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Are you in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship?

What is Emotional Abuse?


In simple terms, emotional abuse is defined as overt and covert negative behaviors; abusive attitude and language designed to control, intimidate, isolate, demean and degrade or humiliate someone by attacking their self-value or personality.


What does abuse look like?


Emotional abuse can be difficult to acknowledge because of the more subtle nature it happens in. The overt behaviors are the more obvious ones; but the covert behaviors and attitudes are less tangible. Also, the victim of abuse can lose their self -esteem and confidence and convince themselves that all of the problems in the relationship are their fault.


Overt behaviors of an Abuser:

Humiliation, discounting, negating, controlling, judging criticizing, blaming, trivial and unreasonable demands, yelling, blaming, shaming, and name-calling, emotional distancing and the “silent treatment”.


Covert behaviors:

The more subtle forms of abuse are withholding affection, dismissive or condescending looks, sulking, accusations, subtle threats of physical or emotional abandonment


Emotional abuse in the form of attitude /beliefs:

Abuser believes others should do as he/she says, not noticing /caring how others feel, believing they are superior to everyone else and that they are always right.


Some physical behaviors are considered emotional abuse when they are violent in a symbolic way. Examples are slamming/kicking doors, driving recklessly while victim is in car, destroying or threatening to destroy objects that are valuable to your partner. Shaking fists at the victim or making threatening gestures or faces are also forms of abuse.


Damaging Effects of Emotional Abuse:


According to Beverly Engel, the primary effects on a victim of emotional abuse are:


  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Lack of motivation
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Low self-esteem & confidence
  • Self-blame
  • Self-destructiveness
  • Feelings of hopelessness, failure or worthlessness
  • Difficulty trusting one’s perceptions


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


Some examples of the beliefs/thoughts an abused partner may have are “Am I as terrible as he says I am? If I’m as incompetent as he says then I’ll never be able to make it on my own. Should I stay or leave this relationship? “ Over time the victim usually blames themselves for all the problems in the relationship and believe they are unlovable and a failure.


Not all emotionally abusive relationships are alike.


According to Beverley Engel there are 7 types of emotionally abusive relationships. This can cause confusion when you are trying to decide if you are in an abusive relationship. In her book, “The emotionally abusive relationship: How to stop being abused and how to stop abusing”, the author has questionnaires to help you determine whether or not you are being emotionally abused or being emotionally abusive. She also outlines the 7 different types of abusive relationships to help you identify and clarify the nature of your relationship.


Can an emotionally abusive relationship be saved?


Yes…. With proper guidance and support from a therapist along with the hard work of both people in the relationship.

It will require both partners acknowledging and taking responsibility for their part, learning and applying healthy new behaviors, and looking at the patterns from their past that are being recreated in the abusive relationship. Looking at the past is not to blame your parents; but by increasing your awareness you can make new and healthy choices. Instead of being reactive and acting from an unconscious place, you gain understanding that helps you see your partner from a different perspective and be in better control of your triggers.


Cathy McCurdy is a Registered Social Worker with over 20 years experience and specializes in the areas of couples counselling, affair recovery, life transitions as well as many others. For more information on Cathy, her work, or other articles she’s written for Living Well click here to link to her full bio page.