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Emotional psychological abuse
• Emotional and psychological abuse tends to take the form of insults, cut-downs, intimidation and bullying.
• No one enters a relationship expecting it to be abusive – emotional and psychological abuse tends to develop subtly over time, slowly eroding the victim’s self-confidence
• Abuse only stops when it is understood and confronted. Sometimes the abuse doesn’t stop, in which case the abusive relationship may need to end
Emotional and psychological abuse is generally subtle – it’s most often achieved through words, innuendo and gestures – and it’s subtlety can make it difficult to identify. Victims of emotional abuse might not even recognise that they are being abused until they are somehow able to see their experience from an objective viewpoint or until someone else gives it a name.
Emotional abuse can take the form of:
• Verbal insults and insinuations
• Verbal aggression
• Undermining confidence
• Intimidation and power play
• Isolation from family and friends
No one walks into a relationship searching for or hoping for abuse, and very few of us wouldn’t baulk at the idea of an abusive relationship. So how does it happen and why can’t we just walk away? Emotional or psychological abuse tends to be fairly insidious activity that often starts with something mild like a small put-down or an aggressive rebuke. Subtle behaviour such as this tends to confuse the victim’s boundaries and understanding of what is acceptable, and what is unacceptable. If such negative behaviour is repeated, constantly, then it starts to weaken our sense of self and undermine confidence. Often without even realising it, the emotional abuse the effect of impeding our ability to stand up for ourselves when we think something might be wrong. In this way, emotional abuse weakens our resolve and our capacity to walk away from the situation or relationship.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people who experienced abuse as children to find themselves in similarly abusive relationships as adults. The emotional and psychological abuse suffered as a child robs the person of their self-confidence and sets up an expectation that emotional abuse is the norm. At some level, victims expect that they will be treated badly because they believe they deserve such treatment.
One of the best ways to stop this type of abuse is to stand up for ourselves and tell the person to stop. This is, of course, easier to say than do! And if the relationship, and/or the abuse itself, is longstanding, then we have likely grown accustomed to being treated in this way and probably accept the behaviour to a large degree. Of course, standing up to the abuse may not stop it, and further action may be required. This may include taking leave of the relationship.
Working with a relationship counsellor, psychologist or therapist can assist you with this process, and help you on the journey back to self-confidence and emotional health. Professional counsellors and therapists have specific training, knowledge and experience working with abusive relationships and can help victims develop strategies to keep themselves safe and to reconstruct their sense of self. Additionally, a professionally trained counsellor can help you gain the strength you need to make any big decisions, and support you in those decisions. This is particularly valuable if you are wishing to leave an abusive relationship.
Families and relationships do not exist in a vacuum. Instead, they exist in a system in which every person has their role. As a result when one person in the system changes everyone else is thrown out of kilter. So, when an abuser works to change his or her abusive behaviour, or is not being abusive, the relationship invariably shifts. In these circumstances, the victim may find themselves feeling off centre and anxious because they do not know what to expect from their partner. A common response to this loss of expectation is an attempt to provoke the abuser – encouraging the abuser to return to the very same behaviour the victim has been trying to change. This is the “change-no-change-back” cycle. It may happen several times over the course of a relationship as a couple or family with an abusive history as they attempt to mend their relationships and develop a healthy family life.
If you or a loved one is involved in a relationship that involves emotional and psychological abuse you may benefit from talking to a professional counsellor, psychologist or therapist. If you would like to schedule a consultation or receive further advice, please contact us at Associated Counselors & Psychologists Sydney
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Sophie was 25 when she first met James. She fell ‘head over heals’ in love with him on their very first date and over the next year, he was romantic and thoughtful at all times. Sophie was thrilled to marry the man of her dreams. Once married, however, James seemed to change. He never hit her, but then he never missed a chance to verbally cut her down to size either. He insulted her for not finishing her college degree and for working as an administrative assistant, he degraded her by calling her insulting names in front of his friends, he oftened called her stupid. He never seemed to stop.
Her family noticed that Sophie was a diminished version of herself when she was with James. She seemed to let herself be browbeaten into jumping up to meet his every need and never once stood up for herself when, clearly (in their mind) he was out of line in the way he talked to her. Soon, Sophie wasn’t calling very often and the family visits stopped entirely. She had no friends any longer and all of her time was spent either at work or with James.
When a co-worker overheard a conversation Sophie had with her husband one day, she told Sophie that she didn’t seem really happy. When Sophie admitted that the her marriage was difficult, her colleague gave her the name of a professional counsellor. Sophie was fearful what James would say if he knew she was going to see a counsellor, but she felt like she needed to do something to restore her sense of self. Sophie contacted the counsellor and was able to arrange an appointment during her lunch hour, so that there would be no need to explain her absence to James.
When Sophie met Debbie, she was relieved to find that Debbie simply listened quietly to her as Sophie explained the reasons for making the appointment. She felt a sense of calm and control that she hadn’t felt in quite some time. Debbie carefully explained how she worked and let Sophie know that her job was to help Sophie sort out her feelings, rebuild her confidence, and provide a safe space for her to talk without any judgments or assumptions.
Over the next several months, Debbie listens carefully to Sophie’s story and to her emotions. She notices how bright Sophie’s face is when she talks about that first year of being with James and comments at how much in love Sophie had been with James during that time. Sophie agrees and wonders if that is the reason she has allowed James to pull her down so far. She begins to cry and feel like her life is a huge mess. Debbie reassures her that her problems with James do not make her a bad person.
As Sophie slowly gains her confidence back, she begins to unconsciously change how she interacts with James. When he demands attention, she delays responding. When he throws an insult at her, she simply turns and leaves the room. He is baffled by her change of attitude, but doesn’t know how to react to it either.
Finally, Sophie admits to James that she has been seeing a therapist and that she wants a change in their relationship. She would like James to attend couples counselling with her, but if he refuses to go, she understands but their relationship will be forever damaged. To her great surprise and joy, James is prepared to address her issues and agrees to make an appointment with a relationship counsellor recommended by Debbie.