“Emotional abuse” often feels like a heavy and serious accusation, especially when combined with the words “anger” and “weaponry.” Yet living in an emotionally abusive relationship takes a heavy toll on your mental and physical health and your self-esteem, not to mention the relationship itself.
Maybe you’ve wondered if your relationship is emotionally abusive. Your partner’s actions are hurtful, but are they bad enough to be considered abuse? One of the most harmful and insidious aspects of emotional abuse is that it can be difficult to recognize. This article will help you better understand what emotional abuse is, and help you recognize if you’re in a toxic and unhealthy relationship with an abuser.
What Is Emotional Abuse?
Emotional abuse is a pattern of defensive behaviors used to gain power and control over a partner. It is a form of controlling a person’s emotional and mental state. The defensive behaviors, which present themselves as hurtful and controlling actions, often emerge during anger-inducing incidents. Over time, the psychological effects of emotional abuse have a profound and disastrous impact on both the victim and the abuser. One of the most damaging aspects of emotional abuse is that the abused partner often feels unable to articulate and recognize the destruction that the abuse causes.
What Does Emotional Abuse Look Like?
Emotional abuse can begin with minor actions like becoming upset and giving the “silent treatment,” for example not answering calls or texts, avoiding eye contact, or simply not talking to the other person altogether, even ignoring their attempts at conversation.
This leaves the victim in the dark and can trigger anxiety and heighten the need to smooth things over. The victim often feels relief when the abuser re-engages and the “punishment” is over—this transforms into a means of controlling and manipulating the victim, who lives in fear of being cut off again.
Verbal abuse is another common form of emotional abuse, and can take the form of constant criticism and put-downs, in addition to the more obvious screaming, swearing, threatening, etc. It may start as off-handed comments that grow into yelling insults and cutting down or humiliating his or her partner in front of family and friends. This results in fear, nervousness, and feelings of worthlessness for the victim.
Some emotional abusers exploit their partner’s need for love and affection by denying and withholding physical affection, time together, or compliments. Denial of attention and affection can leave a victim feeling unattractive and unworthy of love.
Often when an emotional abuser is confronted with their actions, they become defensive, refuse to acknowledge the problem, and blame their victim. Others deny their partner’s accounts of what happened or alter the narrative, leading to a pattern that results in the victim questioning their memory or perception. Over time, this becomes a form of gaslighting.
When Anger Is Used as a Weapon
Abusers use anger as a weapon to intimidate and power-over the victim. The victim lives in fear of the next angry episode. These attacks come in various forms, for example:
- Loud, aggressive language
- Using their body as a means of intimidation: blocking a doorway, intentionally getting in the way, or following the victim
- Revenge actions to punish or hurt the victim, for example cancelling dinner or vacation plans. The abuser often believes this is a “tit for tat” response to what triggered their anger.
Over time, the person on the receiving end of the anger outbursts becomes conditioned to do anything they can to appease their abuser. This can often feel like walking on thin ice, waiting for a crack and crash as the bottom falls out. This leads to anxiety, depression, nervousness, low self-esteem, and symptoms of PTSD. Many victims freeze up when an incident of yelling occurs, flashing back to memories of being mistreated.
Can Emotional Abusers Change?
Change can be the hardest word for a victim to believe, but it is possible for an abuser to recover. Many abusers carry pent up anger, insecurities, and wounds that can be repaired with work. Victims also need to heal and recover from the abuse. It takes time and commitment.
One thing is clear: both partners in an abusive relationship need help. At the Marriage Recovery Center, both the victim and the abuser can get the help they need to heal. Each partner receives individualized care at the beginning of the healing journey to work on their own issues. At the appropriate time, and when they are ready, their paths unite for a holistic healing experience that involves couples counseling.
If you’re ready to begin the journey to a healthier self, reach out to a Client Care Specialist at (206) 219-0145. We are here to help you find that path.