The subject of emotional abuse has become more and more common in recent years. It has come to be recognized as being as damaging as physical abuse. Some professionals even believe that it is worse than physical abuse due to the fact that emotional abuse can be difficult to recognize. It does not leave physical bruises or broken bones, and it is therefore more difficult to recognize one’s self as a victim. However, despite the lack of physical evidence, the psychological damage is deep. (Although the current trend is to refer to emotional abuse victims as survivors, I will be using the term “victim” in this article since I feel that one is a victim until they are able to leave the relationship. At that point think of them as survivors).
My definition of emotional abuse is the use of words, behaviors, and/or manipulations that are directed against a child, spouse, elderly parent, employee, or other person in the abuser’s life. The abuse occurs as a way to control the victim, thus enabling the abuser to feel more powerful, and in control. The affect on the victim is to create a variety of feelings that may include low self esteem, low confidence, anxiety, depression, self doubt, guilt, difficulty trusting, anger, fear, dread and shame. The survivor may have difficulty sleeping and may have nightmares related to the abuse. (For the purposes of this article I will use ‘she’ to represent the victim, and ‘he’ to identify the perpetrator. However, either gender can be in either role).
Signs of Emotional Abuse
One of the ways that the emotional abuser controls the victim is by frequently demeaning her in terms of how she functions in their relationship, and in the world at large. This affects her self confidence and leads her to doubt her abilities. As a result she may become less effective in the world, and become more dependent on him.
Angry Outbursts and Name Calling
Emotional abusers will often call their victims names such as stupid, bitch, cunt, etc. It is not unusual for this to be accompanied by frightening displays of anger. During these episodes the abuser will often yell. He may slam doors, put his fist through the wall, overturn furniture etc. Usually this will fall short of actual physical violence towards the victim. However, it is always a real possibility that things could escalate to physical violence.
Humiliating and Embarrassing the Victim
The emotional abuser may tell embarrassing stories about the victim to friends and family. This is another way to demean and control her. Now other people are being brought into the equation. She may feel that they too are now perceiving her according to the abuser’s world view, thus feeding into her negative self image and sense of helplessness.
Isolating the Victim
The emotional abuser will start trying to limit the amount of time that the victim spends with friends and family. He wants her to himself. He may say that if she really loved him she would want to spend more of her time with him. This is another way to control and isolate her.
Frequent Phone Calls and Texting
The emotional abuser will want to be in constant contact with the victim should she leave the house. He will call frequently to find out what she is doing and who she is with. He may call her at work a lot to make sure she is actually there, and may take the opportunity to engage in abusive behaviors on the phone.
In the old the movie, Gaslight, an emotionally abusive husband tries to drive his wife crazy by denying her reality. One of the emotionally abusive things that he does is to turn down the gas lights in the house, and then tell her that the lighting has not dimmed. This term is now used to describe a scenario in which an abuser denies the reality of a victim The victim may be told that a memory or perception they have is not true. They are imagining things, they are crazy, etc.
Controlling the Finances
The emotional abuser may keep control of the checkbook and credit cards. He may take charge of the family budget and bill paying. The victim may have little or no knowledge of the bills, or how to pay them. The abuser may financially reward her with gifts or cash when she “behaves”, and deny her financial needs when she “doesn’t behave”
Intrusion Into Your Privacy
The emotional abuser may invade the victim’s privacy in a number of ways. He may read her emails, appointment book, journal, or notes that were left out, or thrown in the trash. He may secretly listen in on a phone call. He may violate her privacy in a in other ways as well. He wants to know what she is thinking and doing. He may be suspicious of her having an affair. He tends to be jealous and wants to make sure that she is loyal to him.
It is not unusual for the emotional abuser to have a long list of complaints that he uses to confront his victim in an attempt to make her feel guilty. “If you really loved me you wouldn’t want to spend so much time with your family, you’d want to be with me….. If you really loved me you would be more supportive…… I think that other wives would be glad to know that their husband cared enough to call them when they are out….. The way you pull away from me is devastating. I can hardly function because of it. Why do you treat me like this?” These kind of statements can be confusing, and may also fit as gaslighting. In this scenario, the victim gets painted as the perpetrator, by the abuser.
The emotional abuser will sometimes make threats such as “if you don’t do what I want…… I will leave you….. I will take your car keys away…. I will kill myself….. I will take the children away, etc.” This is often a way to regain control when he thinks that he has lost it.
The above list is not all inclusive. There are other ways that emotional abusers abuse, but the above outlines some of the more common ones. If you are being emotionally abused, and are needing therapeutic support, please feel free to call Marie O’Meara, LCSW at 707-210-4418 for a free fifteen minute phone consultation. You may visit my website at marieomearalcswca.com.