Many clients come to counseling wanting to address what they already know to be emotional abuse. Others seek out therapy led by their intuition not yet able to name the dynamic taking place with their partner that often worsens with time. Unfortunately, a large percentage of clients ultimately choose to remain in an emotionally abusive relationship but there are many who take the steps towards well-being and leave the toxic relationship behind.
Emotional abuse is a broad category so an exhaustive definition would be difficult. Broadly speaking, it’s a relationship dynamic where one person intimidates, threatens, humiliates or attempts to control or isolate another individual. Isolated from friends and/or family is also customary over the course of time because the abuser often criticizes relationship choices. It’s customary for the abuser not to take responsibility for the abuse. Instead, they find ways to invert responsibility, so the abused person becomes blamed for “causing” the abuse if they attempt to speak up to the abuser. Common examples of emotional abuse involve criticizing a person’s intelligence, physical appearance, aspirations, personality, family and friends. Over time, the consistent criticism wears down a person’s confidence, sense of self and the abused begins to doubt their self-worth, abilities and strength. This often leads to a fear of leaving the abuser as they no longer feel a sense of personal agency or value.
It’s easy for some people to discount emotional abuse when there is no accompanying physical abuse. Some victims minimize emotional abuse because they feel “it’s only words” and they are being “weak” if they “make a big deal out of it”. This stance is usually more evidence the abused person has lost a sense of their inherent value since they are not able to recognize the harm immediately and set appropriate boundaries to advocate for their well-being. It’s ultimately a form of justification which leads to setting down responsibility for one’s self and allowing harmful behavior to continue. Caring for self can be tough stuff.
The steps leading out of an emotionally abusive relationship start with identifying the abuse. From there, making sure a support system is in place, discussing the relationship dynamic with others in lieu of keeping it secret and having a plan to set boundaries and/or leave the relationship follow. Having a support system who understands the abusive dynamic is important because the isolation and secrecy is a big part of what keeps someone feeling trapped in an abusive cycle since the abuser often inverts any complaints and blames the victim for the abuse or denies any abuse whatsoever.
If you think or know you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, I urge you to start talking to people you trust. Reconnect with family and friends if you have become isolated. Perhaps read some books on the subject, join a support group or begin seeing a therapist who can support you through your journey of setting boundaries and getting out of an abusive cycle. No one deserves to live in an abusive partnership.
Sylvia Flanagan, LMFT is a dual licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in both California and Arkansas providing counseling and also offers relationship and individual coaching nationally. For more information, feel free to call or email me.