Lisa Ferentz LCSW-C, DAPA

Healing Trauma’s Wounds

Emotionally Abusive Relationships — Part One

A silent killer of self-esteem.

Posted Nov 22, 2016

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Recently I was sitting in a Starbucks catching up on my e-mail when it became impossible not to overhear the conversation happening in such close proximity at the next table.  A young couple was engaged in the seemingly benign task of deciding what kind of coffees to order.  What grabbed my attention was the subtle but powerful way in which the husband continually dismissed his wife’s timid declaration about what she wanted to drink. “I’ll have a latte,” she said in a whisper.  “You don't really want a latte,” he said with calm authority, “You claim you want a latte but then you never finish it,” he added without humor. “I don't want to order something you’re not gonna drink.”  His wife dropped her head and took on a kind of collapsed body posture.  It sounded like a father chastising a small child. She immediately acquiesced, “Okay, then don't order me anything.”

For the next 20 minutes they sat there.  He took his time with his large coffee drink and she patiently waited, drinking nothing.  He took out his phone and focused on it as if she weren’t there. The few times she tried to initiate conversation he either ignored her or put up his hand and subtly shook his head no, a clear non-verbal sign that let her know she was interrupting him and whatever he was attending to on his phone was more important.  When he was finished he said, “Okay, let’s go.” She dutifully got up and followed a few steps behind him as they left the coffee shop.

In all honesty there were several different times when I wanted to intervene.  Despite the fact that he never raised his voice, I could sense how controlling he was and how submissive she needed to be.  Looking at it through a therapeutic lens it was a powerful example of an emotionally abusive relationship. These are relationships that can seem unremarkable to the outside world. She had no visible signs of physical trauma, although I would argue that her constricted body language and timid voice spoke volumes. They were both very well dressed and the scenario of sitting in Starbucks seemed innocent enough. He never yelled at her and his dismissive gestures were extremely subtle.  Probably to an untrained eye, the entire encounter would have been ignored.

Although emotional abuse can be subtle the impact is profound and can create intense self-doubt, fear, anxiety, anger, and depression

I have worked with many women and several men, too, who were genuinely surprised at my suggestion that they were in an emotionally abusive relationship.  The word “abusive” is most often associated with overt behaviors that cause physical harm.  But dynamics of control, intimidation, treating a partner as “less than,” financially withholding, minimizing or belittling their thoughts, feelings, and needs are important signs that are often rationalized or excused by the victim. They are, in fact, indicators of emotional abuse that may or may not escalate to other manifestations of maltreatment. 

Everyone has the right to feel safe, respected, validated, understood, and supported in their personal relationships. No one has the right to use power or control to manipulate, subjugate, or demean their partner. Although emotional abuse can be subtle the impact is profound and can create intense self-doubt, fear, anxiety, anger, and depression. If you are in a relationship where it doesn’t feel safe or productive to use your voice, or you’ve been made to feel unworthy, I urge you to get the support you deserve so you can re-claim your dignity, your voice, and your basic human rights. 

In Part Two of this series, we will review some of the signs of emotional abuse in more detail.