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Is Your Partner Emotionally Abusive?

I came across this article on emotional abuse in It is certainly one of the best pieces that I have read on the insidious, pernicious characteristics of emotional abuse. So I am sharing it. It will be of particular interest to anyone who feels they are losing their footing in a relationship; this could be what you are experiencing.


Is Your Partner Emotionally Abusive?
Just because you aren’t getting smacked around doesn’t mean you aren’t suffering. In fact, verbal abuse and emotional abuse in relationships is on the rise, and the psychological damage it inflicts can be crippling. To escape this insidious torment, you have to be able to spot the symptoms.


Julia Morrison* was in her twenties when she met her boyfriend at a film festival. He had J. Crew-model looks and a sexy British accent, and he was a feminist/poet/vegetarian—everything she thought she wanted after her breakup with a stereotypical frat boy who exalted football and keg stands.

In reality, he was anything but an enlightened guy. During their two-year relationship, he regularly abused her. And here’s the kicker: She didn’t know he was doing it. Because no hitting was involved, she simply didn’t have a name for the behavior that made her feel “diseased” in his presence: the subtle put-downs, the physical avoidance, the mocking.

Experts do, though. They call it emotional abuse, and it’s as widespread in romantic relationships as it is misunderstood. In the simplest terms, emotional abuse is defined as behavior and language designed to degrade or humiliate someone by attacking their self-value or personality. While a normal couple may disagree about how to spend money, for example, an emotional abuser will make his partner feel as though she’s too stupid to understand the intricacies of finances.

 It can range from verbal abuse—yelling, blaming, shaming, and name-calling—to isolation, intimidation, and threats. It also commonly shows up as stonewalling and dismissing, behaviors that make victims feel alone and unimportant.

Although there are few firm statistics on emotional abuse’s prevalence among couples, experts say as many as two-thirds experience it, one-third of them chronically. Its effects can be devastating: depression, anxiety, and destroyed self-esteem. “It’s very erosive,” says Marti Loring, Ph.D., author of Emotional Abuse. “Whether it’s overt or covert, the abuse negates a woman’s very being.”

Corrosive Love
Emotional abuse can be subtle. In Morrison’s case, her live-in boyfriend would give her a wide berth in their Stanford, Connecticut, apartment. “There would be times when he’d have to walk past me, but he would purposely move his body in such a way that he’d avoid any chance of making contact,” says the now 39-year-old. “It made me feel awful.” Sometimes when they were walking together on the sidewalk, he’d abruptly cross the street without her—and then call her crazy, needy, and too sensitive when she mentioned it.

Emotional abuse can be more aggressive too. Liz Costa, a 33-year-old from Boulder, Colorado, was married to a controlling, volatile man who was prone to lashing out verbally at the slightest provocation.

He wasn’t like that when they first became friends. “We could talk and share ideas,” Costa says. Their connection felt deep, and in some ways, destined. “Our families had been intertwined since before we were born,” she says. “It all seemed meant to be, and I rolled with it.”

Things changed once she became pregnant with their first child. Her husband started flying off the handle over the smallest things. But she kept thinking he’d be happier if he got the right job, if she tried a little harder, if she happened on some magic formula. She didn’t like how she felt each day, but also didn’t think he was abusive, because he never hit her during their 12-year marriage.

Still, she didn’t feel anything close to safe. “I had to be extremely careful how I talked about things with him or it would blow up into an argument quickly. I could be sharing something that happened at work, and somehow the conversation would trigger him and he’d get angry,” Costa said. “I was walking on eggshells all the time, not knowing what would detonate the blowups.”

Over time, this tiptoeing around can devastate a woman, making her anxious, fatigued, and depressed, experts say. What’s more, she thinks it’s all her fault, and the very thought of leaving the relationship can add a layer of guilt and shame to the pile of negative emotions. Loring says, “Women will tell me, ‘I would rather he hit me, because at least I can heal from the strike.’ But the emotional abuse just rings out in their minds with cruelty.”

The Escalating Problem
It’s hard to get a handle on how many women are victims of emotional abuse. (And it’s worth pointing out that women can also be perpetrators. See “Are You Abusive?” on page 120.) It’s included in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s statistics on intimate partner violence, which costs the U.S. almost $9.7 billion in medical care, mental health services, and lost productivity each year.

“Just about everyone knows someone who’s experienced it,” says Steven Stosny, Ph.D., author of Love Without Hurt: Turn Your Resentful, Angry, or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One. Several studies have found that up to 35 percent of women have been in romantic relationships that were emotionally abusive, and that such abuse was the greatest risk factor for and predictor of physical abuse. One study also found that emotionally abusive partners were more likely to commit murder or murder-suicide, and their victims were more likely to be suicidal.

Worst of all, the feelings that can lead to emotional abuse are on the rise. As Stosny explains it, many people these days think they’re entitled to feel happy, and when they don’t, they believe their rights have been violated. This violation makes them angry and hostile. An emotionally abusive person, caught up in this cycle of resentment and powerlessness, feels like he’s not being treated fairly or getting enough attention, support, and obedience. He then feels justified in punishing the person closest to him: his partner.

Blindsided by Love
When a woman finds herself involved in an emotionally abusive relationship, she is often as surprised as her friends and family are, says counselor Kelly McDaniel, author of Ready to Heal. “I repeatedly hear women say, ‘The relationship didn’t start out that way’ or ‘Most of the time, things seemed really good,’ ” she says. “Repetitive emotional abuse has an almost numbing effect. It becomes normal.”

And it can happen quickly. Karla Hanauer of Atlanta was in an emotionally abusive relationship from ages 19 to 21. Her boyfriend was eight years older than she was, and within their first month of dating, he had talked her into sleeping with him even though she hadn’t intended to have sex with anyone until marriage.

In retrospect, she thinks he was trying to claim her through sex. And once he did, he gave her a ring with his name on it. After that, he accused her of betrayal every time she spent time with anyone else, including her own mother, flying into rages when she talked with other men. Soon, “normal” for Hanauer meant isolation from friends and family, because this was easier than dealing with his harsh accusations. “He did a masterful job of separating me from my own life,” she says.

The whole thing shocks her in retrospect. “I’ve always been a strong, tough, smart person, and one would think I’d have seen a mental case like this coming from a mile away,” she says. “I was the valedictorian of my high school class, and I was on the fast track at the university. I didn’t drink or do drugs or any of those things you associate with falling in love with an emotionally abusive person.”

But after a while, she says, “It was like I wasn’t even me anymore.”

Women who are being emotionally abused often feel trapped, and they change how they behave, speak, dress, socialize, and even work in an effort to dodge the hurtful language and behavior. As a result, they gradually lose their identities.

Teresa Haward, 30, had a boyfriend who would accuse her of being promiscuous for having dated other men. He’d take food away from her and tell her he wanted her to be as skinny as his ex. He questioned her love constantly, and even called her “that”—as in, “My mother didn’t raise me to be with ‘that.’ “When any family members or friends called her, he said they were stealing time from him, even though he and Haward were living together

Ultimately, she quit her job as a reporter because he didn’t want her to work (he thought her job took up too much of her time) and became even more trapped in his tempestuous cave. Her friends hated to see it happen and stopped coming around, as did her brothers, who lived nearby. And she was too embarrassed to tell her parents what had become of her.

“I went from being happy to being incredibly depressed,” she says. “I would wake up in the morning and just cry. I felt like I was such a failure and maybe everything he said to me was true. My self-esteem was the size of a pinhead.”

Prince Harming: Early Warning Signs
When women end up in an emotionally abusive relationship, it’s often a reflection of what they learned about affection as kids. Our brains are wired for bonding, and if we grew up in a home with parents who were harsh, judgmental, and unkind, we may have learned to confuse love with pain, McDaniel says: “We can end up duplicating this pain over and over again in our adult relationships.”

Liz Costa recognizes now how she fell into this trap. She had an abusive stepfather and wasn’t allowed to say no when she was a child. From him and from her mother, she absorbed the notion that her job was to please a man, and he would take care of her in return. With emotionally abusive men, though, this is an impossible task.

It’s important for women to recognize early warning signs of emotional abusers. Stosny has identified nine red flags:

1 He’s a blamer. A guy may blame someone for cutting him off on the road, or more insidiously, he can blame his ex-girlfriend for making his life tough. Early on, this deplorable blaming trait is hard to detect because it is often couched in a compliment (e.g., “You’re nothing like that bitch I used to date”). Says Stosny: “The law of blame is that it goes to the closest person. You’ll eventually be the object of it.”

2 He’s resentful. People like this aren’t able to deal with the fact that life can sometimes be tough and unfair. They dwell on the injustice. Their resentment is a self-defense mechanism, masking a fear of inadequacy or failure.

3 He has an entitlement complex. This is sometimes related to resentment: If life is so damn hard for him, then he’s entitled to cut in line and break other rules. Let him get close and he’ll feel entitled to abuse you if you don’t let him have his way.

4 He has a superiority complex. Emotionally abusive people aren’t satisfied by feeling OK about themselves; they have to feel better than other people. This can play out as competitiveness or self-righteousness, and can be alluring at first because he might flatter you with the ways in which you, too, are superior.

5 He’s petty. If he’s the sort of person who makes a mountain out of the proverbial molehill—let’s say, when a waitress doesn’t put enough ice in his soda—be warned.

6 He’s sarcastic. This sort of humor is designed to make someone feel bad. Eventually, you’ll be the target.

7 He’s deceitful.
If he exaggerates or distorts his past, it’s a bad sign. It’s not unusual to put on a good face when you’re trying to impress a potential mate. But lying shows that his self-respect—and his regard for you—is low.

8 He’s jealous. A dab of jealousy is fine, but any more can be toxic. Stosny calls jealousy “the only naturally occurring emotion that can cause psychosis”—the inability to distinguish the real from the imagined. Most severe relationship violence has jealousy at its root.

9 He’s pushy. While this might be done under the guise of “sweeping you off your feet,” guys who push for too much too soon can be trouble. He should care more about your boundaries than his desires.

Finding the Escape Hatch
Breaking up with an emotionally abusive partner is no easy task. These relationships can be like a physical addiction; when romantic love mixes with fear, the result is powerful and dangerous, McDaniel says. Our bodies secrete chemicals when we have sex or engage in other physical contact, and some—such as the neurotransmitter dopamine—create pleasant sensations that we crave. We repeat the behavior that makes our dopamine levels spike, so women who associate love with fear can be vulnerable to choosing men who will hurt them.

Emotionally abused women also become used to the behavior, and even if they don’t like it, they may not feel like they have the psychological or social resources to sever the toxic bonds. In trying to please abusive men, they’ve made so many adjustments and accommodations that no sense of self is left. This is how some abusive men manage to coerce their partners into credit-card theft and other crimes, Loring says: “A woman can be so emotionally abused that she doesn’t have the confidence to say ‘Whoa.’ ”

The shattered confidence can also make it difficult to leave, even if the woman is miserable. Julia Morrison’s boyfriend ended the relationship by calling her at work and saying he was tired of her crying and complaining. She begged him not to leave, but deep down felt relieved, because she knew she didn’t have the strength to leave him on her own.

Guilt can also make it harder to break things off. If a woman didn’t see or ignored the early warning signs and instead formed a deep bond with her partner, she’s going to feel guilt and shame about leaving, Stosny says. So the first step is to recognize the abuse and our own limits in stopping it.

In the two months before Costa finally got up the courage to leave her husband, she endured a storm of abuse, as though he could sense she was getting ready to escape. She wanted her husband to know she was leaving—she didn’t want to be accused of kidnapping their kids—so one morning after she dropped them off at school, she started packing the car. He worked nights and was still in bed, but the noise woke him up and he tried to keep her from moving her stuff out. She called the police, who waited long enough for her to get her belongings.

It took Karla Hanauer the better part of a year to find her way out of her relationship. What made it harder was that her boyfriend threatened to kill himself every time she tried to break up with him, a threat she took seriously because his father had committed suicide. Finally, her best friend convinced her that she needed to call his bluff—or spend the rest of her life with him because he had scared her into staying. “Telling him I was leaving despite his threat, and realizing he wasn’t going to kill himself, was like breaking a curse,” Hanauer says. “That broke his hold over me.”

Teresa Haward, the reporter who quit her job to please her abusive boyfriend, spent more than two years with him before she got counseling from a local women’s shelter and finally moved to another state. To keep herself safe, she lied and told him they could have a long-distance relationship, but she never saw or spoke to him again. “It finally sunk in that I wasn’t going to change him,” she says.

The hope that their abusive partners will change is what keeps many women hanging on—but, Stosny says, it’s often a futile dream. Individual therapy for abusers also tends not to help because therapists may identify with their patients and not be able to recognize the abuse. And couples therapy isn’t the solution if one partner is abusive—it can actually make things worse.

When McDaniel sees one partner abuse the other in therapy, she stops working with the couple and focuses on the abuser until he recognizes the effect he’s having and is willing to make amends. Often, the news that he’s abusive comes as a shock. If a man was spoken to that way as a child and is used to it, it can be startling for him to hear he’s being hurtful.

Women who are prone to choosing abusive partners need to address that as well. Haward had to learn how to put her own well-being first, and realize she isn’t responsible for anyone else’s happiness. “It took so much time to rebuild my self-esteem and understand why I went for toxic men to begin with,” she says. “I’m never going there again.”

Link to article;


Marti Loring, Ph.D., author of Emotional Abuse.

Steven Stosny, Ph.D., author of Love Without Hurt: Turn Your Resentful, Angry, or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One.

Kelly McDaniel, author of Ready to Heal.

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