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Emotional Abuse: How To Recognize The Signs

Emotional abuse is non-physical and may be difficult to recognize

Edith Mecha

Emotional abuse in relationships is widespread and can have serious effects on one’s life.

In most instances, this type of abuse is not spoken about because it is non-physical, subtle, insidious, and difficult to measure.

Studies have found that calculating accurate prevalence estimates for emotional abuse have been challenging. One problem is that emotional abuse tends to imply sustained patterns of maladaptive interactions, whereas physical or sexual abuse can be limited to a single isolated incident. In addition, it can often be disguised as an expression of love or humor and is not always perceived as being offensive when it first occurs. Therefore, there is a need to understand more about this silent abuse which equally has devastating effects on survivors just as the physical and sexual ones.

The goal of emotional abuse is to strip away one’s feelings of self-worth, confidence, and independence. Leaving one feeling like they cannot survive without the abuser. Emotional abuse makes the victim appear to the people who know them to be under a spell. One looks crazy.

This abuse may involve verbal assault, isolation, manipulation, and controlling behavior.  Sometimes abusers may also throw in threats of physical violence or other punishments if you don’t do what they want. It always leaves one confused, feeling like walking on eggshells, anxious, and socially withdrawn. Some studies indicate that emotional abuse may contribute to the development of conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.

You may think that physical and sexual abuse is far worse than emotional abuse, since they drive one to the hospital and may leave visible scars. Far from it! The scars of emotional abuse are far real and run deep. In fact, emotional abuse can be just as damaging as physical or sexual abuse and sometimes even worse.

A one time occurrence doesn’t necessarily qualify as emotional abuse, but a repeated pattern of behavior typically does.

Here are some signs to help you identify emotional abuse and seek help early.

1. They isolate you from friends and family. At first this starts subtly and looks ok but take note it’s the first step of an abusive person. This could include:

  • Restrictions to communicate with parents and friends
  • Restrictions to visit family and friends
  • Saying negative things about close friends so you break the friendship

Their aim is to weaken your support network so that when they start mistreating you, there will be no one to turn to. It is always a well calculated strategy.

2. Constant criticism and highly judgmental. Criticism just like isolation starts small. At first, it looks healthy and one might think that their partner really wants the best for them. It’s true criticism can help us learn our flaws and improve ourselves. However, when criticism and judgement is on another level then we should think twice. It could include someone constantly:

  • Putting you down before others
  • Ashaming and embarrassing you
  • Belittling your ideas, achievements, career, choices
  • Making sarcastic comments about your appearance, dressing, opinion
  • Having an opinion about everything you say or do
  • Forcing one to do things as per their way

When a partner always criticizes everything you do and how you do it – it clearly demonstrates that they do not love nor respect you. This is a red flag. You can do all you want to please them but that will never be enough. They will never accept the who you are! They use this tactic to gain power and control over the relationship.

3. Overly possessive and controlling. At first, this looks romantic and sweet. One can get the illusion that their partner is so in love with them to the extent of being jealousy. However, when it becomes more intense, it can be scary and possessive. The partner may:

  • Start accusing you of flirting whenever you talk with the opposite sex
  • Forbids you from interacting with friends so you only spend time with them
  • Forbids you from attending work or social events and travelling
  • Monitor your movements, phone and social media
  • Constantly calling or texting when you are not around
  • Threaten to break early promises
  • Disrespect your boundaries and personal space

4. Highly manipulative. An abusive partner always has a way of ensuring things are done their way. It’s always their way or the highway. Their aim is to be in control and serve their interests.

  • They give silent treatment
  • Make you feel guilty if you do something against what they wanted
  • They twist things till one is left confused about themselves
  • They don’t assume responsibility for their mistakes
  • Push you to the edge till you abandon your standards and fall to theirs

They know how to play mind games till the other loses their sense of independence. You end up relying on them to make even simple decisions.

5. They imply (without actually stating) that the other is not competent, smart, or resourceful enough. This attitude is seen in their use of devaluing and demeaning language. As a result, they feel superior in the relationship and see the other as inferior. They sometimes tell the other that they are doing them a favor by being with them.

6. Verbal abuse. One partner constantly uses devaluing words against the other. Especially when things are not done as per their standards. They later justify the use of such words and tell the other person they deserved it.

7. Brand the other party as being sensitive. Especially, when they call on their demeaning language and behavior. They are indifferent and show no empathy for the other person’s feelings. 

8. They use the punish and reward strategy in the relationship. A beneficial act is rewarded with love and attention. The opposite is met with withdrawn affection, love and other “goodies”.

Healthline explains other signs below:

9. Accusing, blaming, and denial
This behavior comes from an abuser’s insecurities.

Here are some examples:

  • Jealousy
  • They say you cause their rage and control issues by being such a pain
  • Denying something you know is true. This is called gaslighting
  • Goading then blaming
  • Denying their abuse
  • Accusing you of abuse. They say you’re the one who has anger and control issues and they’re the helpless victim
  • Trivializing the abuse
  • Blaming you for their problems. Whatever’s wrong in their life is all your fault. You’re not supportive enough, didn’t do enough, or stuck your nose where it didn’t belong.
  • Destroying something you love and then denying

10. Emotional neglect and isolation

Abusers tend to place their own emotional needs ahead of yours. Many abusers will try to come between you and people who are supportive of you to make you more dependent on them.

They do this by:

  • Demanding respect. No perceived slight will go unpunished, and you’re expected to defer to them. But it’s a one-way street.
  • Shutting down communication. They’ll ignore your attempts at conversation in person, by text, or by phone.
  • Dehumanizing you. They’ll look away when you’re talking or stare at something else when they speak to you.
  • Keeping you from socializing. Whenever you have plans to go out, they come up with a distraction or beg you not to go.
  • Trying to come between you and your family. They’ll tell family members that you don’t want to see them or make excuses why you can’t attend family functions.
  • Withholding affection. They won’t touch you, not even to hold your hand or pat you on the shoulder. They may refuse sexual relations to punish you or to get you to do something.
  • Tuning you out. They’ll wave you off, change the subject, or just plain ignore you when you want to talk about your relationship.
  • Actively working to turn others against you. They’ll tell co-workers, friends, and even your family that you’re unstable and prone to hysterics.
  • Calling you needy. When you’re really down and out and reach out for support, they’ll tell you you’re too needy or the world can’t stop turning for your little problems.
  • Interrupting. You’re on the phone or texting and they get in your face to let you know your attention should be on them.
  • Indifference. They see you hurt or crying and do nothing.
  • Disputing your feelings. Whatever you feel, they’ll say you’re wrong to feel that way or that’s not really what you feel at all.

 If you are being emotionally abused, know that it isn’t your fault and you don’t have to live this way.

There is help. Check out helplines here. Also, talk to a trusted friend or family member who will listen without judgment.

If you know someone going through gender-based violence share with them the following numbers:

Kenya: National GBV hotline – 1195, Sexual domestic abuse toll-free line – 0800 730999, Child abuse – 116, ODPP toll-free line – 0800 723377 Counselling toll-free lines – 0800 720028 and 1199.

UK – 999, 0808 2000 247South Africa – 0800 428-428 and call-back service by dialing *120*7867#, Germany – 0800 22 55 530 / 0800 011 6016and USA – 1−800−799−7233.

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