Growing up, a lot of us were taught that ‘sticks and stones can break our bones but words can never hurt us’. While it’s true that physical violence can inflict visible and physically painful wounds, it’s not true that words are harmless. In fact, for victims of emotional abuse, the psychological scars can last indefinitely, leading to a lifetime of low self-esteem, depression, withdrawal, and believing that they do not deserve a non-abusive relationship.
What does an emotionally abusive relationship look like?
In an emotionally abusive relationship, you feel like you’re always walking on eggshells. These relationships are underpinned by anger and control. Your partner tries to control your behaviour by putting you down, undermining you, blaming you for their problems (or the problems in the relationship), criticising you, and/or making you feel worthless, ashamed or unworthy of their affections.
Emotional abusers may wield their power through angry words or through silence, so don’t fall into the trap of believing that emotional abuse always means screaming and shouting. Stonewalling – ignoring you, being dismissive or being non-responsive – is a powerful weapon of control, and often an indicator of emotional abuse.
You could be in an emotionally abusive relationship if:
- Your partner humiliates or embarrasses you in front of others or in private.
- Your partner tries to control your behaviour: who you see, where you go, and how you spend your time. You feel like you need to ask permission to do anything, like a child.
- Your partner is intolerant of anything they perceive to be a lack of respect towards them.
- Your partner mocks and/or teases you in nasty ways, is dismissive or contemptuous of you, and/or criticises the things you say or do, or the way you look.
- Your partner finds it difficult to apologise when they’re in the wrong, and often blames their troubles or bad behaviour on others.
- Your partner tries to control how you spend money.
- Your partner lacks empathy and compassion.
- Your partner withholds sex as a way to control you and maintain an upper hand in the relationship.
- Your partner uses silence, neglect, abandonment or disengagement to ‘punish’ you when they believe you’ve done something wrong.
- Your partner denies their abusive tendencies when pointed out.
This is not a complete list of the signs of an emotionally abusive relationship, but some of the main indicators. There are many others, and a massive amount of information and insight online. If you’re concerned you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship, it’s worth learning more.
I’m in an emotionally abusive relationship. What next?
Your abuser will not stop their behaviour on their own, which means it’s up to you to end to the cycle. You won’t be able to get them to stop; all you can do is find the courage to stop accepting the abuse. Walking away is always the best option, but not always the easiest. Remember: you are not alone, and the abuse is not your fault. Help is available to you.
Contact Lifeline on 0800 012 322, or get in touch with Marie Stopes. We are always available to provide confidential, caring and trustworthy advice, whatever your circumstances.