Hard to spot and harder to stop, emotional abuse often slips under the radar.
In Mistaking Her Character, I ended up tackling the issue of an emotionally abusive family relationship. I say ‘ended up’ because I honestly can’t say I set out to deal with the topic when I started the book. The entire family dynamic I had envisioned when I started ended up turned upside down and a far darker, more complex one emerged as several emotionally abusive characters moved to the forefront. Their behavior was so subtle that my readers were the ones that pointed out to me how abusive the characters were. This goes to show how very difficult emotional abuse can be to identify.
Emotional abuse is a difficult and often misunderstood issue. Very often, neither the abuser nor their victim recognize the abusive nature of the relationship. To both of them, it is just the way things are. Often the abuser never learned healthy coping mechanisms for the normal challenges of healthy, positive relationships. They respond to the normal ups and downs with an offensive pattern of verbal threatening, bullying, and criticism, with more subtle tactics like intimidation, shaming, humiliation, isolation, and manipulation thrown into the mix for good measure. The goal, conscious or not, is to control and subjugate the other person into obedience and even dependence in the relationship.
Although verbal and emotional abuse does not leave physical marks like physical abuse, its victims often assert that physical abuse would have been easier to bear because then, they and others around could more easily have recognized that abuse was happening. As the abuse continues and the emotional wounds deepen, abuse victims feel so emotionally unsafe that they begin to doubt their own feelings and abilities, their senses, opinions, memories, and even their judgement.
To prevent negative reactions from their abusers, they will refrain from expressing their opinions and wants, leading to increasing feelings of vulnerability, and insecurity as they are trapped and powerless against the emotional control of their abuser. They become hypervigillant, guarding against anything that might trigger a bad response from the abuser as they accept the maxim that they are at fault for any and everything that disturbs their abuser. In the long run, depression, anxiety disorders and even post-traumatic stress disorder can result.
Abusers often share in a set of common characteristics, often beginning with having been abused themselves or witnessing abuse in their family of origin. Not all abuse victims or witnesses go on to be abusers themselves, though. Abusers often have explosive tempers, fed by possessiveness, jealousy and an intense desire to control the other person.
Abusers tend to have low self-esteem and extremely rigid expectations of relationships. The other person and only the other person must compromise to meet expectations. More difficult still, the abuser projects blame for their own bad mood or behavior on the other person. They are never at fault, only the other person. Despite all this, they are able to project a very charming and likeable persona to the world around them.
Many behaviors qualify as emotional abuse. These may look normal, even innocuous in a one-off situation, and in truth, they might be excusable if they were to happen only on very rare occasions. However, one of the things that makes them abuse is the frequency with which they occur. Abusive behaviors include (but are not limited to) verbally abusive speech like name calling, putting the victim down with constant criticism, yelling and screaming, and intentionally embarrassing the victim in front of others.
Abusers often seek to control their victims, isolating them from friends and family, determining what they may or may not do, even what they might wear. Abusers frequently blame their own anger and bad behavior on the victim—‘if you didn’t make me so angry…’. If the victim does not capitulate, the abuser may progress to threatening to damage or destroy the victim’s possessions, to harm the victim or people the victim cares about, or even commit suicide themselves. The list goes on, but taken together, the abuse leaves the victim feeling helpless, powerless, worthless, and wondering if they have any worth apart from their relationship to the abuser.
Consequently, recognizing and breaking free from an abusive relationship is very difficult. Chances are, if one is wondering if their relationship is abusive, there is a good chance it is, especially if friends and family hate the way one’s significant other treats them.
Can an abuser change? Very, very rarely, if there is a very deep commitment to change and to an accountability system, like a therapist or group, that will help them along the way. But an abuse victim should not rely upon the abuser’s promises to change. Ultimately, most victims find that leaving the relationship is their only option to stop the abuse.
If you believe you might be in an abusive relationship, here are some online resources that may be of help: