Signs of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship And What You Can Do

Some relationships, whether they be parent-child, spouse, sibling or friendships, can be emotionally abusive in nature.

An emotionally abusive relationship is more than just a collection of emotionally abusive behaviors. In an emotionally abusive relationship, one person consistently controls the other through fear, humiliation, manipulation, fear or shame. There is a predictable relational and communication pattern of tension building, incident, reconciliation and calm.

Identifying an emotionally abusive relationship can be tricky because the words the abuser uses may be kind, loving or compassionate. However, a simple phrase such as “I think you look nice” transforms into an entirely different sentiment if accompanied by an eye roll, a long sigh, a contemptuous tone of voice or a disgusted look. Similarly, an attempt at finding a genuine connection with the abuser by offering to cook their favorite food may be met with stonewalling, a cold shoulder, a sarcastic comment or an attempt at a joke in efforts to demean you, such as “You? Cook? Then what will we eat?” (Meera’s story: recognizing the patterns of emotional abuse)

Thus, to identify an emotionally abusive relationship, the focus needs to be on the effects of the behavior, not the words that are used. Here are some common effects of being in an emotionally abusive relationship with someone:

  • Do you feel worried or anxious about your spouse’s/parent’s/sibling’s anger?
  • Do you feel worried or nervous about your spouse’s/parent’s/sibling’s nonverbal gestures like sarcasm, criticism or glares?
  • Do you feel like you tiptoe around your spouse’s/parent’s/sibling’s mood to avoid blow-ups?
  •  Do you feel like you cannot predict when you will experience your spouse’s/parent’s/sibling’s putdowns, eye rolls, disgusted looks, disapproval or cold shoulder?
  • Do you feel like your relationship is ice cold like there is a wall between you?
  • Do you feel you second guess yourself and your behavior before you do anything because you worry you will set your spouse/parent/sibling off or begin “the silent treatment”?
  • Do you feel yourself questioning what you think is right and wrong?
  • Do you feel a sense of dread when you know you will be in contact with your spouse/parent/sibling?
  • Do you feel like what you expect from your spouse/parent/sibling is ridiculous, unfair or unreasonable?
  • Do you agree to do things with your spouse/parent/sibling just to keep the peace?
  • Do you feel like your spouse/parent/sibling bullies you?
  • Do you feel tense when walking past your spouse/parent/sibling?
  • If you stand up to your spouse/parent/sibling do you forget what you were upset about because you are trying to defend yourself?
  • Do you notice a cyclical pattern of incident, reconciliation and calm with your spouse/parent/sibling?
  • Do you notice that your spouse/parent/sibling rarely or never apologizes for the pain they have caused you?
  • Do you notice yourself experiencing more physical ailments such as headaches, muscle tension, stomach aches, etc.?

If you answered yes to most of these questions, you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship. Here are five things you can do to manage your situation.

Get support. Talk to a trusted friend or family member and share your concerns. Being in an emotionally abusive relationship has changed your perception of yourself and the situation and it is helpful to have a more realistic reflection of your self-worth and the damage the relationship has caused from someone you trust.

Set ground rules. Talk to the abuser and establish ground rules on what you will and will not tolerate. Be very clear that you are open to hearing their suggestions and advice but you will not accept any form of communication that directly or indirectly implies putting you down.

Realize you can only control you. You cannot control the abuser nor can you change who they are or what they do. You can only control your reaction to the abusive relationship including how long you engage in it and in what form.

Stop making sacrifices to keep the peace. By being fearful of upsetting the abuser you are enabling the cycle of abuse. A strong support network can also help mirror for you what reasonable expectations from a relationship are and can validate that your requests of the abuser are not unreasonable.

Walk away. Though many emotionally abusive relationships can be mended, some cannot. The change must occur on the part of the abuser. If you have tried your best to improve the relationship but the pattern continues, be prepared to pause or end the relationship.

Recognize the reality. Emotional abuse is more difficult to identify than physical abuse because there are no visible marks. However, emotional abuse can be more devastating than physical abuse in that it is often overlooked and can cause significant damage to a person’s self-worth and self-esteem. Emotional abuse victims are more likely to blame themselves, especially because emotional abuse can feel more personal than physical abuse. Emotional abuse can also escalate to physical abuse.

No matter the relationship, emotional abuse is not a communication problem and it is not an expression of love. It is a damaging pattern of relating to someone that is meant to hurt the other person.

For additional support please call the national domestic violence hotline 1−800−799−7233. For a South Asian specific domestic violence helpline please call 1 (888) 862-4874. If you are injured or you feel like you are in danger, please dial 911.

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