Some things sound like a cop-out or an excuse. Emotional abuse is one of those. Physical abuse we can see. Psychological abuse we can understand. But emotional abuse seems a bit wish-washy. Doesn’t everyone say mean things from time to time? Does that make everyone an abuser? It feels like a blanket “men are mean” accusation, a large net that scoops up everyone and devalues real abuse,
This is why I feel moved to dissect this. Because it is real abuse. And there are people around us suffering from this right now, or suffering with post-trauma. If we can understand it, we can help them. So let’s get into it.
It’s hard for people to understand emotional abuse. First, much of the abuse is unseen so when abuse is declared, people can only judge by the behaviours they have seen and what they are hearing doesn’t seem to match what they’ve witnessed.
Second, people judge the behaviour by how they would feel, and if they wouldn’t feel abused by it, the behaviour is not judged to be inappropriate. The feelings of the victim are judged in comparison to the feelings of someone who is not in that situation.
Third, it’s hard to explain. A popular perception is that emotional abuse is just saying mean things or calling names. It can be those things, but it is so much more. It is the gradual compression of the spirit (more on this below).
Fourth, the victim is subject to the behaviour for years and so it is their “normal”. I’ve written before about the surprising number of women who don’t realise they are in an abusive situation (you can read it here). Think the mythical frog in a pot of boiling water. If you drop a frog into boiling water, it will jump straight out. If you put the frog in cold water, it will keep swimming while it gradually heats up. It grows accustomed to the increasing temperature – until it’s too late.
It is a subtle but tectonic shift over many years. But there is a process. Which means there are red flags you can look out for – flags by which you can protect yourself, or, flags to help you can recognise if someone you know is in a situation like this. I’ve summarised it in the diagram below and then talked through what those steps mean.
“Abuse” is a strong word. Not many people think they are “an abuser”. That’s because people tend to judge themselves by their intentions and other people by their actual behaviour. The majority of abusers intentions are not to abuse. But their behaviour is abusive. Let’s look at the process.
At the beginning of an abusive relationship, there may be some bullish behaviour and subtle control and manipulation. But two things blind the victim to their presence:
- The victim’s own confidence, self-esteem, coping mechanisms and support network are sufficient to override any disquiet or cope confidently with any shortcomings in the spirit of compromise within a new relationship; and
- “Lovebombing” is a real technical team that describes an abusers modus operandi. Here are the main red flags – they will hook up quickly after the last relationship; they will isolate their new partner, shut out friends and so on and place all attention and affection on the partner (and themselves) so they are deeply and exclusively connected. Even if the victim has a large social network, there is an emotional interdependence created, an exclusive bubble; they will likely engage in repeated romantic gestures, extravagant attention and usually will co-habit and/or propose quickly. The reason this is so effective is that the victim is the subject of a Hollywood style level of affection. This behaviour covers over a multitude of subtle manipulation, coercion and power playing.
The next step occurs after some time of diminishing. The victim’s confidence gradually diminishes, their support networks might diminish as they are isolated, or their feeling of being able to talk to those networks diminishes. At the same time, the grand romance diminishes.
Over time, the victim has become more and more vulnerable to bullying, manipulation, control and coercion. But, in the style of the frog in the water, the victim might not know they are in boiling water. They might not know that their partner’s behaviour is not acceptable. It has become their normal.
The victim at this point may be soldiering on in their public life but inside feeling gradually crushed. At some point, as the capacity to cope dips below the level of adverse behaviour experienced, the wheels will fall off. If you’re interested, I’ve written before about the relationship between coping and trauma here.
This can be where the point of recognition occurs – the recognition of being in boiling water.
When the point of recognition occurs, the victim’s responses to the abuser will change as they realise what is happening to them. This is a critical juncture. Because as the victim’s behaviour changes, so does the abuser’s. The bullying and control and manipulation will begin to escalate. Volatility will become greater and more frequent, as will mood swings and the unpredictability as the abuser senses loss of control. Usually this is where gaslighting also escalates – an abusers process of making the victim believe it is their fault, or not happening, or even that they themselves are the abuser (read more here).
Then comes another downward spiral. Self-doubt in the victim leads to hopelessness and despair. This is on top of the emotionally abusive tactics (which are varied, diverse and insidious) which can generate real and deep fear and high levels of anxiety. The volatility of the abuser means that anger explosions don’t even need to happen for the abuse to occur – the fear is enough. Think of it this way: I have a new dog. At first when I was training her, I’d use words and tone of voice and even actions. Now, a mere 3 months later, my dog only has to see the look on my face to feel sure she is about to be shut outside and she’ll dart under the couch to hide from me. Victims have been trained and conditioned to know when to feel fear.
At this point, several possible outcomes are possible. The victim may reach breaking point and leave. Or, the abuse may escalate to physical violence as well.
This is not an outcome that can be tolerated by our community. But it need not reach this point for it to become not tolerable. Emotional abuse ought not to be tolerated by our community either. It is emotional violence. It is damaging and scarring.
When we understand emotional abuse (and this short blog by no means explains all the nuances!) we can become more aware to behaviour that is not ok. It may not be behaviour that is abusive yet – but yet is the key word. If we can see where behaviour is heading in that direction, if we can see some red flags, we can help and support the people around us who may be experiencing this emotional violence and damage.