Abuse has been defined as referring to “harmful or injurious treatment of another human being that may include physical, sexual, verbal, psychological/emotional, intellectual, or spiritual maltreatment”. While more physical forms of abuse may be easier to identify and understand, the concept of emotional or psychological abuse is something that can be hard to pinpoint due to the complex nature of interpersonal relationships and how people treat each other within them. Most mental health professionals will identify emotional abuse as a person using psychological or emotional means to manipulate or control another person. This can leave a person feeling guilty, helpless, and trapped to get out of a cycle of negative and destructive interactions in their closest and most intimate relationships. The following are ways you can decipher whether or not the negative patterns in your relationship would be considered emotionally or psychologically abusive and the steps for advocating for yourself and a healthy partnership:
Emotionally Abusive Behavior
- Isolation– controlling what another partner does, who they speak to or spend time with and where they go, limiting time with friends and family.
- Sometimes abusive partners will use jealousy and anger to reduce the time their partner spends with others, which inevitably weakens and can sever their other relationships, isolating them and decreasing their healthy social support.
- Put Downs– questioning the partner’s behavior, actions, appearance, or decisions, possibly assisting their partner in feeling guilty about things they have said or done. A consistent pattern of this behavior can help to decrease the non-abusive partner’s self-esteem and can lead them to feel undeserving of better, loving treatment from their partner.
- An abusive partner may have extremely high expectations that they expect their partner to meet, and will not give up on the critical interactions with their partner until they try to meet them. This could mean that a partner would go to great lengths to change their appearance, their behaviors, or themselves as a whole, only for it to feel like nothing is ever “good enough” to please their partner.
- Intimidation- Any behaviors or language that would cause a person to feel afraid or another person; this could involve looks, gestures, or behavior.
- Abusive partners will become aggressive with property or objects and sometimes even animals to instill fear into a partner to get them to comply and feel control.
- Threats- threatening behavior, including threatening to leave, to harm themselves or someone else, or to do some other destructive thing such as attempting to get the non-abusive partner into trouble with their friends, family, co-workers/bosses, or even law enforcement if they do not comply to what the partner wants.
- Money and Financial Abuse- withholding ways for a non-abusive partner to make money is another way that an abusive partner will attempt to control someone; refusing to allow them to make their own money, controlling how much money a partner is able to have at one time, or making a partner ask them for money all puts them in a situation where the non-abusive partner cannot leave and care for themselves without the help of the abusive partner. This allows them to maintain some sort of control over a person and continues to create the helpless feeling like there is no way out.
- Dominance- dominating over a partner by setting a dynamic where the non-abusive partner is expected to serve the wants and needs of the abusive partner over their own needs and everything else is another way that a partner can initiate control over another person and keep them in a dysfunctional cycle. Often, this involves the abusive partner being the decision-maker for all things, and the non-abusive partner must cater to them in all basic ways.
- Children- if a couple has children, an abusive partner may or may not inflict the same control over their children, but will likely use the children as a bargaining tool to get their partner to comply.
It’s important to note that these behaviors do not begin in the beginning of a relationship, nor do they happen all at once. An abusive partnership usually involves long courting period where the partner is attentive, loving, and nurturing, but once things have become more intimate the abusive behaviors tend to begin to take shape. As a non-abusive partner shies away from these attempts at control, the abusive partner may see this as a threat to the power they hold in a relationship and the controlling behavior can and does escalate as a result. Sometimes this can lead to physically or sexually abusive behavior, but sometimes a partner will only engage in more obscure and less concrete forms of abuse, as mentioned above.
How to Cope with Emotional Abuse
Knowing the signs of controlling and manipulating behavior are the first steps in keeping yourself out of a long-term emotionally abusive relationship. Here are some steps to protecting yourself from getting into an interpersonal relationship that can be dangerous and hard to get out of:
- Set clear boundaries with partners early on in relationships. Having clear expectations of how you would like to be treated is important in any relationship. Making sure that others know those boundaries and that they respect them is important to making sure that others respect you.
- Prioritize yourself first, then others. People sometimes explain this by using the example of putting on your own mask in an airplane when the cabin pressure is off before helping another person. If you are not able to focus on your own mental, physical, and emotional health above another person’s, you will not be healthy enough to set the aforementioned boundaries that are so necessary in having a healthy relationship.
- Know your limitations. We all get into relationships and see our partners’ struggles and want to help them alleviate them. It’s a good natured thing to feel, as most of us are empathy-driven and loving humans! The problem is, we have to recognize at some point that no matter how hard we try, we cannot “fix” a person if they are not ready/willing to work to fix themselves (just like it was mentioned in number two above about YOU!). It’s important to try to help and be supportive of your partner, but you also have to know when you’ve done all you can.
- Separate but meaningful. Having your own life goals, dreams, ambitions, and social connections is an important part of boundary setting that helps to keep emotionally controlling behavior at bay. Continuing to have social outings without your partner, having passions or activities that you do without them, and having your own time and space is important not only for your mental health, but for your partner’s as well!
- Ignore, Walk Away, Seek Help. If you have found yourself in a relationship where some emotionally abusive behavior has become part of the dynamic, it’s important to understand that patterns of power and control will keep you in the relationship unless you begin to find a way to separate from the emotional entanglements that have developed. Part of this means physically and emotionally separating from the critical, threatening, or otherwise abusive interactions; walking away, leaving the room (or the home), and reminding yourself that you are not to blame for these interactions is important to keep you in a healthy state of mind. Seek support from friends, family, trusted co-workers, or even mental health professionals through services or hotlines to help get some assistance with how you can leave a relationship that isn’t healthy.
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events