It is a common misconception that abuse has to be physical in order to be impactful. Yet some of the most devastating forms of violence do not leave scars. Psychological violence causes us to endure an invisible war zone, one where the battle wounds cannot be seen but are deeply felt nonetheless.
What Is Emotional Abuse?
Emotional abuse is a set of behaviors in which a person manipulates, coerces, controls, belittles and terrorizes another person repeatedly. Chronic emotional abuse takes a toll on victims, causing them to struggle with depression, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and learned helplessness. In extreme cases, long-term emotional abuse can cause symptoms of PTSD or Complex PTSD.
When one person emotionally abuses another, it can include the following behaviors:
- Calling the victim names.
- Mocking, shaming or humiliating the victim.
- Ignoring the victim and emotionally withdrawing from them.
- Threatening the victim or coercing them into activities they don’t want to engage in.
- Making cruel remarks towards the victim regarding their appearance, personality, lifestyle, career choices, friends or any other aspect of the victim’s personal, social or professional life.
- Verbally assaulting and insulting the victim, sometimes under the guise of “joking.”
- Emotionally invalidating the partner or pathologizing their emotions.
- Subjecting them to overt and covert put-downs as well as rage attacks.
- Using intimidation as a control tactic.
- Controlling the victim’s finances.
- Micromanaging the victim’s social life.
- Isolating the victim from friends and family.
- Stonewalling the victim during discussions.
- Giving victims the silent treatment for no apparent reason.
- Gaslighting the victim into believing that they are imagining things or are oversensitive when they call out the abuse.
- Repeatedly treating the victim with contempt, scorn and disdain.
There are also many other underhanded and subtle ways in which a victim can be emotionally abused, such as triangulation (bringing in the presence of a third party to abuse by proxy), smear campaigns (spreading rumors or gossip to ruin the victim’s reputation), and hot and cold behavior (pushing the victim away and emotionally withdrawing, intermittently throwing in periods of affection). Emotionally abusive partners may also lie pathologically and lead double lives, causing their victims to invest in a false partnership that ultimately brings harm and devastation.
Who Are The Culprits of Emotional Abuse?
Emotional abuse can be committed by toxic people at all points of the spectrum. There are some emotionally abusive people who are able to work on their toxic behaviors, but these people tend to be lower on the spectrum of toxicity, demonstrate a willingness to change and possess empathy for others. Most emotionally abusive people who are on the higher end of the spectrum tend to be incapable of change because they possess a lack of empathy, an excessive sense of entitlement and a callous disregard for the rights and feelings of others.
Some emotionally abusive people learn these behaviors early in childhood by modeling behavior from their parents and end up perpetuating the cycle. Other emotionally abusive people might possess more hard-wired narcissistic or sociopathic traits or even meet the full-fledged criteria of Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder. These predatory individuals tend to abuse behind closed doors in order to escape accountability; their emotional abuse is inflicted upon their partners to deliberately demean and control them.
“The methods sociopaths dream up to control others – the schemes contrived to ensure “wins” – are quite various, and only a few of them have to do with physical violence.” – Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door
The Impact of Emotional Abuse on the Survivor
When emotional abuse takes place in childhood, it wreaks havoc on the mental architecture of the brain, affecting areas such as the amygdala, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. These areas of the brain help with emotional regulation, learning, memory, focus, cognition and planning.
Many survivors of emotional abuse, whether they suffered it in childhood, adulthood or both, struggle with a sense of powerlessness as they are repeatedly put down. As a result of these adverse experiences, they may turn to self-destructive behavior, become trauma-bonded to their abusers and find it difficult to leave the toxic relationship.
How To Tell If You’re Being Emotionally Abused
Here are fifty “loaded” questions you should ask yourself if you think you’re being emotionally abused in a relationship. These questions take into account the fact that you already suspect you’re being abused. Your answers to these questions can give you insight regarding the emotionally abusive behaviors you might be currently experiencing, can help you to identify the red flags of abuse and assess the level of toxicity in your relationship.
1. Does your partner enjoy humiliating you in public?
2. What is the worst way in which your partner has used your own insecurities against you?
3. Do you find that the way your partner treated you in the beginning of the relationship is unrecognizable from the way your partner treats you now?
4. How often does your partner make you feel sorry for them after mistreating you?
5. Are you persistently made to feel guilty for voicing your concerns in the relationship?
6. Does your partner shame you about qualities or traits you have that they once praised?
7. Does your partner shut down conversations about their behavior before they even have a chance to begin?
8. Is your partner nicer and more respectful to others in public than they are to you behind closed doors?
9. When your partner gives you the silent treatment, do they usually explain themselves or do they continue to ignore you and come back only to pretend like nothing ever happened?
10. Does your partner continuously claim that you’re too sensitive when you express your emotions?
11. Do you find yourself questioning your own reality on a daily basis?
12. Have you been made to doubt things that you know for a fact your partner has said or done?
13. Does your partner call you names when he or she doesn’t get their way?
14. Are you afraid to express your true feelings around your partner because of the way they’ve reacted to you in the past?
15. Do you feel like your accomplishments are belittled, ignored or minimized by your partner?
16. How often are you made to feel insecure and invisible when your partner engages in conversations with people of the opposite sex?
17. Does your partner frequently compare you to others in a demeaning way in terms of appearance, personality, success or any other aspect of yourself they like to criticize?
18. Do you feel like you’re always walking on eggshells around this person, careful what to say or do just to avoid “offending” them?
19. Does the way your partner looks at or talks about other women or men (whoever they are attracted to) make you feel uncomfortable?
20. Has your partner reminded you of how lucky you are to have them, usually after an outburst?
21. Does your partner have frequent rage attacks when their ego is threatened?
22. If you call out your partner’s behavior, do they become excessively angry?
23. Are you allowed to ever point out your partner’s mistakes, even in a light-hearted manner?
24. How often does your partner make you feel ashamed about qualities and accomplishments you used to be proud of?
25. Do you find yourself apologizing for things you’re not at fault for in the relationship?
26. Has your partner ever compared you to others and made you feel as if you were in ‘competition’ with other people for their attention and love?
27. Do you find yourself apologizing for the mistakes that your partner made but refuses to own up to?
28. How many times has your partner accused you of having flaws that they themselves possess?
29. In what ways has your partner turned the things you used to enjoy doing into things you dread doing?
30. How does your body react when you’re around your partner?
31. Do you feel overly anxious when you think about how your partner treats you?
32. How many ways have you wasted time trying to please your partner, only to learn that they are never satisfied with anything you do?
33. In what ways do you feel you have to ask permission from your partner before you do something?
34. Have you ever gotten the sense that your partner is envious and hateful when you’re happy and successful?
35. Does your partner seem happy when you’re in pain?
36. Does your partner often comfort you, come to the rescue and ‘play the savior’ for the pain that they themselves caused?
37. Do you find that your partner gives you more negative feedback and criticism about yourself than they do encouragement?
38. Has your partner punished you for making choices independent of their opinion?
39. Have you ever felt limited in your ability to see your loved ones because of your partner?
40. How frequently does your partner call or text you to “check in” when you’re not with them?
41. Has your partner ever coerced you into sexual activities you weren’t comfortable with?
42. Has your partner ever made you feel guilty for not having sex with them?
43. Do you fear leaving your partner, out of the fear that they might harm you or harm themselves?
44. Does your partner discourage you from pursuing dreams or goals that would make you independent of them?
45. How often do you feel like you’re pleading for your partner’s affection or attention?
46. How many times has your partner insulted you and made you feel terrible, all while claiming “it was just a joke”?
47. Have you been told you’re too sensitive when you start setting boundaries with your partner?
48. When your partner is acting kind, does it seem out of place with the way they usually act?
49. Does your partner treat you tenderly and affectionately one second, only to pull back and coldly withdraw?
50. When your partner tells you they love you, do you have a hard time believing them because the way they act is anything but loving?