When we talk about domestic violence, many people imagine the stereotypical slight female with dark glasses covering her black eye. Weak, both physically and mentally, this victim easily gains sympathy, especially once she musters up the courage and strength to finally leave.
Unfortunately, the reality of domestic violence is far less obvious than those dark glasses make it out to be. Abuse comes in more than one version, and from more than one gender. Emotional abuse, also known as psychological abuse or mental abuse, is almost always a precursor to physical abuse. However, it also often exists on its own, lurking in the shadows of a marriage, ruining the victim’s self-esteem and sense of purpose, often without any obvious outward signs.
Understanding the Toll of Emotional Abuse
Emotional abuse, left unchecked, can lead to a number of problems which range from poor physical health due to stress to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Because it is elusive, a victim of emotional abuse may not even recognize the source of his or her problems. Likewise, the abuser, who is often reacting out of wounds and insecurities from childhood that have yet to be addressed, continues a cycle of behaviour that hurts themselves as much as their spouse-victim. It’s best to be single than be in this type of relationship.
Furthermore, children who are raised in emotionally abusive homes are very likely to become emotional abusers themselves. Many emotional abusers’ behaviours affect everyone in their lives, including their children, extended family, and friends. That is why it is so important to recognize the signs of emotional abuse in a marriage to either get yourself out or help someone else suffering as a victim of this hideous form of domestic violence.
8 Signs of Emotional Abuse in a Marriage
Emotional abuse is so slippery that observers and victims need to look at more than just one incident to find the signs of it. Emotional abuse is not, like physical abuse, easy to pinpoint as a bruise or broken bone, but rather a sustained pattern of behavior that leads the victim to feel as if he or she is “walking on eggshells” every time the abuser is present, and sometimes even when not.
If you look closely, however, the signs will always appear. Here are just eight that signal a deeper problem with emotional abuse:
- The phrase, “I love you, but…” – this indicates that the other person’s love is conditional. It seems nice at first, but actually erodes self-esteem because it is a form of backhanded compliment. In many cases, emotional abusers use the word “love” as an ace in the hole, manipulating it to gain control over the victim.
- Constant humiliation or put-downs – this happens especially in the presence of other people and may be “disguised” as a joke. If the victim ever called the abuser out on it, they would be met with a brush off such as, “lighten up.”
- Total financial control – like manipulating the word love, controlling finances to the point where the victim needs permission to make a purchase or feels guilty about money is a subversive way to exert control. It also demeans the victim’s sense of self by treating him/her like a child.
- Gaslighting – in order to manipulate their victim through distorting their sense of reality, abusers will deny verifiable facts or deliberately present false information. This can range from simply denying the past to elaborate staging events with the intention of confusing the victim and making him/her question their sanity.
- Inability to laugh at themselves – although they often “joke” about their victim’s shortcomings, emotional abusers are completely unable to see themselves as anything but perfect. They cannot use the “laugh at it” coping mechanism for awkward moments. They will feel especially threatened when others laugh at them, claiming it shows a “lack of respect”, another common phrase from the emotionally abusive. Their overall sense of humour may also be skewed or non-existent.
- They use emotional distancing to “solve” and argument – using the silent treatment, withholding sex or physical contact, and general neglect and abandonment as “punishment” all serve to degrade the relationship and therefore the other person in it, causing their victim to feel even more vulnerable and alone and thus, “needing” their abuser.
- Codependence – treating a partner as an extension of oneself rather than a separate person is a sign of emotional abuse. To do this, the abuser will often require frequent “check ins” when separated from the victim, fail to respect personal boundaries, and withhold information they don’t feel is “necessary” for the victim to know.
- Constant blame – an emotionally abusive spouse fails to recognize how his or her own actions contribute to problems, whether personal, financial, or relationship-oriented. They therefore blame everything on their victim or others, often making excuses for their behaviour rather than owning it.
There are ways to know if a relationship is worth saving, but getting out of an emotionally abusive relationship is just as hard, if not harder, than getting out of a physically abusive one. Because the signs are subtle, many people may not understand why you are leaving, making it hard to find support. In addition, many emotionally abusive spouses will threaten to kill themselves if their partner leaves, furthering the guilt and blame that defines the relationship into forever.
However, getting out is the only way to truly live, rather than just exist. No matter how much you love your abuser, that love cannot change him or her. The only way to help an emotionally abusive person is for them to admit to their issue and get the help they need. Sometimes, helping yourself instead is the only real option.