Emotional abuse in a relationship can be dire to a person’s self-confidence. Unlike physical abuse though, emotional abuse can be difficult to detect and often both the abuser and the victim can be completely unaware that emotional abuse is a part of their relationship. Emotional abuse is as often perpetrated by women, as it is by men in an intimate relationship. Furthermore, emotional abuse can feature in both homosexual relationships, as well as heterosexual relationships.

Emotional abuse involves a regular pattern of verbal abuse, such as bullying, threatening, constant criticism, intimidation, shaming, and manipulation. Emotional abuse is usually elusive and is used as a means to control and belittle the victim. Often this form of abuse occurs as a result of the abuser having unresolved childhood wounds. Another reason an individual may be emotionally abusive, is that they have a personality disorder. Statistically, both men and women abusers often tend to have borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, or narcissistic personality disorder.

Sadly, the victim of emotional abuse often doesn’t see the behaviour as abusive. As such, the victim develops coping mechanisms of minimizing the issue or denying the issue, so as to deal with the stress of being in an abusive relationship. It is important to acknowledge that the effects of long-term emotional abuse can cause severe emotional trauma for the victim, including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Thus, the following signs of an abusive relationship may help you confirm your suspicions, if you feel like you or someone you know and love may be in an emotionally abusive relationship.

The signs of emotional abuse to look out for

  1. Co-dependency and enmeshment

This symptom of emotional abuse is displayed in a multiple of ways. For example the abuser may not see the victim as their own person, but rather as an extension of themselves. They may also go against what the victim requests, and act based on what they feel is best for the victim, or invade the victim’s personal boundaries by sharing personal information. Lastly, they may expect the partner to stay in contact with them continuously, and may not have developed a healthy support network outside of the relationship or their family.

  1. Controlling, dominating and shaming

The first telling sign of this behaviour is that the victim is often being told off for their behaviour and accused of behaving inappropriately. As such the abuser will often treat the victim as if they are a child or as if they are inferior to them, making the victim feel like they need to acquire permission before going anywhere or before making any decision; regardless of how big or small the decision is.  Another way a partner can be abusive in this way, is to be disapproving, contemptuous, dismissive or condescending in their comments, behaviour or even looks toward the victim.  This kind of abuser will remind the victim of their shortcomings, undermine their accomplishments, plans, aspirations and them as a person. The abuser may also insist on controlling the victim’s spending. Lastly, the abuser may make the victim feel like they are always wrong and that the abuser is always right.

  1. Constant criticism, judgement, or humiliation

Using subtle ways to tease the victim, using sarcasm or jokes as a way to put him or her down is emotionally abusive behaviour, especially if the abuser makes fun of the victim or puts him or her down in public settings. Often if the victim brings up this behaviour in order to address it, the abuser will dismiss it and say that the victim is being too sensitive and that it was a joke. In the same vain, an emotionally abusive partner may tell the victim that their opinion or feelings are “wrong” and dismiss their concerns. Lastly, it is emotional abuse if a partner ridicules, degrades, or disregards the other’s opinions, suggestions, thoughts and feelings.

  1. Emotional abandonment or neglect, including “silent treatment” and emotional distancing

When a partner refuses to take responsibility for their actions or attitudes and deflects blame onto the other or plays the victim, this too is emotional abuse. An emotionally abusive partner may use withdrawal, neglect, abandonment or withholding of attention or affection as a form of “punishment” for the victim. Lastly, this form of emotional abuse includes the abuser not noticing or caring about the victim’s emotional state of being.

  1. Has unreasonable demands and expectations, and denies their own weaknesses

Confusing for the victim is when an emotionally abusive partner accuses them of something manufactured in the abusers head, that the victim knows to be untrue. This is often coupled with the abuser violating the victims personal boundaries, for example going through the victim’s phone or reading their emails or texts. At the same time, an emotionally abusive partner is often unable to laugh at themselves, and is hypersensitive when someone else makes fun of them or makes a comment that they perceive to be disrespectful. Likewise, when they are in the wrong, a partner who is emotionally abusive may refuse or struggle to apologize. As such, the abuser will likely make excuses for their actions, blame others for their mistakes or the circumstance, or blame the victim for their unhappiness or any problem’s that they face.

What can you do when in an abusive relationship?

Understandably, leaving an emotionally abusive relationship isn’t always a viable option for a plethora of reasons. The most important thing to do is to help the abuser see that their behaviour is abusive, so that they can take the steps to change their behaviour. However, if they are unwilling to change, and leaving the relationship isn’t an immediate option, there are a few things that you can do to reclaim your self-esteem.

Firstly, it is important that you put your own needs ahead of your partner’s demands, even when they try to manipulate you. Next, set some firm boundaries, so that your partner knows what behaviour you will tolerate. Leave the room when these boundaries are violated. Don’t engage abusive behaviour by over-explaining or apologizing or trying to placate the abuser. It is better to keep quiet and remove yourself from the situation. Lastly, it is important that you realise that you are not to blame for the abuse and you cannot fix your partner’s behaviour. It can be useful to seek professional help and guidance from a psychologist who can support and advise you on how best to cope in an abusive relationship.