Emotional 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.
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