“On any given day, I never know what to expect and no call is ever the same. Some potential clients have an inkling they may be in an abusive relationship and others aren’t sure if what they are experiencing is abuse,” says SHALVA’s Intake Coordinator Dalia. What the caller is describing often includes emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is when someone repeatedly damages and diminishes their partner’s self-esteem.
Emotional abuse is different from the emotional moments all couples face at one time or another. Those who abuse repeatedly chip away at their victims’ self-worth and cause emotional, and even physical damage that can last long after the victim leaves the relationship. It’s a pattern of behavior designed to gain power and control over the victim. Every form of abuse creates emotional harm.
How do I know if I am being emotionally abused?
Emotional abuse is one of the hardest forms of abuse to recognize because it can be subtle and insidious. Dalia says that it is her job as the person who answers SHALVA’s helpline to look for these warning signs of abuse, especially emotional abuse because it can be so hard to spot. “It’s my job to listen and validate,” she says “I ask, what’s going on? At this point in the conversation, the caller will sometimes cry or immediately give me a detailed account of the abuse. Some things I may hear are “he calls me stupid in front the kids” or “he won’t let me have a phone”. These hurtful statements can be a sign of emotional abuse in the relationship.
What does domestic abuse look like?
All relationships have good days and bad days. In an abusive relationship, there is a pattern of behavior or cycle of violence. While there will be some good moments, there will also be really bad days. The relationship is great in the beginning, otherwise you wouldn’t have fallen in love. You may find that the relationship is getting serious very quickly, which can be a red flag. This phase in the cycle is known as the honeymoon phase. The next phase is tension building, which our clients describe as “walking on eggshells”. This builds to an abusive incident. Then comes apologies and excuses, which leads to a honeymoon phase, just like in the beginning of the relationship, but then tension builds again before the next incident. This cycle can leave survivors locked in an abusive relationship. Every relationship is unique and timing changes, but this is the pattern that emerges and distinguishes an unhealthy relationship from an abusive one.
What are the warning signs of emotional abuse?
Emotional abuse happens when a partner:
- Puts you down when you are feeling good about yourself.
- Is aggressive, distrustful, or mean toward people of your gender.
- Does not listen to you or ignores you.
- Refuses to talk about or listen to your concerns.
- Attacks any part of who you are (beliefs, values, interests, or personality).
- Embarrasses you in front of others.
- Disrespects, insults, humiliates, or demeans you in any way.
- Questions where you’re going, with whom, and how long you’ll be gone.
- Tells you who you can and cannot spend time with (including friends, family, and co-workers).
- Controls what you do, what you wear, who you see, or how you act.
- Is jealous and suspicious.
- Does not respect your boundaries and personal space.
How do I know if I am being emotionally abused?
This quiz from domesticshelters.org shows what emotional abuse looks like. If you feel that your partner does the following, you may be experiencing emotional abuse:
- Constant criticism
- Humiliation (public or private name calling, making you the butt of jokes)
- Blaming you for all problems, real or imagined
- Conveying that nothing you do will ever be good enough
- Belittling your feelings (“Get over it, you’re being too sensitive”)
- Being “hot and cold”: one minute they love you, the next they hate you
- Withholding approval, appreciation, or affection as punishment
- Ridiculing women as a group (“You women are all crazy/emotional/stupid”)
- Insulting or driving away your family and friends
- Refusing to socialize or be seen in public with you
- Requiring you to get permission to do normal, everyday things
- Using children as a weapon (punishing the children in order to punish you, encouraging them to gang up against you, or threatening to take them away from you)
- Threatening to commit suicide if you leave
What should I do if I think I am being emotionally abused?
Feeling wounded, frustrated, confused, misunderstood, depressed, anxious, ashamed or worthless when you are with your spouse or partner is a sign that your relationship is emotionally abusive.
Abuse is never acceptable, and it is never your fault. Everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and respect. Realizing this can help you stop the emotional abuse cycle.
The cycle of emotional abuse is difficult to break, and all abuse leaves emotional scars. Abusers usually deny or minimize their behavior, saying the victim is too sensitive, too stupid, or that “it’s all in your head.” Because victims cannot point to physical scars of their abuse, it can be harder for them to explain and ask for help. You may even think “it’s not that bad” and excuse the emotionally abusive behavior.
It’s important to know that the consequences of emotional abuse can be just as severe as physical abuse. If you think you or someone you know may be in an emotionally abusive relationship, SHALVA is here for you. Each SHALVA therapist has a master’s degree and several specialized certifications. The clinical team is passionate about the work, devoting 70 total combined years to SHALVA’s mission. Because SHALVA recognizes that trauma does not get resolved in a handful of sessions, we distinctly focus on long-term counseling. We change lives by helping women regain their dignity, increase self-esteem, and become empowered to make the decisions they want for their future in a non-judgmental, supportive, and safe space.