Awareness of emotional abuse has thankfully risen over the last few decades, and today people understand that you don’t have to resort to physical violence to abuse someone.
Unfortunately, emotional abuse is much trickier to pin down than physical abuse. While a black eye or a broken arm count as undeniable evidence of physical abuse, it can be a lot more difficult to define emotional abuse.
Signs of Emotional Abuse
Underlying most emotional abuse is some kind of power imbalance. The person who has more power in a relationship dynamic may resort to intimidation, belittling, manipulation, name-calling, threatening and a host of other subtle tactics. Whatever the method though, the result is that the victim feels disempowered and undermined, and their sense of self can become seriously damaged.
While emotional abuse doesn’t always lead to physical abuse or domestic violence, domestic violence almost always has a component of emotional abuse. A common misconception is that emotional abuse victims are usually women – in actual fact the men/women divide for emotional abuse is roughly equal. Although even the experts can’t agree on a single definition of emotional abuse, there are often three separate categories of aggression:
- Verbal aggression: What most people think of when they think of emotional abuse. Insults, mockery, name-calling, blaming, giving orders, trivialising, judging, criticising etc. are all verbal emotional abuse
- Dominance: An emotional abuser may need to keep asserting power over another person, and demonstrate their dominance over them. Preventing someone from seeing friends or family or prohibiting/enforcing certain behaviours are good examples of this
- Jealous behaviours: This aspect of emotional abuse is often overlooked. Monitoring the other person’s actions, being suspicious and controlling, and demanding proof of fidelity can all be classified as emotional abuse
The Cycle of Abuse
Emotional abuse can sometimes develop over the course of years, gradually wearing down the victim’s self esteem and sense of what is right and wrong. A common pattern of abuse repeats itself: first, there is the aggressive act. It doesn’t matter how small or insignificant this may at first appear.
The abuser may then deny that they committed the aggression. This can take the form of the familiar “look what you made me do” defence. The abuser may blame others, deny responsibility, rationalise their actions or make excuses for their behaviour. Lastly, there is the minimising stage, where the abuser seeks to discount or reduce the impact of the aggression. While the victim may be terribly upset, the abuser will act like it was no big deal at all.
This last stage is where emotional abuse does its damage. The abuser may simply “forget” about what happened, or argue over the details, seemingly trying to brush over what happened. The victim is painted as overly sensitive, or they may be blamed entirely.
Breaking the Cycle
Because emotional abuse can be so subtle, sometimes people are not even aware that they are being abused. In a closed off dynamic, abuse may go on behind closed doors and the victim has only themselves to rely on. However they doubt themselves and their intuition and may put off seeking help, secretly believing that they are actually to blame.
The first step out of an abusive dynamic is to recognise that it’s a problem. Denial, minimising and making excuses are all part of what keeps emotional abuse alive. The cycle can be broken if the victim (and the abuser) come to realise what is happening.
The next step is to get help. Victims may have had their sense of integrity worn down to such an extent that they need an objective, external source of support to help them regain a sense of balance and dignity. Over time, victims of emotional abuse can learn to trust themselves and have faith in their own self worth. Eventually they can remove themselves from situations where the core of their being is threatened and instead find relationships where they are respected and affirmed.
If you’re dealing with emotional abuse and need help, search our counsellors that specialise in working with emotional abuse.