You’ve probably heard the expression that “not all wounds are visible.” In the case of emotional abuse, that is absolutely true. Often called the “hidden abuse”, it leaves no physical signs of trauma. However, the wounds of the words and actions run deep and can inflict emotional injury that can last a lifetime. We hear a lot about “emotional abuse,” but just what is it and why is it so hard to leave?
Defining Emotional Abuse
Defining emotional abuse isn’t easy. How do you decide what’s “abusive” and what’s something carelessly said in the heat of an argument? To make things even more complicated, what is incredibly hurtful to one person may be inconsequential to another.
Emotional abuse is more than arguing with your partner, or even maybe yelling or saying unkind things in a heated moment. Emotional abuse1, also known as psychological abuse, verbal abuse or verbal aggression, is the repeated, intentional use of abusive words and actions intended to hurt, control, or intimidate another person.
Over time, this sustained emotional assault can have devastating effects on a person’s self-esteem and confidence, mental health, and even physical health. Studies2 have linked emotional abuse to mental health issues such as PTSD, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Substance abuse3 is highly correlated with a history of abuse. Some of the physical effects4 associated with an abuse history can include sleep problems, sexual dysfunction, chronic pain and GI issues. One study5 even suggests that emotional abuse may be more important in explaining suicidal behavior than physical abuse or neglect.
Spotting the Signs
Spotting emotional abuse isn’t always easy. Abusers are quite cunning and subtle in the way they manipulate their victims. The abuser may alternatively act in loving ways to the person in the relationship. The abuse and manipulation can be so subtle, that the person being victimized may question themselves and wonder if it’s even happening.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline6, some of the signs of emotional abuse include:
- Calling you names, insulting you, or constantly criticizing you.
- Acting jealous or possessive or refusing to trust you
- Isolating you from family, friends, or other people in your life.
- Monitoring your activities with or without your knowledge, including demanding to know where you go, who you contact and how you spend your time.
- Attempting to control what you wear, including clothes, makeup, or hairstyles.
- Humiliating you in any way, especially in front of others.
- Gaslighting you, by pretending not to understand or refusing to listen to you; questioning your recollection of facts, events, or sources; trivializing your needs or feelings; or denying previous statements or promises.
- Threatening you, your children, your family, or your pets (with or without weapons).
- Damaging your belongings, including throwing objects, punching walls, kicking doors, etc.
- Blaming you for their abusive behaviors.
- Accusing you of cheating or cheating themselves and blaming you for their actions.
- Cheating on you to intentionally hurt you and threatening to cheat again to suggest that they’re “better” than you.
- Telling you that you’re lucky to be with them or that you’ll never find someone better.
Finding Safety and Healing
With the kinds of behavior described above, you might wonder why anyone would stay in that kind of situation. The answer is, it’s complicated and here’s why:
- The abusive relationship is based on power and control. If the person being victimized leaves, it upsets the balance of power. This can ignite anger and risk for retaliation. Many people fear leaving the situation because of what might happen. It’s kind of the “devil you know vs. the devil you don’t” type of thinking.
- This one might sound odd to you but for some people, abuse seems normal. Especially for people with a history of abuse, they may not know what a healthy relationship looks like. They may not see the abuser’s behavior as unhealthy and hurtful.
- Shame and embarrassment may keep people from leaving. Admitting they are being mistreated is hard for some people to do. Feelings of being weak or even deserving of the abuse can keep someone stuck.
- A lack of resources can keep someone from seeking safety. If children are involved, there may be a fear of not being able to provide for them, especially if the person is financially dependent on the abuser.
If you find yourself in an emotionally abusive situation, it’s important to get help. You may decide to seek the help of a counselor. However, your safety must be the top priority. Only you can decide if it is safe for you to stay or safer to leave. If you decide to leave, the key to leaving safely is to develop a plan. A plan will allow you to transition as smoothly as you can, while prioritizing your safety. There are a number of resources to help you do just that. The National Domestic Violence Hotline website has a great safety planning tool6 that can help you make your plan.
As you’re making decisions, there are things you can do to heal. The first and most important thing to know is that abuse is never, ever your fault. No one is deserving of maltreatment.
Recovery is a process. You must make yourself a priority.
Some things you can do to promote healing and recovery include:
- Write it out. Keep a journal where you can process your feelings about your reality.
- Reach out to family and friends for support.
- Stop the blame game. You did not deserve the abuse and it was not your fault. Remind yourself often. Your journal is a great place to do that.
- Make your well-being a priority. Get enough rest, eat well and exercise.
- Don’t engage in arguments with the abusive person. If you are in a situation where you have to continue interacting with this person, don’t react when provoked. Remaining neutral is one of the most powerful things you can do.
- Ask for help. Dealing with the fallout from abuse is hard work and it can feel overwhelming. A trauma-informed therapist can help you through the healing process.
If you or a loved one is struggling with the aftermath of abuse, All Points North Lodge can help. APN is proud to offer a trauma-informed approach to care. Our team of expert clinicians are ready to help you take the next step towards healing and recovery. We offer programs designed to treat addictions and mental health disorders. Nestled in the beautiful Rocky Mountains, APN Lodge offers a luxury rehab experience that offers the perfect environment for healing, personal growth and recovery. Using evidence-based treatment approaches, our team of clinicians has the expertise to guide you through the process from referral through program completion.
To learn about all that the APN Lodge experience offers, reach out to one of our Contact Center team members at 866-525-9107. Let us help you reclaim your voice and find your way forward.
- EIGE. Glossary of definitions of rape, femicide, and intimate partner violence; 2017. Retrieved from: https://eige.europa.eu/rdc/eige-publications/glossary-definitions-rape-femicide-and-intimate-partner-violence
- Lagdon, S., Armour, C., & Stringer, M. (2014) Adults experience of mental health outcomes as a result of intimate partner violence victimization: a systematic review. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 5:1, DOI: 10.3402/ejpt.v5.24794
- Norman, R. E., Byambaa, M., De, R., Butchart, A., Scott, J., & Vos, T. (2012). The long-term health consequences of child physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Public Library of Science Medicine, 9(11), 1-31. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001349
- Sachs-Ericsson, N., Cromer, K., Hernandez, A., & Kendall-Tackett, K. (2009). A review of childhood abuse, health, and pain-related problems: The role of psychiatric-disorders and current life stress. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 10(2), 170-188.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19333847/
- Miller, A. B., Esposito-Smythers, C., Weismoore, J. T., & Renshaw, K. D. (2013). The relation between child maltreatment and adolescent suicidal behavior: A systematic review and critical examination of the literature. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 16(2), 146-172. doi:10.1007/s10567-013-0131-5
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline, Retrieved from: https://www.thehotline.org/resources/types-of-abuse/