Hidden Abuse: Spot the signs & get help

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is an umbrella term that covers lots of different types of behaviours with one thing in common: they are used to create and maintain a power imbalance in the relationship, through exerting control and establishing a hierarchy.

Some behaviours might be easier to identify – someone shouting at you, or insulting you is an act that you can name and call out as wrong. But there are lots of things that are harder to pin-point, things that individually might not look like much, but collectively, repeatedly and over time, point to a wider pattern of behaviour.
Abuse might feel like too strong a word, or too ‘dramatic’ – the key thing to consider here, is how does it make you feel? Here are some things to ask yourself to help work it out:

(Something to note – we use the term ‘partner’ below; however, emotional abuse can also be perpetrated by a family member, ex-partner, or even by a friend or community. The questions below are relevant to all these situations.)

  1. How’s my self-esteem? Does your partner say things about you, your personality, appearance, character or accomplishments that make you feel bad? Are they patronizing? Do they call you names or use pet names that are insulting to you? Do they keep on bringing up things that you don’t like or that make you uncomfortable? Do their ‘jokes’ hurt your feelings? Do they put you down in front of others? Do they dismiss your achievements? Have you asked them not to do something, or expressed that you don’t like something, and they’ve carried on regardless?
  2. How are my relationships with other people in my life? Have my relationships with my friends or family changed as a result of my partner’s actions? Do they discourage or distract me from seeing other people? Are they being jealous? Have they told friends or family members that I don’t want to see them? Have they tried to turn my friends and family against me? Have I stopped going out as much, or doing things I like because my partner doesn’t like it?
  3. Who’s in control? Do I feel like I have freedom and choice within my relationship? Does my partner monitor where I am and what I’m doing? Do they check my phone, email or social media? Do they have financial control? Are they making all the decisions in the relationship? Are they unpredictable? Do I feel like I’m working with constantly moving goalposts, trying to avoid upsetting them or causing trouble? Are their needs consistently being put before mine? Am I having to change multiple areas of my life to fit around them?
  4. Would I be able to discuss this with them? If I raised it, what would they say? Would they listen and hear me? Would they be willing to change? Or, would they tell me that it’s my fault? Would they make it sound trivial? Would they dismiss or minimise what I’m saying, tell me it’s not true, and make me question my own memory (also known as gaslighting)?
Why might it be hard to recognise?

Emotional abuse isn’t as widely discussed as physical abuse, nor as widely represented in the media, so we don’t have a lot of examples to draw on that can help us recognise or understand what’s happening.
Even worse, lots of emotionally abusive behaviours have been normalised, or romanticised – we’re told that jealousy means someone cares, or that demanding someone be with you all the time is romantic.

This sounds a lot like what I am going through. What can I do?

Recognising what’s happening is a difficult but important step. But what should you do next?
Remember that you have choices and control over what happens next. That can seem scary, particularly if you haven’t been able to make decisions like that for a while.

Here are some things you might want to think about, to help you understand what’s happening:
  • What do I think a healthy relationship is? What does it look like?
  • Take a step back and think about what the ideal looks like to you – how do you spend time together and apart? What kind of dynamic do you have? What about the division of physical and emotional labour? How do you make decisions?
  • How does your relationship differ from that? What doesn’t feel right? What would you like to change?
  • Do you feel able to have a conversation with your partner? Communication is key to any healthy relationship – you need to be able to talk to each other about what’s going on. If you don’t feel able to talk to them or they shut you down when you try, that tells you they are not willing to hear how to make things better.
Who can you talk to about this?

Whether we reach out to friends, family or an impartial source of support, talking can help us understand what’s happening, and get support from the people around us. Choose someone you trust and who you think will understand. They should listen to you, believe you and support you.

It can be really hard to open up about these things. Maybe the next time someone asks you how you are, you say ‘actually, I’m not doing so well’, or ‘things are really difficult with my partner’. This can open the door to a bigger conversation. Practice saying these things to yourself first, it can make it easier then to tell someone else.

It might feel easier to talk to someone you don’t know, and there are plenty of places that you can go to for help, for example, our advice line, or Samaritans. Perhaps through your work, you have access to an employee assistance programme that can provide some emotional support and link you in with a counselling service.

Remember – You are not alone. This is not your fault. Support is available for you.