How do you identify the signs of emotional abuse?
When you are in it, it’s almost impossible to do so. Because being in an emotionally abusive relationship is like being in a maze: all you can do is go up different paths, which almost always turn out to be dead ends. You lack on overview; not least because your abusive partner is intent on closing down your horizons, and creating a kind of tunnel vision in which all you see is him.
Boy, that works well for him!
So, the first sign of emotional abuse is the obsessive way that you focus on your partner. Sure, in the early infatuation period of healthy relationships you will spend a lot of time dreaming about your new partner; but then thoughts of your partner, and what you share, make you very happy. They do not eat away at you.
The second sign of emotional abuse is constantly feeling you have to walk on eggshells. You become fearful of your partner’s reactions. You find yourself constantly watching his face for the first signs of anger. Your heart sinks when you hear his key in the front door. You spend most of your waking hours – and not just your waking hours, either - worrying about what he might say to you. But it doesn’t end there. There is an inevitable spillover effect...
The third sign of emotional abuse is that you go from being terrified of his judgement to fearing everyone’s judgement. You come to believe that he is the mouthpiece for the whole World. He more or less tells you – often he does tell you, in so many words – that ‘the whole World’ judges you as he does. (Although, when you stop to think about it, it’s difficult to imagine how someone as self-obsessed as he is, could possibly be sensitive to what everyone else is thinking.)
The fourth sign of emotional abuse is your isolation. Of course, it is hardly surprising that you become estranged from the world outside your abusive relationship; once you accept his truth that everyone you encounter judges you and finds you sorely wanting.
The fifth sign of emotional abuse is your increasing de-personalization. Not only does the world outside your abusive relationship seem less real and important, but you also find yourself shrinking as a person; and connecting less and less with other people, in any meaningful way.
The sixth sign of emotional abuse is your increasing dependency on your partner. Abused women stop driving, and stop doing all sorts of normal adult activities on their own, including, going to the cinema, or restaurant, or taking a flight, alone. They function more like small, frightened children than adult women.
The seventh sign of emotional abuse is emotional shut down. There is defensiveness – which is a fairly normal response to being constantly under attack – and there is emotional shut down. Abused women, and I was certainly one of them, often feel emotionally numb, or even dead. You can easily come across as withdrawn and curiously emotionless, because you no longer know how to communicate emotionally.
The eighth sign of emotional abuse is a perception of living in a very unsafe world. Because your abusive relationship is so unsafe – emotionally, and often physically, also – you inevitably generalize and see the world as unsafe. The world you live in is unsafe. When you are in that place in your life, it is as if you have a big ‘V’, for victim, painted on your forehead: every abuser for miles around seems to find you. (I can remember a day when I was very vulnerable and had a plumbing emergency: even the plumber engaged with me in a very aggressive, abusive way.)
The ninth sign of abuse is an overwhelming sense of worthlessness. Your partner has told you how worthless you are more times than you have had hot dinners, and you have argued with him. But still, you ended up taking his judgement on board.
The tenth sign of abuse is your self-loathing. Again, your abusive partner has treated you as if you were loathsome, and you have swallowed that judgement also.
The eleventh sign of abuse is self-blame. As a general principle, whatever happens, you blame yourself… When things go wrong, you assume that it’s your fault – as your abusive partner endlessly tells you it is. (When was the last time he said to you: “Don’t worry about it. It’s not your fault. That was entirely down to me”? Enough said.)
The twelfth sign of abuse is catastrophizing. There is no such thing as a small mistake when you are in an abusive relationship. Everything is a ‘hanging offence’: socks not neatly paired in the sock drawer, dinner not waiting on the table, talking to a friend, making an innocent remark, interrupting the great man when he is talking, you do it –whatever it is – and it will be a heinous crime.
The thirteenth sign of abuse is your negativity or, if you prefer, extreme pessimism. Not that it feels that way to you; to you, you just ‘see things the way they are’. (In reality, you see things through a very dark lens; his lens.) Your world looks hopeless. Your future looks hopeless. Nothing good will ever happen to you again, in your whole life. You may fight like a tiger to ensure that good things happen to your children, but you, personally, live in a parallel universe where only bad things happen.
The fourteenth sign of abuse is that you have stopped laughing. You certainly don’t laugh when you are around your abusive partner; your laughter does not meet with his approval. You have long since stopped being light-hearted. How could it be otherwise? Your heart stores the full load of all the abusive things he has ever said and done.
Abused women, invariably, lose sight of the person they were before they went into their abusive relationship. They think that younger, vibrant self is dead.
That’s not true.
You may show all the signs of abuse right now. But here’s the thing:
The signs of abuse are what you have suffered: they are not who you are.
They are simply the trauma that, for the time being, has submerged who you truly are. That trauma may have dimmed your light, but it cannot extinguish it. It is very hard, unbearably hard, living the way you are living now. But there is a fast track to healing.
If you take one thing from this article, let it be this: you are not the trauma that has been inflicted on you. You deserve so much more than the misery of an abusive relationship.