Manipulation, Gaslighting, And Psychological Attacks: Understanding Emotional Abuse

By Teresa De Jesus

Oprime aquí para ver esta página en Español.

A recent survey of college-aged survivors of domestic violence revealed a surprising fact: even though they had all been in abusive relationships, as many as 70% of them did not know at the time that their relationship was abusive. The experience of the survey participants was not unique. Oftentimes, domestic violence is characterized as physical or sexual abuse. However, there are many ways one partner may attempt to control the other, and not all of them are easily identifiable. Last month, we shared a blog post about tech abuse. Today, we’ll be unpacking the concept of emotional abuse. 

Emotional abuse is often defined in several different ways. In this post, we will use the term to mean one partner harming or breaking down another person’s self-esteem in order to achieve a certain goal (usually to gain power over the other partner or to cause psychological harm). This can be done in many ways, such as through teasing, criticism, insults, terror, isolation, control and humiliation, and it often goes undetected until its effects have become severe. 

In an emotionally abusive relationship, a person uses words, silence, gestures or behaviors which negatively affect the psychological and/or emotional well-being of another person. Like in physically abusive relationships, the goal of the abuser is to control and to have power over their partner. 

Emotional abuse can start at any time in a relationship. Many abusers start relationships in a healthy manner, creating a strong bond; but once the relationship is established, they begin to mistreat their partner. The normal behavior at the beginning of a relationship creates a strong bond, and in many cases, the other partner is bewildered by this change. Oftentimes, they will stay in a relationship or choose to wait for the person they thought they knew to ‘come back.’ 

A person in an emotionally abusive relationship may begin to change their own behavior for fear of angering their partner. They may feel guilty, hopeless, helpless, manipulated and controlled. This situation, over time, can result in negative effects on physical and mental health.

A common technique of abusers is accusing their partner of causing their behavior. For instance, they could say “I wouldn’t act so possessive if you were more trustworthy.” Remember: you are never responsible for the actions of others, and there is nothing you can say or do that means you deserve to be abused.

In addition, an abusive partner may also engage in a practice called gaslighting, or manipulating someone into questioning their own sanity. Abusers may claim their partners are going crazy or losing their memory. You can read more about gaslighting on our blog.

It is important to learn to recognize emotional abuse early, as it is often hard to spot before it escalates to other forms of violence. 

If you believe you are being emotionally abused, or think a friend or loved one may be experiencing it, here are some warning signs of actions that an abuser may take: 

  • Ridiculing someone in front of others
  • Criticize or tease constantly
  • Insulting
  • Manipulating based on lies, threats, indirect phrases or with silence
  • Never recognizing qualities or merits
  • Using facial or body expressions to scare
  • Never letting the other do what one wants
  • Opposing to socialize or be with friends and family
  • Showing affection to reward or punish
  • Focusing only on the defects of the other

The first step towards solving this problem is to recognize the behavior of the abuser, as well as the symptoms created by the abuse in their partner. Support from friends, family, or a qualified therapist or professional can be instrumental in helping the abused partner overcome their experience.

If you or a friend needs help, or you think you may be being abused, please reach out to Day One. Even if you are not local to New York City, we can connect you with someone who can help. You are not alone.

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