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Do you know the signs of Emotional Abuse?



I feel that everyone who enters into a relationship should know the signs of Emotional Abuse. I'd love to see it taught in schools and be given the same type of weight sex education receives due to the detrimental and long lasting effects it can have on a person's mental and physical health and in turn, their happiness. I feel this way as I was once unaware I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. I was too busy completely consumed with pleasing a person who ultimately was happy being unhappy to even have the time to reflect. Anytime I went to probe or seek help they shut me down quickly by saying they wanted to keep their private life private or by threatening to leave, all in hindsight to frighten me into submission. The spell they cast is strong. As time passed and it became increasingly clear that this person was never going to treat me (or themselves) with respect let alone the way I deserved and I couldn't make excuses for their behaviour anymore, I was still so drawn in by any crumbs that they would carefully throw me as I left town, I wanted them to come with me, thinking that a fresh start would get them out of their what I thought was just a rut. By taking charge of my life, listening to my head and not my heart and demanding to be treated with respect I had inadvertently broken free from their grasp. It would be too much of an inconvenience to lure me back in so that was the end of their game.

I had no idea at the time that if I had just googled ‘Emotional Abuse’ I would see so many uncanny similarities to my what I thought was a unique relationship. I had no idea all this behaviour was a common pattern of abuse rather than an isolated situation. I also had no idea how much of a tragic situation it is to be in for both parties. The truth that my story was not unique, rather a common occurrence of abuse that many people are too afraid to speak out about through fear of being judged or not believed was absolutely shattering. I wouldn't wish the suffering I endured while in it and then after breaking away knowing the truth of their behaviour, on anyone. Yes this is a long read, but so is the recovery time if you are caught in their trap. I know which I would have preferred. Emotional Abuse is not a simple quick thing to discuss, if you want to do it properly, due to its insidious nature.

Knowing the signs can help save you from being unwittingly sucked into the perpetrator's trap, from being made to suffer due to their conscious or even subconscious need to punish you for their own unhappiness as they cannot (or will not) figure out how to heal or fix their own brokenness. Reading about and understanding how they pull you into their trap, talking to professionals on my personal situation and also people who too have suffered through the same manipulation at the hands of someone who they loved and thought loved them back, was the only way I could find some sort of peace and acceptance.  Below is some of what I learnt from my common situation (and should not be taken as any professional advice). Things and signs I wish that I had known well before I entered the relationship and was sucked into their unhappy world of where I became their emotional punching bag. I write this in hope to save someone else from this heartache, wasted energy and time if they are armed with the knowledge of what to look out for in the first place.

Emotional Abuse can take place against both men and women and doesn't discriminate when it comes to age, social status or socioeconomic status.  While it usually takes place between intimate partners, it also can occur between a parent and child or even in schools and workplaces. Emotional Abusers most likely will have personality disorders, typically borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. A common misconception is that Emotional Abuse always involves shouting or criticism. More common forms are “disengaging” by being distracted or preoccupied or "stonewalling" where the person refuses to accept anyone else’s perspective.

From an outsider’s perspective there are no obvious signs as they tend to be able to turn their abusive behaviour on and off when convenient to them. They could be your friend, your family member, your colleague and you won't necessarily know unless they turn their behaviour towards you. They will often appear as decent, successful, sensitive, well read, intellegent, well spoken, calm and nondescript. In contrast, to their families they are often controlling, self-absorbed, hypercritical, compulsive, childish and mean-spirited. They present this exterior of calm, rational self-control but they have no internal control of their own pain and chaotic self-hate, so they try to control others, and drive others to lose control which validates in their mind how healthy they are. They can then say it is the victim who is crazy and if an outsider sees the abuse at all, all they see then is an outburst from the victim and not the abuse that triggered it. 

There is no 'one size fits all' when it comes to matching the common signs of emotional abuse to your situation. It is even common that the perpetrator of emotional abuse does not know that he or she is being abusive nor does the victim.  They may be aware that they have insecure, gutless, selfish, tendencies but feel that there is some sort of unseen force or power over them which they cannot put their finger on, let alone understand what it is that is stopping them from behaving in any other way. Others are simply so self-centered they will only ever genuinely care about what they are thinking and feeling but of course will be good at masking it. They will punish you by refusing to even think about your perspective as in a narcissist mind, nothing they've done to you could ever be wrong. If they do listen at all, at best it will be dismissively or impatiently. Some feel that they 'owed' by everyone and look at the world from a selfish perspective where they feel entitled to give demands, control and abuse in an effort to feel power and superiority. They tend to be anxious by temperament and the reasons for their behaviour commonly stem from a turbulent childhood. Ever since they probably can remember, they've had a sense of dread that things will go badly and that they will fail to cope so they try to control their environment to avoid those feelings of failure and inadequacy. The strategy of course fails to satisfy them time and time again for the simple reason that the primary cause of their anxiety is within them. From whatever unhappy situation they were a part of growing up, they never learnt healthy coping mechanisms or how to have positive, healthy relationships so they grow to feel angry, hurt, fearful and powerless.

The frequency between love, care and kindness and then the emotional cruelty from the abuser to the victim can be a few weeks or a few months. It can leave the victim wondering whether the pain is worth the good times which are so joyous. The abuser may distort the past and make you feel like you are losing your mind and do what they can to instil that insecurity and uncertainty. They may appear to encourage their partner to grow or develop new skills, yet do things to impede or prevent that progress. They won’t lie to their partner, rather ‘forget’ say a significant promise made, especially if forgetting that promise hurts them. Others simply won’t answer when asked a question, to drum into the victim the things that are important to them are not to the abuser. The double standards will be huge. They will always expect more from their partner than they are willing to put into the relationship. Sometimes the abusive acts they will put under the banner as ‘trying to help’ their partner.  

Another massive red flag - in a moment of opening up usually early in the relationship, many will touch on their abusive or manipulative nature. At that time you will see it as an indication that they are willing to work on their past problems and that it will be different how they treat you but more often than not this is them looking for absolution in advance for what later will be inflicted on you. Because of their admission, you’ll constantly forgive or give the benefit of the doubt.  Their trap is set and all blame will be deflected as they have told you this IS them – all those negative traits.

Despite your best efforts, the cycle will only be broken if you completely remove yourself from their web.  You can stand up for yourself but any attempts or pleas will be seen as simply complaints, which again, will confirm in their mind what they did to you was justified. They may even admit to their behaviour but not acknowledge how it effects you; resentful, angry, or emotionally abusive people are likely to blame it straight back on their partners. If you stand your ground and insist you need to be treated with respect they will see the relationship as no longer convenient. It's all too confronting for them, they don't want to look into the mirror, so to speak. They cannot be inconvenienced because that is a loss of control.  They'll pull all sorts from "I love you, I want to be the man you deserve." to "I promise I will never treat you that way again" in an effort to gain back that control. You love them, you want to see only the good in them, so you believe them. You will soon learn no amount of love or positive energy will help them see the light. You cannot fix their issue. Emotionally unavailable people have to do it themselves which includes recognising, acknowledging and fully admitting that their behaviour is a choice. An emotional abuser can change which is heartening but most will find the prospect all too hard as it requires effort and it is much easier to fall back into old habits to get what they want, or what they think that they need.

Some of the many signs of Emotional Abuse:

- They are emotionally distant or emotionally unavailable most of the time.

- They correct or chastise you for your behaviour.

- They withhold sex as a way to manipulate and control.

- They don't show you empathy or compassion.

- They are intolerant of any seeming lack of respect.

- They blame you for their problems, life difficulties, or unhappiness.

- They give you disapproving or contemptuous looks or body language.

- They accuse you of being “too sensitive” in order to deflect their abusive remarks.

- They belittle and trivialize you, your accomplishments, or your hopes and dreams.

- They regularly demean or disregard your opinions, ideas, suggestions, or needs.

- 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.

- They don't seem to notice or care about your feelings.

- They invalidate or deny their emotionally abusive behaviour when confronted.

- You are punished through silence & criticism.

- Mind games, such as Gaslighting. Your partner contradicts or denies something they have told you previously where you suspect you're not getting the whole picture (such as about their last relationship or why they left their last job). They may also deny doing or saying something that you clearly remember, but they deny it with such conviction and confidence that you start to doubt yourself. 

- Your partner refuses to communicate.

- They will make an offering of love conditional. They will say, in one form or another, “I love you, but…” to make you fearful that they might take their love away at any moment.

Emotional Abusers attempt to deal with their sense of inadequacy about relationships by simply not trying - as in their mind no attempt means no failure. Some are crippled by their fear of commitment. You will come to realise that your angry and abusive partner consciously or subconsciously feels like a victim, which justifies in their mind victimizing you and others. To compensate, many victims of Emotional Abuse will take part in constant self-editing and self-criticism to keep from "pushing their buttons”  - a feeling that will become deeply entrenched. They will have second-guess themselves to the point that they feel as though they have lost themselves into a hole. You will undoubtedly become drained of all your confidence and self worth through constantly trying to make your partner happy, only to realise your efforts will always be in vain. You will come to realise their consistent cruel, punishing behaviour towards you was all about convenience,  when you no longer are that easy source to feed their fragile ego, you will be discarded like a bit of trash without a second thought as they see they have used you all up.

If the perpetrator does seek therapy, it can take years to unravel and undo the damage and self-hate that has driven them to the point of abuse. During that time, the abuser may actually get worse before their behaviour improves, if it changes at all. They may even use that time to project their problems on everyone else and point out the character flaws of those around them, rather than face their own internal demons. Some even go into therapy as a ploy - to make it seem like they are actually working on their own behaviour, and accepting responsibility for their actions, when, in fact, the real motive is to arm themselves with distortions of the therapist's words and tools, in an effort to heighten and increase the psychological warfare. Until they can be honest with themselves and the therapist, any therapy will accomplish nothing. For a person who has spent a lifetime of lying and hating themselves, honesty does not come easily.

If any of this sad tale gives you a light blub moment in your own life - my advice (again not professional) - don't give weight to any words over their consistent actions. Make an exit plan and stick to it. Listen to your head not your heart. You may be like me who needed to exhaust all options because you cared for them so much you would give anything to help them, and I did. I was too stubborn; determined to make it work regardless of the emotional cost or enduring quality of the relationship due to the amount of time and emotional energy I had invested and my unwavering faith and belief in them that they did mean it when they said they were trying. I was proud of my ability to survive anything dished at me; my ability to forgive trumped every instinctive feeling. I had become accustomed to forgiving the bad behaviour which had become my blurred normal. I didn't want the people telling me he was bad news to be right. I didn't want to believe that he was only throwing me crumbs of attention and affection deliberately, just enough to keep me on the hook. I didn't want to believe the person that I know and loved was being deliberately cruel and that saying sorry was all part of the act. I didn't want to believe that they could be happy with themselves when they wake up in the morning and go to work, how could they after previously acknowledging all their bad behaviour? I didn't want to believe after everything, all my sacrifice - they didn't care.

Emotional Abuse comes in many forms and severities, some are more obvious than others. You are not left with scars that anyone can see like in a physically abusive relationship, but it can be just as destructive and damaging to your mental health. It has been said that Emotional Abuse can be just as detrimental to a person as Physical Abuse. People can go to jail for hitting a person as it is easier to prove, unlike Emotional Abuse, but both victims could come out of it feeling the same way - depressed, anxious and even suicidal. With no physical marks people can barely detect your pain.

Life is too short and precious to be spent on these people who ultimately will never be happy with anyone let alone themselves. Abuse does thrive on silence. You don't need to name names but you do need to find the right person to give you the help you need to build your confidence and self worth back up to where it belongs.

Seek help from professionals first and foremost. You will no doubt have put yourself into the common position that you are unable to talk to your friends and family about the situation as you have spent the whole time saying that it is all OK and singing the perpetrators praises. How are you a victim of abuse when you were acting so happy? You were so determined to continue to focus on the glimpses of good you saw in the person and relationship and help them get past their demons so you can live happy lives together.

You will feel like it is all your fault you are in this position. Anyone close to you that you have told probably doesn't know the true extent of what you have endured in the name of love. You were most likely too frightened to say anything through fear of not being seen as a person who needs help now to heal, rather that you are just exaggerating, crazy, bitter, and/or unable to handle rejection. You were saving face. A common behaviour of a victim of an emotionally abusive relationship is that they will actively protect their partner. They don't want to tell anyone the truth because they know their partner would be judged and they would be told to just break up with them. This is no accident, the abuser has positioned you to behave this way so they become somewhat invincible. To push you away from talking with your family or friends, anyone who would encourage you to leave. Many will profess that they are not a bad person as if that somehow makes their behaviour excusable. If you do leave they can twist that to be able to validate to others who may question your seemingly sudden exit that it "was never going to work" "something was missing" and that they "tried" to make people empathise with them and cover any hint of blame. Narcissists and psychopaths like to keep an aura of desirability -of being wanted and courted by many. Once they are done with you they will seek to get their fix somewhere else soon enough.

You will feel like it but you don't actually need to defend yourself to anybody - the odds are most will never understand anyway - it simply doesn't matter what they think. Seek advice from professionals first and foremost and never give up on yourself. That is what they have done and what a sad and unfulfilled life they will continue to lead. As hard as it might be, you can never let them back into your life again. Undoubtedly you gave them too many chances to repent. You deserve better and the truth for the situation you found yourself in will have changed you for the better - eventually. Work on yourself even harder than you worked on them, gain strength from your morals and core values and it will all be a distant memory soon enough.

Emotional Abuse is complicated. If you would like to hear more about constitutes Emotional Abuse, how it can be detected, and what to watch out for, take a listen to my interview with Scott Johnston who is the Clinical Centre Manager at Headspace Toowoomba who specialises in Emotional Abuse below.

Helpful links include:

1800 Respect

Life Line - 13 11 14

Beyond Blue - 1300 22 4636