Emotional Abuse: What Does the Term Really Mean?

Emotional abuse is easily described as any behaviour which intentionally hurts the feelings of another person. We’ve all had heated arguments with loved ones which have resulted in the harsh exchanging of words, but when this becomes a regular stream of verbal attacks, it starts to take on a new label of emotionally abusive behaviour. In other words, when the person begins to regularly undermine their partner’s confidence, worth or trust, or when they make the other person feel unstable or crazy. Often, emotional abusers manipulate their partner with fear or shame, making them feel self-conscious and ashamed of their actions. For example, they may say things like “You shouldn’t spend so much on clothes, you don’t look good anyway”, “I have to drink to be able to put up with you”, or “Don’t complain about how bad your situation is, no-one else would love you”. These comments can be degrading and hurtful, and over time they can build to become a regular occurrence in a relationship which becomes toxic in itself. Of course, these comments are very direct examples – emotional abuse is generally far more subtle and invasive than this. For example, it may be implied with sarcasm or irony, or be combined with body language, such as disgusted looks, giving the cold shoulder or rolling of eyes.

There is a consistent gender distinction in the kinds of abuse perpetrated – an emotionally abusive man will control his partner with a fear of harm, isolation or deprivation. He will often imply he will hurt her physically or leave her, or even keep her apart from things she loves, such as her children. However, a woman will control her partner with his dread of failure over being a provider for his family, or as being a good lover or parent. For example, with comments such as “I could have married a man who made more money”, “I had more orgasms with my last boyfriend”, or “You aren’t a real man, you don’t know the first thing about being a father”. The differences in vulnerability are key to deciphering the gender roles in emotional abuse. Though we never forget humiliation, many people turn to ignoring the facts as a way of tuning out of the situation. The root of shame is to cover or hide, which is why it is so easy to ignore things which cause us shame. However, you can’t ignore the signs if they are present in your relationship – this will only lead to them getting worse, and destroying both your relationship and your self-confidence.

The effects of emotional abuse are often more severe than physical abuse, as they can destroy your confidence and trust for many years. If you want to rebuild your relationship with your partner, it’s important to build the level of compassion and care you once had for one another. Think about what you’re saying and your actions – how would they feel if you were on the receiving end of them? How do you think your partner is feeling when you say them? And what do you think is causing your need to say them in the first place? Developing self compassion can also help, which is your ability to recognise when you are hurt, with the motivation to improve. Therapy can also help you air your problems with someone outside of the relationship, which can help you get to the root of your issues, both as an individual and as a couple. This is particularly key if there are children involved, as both of you need to create a strong family unit for your children.

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