Domestic violence is once again in the forefront of the news. This is in part due to abusive incidents with sports figures or celebrities like Ray and Janay Rice that have become very public. Abuse is not always as obvious as being hit or shoved, called degrading names or cussed out. In fact, it can very well be underhanded or subtle. You may find yourself feeling confused about the relationship, off balance or like you are “walking on eggshells” all the time. This is the kind of abuse that often sneaks up on you as you become more entrenched in the relationship. I am talking here about psychological abuse, which is also known as mental or emotional abuse.
Psychological abuse occurs when a person in the relationship tries to control information available to another person with intent to manipulate that person’s sense of reality or their view of what is acceptable and not acceptable. Psychological abuse often contains strong emotionally manipulative content and threats designed to force the victim to comply with the abuser’s wishes. All abuse takes a severe toll on self-esteem. The abused person starts feeling helpless and possibly even hopeless. In addition, most mental abusers are adept at convincing the victim that the abuse is his/her fault. Somehow, the victim is responsible for what happened.
A more sophisticated form of psychological abuse is often referred to as “gaslighting.” This happens when false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity. Examples may range simply from the abuser denying that previous abusive incidents ever occurred to staging bizarre events with the intention of confusing the victim. I listened to a client tell me that her husband denied an affair after his she found a racy email to another woman on his computer and confronted him. The husband vehemently denied this and when so far as to send an email to his tech guy asking how his account could have been hacked and to fix the problem!
A common form of emotional abuse is “I love you, but…” That may sound nice at first, yet it is both a disguised criticism and a threat. It indicates, “I love you now, but if you don’t stop this or that, my love will be taken away.” It is a constant jab that slowly strips away your self-esteem. Abusers get a lot of reinforcement out of using the word “love” as it seems to become a magic word to control you.
Abusers at times do what I call “throw you a bone.” I have heard countless times from clients that their partner was “nice,” “complimentary,” “gave me a gift,” etc. as if it should erase all of the bad treatment. You need to understand that this is part of the dynamic and cycle of abuse. In fact, it is rare for abusive relationships to not have these (often intense) moments of feeling good, overly sincere apologies or attempts to make up for the bad behavior. The victim clings to hope when these moments occur and the abuser knows this.
Psychological abuse can look like:
- Humiliating or embarrassing you
- Constant put-downs
- Refusing to communicate
- Ignoring or excluding you
- Extramarital affairs
- Provocative behavior with opposite sex
- Use of sarcasm and unpleasant tone of voice
- Unreasonable jealousy
- Extreme moodiness
- Mean jokes or constantly making fun of you
- Saying “I love you but…”
- Saying things like “If you don’t _____, I will_____”
- Domination and control
- Withdrawal of affection
- Guilt trips
- Making everything your fault
- Isolating you from friends and family
- Using money to control
- Constant calling or texting when you are not with him/her
- Threatening to commit suicide if you leave
It is important to remember is that it is absolutely not your fault. Abusers are expert manipulators with a knack for getting you to believe that the way you are being treated is your fault. These people know that everyone has insecurities, and they use those insecurities against you. Abusers can convince you that you do not deserve better treatment or that they are treating you this way to “help” you. Some abusers even act quite charming and nice in public so that others have a good impression of them. In private is a different story, which is also quite baffling.
If you see yourself in these words, know that there is little hope for your relationship to improve. It would take a monumental amount of insight and motivation for the abuser to change and unfortunately, this is rarely the case. If you are in an abusive relationship, I urge you to get out and with professional help if needed. Often the first step in leaving the abuser is obtaining counseling just to rebuild your esteem so that you can leave. I particularly want you to know that you may “love” this person, but that they do not “love” you or respect you. I assure you that in time you will get over this person if you break it off. You will be making the right decision…no looking back.