Have you ever been around a couple, like a boyfriend and a girlfriend, and it seems as if one is always putting the other down? It could be snide comments or passive aggressive insults, but it just makes you uncomfortable to be a witness? I think many of us have had this situation, and we often try to change the course of the conversation or laugh it off. What many of us may not realize is that this kind of behavior is a form of abuse called emotional abuse, or psychological abuse.
What Is Emotional Abuse?
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, emotional abuse is “the systematic perpetration of malicious and explicit nonphysical acts against an intimate partner, child, or dependent adult” (emphasis added). It is the nonphysical aspect of emotional abuse that sets it apart from what most people think of as abuse. Unlike physical abuse, the effects and scars of emotional abuse are harder to identify. It is much easier, for example, for a teacher to notice a student’s frequent bruising and notify authorities than it is for a teacher to observe the effects of emotional abuse. Likewise, the public is more attuned to recognizing the physical abuse of a spouse or a child, but we are less inclined to recognize emotional abuse in relationships.
It has never been simple to create an emotional abuse definition. In fact, according to an article published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, there is a concerning lack of consensus in how emotional abuse is evaluated and reported. What one person may consider emotional abuse, another may consider to be just different, if inappropriate, parenting styles. Most people don’t want to be perceived as being nosey or interfering, and it’s much easier to ignore the situation when there are no outward signs of abuse.
Forms of Emotional Abuse
There are many nuances to emotional abuse. Some forms of emotional abuse include:
1. Name calling and insults. Imagine a boyfriend constantly telling his girlfriend that she is fat, or ugly, or some other comment to make her feel worthless and that she can’t do any better than him.
2. Threats, including threats of violence, threatening to take something away, abandoning the other person or threatening something or someone the person cares about. For example, a father telling his children that he will hurt their mom if they don’t stay quiet.
3. Imitating or mocking the person, including making derogatory statements about the person to a third party. By imitating or mocking a person, the abuser makes the abused feel embarrassed and ashamed.
4. Isolating the person – leaving them out of social situations, failing to allow visitors, withholding information or ignoring the person. Cutting someone off from friends and family is a way to control the person and bend them to the abuser’s will.
5. Unreasonably ordering the person around, being over-familiar or disrespectful. Obviously, if two people are supposedly in a loving relationship, one should not’t tell the other what to do or assume control over the other’s life and actions.
The above examples are all forms of bullying, and essentially, that is what an emotionally abusive person is – a bully. Instead of hitting someone to make them do what the person wants, the abuser manipulates the other person by targeting perceived weaknesses and twisting the way the victim sees him or herself.
Effects of Abuse
Emotional abuse often accompanies physical abuse, but when the signs of physical abuse are not apparent, or only emotional abuse exists, it can be very difficult to identify that an emotionally abusive relationship is taking place.
Although it is harder to see the damaging effects of emotional abuse, and there isn’t a definitive emotional abuse test, the consequences of the abuse are no less devastating than if a person is being harmed physically. When a person is physically abused, there may be a visible scar or some other marker. When a person is psychologically abused, the long-term repercussions can be severe, especially in children. Physical abuse can cause immediate, bodily harm, but some doctors believe that the damage done by emotional abuse can be more psychologically harmful than physical abuse.
This could be due to the fact that it may be easier to see that the perpetrator of physical abuse is the one who is “wrong”, while with emotional abuse, the victim is more likely to blame herself. Somehow, whether its a natural instinct or a moral inclination, most people realize that they should not physically harm another person. Oddly, this type of instinct does not always extend to saying hurtful things or accepting another person’s criticism as true.
In a way, emotional abuse is more personal than physical abuse, so the abused person internalizes the abuse as deserved or as a result of a personal flaw.
The effects of emotional abuse are more pronounced in children, as they are still developing, but emotional abuse effects every victim.
A few signs of emotional abuse include:
1. Anxiety, insecurity, and low self-esteem. When someone that is supposed to care for you constantly makes you feel worthless, you start to believe that you are. In the long run, an emotionally abused person may have trouble holding a steady job, graduating from high school or college, or forming successful, loving relationships in the future.
2. Inappropriate behavior. A child that has been abused may be destructive, may hurt others and may grow up to become an abuser himself. At the far end of the spectrum, an emotionally abused person may even physically harm other children or animals.
3. Isolation and shame. The abused person may withdraw from friends and loved ones. Going back to the girlfriend whose boyfriend tells her she is fat all the time – the more she hears that, the more she may believe it, and the more she may avoid social situations. Kids may avoid interacting with classmates, teachers, and friends. They may avoid activities where they must interact with large groups.
It is difficult to understand if emotional abuse is an issue in some cases – some children are naturally quiet, some adults are shy and withdrawn. The important thing is to notice changes in behavior, or a combination of signs.
Dealing With Emotional Abuse
It can be hard to recognize emotional abuse, but if you suspect that someone you know is being subjected to this type of abuse – perhaps a once vibrant friend is suddenly quiet or withdrawn, or a child is exhibiting inappropriate behavior at school – the best course of action is to provide support and information. You don’t have to solve the problem alone.
1. Do some research to see if there are resources in your area that deal with emotional abuse. Women’s and children’s shelters, social workers and churches are good starting places.
2. Listen and provide support. It is important to let the victim know that you are there to help and you will do what you can to connect them to the appropriate people who can help. A good listener does not immediately offer advice, and it is imperative that you don’t try to make excuses for the abuser or blame the victim. Not every situation is the same, and hindsight is 20/20 – you can’t assume you know what is best for every situation, so the best thing to do is be present and attentive to what the other person is saying.
3. Encourage the person to seek help. If the victim is an adult, encourage the victim to seek out avenues like therapy or, if necessary, escape. Remember, the victim is already being emotionally controlled by the abuser, so don’t try and take over or fix the problem yourself. If the victim is a child, it is important to contact someone who can help while still making the child feel safe and in control.
Often, we put blinders up to bad things happening to the people we care about. No one wants to think their daughter is being emotionally abused by a boyfriend, or that their child is constantly insulted by a teacher. It is also easy to make excuses for the people we love who may be the abusers.
If you believe someone you know is being emotionally abused, do your best to look at the situation objectively and do you what you can to get the person out.