In that past I was involved in a negative situation for a brief period of time. Various aspects of the situation were difficult for me to manage, but I had difficulty recognizing my own emotional struggle at the time. I definitely felt a strain on my emotional capacity, but I didn’t realize that what was taking place was wrong or even intentional. I later realized that there was an endgame to some of the behaviours directed at me, which was to influence my behaviour by manipulating my emotions. This is called emotional abuse.
Also called psychological abuse, emotional abuse is used to control a person’s behaviour in a non-physical way. Aspects of emotional abuse include threatening or intimidating, isolation, treatment as inferior, humiliation, deception and causing guilt (Follingstad, Coyne & Gambone, 2005; Mathews, 2016). These may seem like heavy and concrete terms, but I will explain in the next blog how you may begin to experience them in subtle ways. A key theme of emotional abuse is that it generally starts small. In my experience, ways of establishing control were less obvious and more creative than I would have guessed just by looking at research terms and definitions. Hopefully some examples from my personal experience will help put flesh on bones.
How Does it Start?
I didn’t notice what was happening at the beginning of my experience. To be honest, I didn’t recognize it at the end either. I definitely felt the strain, but I wasn’t able to make sense of what had taken place until a few weeks afterwards. As I mentioned before, emotional abuse is typically very subtle in the beginning and becomes more obvious over time (Começanha, Basto-Pereira & Maia, 2017). This doesn’t necessarily mean that you will know exactly how to label your experience as time goes by. In fact, while negative behaviours that could be ignored or managed in the beginning become less and less manageable and it feel less and less appropriate so assert your own dominance, it can still be difficult to put a name to what you are experiencing. Fortunately my experience didn’t last very long. But before it ended, I was criticized for not submitting to control in a context where I not only didn’t need to, but also should not have. Numerous negative comments were made about my character and I was [again] reminded why someone like me should want to continue being connected with someone like them. The conversation then took a very gentle turn and I was reassured that everything I was experiencing was for the sake of my best interests. So the emotional trick was to suggest that my autonomy was being limited because of genuine care for me.
But to step back for a moment, have you ever noticed yourself trying to control another’s behaviour in this way? I think emotional abuse is not only difficult to recognize from another person, but it can be difficult to step back and see our own behaviour clearly enough to recognize these patterns within ourselves. One person may be the instigator, but emotional abuse often goes both ways and the perpetrator can also be a victim (Começanha, Basto-Pereira & Maia, 2017).
Emotional abuse is often considered within the context of intimate relationships, which is the focus of the research cited below. Psychological abuse is “overwhelmingly” common and is experienced at similar rates by males and females. This type of abuse transcends social and demographic boundaries. Interestingly (since we are students), a sample of highly educated participants revealed a prevalence rate of 75 – 80% (Começanha, Basto-Pereira & Maia, 2017, p.124). Due to various forms of female empowerment, women may face a decreasing risk for psychological abuse. The opposite may be true for men, possibly due to social factors such as limited discussion of relational issues (Karakurt & Silver, 2013).
My experience helped clarify some things that I have witnessed in the past and I notice that psychological abuse can take place in many types of relationships, not just romantic ones. It can take place between family members, friends and professionals, and in any physical location such as a classroom, home or workplace.
It’s funny how behaviours that you’ve become accustomed to in one environment can be alarming in a new environment, but at the same time, familiarize that new environment. I’ll explain further. During the negative situation, certain behaviours reminded me of unpleasant experiences in my past, but I soon dismissed this connection due to a revelation (so I thought) that I was wrongly transferring old problems to new contexts. Unfortunately, the similarities were real and resulted in familiar experiences. Looking back, I think familiarity passed as comfortability. I felt more comfortable accepting behaviours that I actually didn’t like because I had become used to them in another context.
It’s not to say that you can’t wrongly transfer old problems to new contexts. That’s just not what was happening in this situation.
I write this blog with Valentine’s Day in mind because 1) romantic relationships come with a built in expectation that trust should be established and 2) romantic relationships are typically optional. Trust is so valuable because it is constructed of vulnerability. If there is no need to worry whether someone is presenting themselves authentically, then there is no need for trust. Once trust is established, vulnerability continues. At the risk of sounding like trust is a bad thing (and I don’t want to suggest that), I think it is easier to be mistreated once you have decided to trust someone, because the decision to trust means you will continually tell yourself you are in a safe situation with a trustworthy person, despite signs to the contrary. The decision to trust, among other factors, may lead you to feel that you should stay in a relationship that is affecting you negatively. Opting out of a relationship may come at a cost, but staying in it will too.
In the next blog, I will explain more about my experience with the beginnings of emotional abuse and why I didn’t recognize it right away.
Começanha, R., Basto-Pereira, M., & Maia, Â. (2017). Clinically speaking, psychological abuse matters. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 73, 120-126. doi:10.1016/j.comppsych.2016.11.015
Follingstad, D. R., Coyne, S., & Gambone, L. (2005). A representative measure of psychological aggression and its severity. Violence and Victims, 20(1), 25-38. doi:http://dx.doi.org.uproxy.library.dc-uoit.ca/10.1891/088667005780927674
Karakurt, G., & Silver, K. E. (2013). Emotional abuse in intimate relationships: The role of gender and age. Violence and Victims, 28(5), 804-21. doi:10.1891/0886-6708.VV-D-12- 00041
Mathews, A. (2016, Sept 26). When is it emotional abuse? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/traversing-the-inner-terrain/201609/when-is- it-emotional-abuse