For the victim of emotional abuse, the most devastating effect is the inability to recognize that one is being emotionally abused. It generally means that the abused will stay in the relationship, trying to bargain with their abuser, generally thinking that the problem is caused by themselves and not by the abuser.
This happens largely because the perpetrators of emotional abuse rarely recognize and even more rarely confess to emotionally abusing a significant other. Rather, they tend to blame the abused in the same way that a sexual perpetrator will often say that he was seduced by his victim.
The blame that the perpetrator of emotional abuse puts on his or her victim looks like smoke and mirrors or gaslighting. Alice begins to realize that her partner, Tim, is lying to her about what he’s doing when he says he’s working late, and she confronts him. Tim, instead of coming clean and confessing to his affair, tells her that she’s an insecure nag, and he’s sick of her nagging him about where he is.
"Why can’t you just trust me?" he screams.
Every time she tries to get a word in edgewise, he will tell her again that her insecurity is the problem: She’s never trusted him, and how can she say she loves him when she doesn’t even trust him?
Now Alice is starting to doubt herself. She’s beginning to wonder if she really is the problem. Maybe she really is insecure. Maybe she really has a problem with trust. So, she backs off. Tim has just used smoke (a gray mist of lies) to cover up his affair, and mirrors (let’s stop talking about me and talk about you) to convince her to back off.
Gaslighting is much the same, except that with gaslighting Tim will try to convince Alice that she is “crazy.” Now she’s not just insecure, she’s mentally unstable. She’s making things up. She’s hallucinating or deluded.
With gaslighting, he may even add some trickery to the game that convinces her that there’s something really wrong with her mental health. He will tell her that she needs to be “on meds,” or she needs to go see her “shrink.” He will tell her that she’s been “seeing things” or “hearing things” to convince her that something is terribly wrong with her. In some extreme cases, he may even threaten to have her committed.
The effect of all of this is that Alice will not be able to clearly assess her situation, looking at it through the lenses of reality. Rather she will very often look at it through the lenses provided to her by Tim, who does not want her to see reality at all. So, Alice is likely to get into a phase of bargaining.
Bargaining is most often thought of as a stage of grief, though most now think that grief does not happen in “stages,” but rather some of the “stages” may happen, and others may not, and when they do happen they do not happen in any specific order.
Nevertheless, bargaining is definitely one of the coping mechanisms we use when trying to come to terms with a difficult reality and get to acceptance. Acceptance would be saying, “Okay, I’ve got a clear picture of what is happening now, and I can either live with it or make some decisions to change it or get out of it.”
Bargaining means saying, “If I do X, then he’ll do Y,” or “If this, then that.”
There’s always an if/then with bargaining. And victims of emotional abuse very often spend a lot of time in bargaining. Mostly the bargains look something like this: If I don’t ever talk to him about his behavior, then he will be kind to me, and things will be okay; if I’m extra nice and giving all the time, then he will stop being so mean to me, and everything will be okay; if I can stop being so crazy, then it will all settle down, and we’ll be okay; if I could just control my emotions or not talk about them, then he would stop getting so angry with me; if I can walk on eggshells long enough, then maybe he’ll start speaking to me again or stop punishing me.
All of these bargains are unhealthy for two reasons: 1) They assume the blame for the abuser’s behavior; and 2) they assume that if the abused changes their behavior, the abuser will change theirs.
Both of those two assumptions are completely false. So, it is likely that the emotionally abused will stay for longer in this relationship, falsely hoping that they can make everything all better by trying to be, think, feel, or act in a way that is inauthentic.
The emotionally abused questions their own emotions rather than the behavior of the abuser. Victims of emotional abuse do this because the abuser has taught them that they cannot trust themselves, but should listen only to the persuasion of the abuser.
So, the most important first step that the emotionally abused can make is to seek therapy with someone who can help them identify the reality of their lives: They are being emotionally abused.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.