In any couple, especially longer term ones, human vulnerability, conflict, and various pressures can result in behaviours that are emotionally hurtful. E.g., moments of guilt, emotional abuse, shame, ultimatums, criticising and blaming.
Emotional abuse differs from these isolated interactions, in that it is a pattern of behaviour by the perpetrator that gives rise to fear and shame in an individual in order to influence and control them.
While this definition may make emotional abuse seem like an overt and obvious behaviour, emotional abuse can be a subtle phenomenon that is not easily identified by the person experiencing it.
They are often lead, over time, to believe that they are to blame for the problems in their relationship. A victim of emotional abuse may be caught up in ruminating, have impaired autonomy, struggle with self-esteem and experience anxiety and depression.
For these reasons it can be difficult for an emotionally abused person to recognise, let alone stand up for themselves and leave emotionally abusive relationships.
Emotional abuse occurs across all ages and genders and socio-economic groups. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men have experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner. It can be just as harmful as physical abuse to a person’s wellbeing and lead to mental health conditions.
This article aims to provide guidance on how to identify signs of emotional abuse and ways to get help.
Subtle signs of emotional abuse
- Guilt-tripping and emotional blackmailing ‘you owe me this’.
- Use of silence or stonewalling, the person is left to figure out what they have done wrong.
- Feigning helplessness – to engage your attention and time on them.
- Treating an adult like a child.
- Making you feel like you’ve done something wrong when you act independently, e.g., seeing a psychologist.
- Unrealistic expectations – eg always prioritising their needs – eg shouldn’t be doing x if there is a chance they might need you.
- Interrupting – getting in your face when you’re in the middle of an activity.
- Invading privacy.
- Making subtle threats.
- Dismissiveness – can also be conveyed through body language such as eye rolling.
- Dehumanizing you – intentionally looking away when you’re talking or staring at something else when speaking to you to make you feel unimportant.
- Invading privacy.
- Making fun of accomplishments or interests, or claiming responsibility for your successes.
- Pushing buttons – the abuser knowing a victim’s sensitive points – and pushing them to upset them or gain control.
These are non-exhaustive examples of behaviours, which on their own and cumulatively, diminish a person and operate to manipulatively influence and control them.
Other signs of emotional abuse
- Monitoring whereabouts.
- Isolation, via discouragement to see friends or family, restricting ability to go out by withholding money or a vehicle, become angry or make you feel guilty after you see loved ones, insisting on going everywhere with you.
- Wearing down a person’s self-worth through insults, criticism, derogatory nicknames.
- Behaviours which demean, shame or humiliate.
- Yelling and aggression or unpredictable anger.
- Public humiliation – e.g., picking fights in public, sharing secrets, making fun of you.
- Lecturing and ordering a person around.
- Shifting blame – making the person feel like they can prevent the abuse through not arguing back, returning home quickly, not being so sensitive etc.
- Character assassination – often involves saying ‘you always’…
- Making acceptance or care conditional on a person’s choices.
- Thwarting a person’s professional or personal goals.
- Promoting a sense of self-doubt and worthlessness in the victim.
- Gaslighting – behaviours which cause a victim to be uncertain of their own sense of reality and/or feel disoriented. E.g., being told ‘that’s not how it happened’ or ‘you’re crazy’, pretending not to understand, being subject to a cycle of warm and cold behaviours, and denial of promises made, are some examples.
- Reasoning with the abuser is not effective.
Flags of an emotionally abusive person
- Have a strong need for control.
- Tend to be possessive and hypersensitive.
- Abusive tendencies may stem from deep insecurities.
- Abuser may exhibit a cluster B personality disorder. I.e., Antisocial, narcissistic, borderline, histrionic.
Effects of emotional abuse
People who suffer emotional abuse can experience ongoing feelings of confusion, self-doubt, a sense of walking on eggshells, fear, impaired autonomy, hopelessness and shame. The emotional toll can result in difficulty concentrating, sleeping, moodiness, muscle tension, fatigue, racing heart and various aches and pains. Long term repercussions include anxiety, impaired autonomy and social withdrawal, difficulty carrying out responsibilities, and using alcohol or drugs to cope.
Survivors of emotional abuse or domestic violence can often remain stuck as they internalise the abuser’s efforts to place the blame on them, their self-esteem is worn down, and they are isolated from others who could support them.
- Reach out for support – talk to a trusted friend or family member who will listen without judgement, and may assist you to develop clarity and perspective.
- Get physically active – this can improve self-esteem, reduce risk of depression, alleviate anxiety, and help you sleep.
- If you are socially isolated, consider activities to enjoy the company of others – simply spending time with others and feeling accepted can be part of healing.
- Eat a good diet and get adequate rest to promote wellbeing and clear thinking.
Professional help from a psychologist can help you:
- Become educated about emotional abuse.
- Process the experience, rebuild self-esteem, address symptoms, and support you to prioritise yourself over any potential abuse in the future.
Christine Harding, a dedicated Principal Psychologist at Hargan Psychology, is a compassionate professional who believes in the power of human connection and personal growth. With a holistic approach to her work, she embraces the philosophy that understanding oneself is the foundation for positive change. As a devoted mother of three, Christine’s personal journey shaped her passion for psychology and her unwavering commitment to helping individuals of all ages thrive.