Are You in an Abusive Relationship Without Knowing It?
Learn how to recognize the signs and when to get help
Maybe you were flattered when your boyfriend first admitted to feeling jealous when you talk to other guys, but now it's feeling a little intrusive. Plus, he has an increasingly annoying habit of checking up on you during the day. He sulks when you go out with your friends. If you complain, he’s dismissive, and lately he’s taken to blaming you for his bad moods.
You still love him, but you're starting to feel nervous and isolated. Are you in an abusive relationship?
Washington-based psychologist Steve Stosny, PhD, says that’s very likely.
Stosny, author of “Love Without Hurt: Turn Your Resentful, Angry or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One,” adds that it’s often difficult to figure out whether your relationship is abusive. Why? Because the abuser begins to control the victim’s sense of reality.
The abusive partner controls the other by undermining her sense of confidence, manipulating her with fear and shame or "gaslighting" her by making her feel crazy, as if her complaints are ludicrous, according to Stosny. ("Gaslighting" is a form of emotional abuse in which information is twisted in a way that makes a victim doubt her own perception of reality.)
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“Women tend to manipulate men’s fear of failure as a lover, provider and parent,” he says. “Men, on the other hand, manipulate a partner’s fear of isolation, harm and dependence.” Abusive men also tend to “stonewall” and to dismiss their partner’s feelings of distress.
For the victim, the net effect is a feeling she can’t do anything right, and that she (or he) is always “walking on eggshells” around the house.
Normal or not?
If you’re worried but still not sure if you’re in an abusive relationship, Stosny recommends taking this quiz or asking yourself if you’ve noticed these common signs of abuse:
- Your spouse or lover is hypercritical of you, saying things like “You spend too much on clothes; they don’t look good on you, anyway.”
- You’re made to feel guilty and afraid: “Your family and friends just want something from you.”
- Your partner demeans your accomplishments: “Working and taking courses is too much for you; the house is a mess.”
- Your partner freezes you out by not talking with you when you’re upset and refuses to consider your point of view. "Don't complain about how bad you have it, no one else could love you."
- Your partner is unusually jealous.
Verbal abuse can be more psychologically damaging than physical abuse because it often happens many times a day with no let-up. According to Stosny, if your partner is emotionally abusive, you likely feel:
- Increased anxiety and fear
- Lonely and isolated. You may also isolate yourself because you’re embarrassed about the way your spouse treats you.
It’s pretty simple, Stosny says: If you feel bad about yourself whenever you’re with your partner, you’re probably a victim of emotional abuse.
Abuse: Upping the ante
Emotional abuse also tends to get worse the longer it goes one. At their core, abusers feel bad about themselves, and they often feel unloved. Stosny says that abusers needs to feel the adrenalin that comes with getting angry or attacking because it makes them feel more confident. But eventually, as with any drug, they’ll need more and more of it.
“She may call you an idiot the first few times, but eventually to feel better, she’s going to need to up the ante, and maybe add swear words to the insults,” he says. Stosny says that about 30 percent of verbal abuse eventually turns physical: “You could even see emotional abuse as a gateway drug” to battering.
If you’re in an abusive relationship, you and your partner probably need professional help from a therapist or counselor. In some cases involving physical abuse, the best choice may be to leave the relationship, experts say. But in cases of emotional abuse, therapy may help get your relationship back on track.
Stosny believes that compassion training (and helping abusers unlearn their destructive behavior) is the key to stopping emotional abuse.
Emotional abusers need to learn that they are using the adrenaline rush to feel more powerful, when what they really need is a way to feel more valued and loved by their partner, Stosny says.
“The toughest part of therapy is helping the abuser break that habit of attacking someone in order to feel powerful,” says Stosny. To do so, he recreates the stress that sets off the abuser and helps him or her practice responding to it normally. It often takes at least six weeks of work (and at least 500 repetitions or more of the exercise) to stop the habit of emotional abuse, Stosny says.
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Abused partners can also help by paying attention to how they criticize the abuser. “Often one partner, usually a man because they have a greater vulnerability to shame, feels overwhelmed or inadequate,” says Stosny. “In that case, it helps to lower the intensity by hugging before speaking and talking about what’s good about the relationship before you get to the complaint.”
“The main relationship technique I train couples in is to develop binocular vision, which is the ability to hold your partner’s perspective alongside your own,” says Stosny. This way, he says, “you see your behavior through your partner’s eyes and use your partner’s reactions as rear-view mirrors to illuminate blind spots — things we do without knowing it, like devaluing our partners, when we think we’re just ‘expressing how we feel.’”