Spotting and Describing Hidden Emotional Abuse

Emotional Abuse is not always obvious. Awareness leads to protection, healing.

Posted Jan 14, 2015

Controlling people often disguise their abusive behavior as harmless and blame their partners for the strife in their relationship. As a result, their partners struggle to determine whether or not the treatment is part of a normal relationship. They are conflicted about who is at fault.

Victims don’t realize they are involved with someone who has a deep-seated need to control them and may be Narcissistic or sociopathic. They aren’t aware of the specific tactics perpetrators use to erode their self-esteem for better control.  In an effort to set things right, they contribute to their own misery.

Abusers can be highly skilled at projecting an attractive image that convinces others they have solid personal values and wouldn’t be capable of abuse. An abuser’s thoughtful and caring behavior toward others gives their victims more reason to take the blame.

As a psychotherapist who treats emotional abuse survivors, I realized the lack of language to spot and describe the controlling – and sometimes imperceptible - tactics of dangerous people creates a barrier to protection and healing. 

To help break down the barrier, I developed a language of simple terms and definitions that explain harmful interactions between intimate partners. Over the next several months in my blog, From Charm to Harm, I will provide you with the language I have created. I will illustrate the tactics and effects of emotional abuse with true stories from my psychotherapy practice and my own experience. 

First let’s look at how emotional abuse works in an intimate relationship. On the outside, the relationship between Sally and Tom appears to be normal. But on the inside he is using psychological intimidation to undermine Sally’s emotional well-being for his own personal gain. If Sally could see and explain Tom’s demoralizing tactics and her reaction to them, she could protect herself and get help.

When they first meet, Tom piques Sally’s interest with his charm, looks, and ingenuity. He pursues her with an intensity she’s never experienced. He makes her feel loved and special. She is certain he has the character traits she has searched for in a life partner. She returns his love and feels hopeful about their future together.

As their relationship progresses, Tom’s behavior sends up red flags, but Sally minimizes or ignores them. If she doesn’t, he explains them away. He professes to love her and tells her she is the most important person in his life. Yet he falsely accuses her of cheating. He scolds her for not spending enough time with him. He tells her he needs a partner who “has his back” and she’s not living up to the job. She is confused when he makes her feel like an idiot without actually saying the word. She doubts herself when he discounts her feelings and says she’s too sensitive.

Sally believes she needs to improve herself, because according to Tom, she is the problem. But the more Sally does to win Tom’s approval, the less secure she feels in the relationship.

What Sally doesn’t realize is that Tom has zeroed in on her psychological weak spots. He is taking advantage of her vulnerability to mold her into a person who fulfills his unwholesome wants and wishes. 

Tom’s maneuvers consist of power plays, deception, denial, invalidation, ridicule, and contradiction. These potent weapons distort Sally’s reality, weaken her intuition and judgment, and make her even more susceptible to his tactics. They disarm her defenses. They cause her to feel self-doubt, shame, and guilt, and rob her of the ability to think and act spontaneously, as she would normally. She feels anxious and depressed.

In an effort to restore the relationship to its former glory, Sally thinks and behaves in ways that contribute to Tom’s abuse. She goes against her principles and puts her self-respect on the line, because her only objective is to win back his love.

When with friends and family, Sally enters a silent conspiracy with Tom to smooth over the turbulence in their relationship. Even if she wants to disclose what’s happening, she can’t explain it. She is left alone and vulnerable to an insidious force that ravages her from the inside out.

As I provide you with a language to describe the tactics and effects in emotionally abusive relationships, you will be able to spot and describe the subtleties and complexities of emotional abuse.  You will be able to determine if there’s emotional abuse in your own relationship and in that of your loved ones.

I welcome your comments and encourage you to share your own stories of emotional abuse. The most powerful defense against emotional abuse is exposing it.