Abuse can be easier to identify when it leaves bruises or black eyes. But what about the type of pain that makes its mark below the skin’s surface? Emotional abuse can cut deep as it tears down self-esteem and contributes to depression. Recognizing the signs and symptoms can help you or a loved one stop a harmful cycle and take steps to heal.
By Holly Morse-Ellington
What Is Emotional Abuse?
Physical and emotional abuse share an underlying motivation – an attempt to control. Instead of hitting or shoving, emotional abusers manipulate and wield words like axes to splinter a person’s confidence and trust in their own judgment. Emotional abuse may occur in relationships between family members, friends, and coworkers, but it can be more prevalent in relationships between spouses and significant others. And the numbers speak for themselves: Nearly 50% of women and 50% of men have experienced at least one psychologically aggressive behavior by an intimate partner.
But couples fight, right? Yes, but heated arguments and raised voices don’t necessarily rise to the level of abuse. In fact, emotionally abusive behavior can be quiet and subtle. Take carbon monoxide for example. The colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas can seep undetected into your home. Like a poison, emotional abuse causes harmful symptoms that worsen from prolonged exposure. “Emotional abuse can creep up on us and be hard to recognize because it typically comes from a person we trust,” says Lisa Warren, licensed master social worker with Parkridge Valley. “It’s hard to associate those people in our lives with abuse.”
What to Look For
Signs of abuse may not be noticeable or even exist at the beginning of a relationship. You may be showered with love and affection at first (“love bombing”), which feeds into confusion and second-guessing when behavior turns abusive. “Emotional abusers can be expert manipulators,” says Jucinta Rome, licensed clinical social worker with Erlanger Behavioral Health. “They may be very intentional about choosing behaviors that cannot be proven or that come close to crossing lines while still maintaining plausible deniability.” Regardless of when or how it starts, the following tactics are characteristic of emotional abuse and signal a toxic dynamic:
Attempts to Humiliate
Abusers can behave like schoolyard bullies. They can resort to name-calling as a substitute for healthy terms of affection. “Your abuser may take pleasure in embarrassing you in public,” explains Warren. “They may call you derogatory pet names like ‘Fat Boy’ or ‘Big Mama’ in front of others.” Hobbies and interests also become targets for ridicule. Accomplishments are belittled as no big deal or undermined by comments like, “Anyone can do that.”
Efforts to make a person feel small and worthless can happen in private, in public, and even online. “We see patients who have been shamed or embarrassed by their abuser on social media,” Warren says. Insults are often couched in joking and sarcasm. Put-downs and calling out your flaws can be forms of public embarrassment, as can revealing your intimate secrets.
Attempts to Isolate
Abusers can make it difficult to socialize with friends and family. They schedule other plans for you or beg you not to go. “It can be easy to try to write this off and think, ‘He’s just jealous because he loves me so much,’” says Rome, “but that’s not a healthy reality.” An abuser may even tell family members that you don’t want to see them. Another tactic is to turn friends, family, and coworkers against you by telling them you’re irrational or that you’re losing it.
Feeling isolated can also occur through emotional neglect and indifference. Abusers may watch you cry or express pain and do nothing. They may dehumanize you or look in a different direction when you’re talking. They can tune you out altogether and withhold affection – small comforts like kisses and hand-holding are contingent on you “being good.”
Attempts to Control
Abusers can behave like private investigators. They may monitor comings and goings to know where you are at all times, even physically dropping by to confirm you are where you said you’d be. They may conduct digital spying like browsing your internet search history and reading through your texts and emails.
Independence is chipped away. They may treat you like a child and tell you what clothes to wear, what friends you may see, and insist you call to check-in when you’re apart. They might seek financial control by putting bank accounts in their name only and making you ask them for money.
Concerns are dismissed by calling you needy or disputed by saying you’re wrong, you don’t feel the way you say you do. They may even go so far as to deny something that you know to be true. This is called gaslighting, and it can rattle your trust of your memory and make you think you’re going crazy.
Ultimately, emotional abusers create chaos. Up becomes down, left becomes right. They can start arguments for the sake of arguing, contradict their statements as well as yours, and behave so arbitrarily that you tiptoe on a swinging tightrope to avoid setting them off.
The Impact of Emotional Abuse
Verbal and psychological abuse can take a serious toll on the victim’s mind and body. “The goal of an abuser is to create a sense of shame and dependence in their partner by eroding their autonomy and distorting their sense of self,” explains Linda Graham, licensed professional counselor and mental health service provider at Compassion Center. Countries such as Ireland, France, and England have even passed laws that recognize emotional abuse as a crime of domestic violence. Victims can experience short and long-term effects that jeopardize their personal and professional well-being.
At first you might be in disbelief, questioning, “That happened, right?” Feeling manipulated or controlled can prompt shame and guilt. You may become prone to excessive crying and a sense of helplessness. It’s not uncommon to retaliate with aggression or retreat into passive acceptance as efforts to navigate through the abuse.
The abuse can trigger fear and anxiety, and even lead to hypervigilance – a heightened state of alert for danger lurking around every corner. This can cause exhaustion and disrupt your ability to get through the day. Additional physical and behavioral effects can include muscle tension, a racing heartbeat, and nightmares. You may find yourself doing anything and everything to make your relationship like it was before the abuse started.
The longer the abuse continues, the greater it can wear down self-esteem and self-worth. You may begin to believe the negative words and character critiques thrown at you. You may believe you don’t deserve better. You may feel trapped.
“An individual who is being emotionally abused is continuously activating the fight-or-flight response,” explains Graham. “This means that either during the abuse or in anticipation of the abuse, an individual’s body and brain are flooded with stress hormones. The fight-or-flight response is vital to survival, but is designed for short, intense bursts of activity, not continuous activation over days, months, and years. The toll this constant activation can take is significant, contributing to depression, cardiac problems, autoimmune diseases, reproductive problems, and gastrointestinal problems.”
What You Can Do
Once you recognize that you are being emotionally abused, there are steps you can take to reclaim a safe and healthy self. You aren’t to blame. Abusers make the choice to abuse. Accept that you can’t fix them, but you can determine your response. “You have to unlearn your unhealthy coping strategies,” explains Rome. Build a support network through friends, family, and counseling. Exercise can help with sleep and depression. Engage in calming activities or opportunities to reestablish social interactions.
Prepare an exit strategy with caution. Leaving an abusive relationship can be a dangerous time for a victim. Call 911 if you’re in immediate danger. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 800-799-SAFE (7233) or thehotline.org. The 24/7 access to trained advocates can provide confidential support and direct you toward additional resources and shelters.
“Often, emotional abuse is seen as less damaging or severe than physical abuse,” says Graham. “It’s important to remember that emotional abuse leaves bruises and scars on the psyche just as much as physical abuse does on the body.” Trust your judgment to pursue avenues that restore your security and allow emotional wounds to heal. HS