You are stupid! Your are ugly! You are fat! You are nothing without me! You can’t do anything right! You are worthless! You should have never been born! I hate you! My life would be so much better off without you! Why don’t you just go kill yourself!
If you have had someone tell you these words, you are most likely in an abusive relationship. People often believe that an abusive relationship occurs when some type of physical abuse is occurring, but emotional and mental abuse is a form of abuse that occurs in relationships as wells. The effects are just as devastating, in which the bruises, cuts, and scars occur on the internal psyche of the person. Research has shown that the negative effects of individuals being in an emotionally abusive relationship can be more detrimental in terms of stress and emotional damage than an episode of being in a physically abusive relationship (Theran, Sullivan, Bogat, & Steward, 2006; & Wicks-Nelson & Israel, 2009). Although these wounds may not be visible for others to see, they are inside the person festering, often never being exposed to the air to have a chance to heal. As the painful messages continue to be hurled at the person, the individual internalizes these words as part of their self-image.
Emotional abuse in a relationship may not only take the form of verbal insults, but also through controlling the other person’s movement, isolating them from family and friends, withholding of affection, constant criticism, marital infidelity, withholding of attention, guilt, and externalizing blame of their problems to the other person. Emotional abuse is built into the acts of physical and sexual abuse, although physical and sexual abuse may not be present when emotional abuse occurs. Cultural variation of emotional abuse may occur in which the abuser also extends the rights of the emotional abuse to occur by family members (Yoshihama & Sorenson, 1994).
Abuse tends to occur in cycles, as well as there tends to be a family history of abuse that occurs. Often when we look at the individual that is perpetrating the abuse, they themselves came from a family where they either experienced some type of abuse, or watched abuse occur on family members. This aspect has special relevance to parents who may be in an emotionally abusive relationship. Not only do our children learn what acceptable behavior is in a relationship, but they also learn to model our behavior of being a victim, or an abuser. Even though a child may not directly experience the abuse, the vicarious experience of watching a loved one’s pain sends messages to the child of not only their own worth, but also a distorted image of what authentic loving relationships entail. The children fail to learn to establish appropriate boundaries of protecting themselves emotionally from others. I learned as a therapist that doing a family genogram, which involves engaging with the client of constructing a family tree of sorts, to examine relationships of patterns of abuse, mental health issues, and drug addiction that often these cycle tended to repeat themselves through generations of a family. This historical representation often helped a client not only understand their family history, but also question their mental framework of what constituted authentic healthy relationships that had been established through their lifetime in taking in their social world around them.
At different times in our life, we may find ourselves in relationships, or loved ones that have become involved in emotionally abusive relationships. The most helpless feeling is watching a friend, family member, or ourselves succumbing to physical or emotional abuse of others. Social support for an individual that has been trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship is one of the key elements of that individual reaching out to empower themselves to get help out of the cycle of abuse. The person may teeter for years on the verge of getting out of the relationship, while then returning into the cycle of abuse. When abuse in a relationship occurs, it does not necessarily mean that the relationship needs to end, but education as well as psychological services is often needed for all parties involved to begin a process of recognizing the abuse, admitting the abuse, and coming to terms with the future implications of allowing the cycle to continue. Failure to recognize the issue in terms of the family unit, often relates to parents developing mental health disorders, drug abuse issues, escalating forms of abuse, and children who experience academic and relationship problems, and in the future engaging in the same sort of relationships they witnessed in their family of origin. Abuse occurs in all societies, and across the different economic social stratifications, and educational levels.
The victim and the abuser often stay in a cycle of denial of the abuse as a way to denying their own shortcomings, avoiding the hard process of change, all the while feeding another generation of pain to come to their children. Breaking out of this cycle involves the adults in these relationships recognizing that there is an issue, which not only negatively affects them, but also younger members of the family. If it all possible, keeping the family unit intact is the ideal outcome, while working on reconstructing healthy interaction patterns that establish individual respect, autonomy, and dignity. In many of these situations, the abuser may not recognize the issue because of the power and control they have gained through the cycle of abuse. Encourage and support those in abusive relationships to take back their own self-control and dignity to free them from the tyranny of emotional abuse, as well as to develop a “new family legacy” of establishing authentic, healthy, and loving relationships. It is important for all of us to remember that while physical wounds may heal, the journey of healing the unseen internal wounds on being in an emotionally abusive relationship takes just as much courage and support.
Theran, S. A., Sullivan, C. M., Bogat, G. A., & Stewart, C. S. (2006). Abusive partners and ex-partners understanding the effects of relationship to the abuser on women’s well-being. Violence Against Women, 12(10), 950-969.
Wicks-Nelson, T. & Israel, A. (2009). Abnormal child and adolescent psychology (7th ed.). London, England: Pearson Corporation.
Yoshihama, M., & Sorenson, S. B. (1994). Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by male intimates: experiences of women in Japan. Violence and Victims, 9(1), 63-77.