By studying the communication patterns of emotional abusers, we can better identify the anatomy of an unhealthy, one-sided relationship.
The effects of physical abuse are often easy to see.
The effects of emotional abuse are much more subtle and, hence, difficult to treat.
It used to be that when people thought of abuse, they most often thought of physical harm. It’s obvious when people are hurt physically; you can plainly see telltale signs of abuse, unless, of course, one goes to great pains to hide or cover up where they have been hurt. But then you can often pick it up in their demeanor—the way they carry themselves, often seeming to fold in on themselves, to make themselves smaller, or even invisible so that they can try to “disappear” so as to avoid being a physical target.
People are much more aware these days of other forms of abuse; malignant harm not only to the body but to the mind, the psyche, the spirit, and the soul. For whatever reason, people sometimes find themselves caught in the predicament of an abusive relationship. Some people know this is the kind of relationship they are embarking upon from the very beginning, and still choose this kind of relationship and partner.
Probably more often, abuse slowly creeps in, taking over more and more of the emotional, psychological, and spiritual territory of the relationship. Often a partner has no clue early on in the relationship that their partner is even capable of such hurtful and harmful behavior. But by then, people are hooked into the relationship and it’s hard to leave and easy to rationalize the manipulative and often cruel behavior and the destructive dynamics that eat away at the foundation of what a caring, satisfying relationship should be.
So, what are some of the warning signs of abuse? Of course, these are generalizations. Even healthy relationships may sometimes display extreme behaviors during certain times. One or two of these behaviors may not indicate a problem but when many of these warning signs are present you need to pay attention.
- All-consuming jealousy. When a person wants your full attention and time 24/7 and gets angry and demanding when you spend time with anyone else, you know you’re in trouble. Extreme possessiveness is pathological.
- The attempt to control all aspects of a partner’s life. What you do and how you do it, where you go, who you’re with, what you like spending time doing, how you dress—virtually every aspect of your life—is up for scrutiny and control. Demanding an accounting of your time becomes the norm. The feeling for the abused partner is that of being a possession rather than an independent person.
- The attempt to isolate the partner from family and friends. This is a version of divide and conquer. The abuser wants full control and the only way to accomplish that is to severely limit contact with people who are close to the abused partner. Not only that, but the abuser is attempting to limit any negative feedback offered by friends and family about the abuser. If isolation/alienation from close others can’t be accomplished, the abuser may use the tact of constantly criticizing close family and friends so as to drive a wedge and to, at least, limit the contact of others.
- Violating your privacy. Constantly checking up on their partner, the abuser will think nothing of checking your phone, emails and texts, computers, etc. Since you “belong” to them nothing is private anymore.
- Treating you with disrespect by blaming, shaming, and putting you down. The abuser will find fault with everything you do. They will attempt to make you feel unworthy and unloved. And, of course, if you grow to believe that you are unworthy and unloved, the attachment to the one who professes to be the only one who truly loves you becomes all the more important. The abuser may resort to many forms of humiliation including bullying, calling the abused by derogatory names, embarrassing their partner in front of others, insulting, infantilizing, and acting out in public.
- Blaming you for their bad behavior. Since you are the center of their world, the one they’re the closest to, the way you behave must be the reason why they are acting so badly. You, the abused, made them, the abuser, behave badly. The abuser will make you feel responsible for them and their behavior and will make you feel guilty that you didn’t do what they wanted you to do.
- Threatening you with harm, or alternately, with hurting themselves if you don’t do what they want. Their inability to control the situation may cause them to accelerate their behavior taking it several notches up from verbal to physical. If they are unable to get satisfaction in controlling you they may up the ante to threatening you with bodily harm, and/or harming those you care about, especially children, and beloved pets.
- Destroying your personal possessions. The abuser may act out against you by defacing or destroying personal things that are important to you. This is a way of punishing you for not bending to their will, for not doing as they say. It’s also an attempt to deprive you of the things that are personally yours, things you keep around that may support and ground you, things that define you separately from anyone else.
- Inability to show compassion toward anyone, but especially you. The person who abuses may lack the ability to have compassion in the first place. But if they were ever able to be compassionate their frustration over time may make them incapable or unwilling to feel for their partner’s predicament. If they could be compassionate that would have to allow for the fact that their partner has a life and interests of their own. An abuser often doesn’t want you to have and do anything that doesn’t include them.
- Pressuring you to engage in what is important to them, at the expense of what’s important to you. The abuser may try to enforce lifestyle, friends, certain behaviors, and preferences on you while robbing you of your opinions, preferences, and relationships. They have a real lack of interest in what’s important to you.
The bottom line: Abuse is never okay. An abusive relationship erodes your integrity, your self-esteem, your individuality, your independence, and your personal sense of purpose. It may be extremely hard to leave but the price you’ll pay by staying will ultimately, be devastating.