I recently got together with a friend of mine I hadn’t seen in a while, though I was up to date on her latest and greatest happening, care-of her well curated Instagram page. Her page is a mix of being out and about with her boyfriend, smile-clad and seemingly beaming. Which is why, when she was describing her latest frustrations with him, that I almost didn’t see it. “It” being the tell-tale signs that she’s in an emotionally abusive relationship.
She told me how she had to delete a photo of her out with friends on her birthday because her boyfriend was jealous of one of the guys in a picture, even though her boyfriend *took* said picture. After calling her names, putting her down, then posting a photo he had of him and another woman he took a few years prior, he stonewalled her and stiffed her with the bill for all his drinks. The sad part is, until she told me this story–saying how she feels bad and wants to make it up to him–she actually thought she was in the wrong.
Many people don’t even realize they’re being manipulated until they get insight from a trusted friend, family member or professional, and usually by then they’re already “under the spell,” wearing rosy-shaded glasses, unable to see their situation for what it is.
I reached out to a relationship expert who focusses on trauma and psychology, Dr. Jessica Griffin of Lifetime’s Married At First Sight, to find out why this is. “Wounds from emotional abuse are initially difficult to identify as victims rarely speak up right away, often feeling that there is something “wrong” with them, they are “going crazy,” and namely that the problem lies within themselves,” says Dr. Griffin.
Here is her list of the subtle signs that you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship:
You feel unusually sad or anxious
Friends have asked if you are depressed. Emotional abuse can lead to negative self-worth, depression, anxiety, and other problematic outcomes such as impacting work performance or other social relationships.
Research suggests that psychological trauma, including emotional abuse, which includes degradation or humiliation, can result in even greater negative mental and physical health effects than other types of abuse (e.g., physical abuse). That said, emotional abuse often occurs alongside other types of abusive behavior (e.g., intimate partner violence, sexual abuse or assault).
You’re being accused of something your partner does
Emotional abusers are master projectors. For example, they may accuse you of the very thing they themselves are doing to you, e.g., accuse you of cheating when in fact they have been unfaithful; accuse you of “using them” financially when in fact you have been the one supporting them; accuse you of “always being negative” when in fact they are the ones who have an unusually negative outlook on life.
You’re feeling ill or getting sick more than is typical for you
Emotional abuse can have negative physiological effects, right down to your DNA. Those in long-term psychologically abusive relationships are exposed to ongoing toxic stress from emotional abuse. This stress on the body manifests itself as increased headaches, stomach aches, increased inflammation in the body, and compromised immune systems.
You feel like you’ve lost your “spark” or your “mojo”
In an emotionally abusive relationship, your self-worth is eroded, slowly, over time. If you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship you may question whether you are “loveable” or whether anyone would want you. Your partner may repeatedly criticize your appearance, way of speaking, character, or circle of friends. They may act in ways intended to humiliate or demean you. Emotional abusers break you down, over time, and put themselves in the position where they are the only ones who can build you back up again. By feeling “not good enough,” you are more likely to stay in an unhealthy, emotionally abusive relationship – something that emotional abusers know all too well and use to their advantage.
You feel like you are going crazy
You may start questioning yourself. Victims of emotional abuse are often labeled by their partners as “crazy,” “too emotional,” or “oversensitive.” Emotional abusers are also master gaslighters, meaning that they deny or distort reality and have you questioning your own sanity. They may do or say something, then overtly deny these statements or behavior and then accuse you of making this up in your head, e.g., “I never did that,” “You aren’t remembering that correctly.” Emotional abusers may call you names, e.g., “disgusting,” “loser,” “fat,” “bitch,” etc. and then later tell you that they were “joking” or YOU misunderstood them.
You miss your friends and family
Over time, those in emotionally abusive relationships become increasingly more isolated from friends and family. Emotional abusers question the character or the quality of the relationships you have (e.g., they don’t like your friends or family) and, at the same time, you may avoid friends or family members who may challenge you on whether or not the relationship is healthy and/or question your decision to remain in the relationship.
You feel guilty much of the time
While you are with friends or others, you feel guilty for not including or being with your significant other. They may give you the “cold shoulder” or repeatedly call or text you while you are away from them to control you and increase this guilty feeling that you should be spending time with them or should not be enjoying your time with other people. You may defend your partner to your loved ones and feel the abuser is “misunderstood.” Emotional abusers are expert manipulators, causing you to feel sorry for them and identifying with the “wounded” part of them that likely causes them to be abusive in the first place.
Affection and/or sex has become a weapon
Emotionally abusive individuals may withhold affection and attention. When they do show affection, the unpredictable and “intermittent reinforcement” is so powerful it is likely to keep you on the proverbial hook and engaged in the relationship. At the same time, they may pressure you for sex as a means to prove your “love” and “loyalty” to them, or ask you to do things in the bedroom that they know are uncomfortable for you. If you are financially connected to your partner, emotional abusers may also use financial strings as a means to punish or control you.
You begin hiding things from your partner
Due to fear of retaliation, false accusations, or just the grief you know you may get at home from your significant other, you stop telling him/her about people you have talked to, your whereabouts, or other information that you know they may use against you. You may find you even hide your own accomplishments because your partner does not seem to support your personal successes, belittles or dismisses them, and/or is threatened by them.
If you feel like you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, connect with someone about this as soon as possible, including friends, family, and, most importantly professionals who specialize in working with interpersonal violence. Although we all may do or say things we regret in relationships, emotional abusers show a pattern of behavior over time and are usually unable to genuinely take responsibility and accountability for this behavior. Rather than show remorse or regret, they blame you or others for their behavior and are unwilling to seek help to change their behavior. Documenting or journaling this behavior may help you see this pattern over time (make sure to keep this journal in a private place that your partner cannot access).