As a life coach, I have experience in helping people with a variety of challenges. Identifying and surviving emotionally abusive relationships is a subject I can deeply empathise with having lived through this toxic and traumatic experience myself.
Much like physical abuse, emotional abuse has a powerful impact on your life, your confidence and your relationships with your friends and family. Emotional abuse can be inflicted from any gender towards any gender. Unlike physical abuse, emotional abuse can be harder to spot because there is no single moment when a punch, slap or a hit is thrown.
I strongly believe that if I had the tools to ‘read the signs’ that I was in an abusive relationship, I would have left. I know that this can feel easier said than done, but awareness is the first step towards change.
How to identify an emotionally abusive partner
Having researched this subject extensively to ensure I give a fair and varied viewpoint, I have spoken to a number of people about their experiences with emotional abuse. Almost every person I spoke to stated the following consistencies about their abusive relationship:
Charm: “They seemed like the most charming person to everyone who they came across, but when it was just the two of us they showed a completely different side.”
Impacting on my choices: “If I didn’t dress or behave how they wanted me to, they would be cold all night leaving me feeling isolated, even humiliated.”
Fear: “I avoided saying certain things for fear of upsetting them.”
Silence: “Sometimes I avoided saying anything at all, it was just easier than their reactions.”
Blame: “When they cheated on me, they made me feel as though it was my fault, and as though I had done something wrong for finding out. I had no idea that this was gaslighting and emotional abuse.”
If you do not recognise these behaviours but still think you may be in an abusive relationship, keep reading. Some peoples partners are so good at gaslighting that they do not realise it has happened until long after the relationship is completely over. It can also take time to see the damage that has been done.
For me, I left the relationship diagnosed with PTSD. This is not uncommon for victims of emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is just as serious as any type of abuse. There may not always be a physical mark at the end of it but it can have a damaging outcome mentally and physically.
In order to spot the signs and start to move through this experience, we must educate ourselves on the signs and encourage open and honest conversations. Emotional abuse is silencing.
Most abuse is covert, not overt. It breeds silencing and secretive behaviour. It is clever, manipulative, unkind, cunning and coercive. Many abusers radiate charm to disguise this behaviour, otherwise, it would be much harder for them to get away with it.
5 Steps to Moving Through an Emotionally Abusive Relationships
Step 1: How are you? If you feel as though you are being emotionally abused, start to try and understand your partner’s personality
Googling their personality could be your first warning sign. How many of your friends and families behaviours do you google? Why should a relationship be any different? You do not sit there and google someone’s behaviour because they’re super normal or a really good friend.
After some searching, you may find that your partner has borderline personality disorder, otherwise known as BPD. You may see a likeness or tendencies that relate to:
Concerns over feelings of emptiness
Everything is your fault, rarely theirs
Can you see similarities when you read ‘how to spot a narcissist’ articles?
Do they share common traits when you read ‘signs of a sociopath’?
How much do you know about their previous relationships, truthfully? How many have there been? How did they end?
The aim here is not to diagnose them yourself through ‘Dr Google’ or to accuse them of having BPD, that is up to a professional psychiatrist. The goal here is for you to understand them so that you have the information that you need to help yourself.
Step 2: The awakening; if you have identified your partner as someone who aligns with the above personality disorders, you need to wake up now. This is absolutely critical
You cannot change them. You should not be in a relationship with someone you want to change, even if you feel it is ‘just part of them’ that is upsetting. That part of them is a part of them. They do not want to change. The tendencies that crush you, feed into those that allure you, this will not change. Sociopaths and narcissists especially do not empathise in the same way you or I do.
An empath loves, gives wholeheartedly, helps and nurtures. A sociopath takes, selfishly, to the point that they start to take pieces of you away. Loving someone is different from loving what you can take away from someone. Walk away so that you can start to love yourself again rather than giving yourself to their ego.
Step 3: Love-bombing; the start of your relationship was like no other, now things are very different
The start of your relationship is beyond perfect. They create an experience you never thought would happen to you. Unexpected thoughtfulness, gifts, love-notes. You have been swept off your feel. Finally, you have found the one. You never knew this feeling existed. This is the love of your life.
Apart from its not.
Love-bombing is a strategy adopted by many abusers to lure you into their venus fly trap. To blind you from what is about to come. Sociopaths and narcissists especially thrive on skills of manipulation. Their ability to appear to be the perfect partner is part of the fun, it fills their ego to see how good they are at bringing you joy.
From here, once they fully have you, they then start to shape you into a member of their supporting cast. They flatter you into submission.
Step 4: Trauma Bonding, also known as Stockholm Syndrome
Once the love-bombing has taken place, a deep bond is created called a ‘trauma bond’ which created a strong sense of loyalty from the abused towards the abuser. Harsh treatment can be easily offset by small acts of kindness. During the ‘love bombing’ phase you may have become isolated from your friends and family, so you are less able to mention small ‘red flags’ off the cuff to your support system.
This is a clever tactic of manipulation and it not your fault as an abuse victim. If you do feel as though you are at the stage of a toxic relationship where something does not feel right but the relationship feels hard to get out of, take the time to research this behaviour further.
No one ‘looks’ like an abuser. An abuser is often charming (a characteristic you need to be extremely careful of) and is able to seamlessly transition between ‘the perfect partner’ to those outside and a completely different person when you are alone together. Look out for these two contrasting personalities.
Step 5: Devaluing; they start to break you down, abuse and take away your lightness and joy. This is where the gaslighting happens
This is the phase where your partner removes your confidence little by little. You start to doubt your own reality, your views, your memory and even your sanity. Perhaps you start to emulate feelings of depression, you don’t feel like socialising or getting out of bed in the morning. Please read as much as you can about gaslighting. I cannot stress enough how dangerous and damaging this behaviour can be. Spotting the signs is so important as a preventative measure for yourself and people you love.
At this phase, it is common for your partner to engage in emotional or sexual intercourse with others. These affairs will feed into their fragile, narcissistic ego and whilst they may pretend to be shocked when they get caught, your reaction will add to the dramatic storyline that they have created. Your discovery will be passed off as your fault, not theirs. Your reaction to their betrayal will make them feel needed and care for.
Your task: write everything down
Their moments of coldness
Anything that confuses you
If they ignore you
If they cheat on you
Looking at these facts in black and white will help you see that you are not the one who is insane. This will also help if you do have to contact the police, confide in a therapist or someone you trust.
I can tell you, from my own experience that knowledge is power for those of you who are experiencing any of the aforementioned phases.
Jaqueline Hurst is a highly regarded therapist trusted by GQ, BBC News, Lululemon, Nivea and more. Jacqueline is also the founder of The Life Class, an online experience designed to help you live the life you love.