If we could see emotional abuse what would it look like?
Emotional abuse attacks our minds rather than our bodies. It does not leave a physical sign but if you could imagine your self-esteem, self-worth and self-image as being a growing plant the effect of long term emotional abuse would look something like the plant leaf on the screen.
Everyone struggles in an environment of hostility and abuse. Children are particularly vulnerable because they are developing their self-image and actually growing their brains. Physical and emotional abuse have been shown to be predictors of long term mental health issues for children by distorting normal brain development.
It’s not impossible but it can be a long journey of personal development for children raised in abusive homes to be able to enjoy normal healthy relationships and all of the life skills that children who grow up in safe and nurturing homes develop without effort.
Emotional abuse is subjective and often covert. With physical abuse you are fully aware that someone is hurting you or that you are physically hurting them. The decision to stay or go often relates to fear of death or permanent injury. A fear that can paralyze and keep someone in a violent relationship or one that can motivate escape to safety.
With emotional abuse one or both of the people involved may not even be aware that they are being abusive or being abused.
How is it possible not to know that emotional abuse is happening?
Emotional Abuse is often laughed off as a joke, excused as being heated words in the moment or blamed on the person who has been abused. The every ready “you made me do it” excuse.
So what is emotional abuse?
It can be any form of communication that is harmful rather than supportive of the other. I say form of communication, because emotional abuse isn’t just in the words someone chooses to use but can also be in the tone of voice, expressions, body language or any combination of them.
Take this Emotional Abuse Quiz to find out if you are being emotionally abused by your partner (or emotionally abusing your partner or children)
Let’s look at three examples of emotional abuse and supportive behaviour. Think about your family relationships. Are they more often abusive or supportive?
1 Humiliating, degrading, discounting, negating, judging and criticizing.
This form of emotional abuse at it’s base sends the message that “you are worthless” or “you are worth less than me”. It destroys the recipients sense of self-worth and self-confidence if the messages are repeated often enough.
Abusive Behaviour – humiliating, degrading and belittling
- They make fun of you or put you down in front of others.
- They tease you, use sarcasm as a way of putting you down or degrading you.
- When you complain about their behaviour they say “It was a joke.” and accuse you of being too sensitive and continue to say things about you that you find hurtful.
- They set the rules in the relationship and punish you if you break them (sometimes you don’t know about the “rule” until after you have been told you’ve done the wrong thing)
- They tell you that your opinions and feelings are wrong.
- They regularly ridicule you, dismiss you, disregard your opinions, thoughts, suggestions and feelings.
If someone treats you in any of these ways, especially if it is done frequently and continues despite you telling them that you don’t like it and would like them to stop, their behaviour is abusive.
If you have never told them some of these behaviours may be done without realising the harm they cause and as a result of the person who is abusing you having endured the same sort of abuse in their own childhood or other relationships.
If you frequently make jokes at your partners expense you may be emotionally abusing them. Even if they appear to laugh with you it may be still harming their self-confidence and sense of self.
Check in with them to make sure that they think you are as funny as you think you are. Listen if they say that you do hurt them sometimes and find a less cruel way to get a laugh. Have a look at the supportive behaviours below if you think you may be being abusive or abused. How many of them do you experience?
Supportive Behaviour – supporting, validating and uplifting
- They talk positively about you and support you when with others
- If they tease you it is done in a way that you enjoy and feel valued (they don’t use sarcasm or put downs)
- If they go too far in their teasing or they ignore your input you feel comfortable to talk to them about it and they apologize and adjust their behaviour.
- If you make a mistake they accept your apology and don’t try to get back at you or punish you
- They listen to your opinions and validate your feelings. They don’t always agree with you but they discuss, negotiate and problem solve with you respectfully.
- They value your opinions, thoughts, suggestions and feelings and always make major decisions in consultation with you
2 Dominating, Controlling and Shaming
This type of emotional abuse puts you in a subservient or diminished role.
Some “traditional” relationships can appear controlling but if you both agree to fulfill certain roles in the relationship and your opinion and needs are treated with respect then it may not be a controlling relationship. Read on and think about which type of relationship you have one that is all about control or one based on sharing and respect.
Abusive Behaviour – dominating, controlling and shaming
- They treat you like a child or someone they are managing rather than an equal.
- The constantly correct or chastise you because your behaviour is “inappropriate” by their standards even though objectively what you do is appropriate
- They make you feel like you must “get permission” before going somewhere or making the smallest of decisions
- They control your spending
- They treat you as if you are inferior to them
- They make you feel as if they are always right and will never admit it if they get something wrong
- They constantly remind you of your shortcomings and mistakes
- They belittle and ridicule your aspirations, accomplishments, plans or even who you are as a person
- They give you disapproving, dismissive, contemptuous or condescending looks, comments or treatment
- They put financial and practical obstacles in your way preventing your independence or ability to make plans forcing you to comply with their requirements of you
Supportive Behaviour – sharing and respecting
- They value your opinion and input into decisions
- They work with you to agree on “relationship rules” and what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour
- They respect your right to make your own decisions and you don’t have to get permission from them
- You have a mutually acceptable agreement about finances and spending money appropriate for your family and financial situation
- They treat you with respect and as their equal
- They don’t need to be right at your expense and admit their mistakes
- They support and value your aspirations, accomplishments, plans and especially who you are as a person
- They give you approval, recognition, respect and friendly looks, comments and treatment
- They help you to be independent and make plans for your future based on your personal aspirations
What were your thoughts about your relationship?
Are you working together to raise your children and live an enjoyable life or are you in a constant battle of wills or battle to maintain control?
3. Accusing and blaming, trivial and unreasonable demands or expectations and denial of own shortcomings
This type of behaviour is sometimes know as “gas lighting”. The name comes from an old a movie of the same name where the husband tried to make his wife believe she was crazy by turning on the lights and other things that he denied doing.
Abusive Behaviour – blaming, projecting and being bloody unreasonable
- The do things that they blame you for doing (when you know it wasn’t you)
- They accuse you of things that didn’t happen such as claiming you are having an affair or did something else which you didn’t do
- They blame you and “punish you” with silent treatment for imagined slights or minor behaviour you’ve done
- They are unable to laugh at themselves or see your point of view
- They are extremely sensitive to you or others making fun of them or making any kind of comment that seems to show lack of respect. They get angry and blame you or are angry with you even if it had nothing to do with you.
Supportive Behaviour – approving, acceptance, reasonable expectations and self-awareness
- They take responsibility for their own behaviour
- They talk with you and resolve the problem if they have doubts or issues
- They have reasonable expectations of you and negotiate with you in a respectful way
- They are able to see the funny side of their behaviour and can cope with others making fun (within reason) and seek support from you when they need support rather than blaming you.
There are many other ways that people can manage to hurt each other and your experience of emotional abuse may be different to those described above.
The best test is to ask yourself
“Does this person make me feel loved, supported and valued or mistreated, ignored or attacked?”
What can you do if you are in an emotionally abusive relationship?
As with any problem there are three choices:
- Accept it
- Change it
- Leave it
1 Accept emotional abuse
If you feel that you are in an emotionally abusive relationship I want you to do something for me.
- Scroll to the top of the page and look at that damaged plant picture again.
- Close your eyes and imagine what you would look like inside if you could see the damage that is being done by the abuse?
- If you are not very visual you might not get a picture but you will get a sound, a colour, a feeling or some sort of representation of what is going on for you inside when you do this exercise. If you don’t like what you experience then accepting the ongoing emotional abuse is not a good option.
Hint: accepting abuse is not a good option and if you think that you deserve to be abused realise that it is not you talking but your abuser. You deserve the opportunity to grow to fully into your magnificent potential and to make your own unique contribution to the world. Don’t let anyone make you believe other than that!
2 Change it
Sometimes the person who is abusing you can be helped to change.
- They may not fully realise the impact of their behaviour, they may not fully realise the harm they are doing or the amazing relationship they could have with you if only they treated you with love and respect. Inviting them to counselling or Relationship Mediation may help. Contact Interact Support to find out more about Relationship Mediation
- They may have a mental health, drug dependency or other treatable condition that is contributing to their behavour. Your G.P may be a good place to start searching out a treatment plan.
- They may enjoy dominating and controlling you and believe that they have a right to do so. Nothing you do right now is going to change that attitude if they don’t want to change.
Hint: if you are in a relationship with someone who knows they are hurting you but do not want to get help to stop you might have to consider option three – leave the relationship. It only takes one person to destroy a relationship but it takes two to make it healthy and happy.
3 Leave it
If you are considering leaving your relationship contact us to book in for a Separation and Divorce Consultation. We have developed this service to help people at any stage of separation or divorce to understand their options and make informed decisions.
IMPORTANT: Statistics show that emotional abuse may escalate into physical abuse at times of separation. This relates to your controller fearing that you may escape them. Remember that they may believe that you are their possession to do with as they want to.
If you are in immediate physical danger or they are threatening to physically harm you, your children, your pets or someone else, don’t hang around. Contact the police or a family violence service in your area. If someone can imagine harming you or someone you love in enough detail to make threats it isn’t as large a step as you may believe to carry out those actions. You do not have to live in fear in Australia.