Emotional abuse: When it's deeper than a physical injury

How do you know if you are experiencing emotional abuse in your relationship?

Most of us know what physical abuse is and are able to recognize physical aggression as being violent. However, there’s another form of abuse that can be equally damaging and more subtle: emotional abuse. 

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is usually a phenomenon seen in intimate relationships. It is the deliberate treatment of another person in a way that’s demeaning, insulting or humiliating. The person who experiences abuse is likely to suffer from low self-esteem due to the abuse and this impacts their role in the relationship. Both men and women may be emotional abusers in a relationship.

Much like physical aggression and abuse, emotional abuse is also a means of making the other person feel weak or powerless in a relationship. Often, the person who is being abused doesn’t recognize this behavior as abusive. Sometimes, even the abuser is unaware of the impact of their words and actions on the other person.

What does emotional abuse look like?

Emotional abuse could include one or more of the following behaviors:

  • Constant suspicion - The abuser keeps track of one’s partner, accuses them of infidelity. They may also repeatedly question what the person is up to, where they are going and who they are spending time with. They may insist that their partner is not being honest with them, and harass them about their alleged infidelity.

  • Casual critical comments or hurtful barbs - These could range from comments on their food, looks or dressing style, their skills or their ability to manage their responsibilities. They may imply that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way the other person is.

  • Public humiliation - Humiliating, correcting or making fun of the other person in front of others. This may be followed by a remorseful apology in private.

  • Controlling the other person’s behavior - The abuser controls the person’s behavior through punishment or withholding of affection. This control could range from the way the person dresses to where they go and how they spend money. Due to this, they are left with a sense of having to ‘report’ to their partner or taking their ‘permission’ for the smallest of tasks or expenditure.

  • Withholding of emotional affection - The abuser tries to in a way that makes the other believe that they don’t deserve their partner’s love. Often, this may be used as a punishment for the person’s ‘mistakes’.

  • Ignoring the person - Rejecting or ignoring the other person, deliberately not paying attention to them when they’re speaking, or taking their opinion while making decisions. The abuser may also neglect the other person’s dreams or wishes, or make them sound trivial.

  • Manipulating the person - The abuser makes comments that make the other person believe that they are losing control of their mind, or are not reliable enough. This could be through the abuser pretending that something didn’t happen at all; or that the memory of certain events is different because the other person is ‘reading too much into it’ or that they are ‘too sensitive’. And that the abuser remembers things differently.

  • Control movement and activities - In some cases, the abuser may control the person’s movement and activities to such an extent that they are isolated from friends and family.

An abuser may use one or more of these forms to create a pattern of systemic verbal and psychological abuse that puts the abused on edge. The abused may always have the sense of walking on eggshells around the abuser; always be on guard, and never knowing when something they do or say sets the abuser off. They may begin believing what the abuser tells them -- that they are stupid, incapable or worthless, and they are the cause of the abuser’s behavior.

Emotional abuse can begin very subtly -- often through casual comments or remarks -- and accelerate. Due to this, the abused may see this as being ‘normal’ in that particular relationship. They are unable to recognize that the behavior of the abuser is not normal, or that their self-esteem is being attacked. The abused may not recognize the impact their partner’s behavior has on them.

Gradually, the intensity escalates and the abused may end up believing that they are worthless and no one can help them. They also start believing that they are somehow ‘crazy’ and not worth any love, affection or care, which can also keep them from seeking help.

Sometimes, even the abuser is unaware that they are using psychological manipulation. They may have seen such abuse happening at home in their childhood, and think that this is the 'normal' behavior in intimate relationships.

The impact of emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is similar to physical abuse, in that it has a deep impact on the abused, making them feel isolated, worthless and powerless. The person may:

  • Extremely lowered self-esteem - The abused believes that the criticism or humiliation handed to them by their partner is an accurate feedback about them. This can be particularly true for those who have no other networks nearby (friends, family or colleagues), and therefore no other way of knowing that others may perceive them differently.

  • Believe they deserve it - The abused end up believing that they are incapable and unworthy, that they cannot get along with anyone else, or have a quality relationship with another person. They may believe that they ‘deserve’ the treatment meted out to them by their partner.

  • Live in constant fear - In the fear of triggering the abuser, the abused may end up watch themselves all the time. They can be in constant anxiety about what behavior of theirs may attack criticism, and walk on eggshells around their partner.

With repeated emotional abuse, the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness can cause symptoms of depression and anxiety. But if the abuse goes away, the symptoms may go too. Long-term stress can cause chronic health issues such as high blood pressure, body pain, migraines or metabolic disorders. The stress, coupled with the cultural pressure of keeping the ‘secret’ to oneself, can also cause psychosomatic illnesses.

Seeking help for emotional abuse

Emotional abuse may not be as obvious as physical abuse, but is equally harmful and damaging. Emotional abuse can be isolating, and it’s important to remember that it’s not your fault, and you can feel more empowered with support from others.

If you think you are experiencing emotional abuse, seek help immediately. You can call a helpline or get in touch with a counselor who will be able to support you emotionally. The counselor will help you break the negative cycle of thinking that has been set off by the abuser’s manipulation, and help you regain your self-esteem.

In addition, you could also seek emotional support from your friends and family. If you are not working, you can consider getting a job or volunteering so you can expand your social circle and get a breather.

Where to get help - Below are helplines for counselling or referrals to a mental health expert:

Parivarthan: (080) 65333323 Monday to Friday, 4.00 pm to 10.00pm

iCall helpline:  022-25521111 (Monday to Saturday, 8 AM to 10 PM)

AKS Foundation Crisis Line:  (+91) 8793 0888 14/15/16 (http://aksfoundation.org/how-we-can-help/)

General and legal support:

Vimochana Forum for Women’s Rights: +91-80-25492781 / 25494266 (Crisis Helpline)

National Commission for Women: http://ncw.nic.in/frmhelpline.aspx

This article has been written with inputs from Shabari Bhattacharyya, counselor and trainer, Parivarthan Counseling, Training and Research Center.

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