Abuse – Definition of Emotional Abuse
One 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.”
Emotional abuse is also known as psychological abuse or as “chronic verbal aggression” by researchers. People who suffer from emotional abuse tend to have very low self-esteem, show personality changes (such as becoming withdrawn) and may even become depressed, anxious or suicidal.
Emotional Abuse Signs and Symptoms
Emotional abuse symptoms vary but can invade any part of a person’s life. Signs of emotional abuse include:
- Yelling or swearing (read about: Emotional Bullying)
- Name calling or insults; mocking
- Threats and intimidation
- Ignoring or excluding
- Denial of the abuse and blaming of the victim
- Financial abuse – the abuser does not allow the victim control over any of the finances
Emotional abuse, like other types of abuse, tends to take the form of a cycle.2 In a relationship, this cycle starts when one partner emotionally abuses the other, typically to show dominance. The abuser then feels guilt, but not about what he (or she) has done, but more over the consequences of his actions. The abuser then makes up excuses for his own behavior to avoid taking responsibility over what has happened. The abuser then resumes “normal” behavior as if the abuse never happened and may, in fact, be extra charming, apologetic and giving – making the abused party believe that the abuser is sorry. The abuser then begins to fantasize about abusing his partner again and sets up a situation in which more emotional abuse can take place.
More information on: Dynamics of Emotional Abuse in Relationships.
Examples of Emotional Abuse
In some countries emotional abuse is defined and the following examples of emotional abuse are given by Justice Canada:
- Threats of violence or abandonment
- Intentionally frightening
- Making an individual fear that they will not receive the food or care they need
- Failing to check allegations of abuse against them
- Making derogative or slanderous statements about an individual to others
- Socially isolating an individual, failing to let them have visitors
- Withholding important information
- Demeaning an individual because of the language they speak
- Intentionally misinterpreting traditional practices
- Repeatedly raising the issue of death
- Telling an individual that they are too much trouble
- Ignoring or excessively criticizing
- Being over-familiar and disrespectful
- Unreasonably ordering an individual around; treating an individual like a servant or child
Signs of Emotionally Abusive Relationships
Signs of an emotionally abusive relationship can sometimes be seen more easily from the inside out. Assessing an emotionally abusive relationship may first start with how you feel about the relationship and then move on to actually dissecting the nature of the abuse.
Signs an emotionally abused person in a relationship might notice are:
- Feeling edgy all the time
- Feeling they can’t do anything right
- Feeling afraid of their partner and what they might say or do
- Doing or avoiding certain things in order to make their partner happy
- Feeling they deserve to be hurt by their partner
- Wondering if they’re crazy
- Feeling emotionally numb, helpless or depressed
here are 30 signs of emotional abuse.
- They humiliate you, put you down, or make fun of you in front of other people.
- They regularly demean or disregard your opinions, ideas, suggestions, or needs.
- They use sarcasm or “teasing” to put you down or make you feel bad about yourself.
- They accuse you of being “too sensitive” in order to deflect their abusive remarks.
- They try to control you and treat you like a child.
- They correct or chastise you for your behavior.
- You feel like you need permission to make decisions or go out somewhere.
- They try to control the finances and how you spend money.
- They belittle and trivialize you, your accomplishments, or your hopes and dreams.
- They try to make you feel as though they are always right, and you are wrong.
- They give you disapproving or contemptuous looks or body language.
- They regularly point out your flaws, mistakes, or shortcomings.
- They accuse or blame you of things you know aren’t true.
- They have an inability to laugh at themselves and can’t tolerate others laughing at them.
- They are intolerant of any seeming lack of respect.
- They make excuses for their behavior, try to blame others, and have difficulty apologizing.
- The repeatedly cross your boundaries and ignore your requests.
- They blame you for their problems, life difficulties, or unhappiness.
- They call you names, give you unpleasant labels, or make cutting remarks under their breath.
- They are emotionally distant or emotionally unavailable most of the time.
- They resort to pouting or withdrawal to get attention or attain what they want.
- They don’t show you empathy or compassion.
- They play the victim and try to deflect blame to you rather than taking personal responsibility.
- They disengage or use neglect or abandonment to punish or frighten you.
Related Post: How To Deal With Narcissists And Self-Absorbed Love Partners
- They don’t seem to notice or care about your feelings.
- They view you as an extension of themselves rather than as an individual.
- They withhold sex as a way to manipulate and control.
- They share personal information about you with others.
- They invalidate or deny their emotionally abusive behavior when confronted.
- They make subtle threats or negative remarks with the intent to frighten or control you.
The first step for those being emotionally abused is recognizing it’s happening. If you observe any of the signs of emotional abuse in your relationship, you need to be honest with yourself so you can regain power over your own life, stop the abuse, and begin to heal. For those who’ve been minimizing, denying, and hiding the abuse, this can be a painful and frightening first step.
The stress of emotional abuse will eventually catch up with you in the form of illness, emotional trauma, depression, or anxiety. You simply can’t allow it to continue, even if it means ending the relationship.
Obvious and direct verbal abuse, such as threats, judging, criticizing, lying, blaming, name-calling, ordering, and raging, are easy to recognize. Following are other subtle types of verbal abuse that are just as damaging as overt forms, particularly because they are harder to detect. When experienced over time, they have an insidious, deleterious effect, because you begin to doubt and distrust yourself.
Opposing: The abuser will argue against anything you say, challenging your perceptions, opinions, and thoughts. The abuser doesn’t listen or volunteer thoughts or feelings, but treats you as an adversary, in effect saying “No” to everything, so a constructive conversation is impossible.
Blocking: This is another tactic used to abort conversation. The abuser may switch topics, accuse you, or use words that in effect say, “Shut Up.”
Discounting & Belittling: This is verbal abuse that minimizes or trivializes your feelings, thoughts, or experiences. It’s a way of saying that your feelings don’t matter or are wrong.
Undermining & Interrupting: These words are meant to undermine your self-esteem and confidence, such as, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” finishing your sentences, or speaking on your behalf without your permission.
Denying: An abuser may deny that agreements or promises were made, or that a conversation or other events took place, including prior abuse. The abuser instead may express affection or make declarations of love and caring. This is crazy-making and manipulative behavior, which leads you to gradually doubt your own memory, perceptions, and experience. In the extreme, a persistent pattern is called gaslighting, named after the classic Ingrid Bergman movie, Gaslight. In it, a husband used denial in a plot to make his wife believe she was losing her grip on reality.
The most obvious way of handling an emotionally abusive relationship is by leaving the marriage or other relationship. In fact, depending on how far the emotional abuse has gone, this may be the only option, no matter how impossible a task it may seem.
In more minor cases of emotional abuse though, other options may be available. Standing up against the emotional abuse and no longer being a willing party to it may lead to a change in the relationship dynamic. More likely, couple’s counselling, possibly as well as individual counselling, may be necessary to address the destructive emotionally abusive dynamics in the relationship or marriage.
In order to confront the abuse, it’s important to understand that the intent of the abuser is to control you and avoid meaningful conversation. Abuse is used as a tactic to manipulate and have power over you. (See “How to Spot Manipulation.”) If you focus on the content, you’ll fall into the trap of trying to respond rationally, denying accusations, and explaining yourself, and will lose your power. The abuser has won at that point and deflected responsibility for the verbal abuse.
Sometimes, you can deflect verbal abuse with humor. It puts you on equal footing and deprives the abuser of the power they seek in belittling you. Repeating back what is said to you also has an impact, followed by a calm boundary. For example, “Did you say you think that I don’t know what doing?” You may get a defiant repetition of the insult. Then follow up with, “I disagree,” or “I don’t see it that way,” or “I know exactly what I’m doing.”
In some cases, verbal abuse is best addressed with forceful statements such as, “Stop it,” “Don’t talk to me that way,” “That’s demeaning,” “Don’t call me names,” “Don’t raise your voice at me,” “Don’t use that tone with me,” “I don’t respond to orders,” etc. In this way, you set a boundary of how you want to be treated and take back your power. The abuser may respond with, “Or what?” You can say, “I will not continue this conversation.”
Typically, a verbal abuser may become more abusive; in which case, you continue to address the abuse in the same manner. You might say, “If you continue, I’ll leave the room,” and do so if the abuse continues. If you keep setting boundaries, the abuser will get the message that manipulation and abuse won’t be effective. The relationship may or may not change for the better, or deeper issues may surface. Either way, you’re rebuilding your self-confidence and self-esteem, and are learning important skills about setting boundaries. (See “The Power of Personal Boundaries.”)
Abuse can slowly chip away at self-esteem. Usually, both the abuser and the victim in a relationship have experienced shaming in childhood and already have impaired self-esteem. Confronting an abuser, especially in a long-term relationship, can be challenging. It often takes the support and validation of a group, therapist, or counselor to be able to consistently stand-up to abuse. Without it, you may doubt your reality, feel guilty, and fear loss of the relationship or reprisal. If it feels daunting, you can try a different, educative approach. (See Dealing with a Narcissist: How to Raise Self-Esteem and Set boundaries with Difficult People.)
Once you take back your power and regain your self-esteem, you won’t allow someone to abuse you. If the abuse stops, a relationship may improve, but for real, positive change, both of you must be willing to risk change.