Emotional Abuse – “Why Does It Hurt When I Love”
The simplest definition of emotionally abusive behavior is anything that intentionally hurts the feelings of another person. Since almost everyone in intimate relationships does that at some time or other in the heat of an argument, emotionally abusive behavior must be distinguished from an emotionally abusive relationship, which is more than the sum of emotionally abusive behaviors.
In many ways, emotional abuse is more psychologically harmful than physical abuse. There are a couple of reasons for this. Even in the most violent families, the incidents tend to be cyclical. Early in the abuse cycle, a violent outburst is followed by a honeymoon period of remorse, attention, affection, and generosity, but not genuine compassion. (The honeymoon stage eventually ends, as the victim begins to say, “Never mind the presents, just stop hitting me!”) Emotional abuse, on the other hand, tends to happen every day. The effects are more harmful because they’re so frequent.
The effects of physical abuse are obvious – a black eye, a cut or a bruise – but the effects of emotional abuse may be harder to spot. Emotionally abusive husbands or wives can affect mood, sex drive, work, school and other areas of life. Make no mistake about it; the effects of emotional abuse can be just as severe as those from physical abuse.
And perhaps even worse is the fact that victims of emotional abuse tend to blame themselves and minimize their abuse, saying that it was “only” emotional and “at least he/she didn’t hit me.” But minimizing adult emotional abuse won’t help and it won’t hide its devastating effects.
In an emotionally abusive relationship, one party systematically controls the other by:
- Undermining his or her confidence, worthiness, growth, or trust
- “Gaslighting” – making him/her feel crazy or unstable
- Manipulating him/her with fear or shame.
Here are some examples:
“You shouldn’t spend so much on clothes, you don’t look good anyway.”
“Don’t complain about how bad you have it, no one else can love you as I do.”
“Working and taking courses is too much for you; you can’t handle what you need to do now.”
“Your friends and family just want something from you.”
“I have to drink to be able to ‘stand’ you.”
“One of these days you’ll wake up, and I’ll be gone.”
“You don’t know the first thing about raising kids.” “You are worthless and should be happy I put up with you.”
It’s important to note that most emotional abuse is not as direct and verbal as these examples. All the above can be implied with sarcasm, irony, or mumblings and can be communicated with body language, rolling eyes, sighs, grimaces, tone of voice, disgusted looks, cold shoulders, slamming doors, banging dishes, stonewalling, cold shoulders, denying any intimate contact,…etc. There are a myriad of ways to be emotionally abusive.
Short-Term Effects of Emotional Abuse
Short-term effects of an emotionally abusive husband or wife often have to do with the surprise of being in the situation or the questioning of just how the situation arose. Some emotional abusers don’t begin their abuse until well into a relationship. Husbands or wives may find themselves shocked to see the new, emotionally abusive behavior. The behavior and thoughts of the victim then change in response to the emotional abuse.
Short-term effects of emotional abuse include:
- Surprise and confusion – how did I get here???
- Questioning of one’s own memory, “did that really happen?”
- Anxiety or fear; hypervigilence – not looking forward to being with him.
- Shame or guilt
- Aggression (as a defense to the abuse) – this could cause retaliation of violence
- Becoming overly passive or compliant – a breakdown of self-esteem
- Frequent crying – emotions are completely messed up
- Avoidance of eye contact – this has its root in fear and dominance
- Feeling powerless and defeated as nothing you do ever seems to be right (learned helplessness)
- Feeling like you’re “walking on eggshells” – being overly careful or what you say or do
- Feeling manipulated, used and controlled – internalised anger at self but helpless
- Feeling undesirable – systemic errosion of self-worth
A partner may also find themselves trying to do anything possible to bring the relationship back to the way it was before the abuse.
Long-Term Effects of Emotional Abuse
In long-term emotionally abusive situations, the victim has such low self-esteem that they often feel they cannot leave their abuser and that they are not worthy of a non-abusive relationship. Adult emotional abuse leads to the victim believing the terrible things that the abuser says about him/her. Emotional abuse victims often think they’re “going crazy.”
Effects of long-term emotional abuse by significant others, boyfriends or girlfriends include:
- Low self-esteem and self-worth
- Emotional instability
- Sleep disturbances
- Physical pain without cause
- Suicidal ideation, thoughts or attempts
- Extreme dependence on the abuser
- Inability to trust
- Feeling trapped and alone
- Substance abuse
Stockholm Syndrome is also common in long-term abuse situations. In Stockholm Syndrome, the victim is so terrified of the abuser that the victim overly identifies and becomes bonded with the abuser in an attempt to stop the abuse. The victim will even defend their abuser and their emotionally abusive actions.
You may Eliminate Abuse by Increasing Compassion
Although occasional instances of abusive behavior do not constitute an abusive relationship, they certainly raise the risk of ruining health and happiness. Unconstrained by compassion, they can lead quickly to chronic resentment and, eventually, to contempt. That’s because we tend to form emotional bonds with an expectation that those we love will care about how we feel. When loved ones fail to care that we are hurt, let alone inflict hurt upon us, it feels like betrayal. Failure of compassion in a love relationship feels like abuse.
Merely refraining from abusive behaviors will do nothing to improve a relationship, though it may slow its rate of deterioration. To repair the harm done, there must be a corresponding increase in compassion.
That means both parties have to return to caring about how the other feels, even when they disagree about the ideas or interpretations of the facts that go with the feelings. The inability to distinguish objections to a loved one’s behavior from value for the loved one is at the heart of emotional abuse. You can and must negotiate about the behavior you don’t like (you can even condemn it) without devaluing the person you love.
Developing self-compassion is the key to increasing compassion for loved ones. Self-compassion is the ability
Speak up if you suspect domestic violence or abuse
Talk to the person in private and let him or her know that you’re concerned. Point out the things you’ve noticed that make you worried. Tell the person that you’re there, whenever he or she feels ready to talk. Reassure the person that you’ll keep whatever is said between the two of you, and let him or her know that you’ll help in any way you can. Above all DO NOT accuse or judge. Be compassionate and direct to counsellor/therapist.
Remember, abusers are very good at controlling and manipulating their victims. People who have been emotionally abused or battered are depressed, drained, scared, ashamed, and confused. They need help to get out, yet they’ve often been isolated from their family and friends. By picking up on the warning signs and offering support, you can help them escape an abusive situation and begin healing.