grewolder it was more emotional. And I do feel that emotional is harder to move on form. I spent 22 yrs. With abusel from my parents).Nearly half of my life. I couldn’t leave. I am only, really ready to move forward and deal with my abuse because my anger, anxiety and depression is affecting my kids and I am tired of being upset, not trusting anyone’not connecting Socially.

  • Lilly

    July 3rd, 2017 at 8:54 AM

    Boymomx2- what have you been doing to heal? What kind of therapy? These are things that I am also going through as well now that I am ex-fiance of 10 years is ending our relationship.

  • Cassie

    March 13th, 2017 at 7:06 PM

    I have been emotionally abused by my husband our entire marriage. He has accused me of seeing other men our entire life together. Then one day in our old age the s— hit the fan when he said it was actually he who was the cheater. Typical story right? It didn’t end there. He told me and our therapist that he felt the other women were better than me both in and out of bed. Yet he wants our marriage to continue. I think it is so his emotional abuse can continue by keeping me guessing. He wants to make amens to what he felt about me and about others, but will not even begin to admit that those feelings of his were not true. He does not feel it is emotional abuse to keep me in anxiety about a marriage that I felt was a good one. We are too old to separate, which he says he will not do anyway.

  • Cassie

    July 2nd, 2017 at 2:17 PM

    Through therapy my husband now admits that he made up what he has been saying to excuse his reckless unfaithfulness. What??? It is so easy for him to excuse himself. It is a process to healing but the fact that he felt it necessary to be so selfish is incredibly unbelievable. We’ll see where we go from here.

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