Emotional Abuse: Beneath Your Radar?

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Verbal abuseOver 10 million men and women are subjected to domestic violence each year. Many more go unreported.  Emotional abuse precedes violence, but is rarely discussed.  Unfortunately, many don’t even realize it.

Emotional abuse may be hard to recognize, because it can be subtle, and abusers often blame their victims. 

Why Emotional Abuse Is Hard to Recognize

They may act like they have no idea why you are upset. It has become more common and accepted in politics and the media. Additionally, you may have been treated this way in past relationships, so that it’s familiar and harder to recognize. Over time, the abuser will chip away at your self-esteem, causing you to feel guilty, doubt yourself, and distrust your perceptions.

Other aspects of the relationship may work well. The abuser may be loving between abusive episodes so that you deny or forget them. You may not have had a healthy relationship for comparison, and when the abuse takes place in private, there are no witnesses to validate your experience.

Personality of an Abuser

Abusers typically want to control and dominate. They use verbal abuse to accomplish this. They are self-centered, impatient, unreasonable, insensitive, unforgiving, lack empathy, and are often jealous, suspicious, and withholding. In order to maintain control, some abusers take hostages, meaning that they may try to isolate you from your friends and family. Their moods can shift from fun-loving and romantic to sullen and angry. Some punish with anger, others with silence – or both. It’s usually “their way or the highway.”

Are You Being Abused?

Emotional abuse may start out innocuously, but grows as the abuser becomes more assured that you won’t leave the relationship. It may not begin until after an engagement, marriage, or pregnancy. If you look back, you may recall tell-tale signs of control or jealousy. Eventually, you and the entire family “walk on eggshells” and adapt so as not to upset the abuser. Being subjected to emotional abuse over time can lead to anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, inhibited sexual desire, chronic pain, or other physical symptoms.

People who respect and honor themselves won’t allow someone to abuse them. Many people allow abuse to continue because they fear confrontations. Usually, they are martyrs, caretakers, or pleasers. They feel guilty and blame themselves. Some aren’t able to access their anger and power in order to stand up for themselves, while others ineffectively argue, blame, and are abusive themselves, but they still don’t know how to set appropriate boundaries.

If you’ve allowed abuse to continue, there’s a good chance that you were abused by someone in your past, although you may not recognize it as such. It could have been a strict or alcoholic dad, an invasive mom, or a teasing sibling. Healing involves understanding how you’ve been abused, forgiving yourself, and rebuilding your self-esteem and confidence.

What is Emotional Abuse?

If you’re wondering if your relationship is abusive, it probably is. Emotional abuse, distinct from physical violence (including shoving, cornering, breaking, and throwing things), is speech and/or behavior that’s derogating, controlling, punishing, or manipulative. Withholding love, communication, support, or money are indirect methods of control and maintaining power. Passive-Aggressive behavior is covert hostility. The passive-aggressor is “A wolf in sheep’s clothing.” To learn more and get tips on how to respond, read, “Dealing with a Passive-Aggressive Partner.

Behavior that controls where you go, to whom you talk, or what you think is abusive. It’s one thing to say, “If you buy the dining room set, we cannot afford a vacation,” versus cutting up your credit cards. Spying, stalking, invading your person, space, or belongings is also abusive, because it disregards personal boundaries.

Verbal abuse is the most common form of emotional abuse, but it’s often unrecognized, because it may be subtle and insidious. It may be said in a loving, quiet voice, or may be indirect – even concealed as a joke. Whether disguised as play or jokes, sarcasm or teasing that is hurtful is abusive. Obvious and direct verbal abuse, such as threats, judging, criticizing, lying, blaming, name-calling, ordering, and raging, are easy to recognize. Below are some more subtle types of verbal abuse that are just as damaging as overt forms, particularly because they are harder to detect. When experienced over time, they have an insidious, deleterious effect, because you begin to doubt and distrust yourself.

Opposing

The abuser will argue against anything you say, challenging your perceptions, opinions, and thoughts. The abuser doesn’t listen or volunteer thoughts or feelings, but treats you as an adversary, in effect saying “No” to everything, so a constructive conversation is impossible.

Blocking

This is another tactic used to abort conversation. The abuser may switch topics, accuse you, or use words that in effect say, “Shut Up.”

Discounting & Belittling

This is verbal abuse that minimizes or trivializes your feelings, thoughts, or experiences. It’s a way of saying that your feelings don’t matter or are wrong.

Undermining & Interrupting

These words are meant to undermine your self-esteem and confidence, such as, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” finishing your sentences, or speaking on your behalf without your permission.

Denying

An abuser may deny that agreements or promises were made or that a conversation or events or took place, including prior abuse. The abuser instead may express affection or make declarations of love and caring. This is crazy-making and manipulative behavior, which leads you to gradually doubt your own memory, perceptions, and experience. In the extreme, a persistent pattern is called gas-lighting, named after the classic Ingrid Bergman movie, Gaslight. In it, her husband used denial in a plot to make her believe she was losing her grip on reality.

Confronting Abuse

In order to confront the abuse, it’s important to understand that the intent of the abuser is to control you and avoid meaningful conversation. Abuse is used as a tactic to manipulate and have power over you. (See How to Spot Manipulation.”) If you focus on the content, you’ll fall into the trap of trying to respond rationally, denying accusations and explaining yourself, and lose your power. The abuser has won at that point and deflected responsibility for the verbal abuse.

Sometimes, you can deflect verbal abuse with humor. It puts you on equal footing and deprives the abuser of the power they seek in belittling you. Repeating back what is said to you also has an impact, followed by a calm boundary. For example, “Did you say you think that I don’t know what doing?” You may get a defiant repetition of the insult. Then follow up with, “I disagree,” or “I don’t see it that way,” or “I know exactly what I’m doing.”

In some cases, verbal abuse is best addressed with forceful statements, such as, “Stop, it,” “Don’t talk to me that way,” “That’s demeaning,” “Don’t call me names,” “Don’t raise your voice at me,” “Don’t use that tone with me,” “I don’t respond to orders,” etc. In this way, you set a boundary of how you want to be treated and take back your power. The abuser may respond with, “Or what?”, and you can say, “I will not continue this conversation.”

Typically, a verbal abuser may become more abusive, in which case, you continue to address the abuse in the same manner. You might say, “If you continue, I’ll leave the room,” and do so if the abuse continues. If you keep setting boundaries, the abuser will get the message that manipulation and abuse won’t be effective. The relationship may or may not change for the better, or deeper issues may surface. Either way, you’re rebuilding your self-confidence and self-esteem, and are learning important skills about setting boundaries. (See The Power of Personal Boundaries.”)

Abuse can slowly chip away at self-esteem. Usually, both the abuser and the victim in a relationship have experienced shaming in childhood and already have impaired self-esteem. Confronting an abuser, especially in a long term relationship can be challenging. It usually takes the support and validation of a group, therapist, or counselor to be able to consistently stand-up to abuse. Without it, you may doubt your reality, feel guilty, and fear loss of the relationship or reprisal. If it feels daunting, you can try a different, educative approach outlined in Dealing with a Narcissist: How to Raise Self-Esteem and Set boundaries with Difficult People.

Once you take back your power and regain your self-esteem, you won’t allow someone to abuse you. If the abuse stops, the relationship will improve, but for positive change, both of you must be willing to risk change. Build your self-esteem and learn to be assertive by using the tools in my ebooks, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem and How to Speak Your Mind: Become Assertive and Set Limits and webinar, How to be Assertive. To go deeper and explore the seeds of low-self-esteem, see Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.

Copyright Darlene Lancer, MFT 2010, 2017

 

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91 Comments
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LJ
LJ
4 years ago

Is there ever a point in having a real conversation with a manipulative spouse? I tried so many times over 20 years, laying out my feelings, trying to discuss his sarcasm, hurtful words. I always come out of these conversations trying to shake the accusations, the “you’re never happy…” comments. Things always seems to get twisted & I’m the one with problems. Do these people ever get real? I’ve been waiting for that & it never comes. Last week I told him I probably did want a divorce, as he stated, & that I didn’t want to be married anymore.… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
4 years ago
Reply to  LJ

Not all people who manipulate are the same, and not all do it all the time. But, reacting to them gives away your power and you fall down the rabbit hall wondering how you got there. It’s important to be direct and assertive and not let the person shift blame onto you. There are many approaches. One answer might be, “That’s your choice.” Then leave the conversation. He’s left with a decision. Moreover, you do the same. You say you’re thinking about divorce, but don’t take action, and say “it’s like nothing ever happened.” In other words, your thoughts and… Read more »

KayK
KayK
4 years ago

My ex seems to fit both passive aggressive & abusive descriptions – can they be both? A passive aggressive abuser? They do seem to go hand in hand. He also fits well into narcissism. I’m healing myself after 18 years with him, and realizing how much my alcoholic father & passive-aggressive critical mother left me with low self-esteem, just waiting for a guy like him to come along! I have taken it on myself to stop the cycle of abuse in my family – my 2 daughters watched as their dad belittled, insulted & abused me on a daily basis.… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
4 years ago
Reply to  KayK

Yes, someone can be both P-A and abusive. See my other articles, interviews, and blog posts on narcissism, including “Do You Love a Narcissist?” “What is Narcissistic Abuse?” and “Narcissistic Relationships.” Take the steps laid out in Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People, and get support from a therapist and CoDA or Al-Anon meetings.

Andre
Andre
7 years ago

This article pretty much sums up the marriage I just got out of. It’s a shame a lost so many years and have been financially devastated.

If you are reading this because you think maybe this is my partner……..get out of the relationship yesterday.

K
K
7 years ago

Right, I see what you mean. I should comment if he makes me feel uncomfortable.

K
K
7 years ago

This is the abuse my sister suffers. It is under her radar mostly. Things go fine until it’s too much. Then a blowup for a while, then back together. When will she see that this isn’t love?

Tim
Tim
1 year ago

Hi! Full disclosure I’m 35 with addiction issues. Codependency Seems to be A large issue as I identify with most of the traits. I suspect I got it from my mother as something has been off in our relationship and she seems to not actually be listening when I express real feelings. I am left feeling alienated when I open up about this because she’s “so nice!” I feel in my gut somethings there but navigating is difficult!

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
Reply to  Tim

Yes, you’re correct. Codependency underlies addiction, which generally starts with trauma. Your mother’s behavior may be a clue. Do get counseling, attend CoDA, and read Conquering Shame and Codependency. It will answer your questions.

Simon
Simon
2 years ago

Hi, I’m in this Relationship, and I’m not sure what to do.. Here are the things that scare me about it: – She lied to me several times(e.g. about taking the pill, which is the worst I know of) – Some decisions were made in spite of my disagreement – It’s always that I didn’t understand properly, or she’ll completely deny things, or she’ll justify stuff, she’s never done anything really wrong – Sometimes she gets really defensive, lets me speak without answering before attacking me on the most objectable thing I say instead of adressing the global issue, she… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon

You need to confront her behavior in a constructive way. Her response will inform you whether to stay or leave. See my blog, “Breaking-Up: Should You Leave Or Can you get the Change You Want?” Try the strategies in “Dealing with a Narcissist.”

ShellyC
ShellyC
2 years ago

My husband employs all the aspects of emotional abuse you mentioned. Including controlling my every move, calling me terrible names, criticizing me constantly. But he has also turned over the refrigerator, lifted the bed off the floor with me in it, and shoved an ice cream cone down my throat. When he’s criticizing and I point out that he has shortcomings just like I do, he threatens me that I better shut up because he’s about to “lose it”. He frightens me all the time. But then seems so pitiful at other times. I just want to get away but… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
2 years ago
Reply to  ShellyC

Your irrational guilt and undeserved loyalty is common among codependents. This is more than emotional abuse. It’s domestic violence. Seek counseling and attend CoDA meetings to see things clearly and get the courage to set boundaries and leave. See book and webinar on assertiveness and my blog on “The Truth about Domestic Violence.

ShellyC
ShellyC
2 years ago

Thank you. I will do that. I know what I need to do, but I need to get my head straight to do it. Thank you for the help.

David
David
2 years ago

You have described my wife. She was emotionally and verbally abused by her mother and now she abuses me. I have tolerated this since the earliest days of our marriage. She apologized to me a few times earlier in our marriage after experiencing her moms abuse. However, she will not admit that she is doing anything destructive. Her thinking is very black and white. Things are either 100% her fault or 100% my fault. There is no in between and she will never own up to her behavior.

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
2 years ago
Reply to  David

Take the steps laid out in Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People, and get support from a therapist and CoDA meetings. Read my blogs on boundary setting and my ebook and webinar on learning to be assertive. Arguing is a losing strategy.

Agape Moms
Agape Moms
2 years ago

Really appreciate your points here. Consequences are a loving and effective way to help someone, but it can be very difficult to wrap our minds around that! Often enabling behaviors start out as our way to help someone but end up creating a trap.

Sophie
Sophie
3 years ago

I have been with my boyfriend for nearly 2 years. We moved into a house around 3 months ago because of his alcoholic mother. After a week of moving in I find out he’s been cheating on me, the next morning we had a phone call to say his nan had passed away. I always feel like I’ve only stayed with him because of what happened the day after. Now he accuses me of finding someone else. When I go out forever asking what time I’ll be back and where I’m going. He says I’m lazy & is mean because… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
3 years ago
Reply to  Sophie

Yes! You mentioned betrayal and lying (the cheating), controlling behavior, name calling, false accusations, just to mention a few. Learn to be assertive. Get my ebook and webinar to stand up to him.

LJ
LJ
4 years ago

Is there ever a point in having a real conversation with a manipulative spouse? I tried so many times over 20 years, laying out my feelings, trying to discuss his sarcasm, hurtful words. I always come out of these conversations trying to shake the accusations, the “you’re never happy…” comments. Things always seems to get twisted & I’m the one with problems. Do these people ever get real? I’ve been waiting for that & it never comes. Last week I told him I probably did want a divorce, as he stated, & that I didn’t want to be married anymore.… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
4 years ago
Reply to  LJ

Not all people who manipulate are the same, and not all do it all the time. But, reacting to them gives away your power and you fall down the rabbit hall wondering how you got there. It’s important to be direct and assertive and not let the person shift blame onto you. There are many approaches. One answer might be, “That’s your choice.” Then leave the conversation. He’s left with a decision. Moreover, you do the same. You say you’re thinking about divorce, but don’t take action, and say “it’s like nothing ever happened.” In other words, your thoughts and… Read more »

J
J
4 years ago

I’m about to leave my wife after about 4 years of abusive and co-dependent behavior, on both our parts really but her being the main instigator. I’ve had second thoughts so many times over the last few months, but reading this article really puts it in perspective; most of the reservations I’ve had have been about her being left alone, unable to cope etc. even though we’re settling finances in a way that leaves me in more debt and her with a pile of cash. I’m stuck in an enabler role I’ve trained myself into, and I have just enough… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
4 years ago
Reply to  J

It sounds as if you’re making decisions out of guilt, perhaps stemming from shame and an over-active inner critic. To stop acting from fear and guilt, start counseling and go to CoDA.org meetings. Do the exercises in Conquering Shame and Codependency, Freedom from Guilt, and 10 Steps to Self-Esteem: The Ultimate Guide to Stop Self-Criticism.

s
s
4 years ago

You mentioned that some cannot access their anger. I am that person. How does someone go about accessing their anger. I’ve been struggling with this for quite some time. I have a very difficult time recognizing the abuse and thinking it is my own fault in some way (ex. if I was better this wouldn’t happen). How does a person move past this confusion and see it for what it is and become angry about it?

KayK
KayK
4 years ago

My ex seems to fit both passive aggressive & abusive descriptions – can they be both? A passive aggressive abuser? They do seem to go hand in hand. He also fits well into narcissism. I’m healing myself after 18 years with him, and realizing how much my alcoholic father & passive-aggressive critical mother left me with low self-esteem, just waiting for a guy like him to come along! I have taken it on myself to stop the cycle of abuse in my family – my 2 daughters watched as their dad belittled, insulted & abused me on a daily basis.… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
4 years ago
Reply to  KayK

Yes, someone can be both P-A and abusive. See my other articles, interviews, and blog posts on narcissism, including “Do You Love a Narcissist?” “What is Narcissistic Abuse?” and “Narcissistic Relationships.” Take the steps laid out in Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People, and get support from a therapist and CoDA or Al-Anon meetings.

Liz
Liz
5 years ago

Is there anyway to stop this kind of behavior without leaving? I have two girls 5 and 1. My husband is hyper critical of everything I do. I’m a stay at home mom and it seems like he only speaks to me to complain about the house/kids/meals. I spent most of my day cleaning but he always finds a problem. I’ve been home with kids for years and only have a GED. I cannot support them! I am going to school online but it will be years before I have my degree and can leave. Is there anything I can… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
2 years ago
Reply to  Liz

Definitely. You need to learn to be assertive and set boundaries. Practice the guidelines in my ebooks and How to Be Assertive Webinar, and attend CoDA meetings.

Morgan
Morgan
5 years ago

I was emotionally abused by my husband for years and have no self esteem and mental problems which resulted. I didn’t leave because of my codependance on him. I’ve threatened to go twice now and he says and does the right things every time but it has always gone back to the way it was. Now that I’ve told him I’m leaving again, same response from him but he says it’s different this time because he truly understands because I left for 6 weeks to be with my mom. I see the change but I feel broken from before and… Read more »

Reese
Reese
5 years ago

Me and my boyfriend have been together for about 2 years and he is constantly telling me how stupid my decisions are and always calling me a bitch. It wasn’t often he would, but now it’s an every day routine. Any time I leave the house and come back, he accuses me of cheating. And acts the same way anytime im on my phone. When I want to go to stay or hangout with friends he makes me out to be the bad one, but I have been diagnosed with bi polar and am mean to him at times at… Read more »

alexis
alexis
6 years ago

My husband and I have been together for four years and married just over a year now. When we first got together it was amazing he was kind and a real gentleman. Then a few months in he showed a really angry side to me. The anger wasn’t directed TOWARDS me and I felt like I understood him because of his abusive childhood. Everything started out little. Him not liking what I wore. The friends I chose and always suggesting I do this instead of that. When we got married it all changed. His family was allowed to put me… Read more »

Carey
Carey
6 years ago

This article sums up what happened to me and my girls. I got out almost 6 years ago and saw a counselor to heal. The depression was something I never want to experience again because it affected my happiness and my girl’s as well. I love my relationships now and I am not afraid to speak my mind and stand up for myself. I am currently pursuing the court for several contempt charges and find my mind may wander back to what he did. Your articles are very helpful in keeping my focus away from this and the negative. Is… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, MFT
6 years ago
Reply to  Carey

You don’t say their ages. If not now, at some point they may need counseling. Be the best parent you can be today.

Andre
Andre
7 years ago

This article pretty much sums up the marriage I just got out of. It’s a shame a lost so many years and have been financially devastated.

If you are reading this because you think maybe this is my partner……..get out of the relationship yesterday.

Toni
Toni
5 years ago

I suffered from emotional abuse on every level. Sadly I didn’t know what was happening until I finally started searching sone of the things he was saying and some of the emotions I was feeling. It made sense. I didn’t realize I was actually living a nightmare. I thought his jealousy was love for me. We have just recently broken up. Tough times. I still am struggling with the fact that I believed it was another woman cause he would pick a fight, call me fatass and leave. Do emotional abusers usually cheat? I have a 9 year old. He… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
5 years ago
Reply to  Toni

I don’t know of any correlation between adultery and emotional abuse. Consider your needs and emotional and physical safety before continuing a relationship with him if he’s not the father. Read my blogs on boundaries and breakups and ebook, How to Speak Your Mind, and watch my webinar, How to Be Assertive to set healthy boundaries with your ex.

Alive22
4 years ago
Reply to  Toni

Toni, I’m there with you. Mines are his kids (13 yr old twins)….he does not care to speak. Support, nor visit with them. Yes, they miss him and I have them and myself in therapy to deal with the fallout. We’re progressing forward, each day gets better. We are smiling again. What I’ve learned so far is: he’s has NPD. And I’m thanking my lucky star that he’s GONE! Has found a new source that tickles his fancy. Out of sight, out of mind. We’re living again! It takes time, non of this is easy. Love on yourself, on your… Read more »

TASHA
TASHA
5 years ago

My husband calls me dumb fat b*tch daily. He tells me I am worthless and I do nothing all day. We have 4 children and I’m not able to work due to daycare being to expensive. He works part time and goes to school. I get no money unless he gives it to me. He won’t watch the kids for me to even go to the store. I love him and want my family to be happy again. What should I do? I can’t leave because I have no money to go anywhere. We can’t go to counseling because it… Read more »

Louise
5 years ago
Reply to  TASHA

Is repeated stonewalling a form of abuse? I have been with my partner for 8 years. If I want to talk about an issue or the future I will ask him when it would be convenient and he will say later/at the weekend. Then he will say he is too busy. Alternatively, he will change the subject, leave the room or respond with complete silence as if I have not spoken. I have asked if he will go to counselling or read self-help books with me about communication but he has refused. I cannot see a way to resolve this… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
5 years ago
Reply to  Louise

Yes, it is! And particularly hard to stop, because it’s withholding rather than an action. Try acting natural. Ignore his behavior – don’t address it directly. Just because someone is not speaking to you doesn’t mean you have to do the same. When you speak to him, even lovingly, he’ll see his tactics aren’t working. More information is in Codependency for Dummies and How to Speak Your Mind.

Louise
5 years ago

Thank you very much for your response. I really appreciate it. I have ordered the books.
I have found that things cannot be resolved/compromises reached between my partner and I. He used to tell me that he “wasn’t good at talking” but over the years I have come to think/realize that by not “talking” he can get his own way.

K
K
7 years ago

Thanks for your insight. I see what you mean about keep quiet when around him. He is very nice when others are around. He tries to appear the perfect gentleman. Later she will tell me the horrible things he says to her. I have never seen the abuse, just heard the stories.
She said, “I never thought I would be dating an abuser.” She is aware but afraid of being alone again. Very sad.

Amanda
5 years ago
Reply to  K

In the past 6 months, I have had growing anxiety and sadness being around my partner of 17 years. Surprisingly, he was the one to suggest couples counseling. We met with the therapist together and then I met with her alone. She said from just the short interaction he had with her and seeing him relate to me, she said he doesn’t let you speak, he is manipulative and controlling and if you want out, I’ll help you. I was shocked but burst into tears with relief. This is how subtle this type of abuse can be. I have always… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, MFT
7 years ago
Reply to  K

No, I meant if you speak up, don’t reference your sister, only yourself.

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