Many people are quick to associate an abusive relationship with physical abuse. Domestic violence is a serious problem that affects roughly 10 million women and men each year in the United States – this breaks down to an average of 20 people per minute who are being physically abused by a romantic partner. Despite the widespread existence of domestic abuse, it is often denied or overlooked. This is particularly true when the abuse is emotional, rather than physical.
Emotional abuse is often more subtle than physical abuse. Without noticeable scars and bruises, it can be difficult for the individual to recognise and acknowledge that they are being mistreated. That is because the abuse is happening psychologically. Psychological abuse takes place when a romantic partner tries to underhandedly control their significant other. This is often through manipulation that leads to a distortion of the significant other’s reality, blurring their ability to distinguish what is acceptable and what is not.
Psychological abuse often targets the individual’s self-esteem. The abused partner starts to second-guess himself or herself, losing confidence and often times slowly starting to believe that the negative comments are true. If the abused partner tries to stand up for himself or herself, the abuser is quick to either get upset or make grand apologies begging to be forgiven. This may give the abused partner hope and fill them with the belief that their partner did not mean it and plans to change. Unfortunately, by forgiving the abuser and letting them back into their life, the abused partner further allows the abuser to maintain control over them.
So, how do you identify emotional abuse? Here are signs to look out for:
- Tries to humiliate or embarrass you
- Tries to put you down
- Highly critical of you (behaviour, things you say, what you wear)
- Unwilling to communicate
- Ignores and excludes you
- Cheats on you
- Highly flirtatious with others
- Extremely jealous
- Uses unpleasant sarcasm & hurtful jokes
- Severe moodiness
- Tries to dominate and control you
- Tries to make you feel guilty/blames you
- Isolates you from friends and family
- Obsessive calling and texting when you are not together
- Threatens suicide if you leave them
To understand emotional abuse on a more personal level, WeListen UK interviewed a woman previously involved in an emotionally abusive relationship who has agreed to share her story. For privacy purposes, her name has been changed.
Interview with Karen
WeListen UK: What initially drew you to be attracted to your ex-boyfriend?
Karen: Yeah, I’ve actually thought about this before too. I think, in the beginning, I was mostly just curious – he was different from other guys and he was really fun and outgoing. And I was thinking ‘okay this could be fun.’ I didn’t see it [the relationship] as serious or long term. It was more, just – the thing that attracted me to him was his personality and that he didn’t care what other people thought. I liked that about him. And he was really nice to me. It was like he knew what a girl wanted to hear, do you know what I mean?
WeListen UK: You said he was really nice to you. Can you explain how was he nice to you?
Karen: He was always calling me, showed me lots of attention. And then yeah, he would go out of his way to be a part of whatever I was doing. It was really fast and I was like ‘woah, he must be really interested.’ I didn’t realise that is just how he is. I had never met somebody like that.
WeListen UK: Did he try to pay for things?
Karen: Yeah, he would, like in the beginning. He would buy me little gifts and stuff like that. And it’s funny because in the beginning I never did, I was just like ‘no I’m not going to buy him stuff.’ And then it kind of switched toward the end where I would get him stuff, but he wasn’t getting me anything. And when I think about it now it is kind of crazy how things switched.
WeListen UK: When you first started dating, what was his behaviour towards you? How did he talk to you?
Karen: Um, it’s really hard to think of – but oh yeah, so things, in the beginning, were really good, but then also I remember there were times when it was like ‘what the fuck, like what’s wrong with him?’ He was acting like a completely different person. And I was like ‘what is wrong with you? You’re acting really weird and I don’t want to hang out with you right now, just go.’ I said “I don’t know who you are right now, but I don’t like it so I just don’t think it’s going to work.’ Then he would beg me and say sorry and make up all these excuses like ‘I was really tired, blah blah blah’ to keep me back in it. You know? So there were times when it was like ‘woah, red flags’ but he would convince me to think it was okay so I would give in.
WeListen UK: When you say he was acting like a different person and acting weird enough to make you want to break up, can you explain in what way?
Karen: Yeah, so one night we went to dinner and I was excited and he was just like a completely different person. He was not talking at all and had these weird body movements. And I was asking him ‘What’s wrong? You are acting really weird and what’s going on?’ He would just say ‘nothing, nothing’ the whole night and it just felt really miserable.
I didn’t get it, so when we got back to my place I remember telling him I didn’t want him to come in and that he was acting weird and I just wanted to go to bed. Then he would beg me and say “no, no, no, no, no. I’m so sorry.” And then for like 30 minute, we would be arguing and I would think ‘no, this isn’t cool.’ But yeah it was crazy and then finally he would say something like ‘come on, just let me come up’ and I’d just break down and say ‘okay fine.’
WeListen UK: Did he always somehow tend to persuade you? Or were there times when he would leave?
Karen: Yeah, he mostly – pretty much every time I would still let him in. I guess I was just like well whatever, he is here and he is trying.
WeListen UK: It seems strange that he would act so weird and mopey and not saying anything. It makes you wonder was it a mood thing or an attention thing?
Karen: Yeah! Like exactly, I don’t know which one it is. But he actually would admit that he had five different personalities.I would call him out on it [having different personalities] and he would say, ‘yeah I do.’ I don’t know if that was just the story he liked to tell himself. I also think it was just another way to be different and have – I think his thing was that he was terminally unique. And I looked it up before, where you just have to always be different from everyone no matter what so that you can get attention. And that’s really what I felt like because he is an extreme narcissist where everything is about him and if there were any times where there was more attention on me, it was really uncomfortable for him.
I remember at the end, when I didn’t really care anymore we were out with a couple of friends having a game night. And I was winning and everyone was telling me things like ‘wow, good job, you are so smart!’ And he was furious inside, I could just tell. And then we started playing another game and it was getting really competitive and he was just like ‘I just don’t want you to win.’ I was thinking is he for real? And I thought it was a joke, but he was really serious. He didn’t like it, he didn’t like that I was beating him. And then the following day he was acting like such a jerk to me, and that’s when I full on stood him up and I think he then realised he didn’t have control over me anymore. That’s when I was like ‘no, I’m not putting up with this shit.’
WeListen UK: Did he ever say or do anything to you early on that made you think something was a little off?
Karen: Yeah, like um I’m trying to think. Sometimes he would joke, well he would say he was joking but probably wasn’t. He would like to joke like ‘Oh we could be together for like 10 years and then I’ll have to get someone else.’ Why would you even say that? Or he would go back and forth and be like ‘Oh yeah, I could see us being together forever and having kids’ and then another day he would be like ‘no, I don’t think we’re going to get married.’ And I never understood why he was even talking about that so early on. He was trying to get these thoughts in my head.
WeListen UK: Do you think he maybe wanted you to get jealous?
Karen: Oh yeah, when we would go out and stuff, I felt like he was all over the place. When we would go to a party or something – I don’t think I am needy or clingy, but it is normal for a girl to want her boyfriend to be around her. Not all over the place talking to every single person. And that is what he would do. And if I asked why he was all over the place, he would just say “I’m out there connecting. Not just standing here being boring.” And near the end [of the relationship] he said to me ‘you know, you’re not really that fun to be around and I just feel like you are always staring me down and checking up on me.’ And all I could think was if you are thinking that I’m checking up on you, then you are doing something shady. Made me wonder where is that coming from?
WeListen UK: At what point in the relationship did you start finding yourself unhappy? Can you think of why that was?
Karen: Oh yeah. Well I guess there were multiple times. When we first started this personal development workshop that we were both taking. That was 4 or 5 months, and it was like a rollercoaster. Because in the beginning I realised he wasn’t the one for me, but because we were seeing each other still and there were a lot of highs and lows, we would break up and then get back together.You know the biggest thing was, when we were in public or with other people, I felt kind of embarrassed sometimes about him. Like how he would act. I wasn’t like proud of him. It wasn’t like ‘here’s my boyfriend, he’s so amazing.’ It was more like ‘okay, he is kind of crazy.’
WeListen UK: Oh, in that you never knew what he was going to say? That it could be offensive?
Karen: Yeah, I never knew what he was going to say. And he liked to put on a show. He wanted to make out with me in public and I would try to tell him that I didn’t like that. It was like he wanted other people to see how in love we were. And when I told him I didn’t like it then he would just try to get at me and say ‘oh, you don’t show me affection. You’re never all over me in front of other people.’
WeListen UK: Did he ever try to “make up” with you after a fight or after he said/did something hurtful?
Karen: YES! It would be the same way. He would just smother me. Smother me to death. He would say “Oh, I love you so much. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” And ugh I felt so annoyed and then I don’t know, for some reason I would just let it slide. And I would just give into it. You know?
WeListen UK: Did you think he was going to change?
Karen: Yeah, I did for a little bit and then I realised, you know? After a while he wasn’t [going to change]. Because there was a good chunk of time where I wasn’t talking to him that much. Maybe about a month? We would still talk as friends but we weren’t dating. But he always had that intention to somehow get back to me and try to control me again.
WeListen UK: What did your friends think about him?
Karen: They didn’t really like him. They would just say ‘woah, he’s kind of crazy.’ And I didn’t really bring him around my really close friends because in my mind I think I didn’t think we were serious.
WeListen UK: Do you ever recall a time where he was dominating or controlling?
Karen: Yeah, yeah. Like he would – sometimes when I supposedly didn’t act like he wanted me to act or when I didn’t defend him how he wanted to be defended for something that he did, he would get so angry with me and say things like ‘Why are you so weak? Why are you so small?’ And then I would be feeling like shit. I would be feeling like crap, you know?
WeListen UK: Did he ever try to embarrass you or humiliate you in front of others?
Karen: Nothing too over the top, but there are times when he made inappropriate jokes in front of others for pure attention.
WeListen UK: How many times did you try to break it off? What happened when you did?Why did you go back?
Karen: I tried to break it off more than 2 times which is way too many. When I did he would just try super hard to make it up to me, say everything I wanted to hear, or do whatever it took for me just to give him another chance. I think I went back because I kept holding on to the hope that he could/would change. I also felt pity for him, like I was the only one who could save him from himself.
WeListen UK: Did he ever comment on your appearance?
Karen: Yes. He was a “boob” guy and would keep making comments about me getting fake boobs. I had the idea before I met him but he brought it up a lot at one time and I had to tell him to stop. He would promise to stop but it was only a matter of time before he would bring it up again. He would sometimes make comments about what I was wearing when we would go out – making sure it matched or emphasised his outfit.
WeListen UK: Is there anything you would like to say to anyone who might be in an emotionally abusive relationship?
Karen: To always trust your initial instincts and never be with someone for any type of hope that they may change. More importantly, know your worth…you deserve everything and anything when it comes to a relationship, don’t settle.
If you or someone you know may be involved in an abusive relationship, please reach out to Living With Abuse) for help.