Are You Being Emotionally Abused? Part 11

Beverly Engel

No matter how much your partner justifies his abuse, there is no justification for insensitivity, spitefulness, and cruelty. 

Beverly Engel, LMFT

Here, I present a continuation of the most common tactics used by abusive people. 

Part II

Overly jealous, possessive behavior, including stalking. No matter how innocent or platonic a relationship might be with a friend, co-worker or even a family member, your partner has a way of twisting it into something sordid, selfish or wrong. She acts out with jealous tantrums or accusatory questions and no matter what you say, no matter how much you try to explain, she isn’t having it. She is so convinced that her perceptions are correct that there is no opening for the truth. The more you try to explain, the more she can make you look guilty so it usually isn’t worth trying.  

Passive-Aggressive behavior. Procrastination is the primary way people exhibit passive-aggressive behavior. Because they really don’t want to do something or go somewhere they will find excuses for putting it off. If they are forced to complete a task they will wait until the very last second in order to punish the person who assigned the task. Passive-aggressive behavior may manifest itself in a number of other ways as well, including: sulking when they don’t get their way, backhanded compliments, withdrawal and refusal to communicate (silent treatment), making excuses to avoid certain people as a way of expressing their dislike or anger toward those individuals. Ignoring requests entirely can also be a passive-aggressive action. 

The reason passive-aggressive behavior can be emotionally abusive is that it can cause you to believe that you are too demanding, controlling or impatient. Because your partner acts in an agreeable way and doesn’t overtly express his anger at being asked to do something, you may also end up feeling guilty when you get angry at him for not doing what he said he would do. Any behavior on your partner’s part that causes you to doubt your perceptions or question who you are can be emotionally abusive and passive-aggressive behavior is at the top of the list, right along with gaslighting.

Sexual Harassment. Normally the term sexual harassment is used to refer to sexual coercion in the workplace but a person can be sexually harassed by anyone, including her partner. Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances or physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature. Whenever a person is pressured into becoming sexual against her will, whether it is because she does not feel like being sexual at the time or does not want to engage in a particular sexual act, it is sexual harassment.  It is sexual harassment to try to force a partner into engaging in sexual acts that she has no interest in or that upset or repulse her. Often times, other forms of emotional abuse go hand-in-hand with sexual harassment, such as unreasonable expectations, constant criticism, name-calling, and emotional blackmail. 

Silent treatment. This occurs primarily when your partner punishes you with silence if she doesn’t get her way. This silence may last hours or even days.  

The silent treatment may be your partner’s way of telling you that you have done something wrong. As a consequence, she refuses to communicate with you or acknowledge you or to enter into any form of meaningful dialog with you. She may become emotionally detached and distances herself from you by ignoring your very existence. She may go so far as to avoid eye contact or stare straight through you, making you feel invisible or insignificant. It can include prolonged periods of not only silence but unresponsiveness. She can even go so far as to exclude you from her life and withhold information, making you feel like an outsider, a form of silent treatment known as “stonewalling.” 

It’s unreasonable to expect you to interpret your partner’s silence. Nevertheless, you may find yourself taking on the roleof the peacemaker, continually reaching out and trying to make amends. You may apologize profusely in order to get your partner to begin talking to you again. You may begin to feel so insecure in your relationship that you develop a fear of abandonment. And this constant state of apologizing and assuming guilt can greatly diminish your ability to develop and cultivate a healthy sense of self-worth. 

 In addition to causing you distress, being ignored and excluded can be very shaming. It can threaten your basic psychological need for belonging. By punishing you with the silent treatment your partner is attempting to induce feelings of powerlessness and shame. 

Symbolic Violence. As stated earlier, although emotional abuse usually includes only non-physical forms of abuse, it can include what is called, “symbolic violence,” which can include intimidating behavior such as slamming doors, throwing objects, driving recklessly while you are in the car, destroying or threatening to destroy objects you value (including your pet).  Even milder forms of violence such as shaking a fist or finger at you, getting in your face and looking at you with hatred in his eyes, or acting like he or she wants to hurt or kill you carry symbolic threats of violence.   

Threatening behavior. This includes making subtle and not so subtle threats or negative remarks with the intent to frighten or control you. It can also include threatening divorce whenever you have an argument or threatening infidelity if you don’t give into his sexual demands. 

Undermining and Sabotaging Your Efforts. This can be a form of passive-aggressive behavior since there is the same sense of underhandedness to it. A good example of this form of emotional abuse is when you want to do something or go somewhere and your partner acts as if he’s okay with it. He may even act enthusiastic while all along he disapproves of it. 

Unpredictable Responses. This type of emotional abuse includes drastic mood swings, sudden emotional outbursts for no apparent reason, including screaming, cursing, crying jags, and throwing things. It can also include inconsistent responses such as reacting very differently at various times to the same behavior. For example, he may say one thing one day and the opposite the next, or he may frequently change his mind—liking something one day but hating it the next. 

The reason this behavior is damaging is that it causes others, especially a partner, to feel constantly on edge. You are always waiting for the other shoe to drop and you never feel you know what is expected of you. Living with someone who is like this is extremely demanding and anxiety-provoking, causing you to feel constantly frightened, unsettled, and off-balance and to feel that you must remain hypervigilant, waiting for your partner’s next outburst or change of mood. 

This type of abusive behavior can be an indication of mental illnesses such as bi-polar disorder or of certain personality disorders causing a person to have drastic shifts in mood, sudden emotional outbursts (sudden anger, overwhelming fear or unexplained anxiety attacks) or to react unpredictably.   

Using your secrets against you. When we first begin a relationship we often open up and tell our new partner very intimate, embarrassing things about ourselves, including information about our history or our family’s history. This is a natural part of becoming close to someone. But some emotional abusers will use this intimate information against us as a way of humiliating us, whether in the midst of an argument or as a reminder that they could use the information against us by sharing it with others. This kind of emotional abuse actually has a name: “the use of intimate knowledge for degradation.”  

Verbal assault. This is a particularly potent form of emotional abuse that can include all the following:

  • Swearing at you or calling you names
  • Using sarcasm or so-called “teasing” to put you down or make you feel bad
  • Making jokes at your expense, often in front of others
  • Ordering you around and treating you like a servant

Verbal assault includes berating, belittling, criticizing, humiliating, name calling, screaming, threatening, excessive blaming, shaming, using sarcasm in a cutting way, or expressing disgust toward the person. This kind of abuse is extremely damaging to a person’s self-esteem and self-image. Just as assuredly as physical violence assaults the body, verbal abuse assaults the mind and spirit, causing wounds that are extremely difficult to heal. Yelling and screaming are not only demeaning, but frightening as well. When someone yells at us, we become afraid that he or she may also resort to physical violence. 

Withholding (resources, affection). This type of emotional abuse can go hand in hand with the silent treatment. The purpose is to punish you. Your partner may withhold affection, sex, money or other “privileges” in an attempt to control you and get his way.  

You may be surprised to realize that many of the behaviors you live with everyday are actually considered emotionally abusive. And even though you may not have labeled these negative and upsetting behaviors as abusive, they have nevertheless hurt you and even damaged you in many ways. Or you may feel validated as you realize that your sense that your partner’s behavior is abusive was absolutely correct. No matter how much your partner justifies his behavior, there is no justification for insensitivity, spitefulness, and cruelty. 

Guest Author

Beverly Engel
Beverly Engel, LMFT

Beverly Engel is an internationally recognized psychotherapist and an acclaimed advocate for victims of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. The author of 22 self-help books, her latest book is entitled, It Wasn’t Your Fault: Freeing Yourself from the Shame of Childhood Abuse with the Power of Self-Compassion. Engel is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and has been practicing psychotherapy for 35 years.


Are You Being Emotionally Abused? Part 1

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