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Editor’s note: women do this too, of course—and it is not the same as physical abuse. But it is real, and different, and it is worth understanding.
Many years ago, in my 20s, I was in an abusive relationship—but it never would have occurred to me to call it that because my abuser never laid a hand on me.
Had he, he might perversely have been doing me a pretty big favor, because despite my scrambled perceptions, maybe I’d finally have understood that it was time to go.
Of course, it’s quite possible I’m wrong. People in abusive relationships seem to have a near endless ability to justify even the most outrageous conduct, and I was certainly no exception. But it does highlight an important point: back then I thought that abuse was defined by physical violence, and that anything short of that was just—well, a crappy relationship.
This belief allowed me to give myself permission to stay years longer than I otherwise would have, and I came close to ending my life. By the time it was almost over, I was so demoralized that I was actively suicidal, and it’s really only by the grace of whoever that I’m around today.
The thing about emotional abuse is, it’s invisible. With no hard evidence of what’s happening, it’s difficult to believe things are as bad as they are, that we are not imagining the abuse, and that our abuser is just that—someone who is systematically victimizing us. Gaslighting, a standard method abusers employ to make their victim feel crazy, helps keep us trapped, as does social isolation, which ensures that there are few other people around to confirm that, yes, things are indeed as terrible as they seem.
But hear me say this: emotional abuse is real, and it can be as traumatic and devastating as physical abuse, destroying entire lives, childhoods, marriages, and families, and creating fallout that can take generations to heal. Of course, physical abusers generally will emotionally abuse, too.
So how do we know if we are being emotionally abused? I could give you a more clinical or professional list of red flags here, but I’m going to just speak from my heart.
These are some of the experiences I’ve had, and that I’ve observed my clients, who are in emotionally abusive relationships, having:
1. You are in a state of near-constant confusion, upset, and questioning regarding your relationship.
As I mentioned, victims in emotionally abusive relationships have a seemingly infinite capacity for explaining away bad behavior. These mental gymnastics have them continually looking for explanations and excuses for their partner’s choices, and wondering if they themselves are missing something, are stupid, or are actually insane.
2. You are an empath.
If you readily empathize with other people’s emotions and points of view, you are likely some level of empath. Abusers most often choose empaths as their partner for a few reasons: they can be easy to manipulate because they want everyone to feel okay, they see all sides of a story and can therefore be convinced that theirs is not necessarily valid, and they do the emotional heavy lifting. (Abusers are often not able to feel and process their own emotions appropriately, and require someone else to do that work for them.)
3. Your partner has narcissistic traits.
If your partner’s go-to interpersonal style when he is stressed is anger, criticism, and blame, you are likely dealing with a narcissist. Narcissists are convinced that everything is somebody else’s fault, and they specialize in holding grudges and keeping score to prove it. They also believe they are gifted in some way, generally intellectually, and will insist that they know more and are smarter than those around them.
4. Arguments with your partner go global and can take hours or even days to resolve.
It starts out with the most insignificant thing, and suddenly you find yourself in the middle of World War III. You are helpless to shut it down, even though you try absolutely everything: speaking reasonably, apologizing, promising never to do whatever it was again, fighting back. You find yourself saying whatever it takes just to make it stop, and inevitably providing your partner with more ammunition to use against you the next time.
5. You often worry about saying and doing the wrong thing and setting your partner off.
Because the fights are so bad, you invest considerable time in trying to keep them from happening in the first place. These efforts are always foiled, however, as no matter how hard you try, your partner finds something to be pissed off about.
If you find yourself reading this and nodding your head, welcome to the club. It’s not a membership anyone wants, but if you’re going to be here, it’s better to be aware of it. Now you have some things to think about.
Can life be better than this?
What is the payoff for staying in this relationship?
What can I do to make some real changes?
Who might support me during this process?
Do I need professional help?
Only you can save yourself, and it takes tremendous courage and resolve to do so. But if you can survive emotional abuse, I’m willing to bet you’re strong enough to survive just about anything.
So many wonderful things await you on the other side.