Emotional Abuse: Exposing the Hidden Pain Within Domestic Relationships
Updated: Nov 5
We often jump to images of physical violence when we think of domestic abuse. However, it’s crucial to understand that domestic abuse encompasses much more than physical harm. It is an umbrella term that includes a range of actions that exert power and control over someone, including physical, sexual, emotional, economic and psychological abuse. While emotional abuse may not leave visible scars like physical abuse or be as evident as economic abuse, the effects are devastating nonetheless; hence, it is one of the subtlest forms of manipulation that erodes an individual's self-esteem and self-worth leaving long-lasting scars that are hard to detect or even recognize.
Practitioners and clinicians often refer to the power and control wheel when discussing domestic abuse. This wheel resembles a bicycle wheel, with the inside representing the more subtle and continuous abusive behaviours within a relationship and the outside representing physical and sexual violence. In the realm of emotional abuse, the wheel highlights various forms of abuse such as name-calling, playing mind games, humiliation, putting someone down, making them feel guilty and making an individual think they are “crazy.” It also serves as a foundation for other types of abuse, such as minimizing, denying and blaming. For instance, abusers might blame their victims for their own actions or behaviours or dismiss the victim's concerns as insignificant and an overreaction. They exploit their intimate knowledge of the victim to gain power over them and create a psychological dependency. They often resort to tactics such as name-calling and criticizing the victim to target their vulnerabilities. I like to call that “playing dirty” an unfortunate but extremely common power tactic with this type of abuse.
One of the biggest challenges with this type of abuse is its covert nature. It is not only tricky for victims to express but also for them to recognize. They often internalize blame, thinking they need to be a better partner or work on themselves so they don’t upset their abuser. Sometimes, the abuser may even suggest the victim seek professional help to further the manipulation. Abusers employ various tactics, such as disguising putdowns as “jokes” or dismissing the victim's feelings as oversensitivity. They often deflect, project and use tactics to turn an argument or disagreement back onto the victim, making them feel responsible for the conflict and leaving them at fault.
In my endeavour to learn more about this type of abuse, I came across an article referring to emotional abusers as “master manipulators.” This resonated with me on many levels. By sharing this insight, I hope to shed light on the subtle dynamics of emotional abuse, helping victims recognize their experiences and empowering them to seek support and break free from the cycle of abuse. The article states that the abusers know how to play the system; they are experts and skillful at working things in their favour. They are intelligent and intentional about choosing certain behaviours that can’t be proven and retain deniability. They lie and rewrite history to avoid responsibility. To the outside world, they project an image of the perfect, loving and kind partner’ making it incredibly challenging for anyone to believe the victim's abuse claims.
Lastly, and the most crucial piece to emphasize, is the importance of believing the victim. When someone opens up about being abused, it is not our place to question or doubt them. The most powerful thing you can do for someone is to listen and provide a judgment-free space to express their concerns. Compassion and kindness are essential, and we must never minimize their experience. Emotional abuse can happen to anyone; it is never the victim's fault. Together, let's expose the hidden pain and provide the support needed for victims to heal and break free from the cycle of abuse.
At psychotherapy, we have many skilled therapists with experience and modalities to help support victims of Domestic Abuse. Call or visit our website at https://www.psychotherapyforyou.ca/ 289-205-3505
If you or anyone you know is experiencing emotional abuse, text 741741 for access to a crisis counsellor 24/7.