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Emotional Abuse

6 Troubling Signs of Psychological Abuse in a Relationship

Psychological abuse endangers women with “hidden injuries."

Photographee eu/Shutterstock
Source: Photographee eu/Shutterstock

In my last post, I highlighted a controlling partner’s beliefs of superiority and power that drive his behavior and expectations of his intimate partner. Since psychological abuse or coercive tactics are often not easily recognizable or understood as hurtful, women can miss how deeply affected they become. If they do see these effects — changes in their mood or functioning — they often may not look to their partner’s behavior as the cause.

Lila, 34, shared:

I dread hearing my husband shout at me, “You’re like your mother!” I grew up with a mother who had mental health issues, and early on, I shared this painful history with my husband. Intellectually, I know I’m not like my mother, but emotionally I still feel vulnerable, and my husband knows it. When he attacks me in this way, I become immobilized with shame and can be depressed for days.

Psychological abuse that’s difficult to identify endangers women the most. Unlike physical violence with obvious harm, these “hidden injuries” target a woman’s thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. At the same time, psychological abuse can impact one’s psyche and sense of well-being to the same extent as physical violence. Knowing the devastating effects can lead to identifying an intimate partner’s behavior and seeing it for what it is — coercive abuse. When you do, you’re in the best position to protect yourself.

6 Signs of Harm

Let’s recognize the signs of psychological abuse as they appear during a relationship with a controlling partner. There are many reactions, symptoms, and conditions that result from being abused. I’ve selected six of the most common conditions identified by the majority of the more than 1,000 women who have attended my recovery groups.

Your con­trolling partner creates an experience in your relationship that can cause major negative changes in you, leading to many profound losses:

  1. If you were confident and self-assured before your relationship, you’re likely to find yourself suddenly self-doubting and insecure.
  2. If you felt grounded and trusted yourself, you are likely to become confused and indecisive.
  3. If you were happy and content, you’re apt to feel emotionally exhausted and anxious.
  4. If you were competent and thought well of yourself, you may come to feel unsure and incapable.
  5. If you once knew what you believed, you’re possibly losing confidence and trust in your own judgment.
  6. If you had insecurities, they will only intensify as they are used against you.

These shifts can result in negative emotions that come to feel commonplace, such as fear, terror, shame, and guilt. In addition, mental health conditions can develop, such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and trauma.

One symptom of trauma is hypervigilance, a state experienced by most women with a controlling partner. You feel tense and stay on high alert when he is around. You may be fearful of doing or saying something he might not like, for you learned it’s emotionally unsafe to disagree. Your ability to have influence and control over your own life slowly diminishes. You may feel like you’re crazy, but you’re not.

Taking Yourself Back: Where to Begin

Getting emotionally stronger helps you move toward feeling empowered and act in your own best interest. Here are three useful steps:

  1. Become clear about what is happening in your relation­ship by learning about controlling behaviors, their impact, and how best to respond.
  2. Become emotionally stronger by moving out of confusion, and trust how you think, feel, and see things.
  3. Feel like yourself again by taking back those parts of yourself that you lost trust in or had to keep hidden in your relationship.

When you no longer feel like the person you once were, or feel worse about yourself than you did before you met your partner, take it seriously. Prioritize yourself the best you can. Once you feel stronger and trust again in your own perception, you'll no longer be vulnerable to psychological abuse from a controlling partner.

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