One of the most misunderstood and overlooked forms of abuse is emotional abuse. It is easily covered up, easily overlooked, and easily dismissed. Psychology Today defines emotional abuse as:
“A pattern of behavior in which the perpetrator insults, humiliates, and generally instills fear in an individual in order to control them. The individual’s reality may become distorted as they internalize the abuse as their own failings.1 (Italics mine).
There is a misconception that physical abuse is worse than verbal or mental abuse; however, the latter causes one to be more susceptible to the trappings of an abuser. Victims who are in an emotionally abusive relationship have a harder time escaping because much of the abuse has negatively affected their thought processes. In fact, many victims have been conditioned to believe that everything they are going through is their own fault. They are in a prison of sorts; a silent prison.
One form of psychological manipulation that many abusers use is gaslighting which is, once again, best defined by Psychology Today:
“Victims of gaslighting are deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, often about themselves. They may end up doubting their memory, their perception, and even their sanity. Over time, a gaslighter’s manipulations can grow more complex and potent, making it increasingly difficult for the victim to see the truth.”2
Several of the victims I have worked with were manipulated exactly as described above. They have been systematically broken down and it is incredibly difficult to help them understand that they are in an abusive relationship. They don’t realize that the person they think loves them more than anyone else, is actually controlling their every move. Abusers do not have a genuine love for their victims but care only about mopping up their own selfish needs through the manipulation and control of unsuspecting individuals. It is not difficult to recognize the signs of someone who is under the influence of an emotional abuser, but you need to be aware of what to look for. Here are two examples that are glaring signs of an emotionally abusive relationship.
Isolation: The more a victim can be isolated, the better ability the abuser has to control them. The process of isolation is very slow, very methodical and, make no mistake, very intentional. If a person has nothing to hide, they won’t mind hanging out with family or friends and allow them to get to know them. But when they have everything to hide, they need to keep their distance and will manipulate their victim to do the same. If you know someone who used to be close to people but, after getting into a relationship, cut themselves off from everyone, that is the first sign that they are in an unhealthy relationship.
I will tell the full story of Effie in the future, however, hers is the perfect example of how a victim can be so isolated that they don’t even realize how lonely they are. By the time she realized she was in an abusive marriage, she was completely isolated and felt like she had no one to talk to. Her husband at the time was in a career that required relocating to other states. Each time they moved he would gain more control and would only allow her to go to certain places and, although she was allowed to make friends, she was not allowed to have them over or go out with them. By the time they moved to the state that she and I met, she was only a shell of who she used to be. Whenever we talked, she would speak in a meek voice, constantly looking around like a scared puppy; always nervous that he would find out that she was confiding in me.
Sadly, before Effie had even escaped from her ex, he was already dating another girl who was 15 years his junior. That girl went from having a ton of friends to none; and to having a very close relationship with her family to rarely speaking to them. Even though he was making six figures at his job, he made her pay their rent on her fast-food paycheck. They eventually married and he installed cameras on both the inside and outside of their home so that he could monitor her every move. He lost one victim (Effie) and then preyed on a younger victim who was easier to control. To this day she is completely isolated and there isn’t too much hope for her escape; unless she comes to the realization that she is in an abusive relationship, that she is not crazy, that she is not worthless and is able to reach out to someone who can help her. There is always help available, however, a victim needs to recognize their need for that help before anyone can step in.
Lack of friends/accountability: Another sign of an emotionally abusive relationship is that there is only ONE person in the abuser’s life and that is their victim. Abusers are only successful if they can maintain their public façade. However, because their public persona is an act, they can only keep it up for so long. They don’t have friends who are close; they are usually disliked in their work environments; they may be popular in social settings but have no deep connections; or they may be socially awkward because they are typically insecure about themselves. Therefore, they keep their victims isolated so that they have less chances of being exposed. Effie’s ex had no friends and was socially distant when it came to church functions. He believed everyone was unworthy of his attention and, therefore, refused to engage with others. When they met with couples, it was usually only a one-time event because he couldn’t keep up the false image if he got close to anyone. The fact is that he was incredibly insecure about himself and his defense mechanism was to act like he was above everyone. The only people he considered friends were his siblings. However, even his siblings knew that he was a narcissist and felt bad for Effie, but they were also afraid of him. So, when he and Effie broke up, they stopped talking to her because it was easier for them to bury their heads in the sand rather than to confront him.
This is a common thread amongst abusers: Their extended family is usually aware of who they are and have their own fears to deal with. They would rather side with the abuser, despite their knowledge of who they know them to be, than face retribution from them. The exception to this family rule is the family member the abuser learned his behavior from. That person will never see anything wrong with the abuser and, in fact, will defend their actions; their opinion is of no consequence.
The bottom line is that being in an emotionally abusive relationship is like being in a silent prison. It is not obvious and can be easily hidden. There are no scars or bruises on the outside, but there is tearing and destruction on the inside. When someone you care about cuts themselves off from you because of a new relationship, it is too easy to get your feelings hurt and stop caring about them. However, that person may be trapped in an abusive relationship without realizing they are and most likely need you now more than ever before. People don’t just cut themselves off for no reason and are probably being controlled. They need friends to remain available and able to help them to see the truth; be that friend that could help them in their most desperate time of need.
Until next time, stay safe!
- Local Assistance: https://willowcenterny.org/
- National Assistance: https://ncadv.org/learn-more