Abuse in a relationship comes in many forms and guises. Some abuse is subtler than others, to the point you may not realise you are being abused. There are the more overt forms of abuse, which may include physical assault, verbal insults, sexual violence, criticism and control. And emotional abuse can fall into the subtler category.
Emotional abuse, which is sometimes called psychological abuse, is defined as “any act, including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilisation, or any other treatment that may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth”. In other words, emotional abuse is when the behaviour or comments of the other makes you feel bad about yourself, when at heart you know you’ve got nothing to feel bad about.
People who abuse others, sadly, have often been abused themselves in their earlier life, often by parents who would neglect, shame or humiliate them. If this shaming remains unresolved, and hasn’t been worked through and processed, then the person can go on to abuse others, just as he/she was abused. That’s no excuse for it, however.
Here are six of the subtler forms of emotional abuse in adult relationships:
Your partner may put you down in public, laugh at your ambitions, or make sarcastic comments about how you look, what you say, and how you act. They may then ridicule you for not laughing along with them, saying you have no sense of humour and can’t take a joke. Yet if you attempt to turn the tables and laugh at them, they certainly won’t find it funny.
This can feel terribly punishing. If your partner goes into a sulk, pouting and huffing because you’re not doing what they want, the tension can be unbearable. All sorts of things can run through your head, and you can find yourself racking your brains to work out what you’ve done wrong. You then try to make amends to pull your partner out of the sulk. And, of course, they’ve won and got what they want.
With social media and the smartphone culture, people are pretty much contactable 24 hours a day. Someone emotionally abusing you can make themselves unavailable if they want to, perhaps by switching off their phones, leaving your texts unanswered, and leaving you in the dark as to what might have happened. This is one step up from sulking. They might come home late in the evening and act nonchalantly while you’ve been in anxious meltdown, saying it’s all in your head and they’ve just been busy all day. You’re left feeling bad about yourself again, and may berate yourself for having over-reacted.
You may gradually start to feel you are cut off from friends and family. In the initial stages of a relationship, your partner may shower you with gifts and insist on taking you to special places. As time goes on, they may take control over money and decisions, and you may feel as though you need to ask permission to do what you want to do. They may arrange ‘surprise’ nights out that clash with arrangements you’ve already made – and you feel compelled to give in. The emotional abuser likes to be in control.
A person emotionally abusing you will deny responsibility and make you feel most things are your fault. Some days, when they’re in a bad mood, you may even feel responsible for the delayed trains or the lost umbrella. They will deny that they are ever wrong, and may give you contemptuous looks or little putdowns just to reinforce their point.
You may feel as though your partner doesn’t see you as a real, three-dimensional person. They may like you to dress or speak in a particular way, as if you were an extension of themselves. The relationship is all about what they want, and your opinions and needs have no value.
Don’t suffer in silence. If you’ve been subject to emotional abuse it can affect how you feel about yourself – whether you’re a man or a woman. This can be the foundation of a co-dependent relationship, where you feel unable to leave the person abusing you for fear that you will be forever on your own. Emotional abuse can contribute to low self-esteem, and can trigger symptoms of depression and anxiety. Reach out for support and talk to someone who can help you build up a sense of self and some inner resilience to help sustain you.