Some relationships provide fuel and nourishment while others serve only to drain and disempower. Those that are emotionally abusive tend to fall into the second category. However, if you’re being emotionally abused, you may not immediately recognize the signs.
Similar to other types of abuse, emotional abusers tend to inflict harm over time. It can be easy to fall for an emotional abuser because, instead of being abusive right away, they’ll often present their most charming selves, then gradually become more abusive once trust has been built. Psychologist Leanne Donoghue-Tamplin tells The Cheat Sheet this process is referred to as grooming.
The big issue with these relationships is that the perpetrator of the abuse trains or grooms their partner in a strategic and gradually increasing way. They don’t start the relationship being abusive, or the partner would leave immediately. In fact, they’re often above average when they’re being great so their partner has trouble accepting that this wonderful person can also be abusive. They’re also very talented at not being caught by outsiders.
The abuse gradually becomes normal over time, and the partner blames themselves for any abuse that occurs. If you suspect you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, you need strong support to unravel that training so you can begin to see the relationship for what it really is.
Author, happiness coach, and domestic abuse survivor Gayle Katz similarly recognizes the tendency for those in abusive relationships to blame themselves, but she says it’s important to remember the abuse is not your fault. “The bully in your life actually hates themselves, which is the real reason for the abuse. Once you understand that nothing your partner (abuser) says is true, you take your strength back. And that’s when you need to get out!” said Katz, founder of the Grounded Girl’s Guide series.
To learn even more about these types of harmful relationships, The Cheat Sheet spoke with some mental health experts. Here are nine signs you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship.
1. You feel bad about yourself
A loving, supportive relationship should make you feel good about yourself. Pay attention to how you feel when you’re around your partner. Do you feel unworthy? Do you usually experience feelings of depression or anger? If you feel worse after spending time with your significant other, you might want to rethink things.
Dr. Dan Neuharth, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says your feelings can provide helpful information about the health of your relationship. “One big sign is how you feel around the other person. Something is likely wrong if you feel anxious, walk on eggshells, are afraid to disagree, or feel tense when you think of getting together or drained after spending time together,” Neuharth told The Cheat Sheet. “Other red flags are if you go out of your way to avoid certain topics or settings for fear of upsetting the other person, if you’re criticized more than appreciated or acknowledged, or if you start second-guessing yourself.”
2. Your partner calls you names or intentionally says hurtful things
People who use words to wound may resort to outright verbal attacks. However, these hurtful statements might be said in a joking way so that you don’t catch on to what’s really happening. This gives the abuser a way to continue the abuse since you may start to wonder if what is occurring is really so bad. Someone who loves you will not call you names or say intentionally hurtful things. He or she will make an effort to approach you with care and respect. Even if you think your partner may have been joking, using humor to deliver a disparaging comment can still cause emotional pain.
Neuharth says his work in the mental health field has further convinced him of the power of words. “In my 25 years of counseling, I have heard from many survivors of physical abuse that it was often their abuser’s words that hurt even more than the blows,” Neuharth said.
3. Your partner frequently lies
Lying becomes second nature to emotional abusers. Their main concern is getting their way and staying in control. Even if the abuser is caught in a lie, he or she will find a way to either blame their victim or explain it away.
4. Your partner has all the control in the relationship
As the relationship progresses, you will feel like you have no say in what goes on (most likely because you don’t). Your opinions are ignored or ridiculed. When it’s time to make a major decision, you’re not included.
5. Your partner screams at you
An emotional abuser may try to assert their authority or instill fear through screaming. This is one of the ways he or she attempts to assume control. Once the relationship gets to this point, you may have become fearful of the abuse escalating, so you might brush it off or focus on calming your partner down.
Barrie Davenport, author of Signs of Emotional Abuse, says many survivors are so overcome by anxiety that they do nothing. “For many victims, the anxiety associated with standing up to the abuser and calling him or her out on the abuse is overwhelming and debilitating,” Sanders writes in her book. “The fear of the abuse escalating is enough to make you bury your head in the sand and pretend everything is perfectly fine. But deep down, you know it’s not. Deep down, part of you is dying.”
6. You’re constantly criticized
Is nothing ever good enough for your significant other? Do you often feel like you don’t measure up because of your partner’s harsh criticism? In many cases, those who verbally mistreat others were also mistreated during their formative years. If they don’t get professional help in a timely manner, they often go on to communicate harshly with intimate partners. Dr. Nicole Prause, a neuroscientist specializing in human sexual behavior, says the way statements are expressed can make a big difference. While it is acceptable to express anger, for example, it is not OK to be mean about it. Prause told us:
Some anger can be expressed in a healthy way, but expressions of contempt (trying to belittle, hurt, or humiliate with no other function) is a strong predictor of divorce. There is a difference between “I am so tired of you being late all the time!” and “You’re a moron!” Same problem, very different expression.
Expressing negative emotions when arguing is often part of disagreeing, but if the negative emotion fails to convey information, empathy, or work toward a solution, I would be concerned about that person’s ability to discuss inevitable concerns without becoming abusive.
7. Your partner minimizes the abusive behavior
If you ever get the courage to point out the bad behavior, your partner may offer excuses or minimize the severity of the abuse. If you press for him or her to admit to mistreatment, the conversation will likely be shut down or the conversation topic will change suddenly. Neuharth told us there are several factors that lead people to become emotionally abusive.
Risk factors for someone being emotionally abusive include: people who have difficulty identifying or communicating their feelings and instead discharge or displace difficult feelings onto others; people who have difficulty taking responsibility for their actions or admitting they are wrong and who tend to blame others for their problems; people with personality disorders or mood disorders; people with a manipulative or sociopathic style; untreated victims of abuse; and people with addictions who are not getting help, seeking recovery, or addressing the consequences of their behavior.
8. Your partner is manipulative
An emotionally abusive partner will manipulate you in an attempt to get his or her way. You’ll be pressured to do things you don’t want to do and the abuser will try to make you feel guilty or get angry at you for resisting. He or she may also do or say things that cause you to question your perception of reality or even your sanity. This is a technique called gaslighting.
9. You constantly blame yourself
As emotional abuse continues, it’s not uncommon to start engaging in a pattern of self-blame. You may feel the poor treatment is your fault, that you somehow caused your partner to be mean to you. After demonstrating abusive behavior, your partner might say “you made me do it,” or “you made me angry.” Consequently, victims continue the cycle.
Donoghue-Tamplin says the self-blame is a result of being trained by their abusers to think they are bad or not valuable. Eventually, the behavior becomes normalized. “Victims of abuse are trained to blame themselves, become desensitized to the abuse, and start to care greatly for the perpetrator no matter what he or she does,” Donoghue-Tamplin said.
Once you’re aware you’re being emotionally abused, it’s time to do something. Depending on your situation, it could be something as simple as having a talk with your partner or it might mean leaving the relationship.
If you choose to stay in your relationship and feel that your issues can be worked out with the help of a mental health professional, one of the first things you’ll need to do is set boundaries for how you will be treated. Relationship expert April Masini advises advocating for yourself and letting your partner know that you will not accept the behavior going forward. “You can set boundaries by saying, ‘I don’t like what you just said or did, and if you do it again, I’m going to go home.’ And then you have to do it,” she said.
When to leave
If the behavior continues despite your best efforts, it’s time to go. If there is also physical abuse, it will be necessary to quickly work on a plan for exiting the relationship. While emotional abuse is enough of a reason to leave, the addition of physical abuse makes the situation more of an immediate danger to you and possibly your loved ones. You can start by calling a service such as The National Domestic Violence Hotline. They can help you work on an action plan.
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[Editor’s Note: This story was originally published January 10, 2017]