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Are You in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship?

Do you feel like you have to “walk on eggshells” around your partner? Are you afraid a lot of the time in your relationship? Is your self esteem being slowly eroded? It’s possible you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship.

Emotional abuse can sometimes be a tricky thing to identify for those in the situation because often the abuser employs tactics that make the other person feel like they’re going crazy. Abusive people may attempt to control the narrative of the behavior,  creating confusion as to whether the behavior is harmful. There can be a pervasive sense of being off balance for the person being emotionally abused. They may start to question their own thinking and reality.  This is called “crazy-making” because that’s precisely the impact it has on the receiver.

A challenge  for people who are being emotionally abused is it can creep up on them, be very subtle and grow over time so they may not even realize it initially. Meanwhile their self-esteem erodes.

Signs of Emotional Abuse

  • Does your partner frequently criticize or humiliate you?
  • Does your partner isolate you from your family and friends?
  • Has your partner ever limited or controlled your access to money?
  • Do you feel trapped in your relationship?
  • Are you afraid of your partner?

The Cycle of Abuse

Another important aspect of this dynamic is what Dr. Lenore Walker originally coined as the “cycle of abuse.” There’s often a repetitive looping consisting of four phases:

  1. Tension Building: The receiver gets the sense that the abuser is upset and takes active steps to placate him/her.
  2. Incident: Verbal or emotional abuse occurs – consisting of threats, humiliation, blaming, intimidation, etc.
  3. Reconciliation: Abuser apologizes, minimizes the abuse, blames the receiver, denies it occurred, etc.
  4. Calm: No abuse taking place, often called the “honeymoon phase.”

This cycle has the effect of eventually breaking the person down emotionally.

Final Thoughts on Emotional Abuse

There are many reasons why abusers and their victims get caught up in this damaging dance. The issues can almost always be traced back to the family of origin for both people. Abusers often had chaotic childhoods with a perception of little control – and can deeply fear abandonment.  Victims have often experienced “learned helplessness.”  They may have a history of being in abusive relationships – or they might have witnessed their parents caught up in the same cycle. Regardless of how people get there, they can get out, and learn how to have healthy, loving relationships.

If you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, make sure to take steps to protect yourself.  Seek therapy to work out what’s keeping you there and how to empower yourself to get out.

If there is violence involved, have a safety plan intact and increase your support network. Research local domestic violence shelters in case you need to go there.  If your partner is on the verge of becoming physically violent and you fear for your safety call 911.

For help and advice about abusive relationships, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline

1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT

Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT

Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT is the creator of LoveAndLifeToolbox.com with tools for emotional and relationship health and is the author of Therapy-At-Home Workbooks® for individuals and couples. She is a frequent consultant for the media having appeared in CNN.com, HuffingtonPost.com, MensHealth.com and others. Lisa has a private practice in Marin County, CA and offers online therapy to residents of California.

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