Okay, I'm like a week late over here. International Women's Day was last Friday. Better late than never, right?
I feel like this is an important topic because many women in emotionally abusive relationships don't know they are in one, for various reasons. While it is easy to identify physical abuse, because it leaves physical scars, emotional abuse can be much harder to identify because it is harder to put a finger on. In many instances, the abuser has successfully "gaslighted" his victim (though he is often unaware of his own actions)-- convinced her that she is to blame, or denied his actions in such a way as to cast doubt into the woman's mind that she didn't really see/hear/experience what she thought she did. She even begins to doubt her own worth under the constant barrage of criticism.
Abuse victims aren't always who we think they are. I know I often picture a certain "type" of couple in an abusive relationship, including demographic information. But emotional abuse can affect people within all levels of society, regardless of how well-off they seem or how polished or successful they appear on the outside.
I think it's also important, as a parent, to be aware of what constitutes emotional abuse so we can stay as far away from the line as possible in our relationships with our kids. We all have our bad days, for sure. And beating ourselves up over it doesn't do any good. If bad days greatly outnumber good days or one feels out of control, it's probably time to look for professional help.
So here we are.
Did you know that one of the first criteria in an emotionally abusive relationship is the need for one person to control the other (ha, just did a post on this). Control can take all sorts of forms, whether it be emotional blackmail (if you loved me, you'd do this for me), using guilt/blame/shame/pain to achieve a desired outcome, eliminating all options but one for what they deem "the most logical" reasons (even if the logical reasons don't make sense to you), subtle or overt domination, or financial control. It doesn't necessarily entail one spouse blankly telling the other what he/she may or may not do.
Another closely related characteristic is a posture of constant criticism. If a partner or parent is constantly finding fault, often over minor or insignificant things, that is emotionally abusive (this behavior lends to control, because it keeps the victim feeling off-guard, defensive, and defective, and therefore in a position to do what the abusive person wants).
I like the acronym FOG, found on this site. It stands for fear, obligation, and guilt. Many abusers use these three things to control or humiliate their partners or children. If you feel you are "walking on eggshells" most of the time around a loved one, often feel fear or intimidation, even if the things that make you feel that way are hard to pinpoint (a piercing look, a disgusted sigh, an aggressive act toward a possession or a child, or even the silent treatment or refusing to acknowledge your presence or requests). While some experience intimidation through aggressive and angry behaviors, others are intimidated through more subtle means. One that makes me shiver is the man who cleans his gun during an argument with his wife (this is an extreme example).
Here are just a few more examples of emotional abuse: treating spouse or peer as a child, trivializing someone's thoughts or feelings, denying wrongdoing when evidence is clear, flying off the handle at every little thing, blaming spouse for abuser's actions (if you didn't act that way, I wouldn't have to hit you), using put-downs, jokes, or sarcasm to belittle you, then tell you you are the one who is "too sensitive," frequently violate your boundaries, show a lack of empathy, show disrespect, control money, isolate one from friends and family, act jealous, act as if you are an extension of him/herself, neglect of spouse or children (including emotional neglect), are hyper-sensitive to criticism, saying they don't have control over their actions (yet physical abusers hit their wives only in private or where bruises won't be seen?), demanding, demeaning, or overly needy. Even if behaviors are difficult to pinpoint, a good indicator that you are in an emotionally abusive relationship is how frequently you feel badly around a spouse or partner.
It's important to know that many of these behaviors will probably alternate with good times or promises of change, flattery, or periodic apologies. During these times a victim may convince him/herself that things really will get better, or aren't as bad as they thought, or may even blame him/herself for the previous bad behavior by the abuser. Abusers can be attractive, successful, persuasive, and may have some great redeeming qualities. But that doesn't make the abusive behavior okay. It is important in these instances to look at overall patterns over the long term.
It's also important to realize that it isn't your fault. Abusers are adept at "projection" by which they push their guilt and shame on you (deep down inside, though they may not even recognize it, they feel a deep sense of shame and guilt, usually from a traumatizing event in childhood). It is important, if you suspect you are in one of these relationships, to carefully assess messages you've internalized over the years, and decide whether the guilt and shame you feel is indeed yours, or whether you've picked up your partner's guilt and negative emotions through transference (I've read many positive reviews about this book, which helps the abused sort out the behaviors from one another). Its also important to start to remember who you are, learn to set healthy boundaries (again, same book), get professional help (you can do it! you deserve it!), protect children from an abusive parent, see that while you may love your partner and see the good in him, you deserve to be treated with respect.
If you recognize these symptoms in yourself or a loved one, professionals recommend confiding in a close friend or family member as well as seeking professional help. You can even seek for a therapist who will do a free evaluation. Many churches offer help in locating a good professional, and may even help pay if finances are a problem. Some employers offer what is called an EAP- Employee Assistance Program- a free, confidential session with a professional who can help you find long-term help and even pay for a few sessions. Even if you have had dreams of being together on decisions, or hate to defy an intimidating partner, it is important to pay attention to your own needs and the needs of children in your care. One important thing is-- don't see yourself as hopelessly trapped! That is how an abuser wants you to feel. There are always options, and finding peace with some of your previously unconsidered options is an important step forward. That is not to say that things will never get better or that divorce is inevitable! It's not. But your happiness lies in your power, and not anyone else's. You can do it!
For me, I like to periodically pay attention to the clinical definition of abuse so that I can stay as far away as possible while raising my own kids. If you are interested in reading more, here are some specifics written by the professionals, defining emotional abuse. And here is a website that gives more details about child emotional abuse (there are a few more things specific to child emotional abuse).