What You Need to Know About Emotional Abuse (Even if You Think It Doesn’t Apply to You)

We all need to know these warning signs so that we can help ourselves and each other.
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Mary Rose Somarriba
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We all need to know these warning signs so that we can help ourselves and each other.

Domestic abuse is one of those things no one really likes to be reminded of. But lately, with stories like that of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard spread across every magazine and domestic abuse PSAs receiving airtime in Super Bowl ads and music award shows, it’s become impossible to ignore—and rightly so. 

Even with these glimpses of the issue, it can be hard to understand domestic abuse if you don't personally know someone affected by it. How could someone find themselves in such a horrible situation? What’s more, since much of domestic abuse happens behind closed doors, and is emotional or verbal, not physical, it is often belittled or dismissed as not real. But emotional and verbal abuse can leave more lasting scars than physical abuse, despite the proverb of “words will never hurt me.”

We’d be better off as a society if we all took a moment to learn more about these less-understood manifestations of physical abuse so we’re better prepared to help people in our communities who may be facing them.

01. Abuse Is Not Usually Singular

According to Sharie Stines, MBA, PsyD, a recovery expert specializing in personality disorders, complex trauma, and helping people overcome dysfunctional relationships, all forms of abuse have underlying threads in common. As she explained to me, “physical abuse affects people. Sexual abuse affects people. Emotional abuse affects people." Furthermore, she says, "Emotional abuse is interpersonal abuse. Some call it interpersonal violence, which I feel is appropriate." According to Stines, emotional abuse causes in victims a form of trauma which, severe enough to be considered a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, is known as Complex PTSD.

Stines says complex PTSD and emotional abuse are hard to identify, which causes more problems for victims. "While physical or sexual abuse can be identified and blatantly obvious," she says, "emotional abuse goes undetected, minimized, and dismissed by the abuser, victim, and others." Stines finds this ignorance is effectively abuse upon abuse, which "leads to serious emotional trauma.”

According to Marian Arend, LPC, counselor, and specialist in power and control relationship dynamics, while not all emotional or verbal abuse leads to physical abuse, physical abuse is always preceded by verbal and emotional abuse. She says an abuser will only use physical means when control cannot be maintained through verbal control and intimidating physical gesturing first.

02. People Don’t Knowingly Enter Abusive Situations

Arend told me she considers one of the greatest misunderstandings of abuse to be when women say “I would never let myself be hit.” No one ever sets themselves out to be in the company of an abuser, she says. Furthermore, if a woman is in the presence of such a person and sees things escalating, those who stand up for themselves are often “the ones who get beat up,” Arend says. The abusive person’s mindset is fixed on a mission to maintain control. They’ll do whatever means necessary to do that. 

But I would never put myself in a position to be with a potentially abusive person, you might think. According to Arend, “No person knowingly enters into a hurtful traumatic relationship, and the reasons for a person’s inability to identify what is truly happening in their relationships are many.” 

For starters, emotional abuse can happen gradually or suddenly. Arend says often people who are controllers are able to be fun and interested in the courting phase of a relationships. They show good qualities that people like. Once they feel comfortable in the relationship, that’s when control tendencies begin to take place. This shift can happen rather suddenly, Arend says. It could be as soon as the person feels bonded, right after engagement or marriage, or after moving in together. Once it begins, however, she says that “emotional abuse is also a gradual spiral process in that a woman can go deeper and deeper into over time." Often well-meaning partners will continue making adjustments and sacrifices in their attempts to make the relationship work, despite suffering continued abuse day after day.

03. Basic Relationship Advice Doesn’t Apply

Often when partners in abusive relationships begin to share small details of their experience with friends or loved ones, they are offered well-meaning relationship advice that can be unhelpful and sometimes harmful. The thing is, general advice about how couples can improve communication or better show appreciation for their spouse relies on the assumption that both parties care about each other’s feelings and are willing to put in effort to make their relationship work. But, as Arend says, “An emotionally dysfunctional person cannot understand their partner’s feelings, unlike healthy relationships where people are able to understand others’ different perspectives.”

For people who are controlling and abusive, Arend explains, “The underlying cause of their abuse is that they are emotionally dysregulated ... they can’t control themselves so instead they put parameters on other people’s behaviors—how they feel other people need to act. When other people don't act how the abuser thinks they ‘should,’ abusers become, in their mind justifiably angry.” 

This is why, though a partner may do her best to improve the relationship, ”until the abusive person gets help for his own emotional issues, the cycle will continue.” Left untreated, abusers continue holding their “self-centered perspectives and don’t take into account the needs and feelings of others.”

04. Emotional Abuse Leaves a Mark

Some people think if abuse isn't physical it isn't as bad. But that just isn't the case. Dr. Steven Stosny, Ph.D., therapist, and author of a number of books including Love Without Hurt, founded and runs a couples’ emotional reconditioning program called CompassionPower to help people overcome the damage of abuse in their relationships. According to Stosny, “Unless the physical abuse does permanent visible damage, such as scarring, maiming, or disfigurement, it generally does less psychological damage than emotional abuse. Physical abuse tends to be occasional and cyclical; emotional abuse is daily."

Furthermore, he says with physical abuse, violence is more likely to be perceived as the offender’s failings, while emotional abuse is more likely to be internalized by victims as personal defects. Emotional abuse affects people over time, but not in small ways. As Stosny explains, “Emotional abuse is making loved ones feel afraid or bad about themselves. It is typically a gradual erosion of the victim’s sense of self.” 

Stosny, who helps abusers stop dysfunctional cycles of behavior, says most abusers employ something he calls “toddler-brain splitting" as a coping mechanism. When they feel good, perhaps in the beginning of the relationship, they can put you on a pedestal. But, he says, "when they feel bad, you become unworthy of compassion, kindness, and affection.” As the relationship progresses and they fail more often at compassion, they feel bad more often and become more abusive.

All the while, the victims of the emotional abuse, can “in severe cases, lose a cohesive sense of self, identity, or confidence." They can also struggle with emotion regulation skills (anxiety, anger, despair) and efficacy (belief that our behavior can improve our lives), says Stosny.

Anyone who thinks emotional abuse doesn’t leave a mark on victims doesn’t understand the variety of coping mechanisms that can develop from an abusive relationship. Stines named a few: “dissociation, addictions, deadness, anxiety, depression, eating disorders,” and more. These are the things that leave their mark on victims of abuse. 

05. It’s Never Too Late to Ask for Help

Because abuse can have a sinister effect on a victim’s perception and judgment, they should listen to and not downplay any alerts their body is trying to tell them about their safety. Once a person starts to fear things escalating to a physical level of abuse, they should call just to talk about that fear with a professional or trusted loved one. Everyone thinks they’ll never permit physical abuse, but you don’t always know how damaged you’ll be or how you’ll respond after it happens.

From her experience counseling women, Arend says, “when you are in danger, nothing seems dangerous. In order to survive, often the women in these relationships are unable to recognize the danger they are in, so it’s important to get some outside perspectives. Seek friends, an outside opinion. Call a domestic violence hotline to talk anonymously about your experiences with a knowledgable person. Reach out to “a therapist who is familiar with ‘control and abuse dynamics’.”

“Support from a network of friends and relatives or from professionals is a necessity for victims to serve as reality-checks,” Stosny echoes. It’s worth knowing, as he explains, that “abuse is a degenerative condition that almost never gets better on its own. Abusers become emotionally addicted to the adrenaline required to abuse.” What happens then is much more physiological than one might think: “the body builds a tolerance to adrenaline, which means they need more and more of it to get an acceptable level of energy and confidence. They become more abusive. If they are attached to their victims, as most are, they experience at least an unconscious guilt and shame for harming them, no matter how much they try to rationalize it. The guilt and shame inevitably turns into self-loathing, which drains energy and confidence, thereby intensifying the need for adrenaline.” Or as Arend puts it succinctly, “they blame their feelings on their partner.” On and on the cycle goes. Which leads us to the last sad but true fact about emotional abuse.

06. The Abused Partner Can’t ‘Fix’ the Abuser

Dr. Stosny stresses that when partners think they can help reduce the abuse, they’re often mistaken. The problem is not with them, it’s with the abuser. As he puts it, “abuse results from the abuser’s moral self-regulatory deficits. It is not a function of the relationship dynamic, where the behavior of one partner invokes predictable behavior from the other…. Everyone makes mistakes in relationship dynamics, and that can give victims the false sense that, if they just behaved a little differently, the abuse would cease.” 

To think they could save the relationship by just changing some action of theirs is, as Stosny sees it, “tantamount to thinking you put the furniture in the wrong place on the deck of the Titanic. Abuse gouges the hole that sinks the ship”—not any small thing the partner did that “caused” an argument.

Which is why often the only way for the abuse to stop is for the abused partner to remove themselves from it.

Stosny says, “It is often difficult for victims to leave their relationships because they love their abusers, who, in general, have some good qualities. They must realize that tolerating abuse contributes to the self-loathing of the abuser. The most compassionate thing to do for an abuser who does not seek immediate help to transform the habit of blame, denial, and avoidance that lead to abuse, is to end the relationship.”

Whether one decides to leave as a temporary stepping stone to safety as they work on the relationship healing, or as a longterm solution where they end the relationship completely, the decision should be taken with utmost care. 

Because emotional abuse may be less visible than physical abuse, it can be harder to identify. “If someone were to hold a gun to our head or physically assault us,” Arend says, “we would know that we had suffered an injury. But traumatizing relationships never start out that way. The slow yet ever-escalating nature in which these subtle patterns occur make it difficult for us to put a name to what is happening.” This is why it’s such a dangerous issue and why it often goes unidentified and unrecognized. Armed with this knowledge of the harms of emotional abuse, we can work to turn this around.

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Photo Credit: Regina Leah