Emotional Abuse isn’t black or white
Covid and the experience of 2020 has helped to strip away the layers that used to hide us from the true nature of our relationships. Because of this, I am seeing a lot more of the dynamic in your relationships that fall on the continuum of emotional immaturity, emotional manipulation, or emotional abuse. Since I left my first marriage because of emotional and verbal abuse, I feel a deep responsibility to address this topic and support you wherever you are on this continuum.
Two things before I dig in. First, for my own ease in writing, I will be addressing the other partner as “he”. That is not because most abusers are male. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Both men and women suffer from emotional abuse. Rather it is because my experience of abuse was from males and so it will be easier for me.
Second, I’d like to begin this post asking the same thing I did in my post on narcissists and cluster B personality disorders, and that is to encourage you not to get hung up on getting an external diagnosis for your relationship or lots of external validation for what’s going on. What I mean is, if you listen/read and think “oh my gosh that’s me”, you don’t need to schedule 14 appointments and read 12 books to confirm that this dynamic is playing out in your relationship. Schedule an appointment with a professional this week and move forward now. Thinking you need a diagnosis or that you might be over reacting is part of the abuse. This idea that our gut can’t be trusted. That’s part of the cycle of abuse and what experts call crazy-making. This idea that it’s us, that we’re the crazy ones. When you start to lift out of that cycle and see things for what they are, your inclination may be to not trust yourself and to find a lot of external validation.
I have three main reasons why I recommend not waiting to take action before getting that validation?
1. It’s Close to Impossible
If your partner is emotionally abusive and your relationship operates in this way, he will not willingly walk into a coach or therapist’s office and show his true colors. Either because they’re so sure they’re not the problem or because the absolute opposite, they know they are the problem.
2. It’s a Waste of Time
The second reason to not look externally is that it is a colossal waste of your time. If you’re married to this person, you’ve already spent enough time in this cycle. I don’t want you wasting more of your precious life force stalling and distracting in the self-help section of the book store. And yes, this is spoken from experience. I wasted a lot of time reading and researching whether my ex was emotionally or verbally abusive. I bought the books, I read the articles. I’d finish one and be like, yep, yet somehow still need to read another. I did this instead of taking steps to address the situation. This is normal.
I was in an abusive relationship and this is part of what this post is here to shine a light on. The nature of this sort of relationship is that you (or your friend) is being manipulated to believe that they’re the problem. That they’re the one who’s done something wrong. So they keep looking for more evidence. Another side of this is fear. This is abuse and we don’t want to be abused again. The cycle of abuse is such that there is a golden period. After the person attacks or abuses, they circle around and shower you with kind words or gifts or praise. This feels good. It goes against or brain’s programming to speak up and risk an outburst when the river is calm. Yet that river is muddy and full of sewage. Speak up!
3. Human Behavior
Third reason not to spin your wheels looking for multiple sources of external validation is part of the truth of life and human behavior. How you show up in one place is often how you show up in other places. Meaning that while your experience in your romantic relationship may be the most abusive and untenable, you likely have some of the same dynamics in your other relationships. What that means is that when you bring your issues up for discussion in those secondary relationships, they may be unable to give you the neutral support you need. This was certainly true for me.
When I spoke to my parents about my concerns with my first husband, they were unable to give me support or accurate feedback. My relationship with them contained the emotionally abusive cyclic pattern that my marriage did. If they were to validate my marital experience, they would’ve exposed dysfunctional parts in our relationship. As I said, I’ve been in your shoes and I understand the drive to get validation which is why I’m spending time explaining why that just stalls and prolongs your negative situation. I don’t have many regrets in life but one big one is that I stayed in the marriage for so long. That I didn’t take action sooner. Which is why I am here and in your ear today. Let’s dig in warriors. You matter to me.
Please understand that this is a sliding scale and continuum. At one end is emotional maturity and at the other is emotional abuse. In the middle is a lot of grey where emotional childhood and emotional manipulation reside. My hope for all of you is that your relationships reside on the far end of the scale in emotional maturity yet if you were born and raised in western culture and educated in any sort of westernized school system, it is unlikely unless you have been deliberate in your study of emotional intelligence. Today’s post focuses on the far end of the scale and emotional abuse though I do want you to be on the look out for emotional immaturity and manipulation as it can be eradicated with learning.
I’ll share my own emotionally immature moment as I had one earlier today. I said: “Trump ruined my afternoon.” That’s completely inaccurate. I had no involvement with Trump. He wasn’t in my house nor did he come over. Rather I brought him into my house through my Twitter account and allowed him to impact my mood because of the thoughts I was thinking about him. Emotional intelligence teaches us that our feelings come from our thoughts not the circumstances, or the tweets, of our life. Saying he did something to me is not only inaccurate but unhelpful for me.
Other examples of emotional immaturity are thinking you’re responsible for someone else’s mood or feelings. Or being told or saying something like:
“Don’t say that to dad because he’ll get upset”
“Be careful around him today because he’s in a bad mood”
“I can’t do that because it will hurt her feelings”
“Wow, If I say that she’ll be irritated”
All of those statements are inaccurate as we do not have the power to control someone else’s thoughts in their head and we know from science (and the thought model) that their thoughts create their feelings.
Most of my work addresses the area of emotional intelligence, emotional maturity, emotional adulthood, and emotional resiliency. I will not dig deeper into this grey area today other than to urge you to read past posts as when we allow emotional manipulation into our relationships it is the building block for emotional abuse. Many of the clients I coach today who are suffering from emotional abuse were told as kids to be careful to not make dad angry or some other such nonsense as that. Life is all about learning and growing. Join me on the journey of continuing to strengthen and grow your emotional intelligence. I encourage you to re-read past posts on raising emotionally intelligent kids and being an emotionally responsible adult.
What is Emotional Abuse?
Let’s start by looking at a definition of emotional abuse that I got from the Googles. Emotional abuse involves a person’s attempts to frighten, control, or isolate you. These tactics are meant to undermine your self-esteem. They want to create a hierarchy in which they’re at the top and you’re at the bottom. Abusers tend to place their own emotional needs ahead of yours. Many abusers will try to come between you and people who are supportive of you. They try to make you think they know better by being deeply critical of you and judgmental of others around you.
Emotional abuse can involve any of the following forms of verbal abuse: yelling at you, insulting you or swearing at you. Emotional abuse can also include ignoring you, avoiding you, or giving you the silent treatment. An emotional abuser can use rejection as an attempt to control you, which looks like constantly rejecting your thoughts, ideas and opinions. It may include Gaslighting, which is manipulating the truth to make you doubt your own feelings and thoughts, and sometimes even your sanity. Have you ever said “Am I crazy?”. Boom, there’s some evidence.
Here are some other ways emotional abuse may show up:
- They sulk and refuse to talk about an issue.
- They minimize your experience by saying you’re too sensitive or too needy.
- They blame you for the problems in the relationship.
- They say you don’t show them enough respect or that your words or actions aren’t respectful.
- They threaten you, accuse you of lying, or say you have a bad memory.
- They act as if their word, their opinions are fact and say things like: “we don’t need to talk about that” or “that discussion is closed”
- They don’t apologize or take any responsibility for the relationship problems.
Here is a great article that shows many other ways that emotional abuse comes up. My intent today is to shine a light of awareness on emotional abuse so that you (or whomever you share this with) begins to recognize it as abnormal, unacceptable, intolerable behavior. I spent so many years in abusive relationships because I thought that my experience was normal. That I was the one that needed to fix things. That I was the problem. I was the crazy one. No, no and no warriors!
This is one of the main reasons why this cycle of abuse continues. Since we’re not being physically abused, we go through the cycle of thinking we must be crazy, we must have done something wrong, it must be us.
What to do?
First awareness. Learning and understanding that this is not normal. You have been programmed to accept this sort of treatment. Either because, like me, this is how you were raised so you know no differently, or because it snuck in and grew over time and had been trained to think that this is normal. For me, my ex was an isolator. A rule maker. There were certain people I was allowed to see (namely his parents) and it wasn’t until the kids got older and he could no longer control the people I came into contact with that I started to notice other marriages operated in different ways. We don’t know what we don’t know. The fact that you’re reading this post is a good sign that the awareness light has been turned on. If someone shared this with you as something to be “good” to read, please keep an open heart and consider that a sign. That said, please don’t confuse awareness with taking action. Move on to step two:
Second step is to set boundaries. Speaking up for yourself when you’re not used to it is scary. It’s often especially scary because we haven’t been taught how to effectively, kindly and calmly speak up for ourselves in our childhood or teenage years. This is why I’m passionate about coaching teens and moms. Many of the women, myself included, who are in these types of relationships grew the roots for them in adolescence with what I was speaking of in terms of emotional manipulation. Maybe your mom told you not to speak up to dad because it would make him angry. Or a sister who told you not to bring that up because mom was in a bad mood. Teaching you that others’ thoughts and feelings had to do with you instead of laying the responsibility for their reactions with them. Now that I know how to set boundaries, I do it without the emotional drama or fear.
Get support. Capitol S. This is not something to do alone. The thoughts you’re thinking in your head are what got you into this situation. This is serious. Whether you have one of those risk factors or many, please know that this is serious and needs professional support. Sure, friends are amazing though I do need to caution relying on friends or relatives because of what we spoke of at the beginning of the episode and my own personal experience. Have you heard of what happens to crabs in a bucket?
Crabs in a Bucket
When one crab is trying to get out of the bucket the other crabs grab hold and try to prevent it from climbing out. They will go so far as to tear that crab’s legs off so that it dies rather than let it out to freedom. The idea being that if they can’t have it, neither can you. This was absolutely the situation with my parents and their support of my divorce. They had spent more than 30 years in an unhappy, unfulfilling, happy enough marriage and they could not support me because that would’ve meant they needed to acknowledge that the way they had been living for the past decades could have been different.
Be very careful of friends or family who say things like “are you sure you’re not being too sensitive” or “it’s not that bad is it?” Those may be things they’ve been telling themselves to tolerate their situation. Not your truth dear warrior. Get help. I can not stress that enough. I offer free 15 minute consults as does my husband, a male life coach at paulpettit.com. This suffering is real. Choosing to leave a relationship is scary and our brain’s motivational triad will resist it.
I want to be clear that emotional abuse is not a black or white diagnosis. As I said, there is a whole big grey area of emotional manipulation. If you don’t say things to your partner for fear of their reaction, that’s a sign you’re in the grey area. If you don’t ask for help in certain areas because you’re afraid he’ll be angry. You’re in the grey area. If he blames you for his mood saying something like “you made me feel…”, you’re in the grey area. If you hold back from discussing things because you’re afraid of his criticism or negativity, you’re in the grey area.
So many women and men stay in abusive relationships because they ask themselves a variation of the question: What’s the point? Why bother?
This stems from us not having the belief that something different is possible for you.
I stand before you as an example that a different alternative is possible for you. I divorced from a man who was covertly emotionally and verbally abusive. I am estranged from several family members who were emotionally manipulative and abusive. Old friends and neighbors did not provide validation of my experience. Rather they thought I was the crazy one. My ex and family work very hard at normalcy. That’s okay warriors. Let people be wrong about you. You do you. I do what I do to show what is possible. Healing is possible. If it’s possible for me it means it’s possible for you. Love without fear is a staple of my life and it’s possible for you too.
I urge all my warriors to demand better in your relationships, from yourself and from those with whom you’re in relation with.
And oh dear warrior, in reading this did someone you know come to mind? Please please please share this. I spent so many years in the abusive cycle because I thought what I was going through was normal. Share this post to spread the word that fear has no place in a loving relationship. Better is possible for all.
Two easy ways you can share:
- Cut and paste this link and share in a text or email: https://www.smbwell.com/123
- Share the podcast episode by sharing this link: www.smbwell.com/itunes
- Screen shot this page and put it in your Instagram story. Make sure you mention me @smb.wellness so I have the opportunity to give you a shout out!
And for you? please please please tell me you’re a member of the Warrior Women Community on Facebook. We discuss our podcasts live twice each month and I pop on once a month to offer free coaching!