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Is your partner emotionally abusive?
Richa Pant
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December 01, 2006

Part I: Are you being physically abused?
Part III: Are you being financially abused?

In any successful marriage, you will find that the partners love, care and respect each other. 

When you enter into a marital relationship, you expect your emotions to be respected and nurtured and vice versa.

Most people assume that if they're not being physically abused by their partner, they're not being abused. That's not necessarily true. You might be in a relationship that is draining something from you; you may not even be aware that your partner has eroded your self-esteem and happiness.

"Although physical abuse is thought to be the most obvious form of abuse, emotional abuse has the potential to be even more devastating than physical abuse. This is because it is hard to prove and, thus, difficult to stop," says psychologist Dr Vandana Mathur. Many people find that emotional abuse is difficult to even talk about, as others seldom take it seriously. 

What is emotional abuse?

Abuse is any behaviour that controls and subjugates another person by means of fear, humiliation, intimidation, guilt, coercion, manipulation, etc. "Emotional abuse can include anything from verbal abuse and constant criticism to more subtle tactics like repeated disapproval," says Dr Mathur.

Like other forms of violence in relationships, emotional abuse rests on the premise of power and control. "It eventually brainwashes the victim. It systematically wears away at the victim's self-confidence, self-worth and trust in their own perceptions," says Vijay Malhotra (name changed), 28, a software engineer at an IT firm in Delhi, Vijay says he experienced emotional abuse in his marriage due to his wife's constant criticism and diatribes.

Types of emotional abuse

Rejection: Refusing to acknowledge a person's presence or worth; telling him/ her that he/ she is useless or inferior; devaluing her/ his thoughts and feelings.

Verbal assaults: Degrading, insulting, ridiculing, belittling, criticising, name calling, screaming, threatening, behaviour that, over time, erodes the identity, dignity and self-worth of the person.

Terrorism: Inducing terror or extreme fear in a person; intimidating; placing or threatening to send a person to an unfit or dangerous environment.

Isolation: Restricting normal contact with others; limiting freedom within the person's own environment.

Unreasonable expectations: Placing unreasonable demands and wanting a person to put everything else aside to tend to their needs.

Constant chaos: Deliberately starting arguments and being in constant conflict with others. The person may be 'addicted to drama' since it creates a sense of excitement.

Denial: Denying a person's emotional needs with the intent of hurting, punishing or humiliating him/ her. Also, denying that certain events occurred or that certain things were said by saying, "I never said that," "I don't know what you're talking about," etc. The other person may deny your perceptions, memory and even question your sanity.

Withholding: Another form of denying. It includes refusing to communicate and emotionally withdrawing from the other person as punishment; this is also known as the 'silent treatment'.

Domination: Wanting to control your every action. They have to have their own way and will even resort to threats in order to do so. When you allow someone else to dominate you, you can lose respect for yourself.

Emotional blackmail: Playing on your fear, guilt, compassion, values, and other 'emotional buttons' to get what they want. This could include threats to end the relationship, to totally reject or abandon you, or the use of other fear tactics to control you.

Invalidation: Undermining a person's perceptions of their world. For example, if the recipient tells the abuser they felt hurt by something he/ she did or said, the abuser might say "You are too sensitive. That shouldn't hurt you."

Unpredictable responses: Drastic mood changes or sudden emotional outbursts. This is damaging because it always keeps you on edge. An alcoholic, for example, is likely to act this way. Living with someone like this is tremendously demanding and anxiety provoking.

Irresponsible behaviour: Thinking every chore and duty in the marriage is the partner's responsibilty. Not assisting in any work relating to the household, family or children. Adding to the burden by making cutting remarks about how poorly you manage the children/ household.

Cycle of emotional abuse

Emotional abuse often follows a pattern.

In the first phase, there is a build-up of tension and a breakdown in communication.

The second phase involves the actual incident of verbal and emotional abuse.

The third phase involves reconciliation. The abuser apologises, offers excuses, blames the victim, denies the abuse occurred, or says it wasn't as bad as the victim claims.

Finally, in the fourth phase, there is calm. The incident is 'forgotten' and no abuse is taking place.

Then, after some time, the cycle repeats itself.

Characteristics of emotional abuse

~ Emotional abuse accompanies other forms of abuse, but can also occur on its own.

~ No abuse -- neglect, physical, or financial -- can occur without psychological consequences. Therefore, all abuse contains elements of emotional abuse.

~ Emotional abuse follows a pattern. It is repeated and sustained. If left unchecked, it only gets worse.

~ Emotional abuse can severely damage the victim's sense of self-worth and perception.

Repercussions of emotional abuse

"Repeated verbal abuse such as blaming, ridiculing, insulting, swearing, yelling and humiliation has long-term negative effects on your self-esteem. It contributes to a perception of uselessness, worthlessness and self-blame," says Geeta Singh (name changed), 27, a teacher who was a victim of abuse in her first marriage but was fortunate enough to get out of it.

The one-up position the abuser assumes by judging or demeaning the recipient undermines the equality and autonomy that is the foundation of healthy adult relationships. This can result in what is known as 'learned helplessness'.

"By threatening to physically harm a partner, the abuser dominates him/ her and shows that he/ she is more powerful. The partner feels extremely terrorised, vulnerable and powerless within the relationship. This kind of emotional abuse makes an abused person feel helpless and isolated," says Dr Mathur.

"Jealousy, possessiveness and interrogation about a partner's whereabouts and activities are examples of controlling behaviours that restrict a partner's independence and freedom," says Geeta.

"Emotional abuse can have serious physical and psychological consequences, including severe depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, isolation from others, increased alcohol or drug use, emotional instability, sleep disturbances, physical complaints, extreme dependence and feelings of shame and self-blame," says Dr Mathur.

Eventually, emotional abuse cuts to the very core of a person, creating emotional scars that can be far deeper and more lasting than physical ones.

Are you suffering from emotional abuse?

Take a moment to consider these questions. They will help you identify if you are being emotionally abused, and provide some ideas on what you can do about it.

What can you do about it

Getting your self-esteem back on track is a priority. Often, we allow people into our lives who treat us as we expect to be treated. If we are willing to tolerate negative treatment from others, it's quite possible we treat ourselves the same way.

What sorts of things do you say to yourself? Do thoughts such as "I am no good" or "I never do anything right" dominate your thought process? Learning to love and care for yourself increases self-esteem and makes it more likely you will have healthy relationships.

Part I: Are you being physically abused?
Part III: Are you being financially abused?



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Number of User Comments: 26

Sub: very true

I am also finding myself in totally emotional abusive marriage. Infact ,have started to feel all negative consequences also . Have tried my really ...

Posted by hurt

Sub: does emotional black-mail considered to be emotional abuse?

i m not sure if this ques suits to this article but i have seen couples wherein guy or girl gets their things done only ...

Posted by anuj

Sub: Excellent Artical

Thanks Richa, Excellent artical. This is very common now a days, hope this awakens lot of people. Keep it up.

Posted by Chintan

Sub: help in emotional abuse..

can someone please suggest what can be done if one is undergoing serious emotional abuse, the subject if wants to proceed legally against the abuser ...

Posted by please help

Sub: Emotional Abuse

Right from the time of Kaikeyi, women have been torturing men with emotional abuse. Stupid womencentric laws, which presume man to be villain and woman ...

Posted by Deepak Deshpande


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