Are You Being Emotionally Abused?

Beverly Engel
Beverly Engel, LMFT

Many people don’t realize they are being emotionally abused.

Many people are being emotionally abused without realizing it. Many wonder whether they are being abused but are confused as to what exactly emotional abuse is. As a way to help clear up any confusion you may have as to whether you are being emotionally abused, I present the most common tactics used by abusive people. The typical emotional abuser has an entire repertoire of tools he or she can use to manipulate and control their partner. While not every abuser uses these tactics in a deliberate, conscious way, many do. Below is an extensive list of all the forms of emotional abuse in alphabetical order. Notice which of these tactics your partner uses with you.

Part 1

Abusive Expectations. When someone has abusive expectations they place unreasonable demands on their partner. For example, expecting you to put everything aside in order to satisfy their needs, demanding your undivided attention, demanding frequent sex, or requiring you to spend all of your time with them, are all examples of abusive expectations. This person can never be pleased because there is always something more you could have done. You are likely to be subjected to constant criticism and to be berated because you don’t fulfill his or her needs. 

Constant criticism. Constant criticism is when your partner constantly points out your mistakes, flaws or shortcomings. This is often done under the guise of trying to “help” you or “guide” you toward being a better person, but make no mistake, the purpose of constant criticism is to shame you and make you doubt yourself or feel bad about yourself so he or she can control and/or manipulate you into doing his/her bidding.

It is the insidious nature and cumulative effects of this type of abuse that does the damage. Over time, it eats away at your self-confidence and sense of self-worth, undermining any good feelings you have about yourself and about your accomplishments.

When a partner overtly criticizes or screams and yells it is easy to come to the conclusion that you are being emotionally abused, but when your partner puts you down under the guise of humor, it can be extremely difficult to come to this realization.

Constant Chaos/Creating Crises. Specifically characterized by continual upheavals and discord, this type of behavior will cause you to feel constantly unsettled and off-balance. If your partner deliberately starts arguments with you or others or seems to be in constant conflict with others he or she may be what some people have called being “addicted to drama.” Creating drama or chaos provides excitement for some people, especially those who distract themselves from their problems by focusing outward, those who feel empty inside and need to fill themselves up with activity, and those who were raised in an environment in which harmony and peace were unknown quantities. Constant chaos can also be a reflection of what is going on inside of a person and is characteristic of borderline personality disorder, which we discuss in later chapters when we discuss the different types of abusive partners. 

Character Assassination. This involves constantly blowing someone’s mistakes out of proportion, humiliating, criticizing or making fun of someone in front of others, or discounting another person’s achievements. It can also include lying about someone in order to negatively affect others’ opinion of them or gossiping about a person’s failures and mistakes with others. In addition to the pain this behavior can cause an individual on a personal level, character assassination can ruin someone’s personal and professional reputation, causing them to lose friends, jobs or even their family.

Controlling behavior. Controlling behavior is just what it sounds like. Your partner has a need to control every aspect of your life: your finances, how you discipline your children, even what you wear. He may treat you like a child who needs to be managed and controlled. He doesn’t see you as an equal partner but someone who is not as smart or competent as he is. He may even  require that you get his permission before you can go anywhere or make any major decisions.  

Continual blaming. This is whenyour partner blames you for anything that goes wrong. It is always your fault, you are always doing something wrong, always disappointing her, always showing her that you don’t love her.

Domination. Someone who needs to dominate in a relationship has to have control of the relationship and their partner’s behavior. They have a tremendous need to have their own way and they often resort to threats in order to get it. Domineering behavior includes ordering a partner around, monitoring time and activities, restricting resources (finances, telephone), restricting social activities, isolating a partner from her family or friends, interfering with opportunities (job, education, medical care), excessive jealousy and possessiveness, throwing objects, threatening to or harming their partner or a partner’s children, family, friends, pets, or property, and forcing or coercing a partner into illegal activity.

Emotional blackmail. Emotional blackmail is one of the most powerful forms of manipulation. It occurs when one partner either consciously or unconsciously coerces the other into doing what he wants by playing on his partner’s fear, guilt, or compassion.  Examples of emotional blackmail include: one partner threatening to end the relationship if he doesn’t get what he wants or one partner rejecting or distancing herself from her partner until he gives into her demands. If your partner withholds sex or affection or gives you the silent treatment or the cold shoulder whenever he is displeased with you, threatens to find someone else, or uses other fear tactics to get you under control, he is using the tactic of emotional blackmail.

Gaslighting. When someone intentionally twists your perception of reality for their own gain, they are gaslighting you. The term comes from the classic movie of the same name, in which a husband uses a variety of insidious techniques to make his wife doubt her perceptions, her memory, and her very sanity in order to make her and others believe she is insane. His motive was to gain access to her substantial wealth. Gaslighting is sometimes used by those who need to discredit their partner in order to get access to their money or in order to turn others against them. 

A partner who gaslights may continually deny that certain events occurred or that he or she said something you both know was said, or he or she may insinuate that you are exaggerating or lying. In this way, the abusive person may be trying to gain control over you or to avoid taking responsibility for his or her actions. This is one of the forms of emotional abuse that is done very consciously and deliberately. It is often used as a way to justify their own inappropriate, cruel or abusive behavior.

Gaslighting tends to happen very gradually. The abuser’s action may seem like just a harmless misunderstanding at first. Over time, however, these abusive behaviors continue, and a victim can become confused, anxious, disoriented, isolated and depressed, all the while losing all sense of what is actually happening. Then, the victim may start relying on the abusive partner more and more to define reality, which creates a very difficult situation to escape.

Invasion of Privacy. One form of invasion of privacy involves boundary crossing. One of my clients, Gloria, shared with me how her husband constantly invades her privacy by barging into the bathroom when she is in there, even when she is on the toilet or in the shower. “I want to lock the bathroom door but he has convinced me that since we only have one bathroom it isn’t fair to keep him out. But he often comes in just to tell me something, not because he has to use the facilities.

“He has the same lack of respect for my body. He constantly grabs my breasts or butt when he passes by me, even though I’ve told him a million times that I hate it. He just laughs and says, ‘I can’t help it, you’re just so juicy.’ He seems to be oblivious to how uncomfortable I am with his intrusions. I feel like I have no space, no privacy, and that I’m constantly being invaded. It is very unsettling. I find that I’m increasingly nervous and tense all the time, just waiting for the next invasion.”

Isolating Behavior. Emotional abusers know that if they can isolate you from other people they can gain more control over you and affect your thinking and behavior. Isolating you from others is a way to undermine your life and identity outside the relationship and foster a sense of dependency. Therefore, they often begin by telling you such things as your family doesn’t support you, a particular friend isn’t to be trusted, etc. Eventually an abusive partner may even refuse to allow you to see family members or friends.

Younger women may be more vulnerable to isolation within their relationships because they may put a higher value on emotional connectivity than independence, and younger women may value a romantic partnership more than the benefits of life as a single person.

Jekyll and Hyde behavior. As I wrote in my book, The Jekyll and Hyde Syndrome, we all experience mood shifts from time to time. We are all multi-faceted people who show different sides of ourselves depending upon the circumstances and whom we are associating with. And we are all sometimes shocked by our own actions or by the words that come out of our mouths.

But there are some people whose mood shifts are far from normal, people who experience radical changes in their moods and violent outbursts for no apparent reason—people who become enraged, abusive or violent at the drop of a hat. There are people who not only show a different side of themselves depending on the circumstances and who they are around, but who are capable of creating a double life or an entirely different personality—a personality that would be unrecognizable to people who know them in another context. Those who have a partner with this syndrome suffer from incredible pain, fear, chaos and confusion.

Often a person with this syndrome changes his or her personality depending upon whether he or she is in public or in private. For example, the model employee who is affable and cooperative at work can become a demanding, critical and verbally abusive father and husband when he comes home. His boss and coworkers would never imagine that the man they know at work could behave in such a way. On the other hand, his wife and children would be shocked to see their demanding father subjugating himself before his boss and laughing with coworkers.

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.

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