Emotional abuse is more common than we think, and is widely prevalent not only amongst the lower classes of society, but in the very elite, polished families as well. We dismiss this epidemic thinking it only happens to illiterate, uneducated people, but let me start with my first brush of an emotional abuse incident in the way of my own cousin.
My cousin (let’s call her Priya) had a love marriage against her family’s wishes. She and her husband (let’s call him Sumit) started a new life in Calcutta, away from their hometown in the North East, from scratch and established their own business line. Over 15 years of their marriage they made two beautiful kids, bought a lavish apartment, got a dog, bought two cars, expanded their business to the shores of the USA, went on numerous international trips and eventually rebuilt the relationship with their parents. In every family get-together they seemed the happiest and in-sync couple ever, with a picture perfect life. So when one day Priya came to her parents’ house with two kids and announced she wants to file for divorce, we were shocked. It was then revealed to us that she was suffering emotional abuse in the marriage since past 3 years. She later said, “I thought I had to stay because I still love him, but I understood that love isn’t worth more than my self-respect.”
Unlike physical abuse, where one has the cuts and bruises to show as evidence, emotional or psychological abuse is difficult to recognise, and therefore confront.
So what is emotional abuse?
You may think what happened with this couple is a rare case, but unfortunately it’s not so. Domestic abuse comes in many forms. One may not have the physical evidence to show, but the scars it leave inside someone’s sense of existence eat them up slowly and they too difficult for outsiders to see. Emotional abuse is a subtle form of torture, but it harms the victim just as much.
Also known as psychological abuse, emotional abuse entails any act of humiliation, isolation, intimidation, confinement, verbal assault or any other derogatory treatment done by the perpetrator to control the partner. It’s same as physical abuse, but without any physical abuse like hitting, kicking, pinching, grabbing or any other forms of physical harm. The abuser in this case uses emotions and tweaks its forms as a weapon of his/her choice.
Related reading: How to cope when your partner is a control freak?
What are the signs of emotional abuse?
Unlike in the case of physical abuse, the perpetrators of emotional abuse don’t realise that they are being abusive and bringing grave harm to their partner psychologically. Instead, they feel insecure about whether their partners actually love them, so they try to gain control over them. Although the forms may vary from case to case, typical signs of emotional abuse include:
- Emotional bullying: like name-calling, using sarcasm to belittle the partner in front of others, isolating the partner from social circles, etc.
- Accuse of cheating: like bringing unjustified accusations of infidelity
- Blaming the partner for the perpetrator’s unhappiness: even if it’s the perpetrator who treats the victim like crap, they tend to shift the blame to the victim, accusing them of bad treatment and causing unhappiness
- Attempts to control and manipulate the partner’s life: like by keeping tabs on the partner’s phone, text messages, emails and social media accounts to find any evidence of cheating
- Derogatory criticism: about the partner’s mannerisms, relationship with others, lifestyle choices, etc.
- No justified ground for the abusive behaviour: you constantly find yourself wondering ‘why does my husband treat me badly?’ yet you never find any legitimate reason
- Threats of punishment: by intimidation, threats of divorce, taking the kids away, etc. if the victim doesn’t behave according to the perpetrator’s wish
- Gaslighting: as a form of manipulation to make the victim doubt their own sanity and perception
- Refusal to admit that they are being abusive: unlike the physical abuser, in a case of emotional abuse, the perpetrator most often doesn’t recognise that what they are doing is causing emotional distress to the victim. Hence, in their view, they are treating the partners just right
5 coping tips when battling emotional abuse
Living with emotional abuse takes a toll on your health and overall wellbeing. But no matter how badly you are caught up in the web, don’t be afraid to challenge the abuse. Like the bullies you have met on the playground when you were a kid, the emotional abuser in your marriage can be tackled too. Here are the 5 most effective coping techniques you can use to deal with emotional abuse.
1. Know about his concerns
“How can I when he treats me like crap?” Well, I’m not asking you to be compassionate to the abuser for the sake of morality, but for your own good, and here’s why. The controlling behaviour of a spouse in marriage is really about his own insecurities, powerlessness and helplessness. He is trying out abusive ways to transfer his own anxieties to you so that he doesn’t have to deal with them and in his mind he is doing all these manipulations to make you not abandon him. So understand his concerns and decide yourself, what are the things you are ready to do for your partner? What is a complete no-no?
Don’t agree to do things that harm your personal well-being, just to save the relationship.
2. Stand up to him
If you keep asking yourself “Why does my husband treat me like dirt?” then remind yourself that he is practically a bully, and like all bullies he doesn’t like to be challenged. But your marriage is not a teenage playground, so you need to find sophisticated ways to stand up to him. During the times of emotional outbursts, tell him firmly that you are open to hear about his concerns about your actions, but you won’t entertain his verbal attacks on who you are as a person.
Related reading: I am afraid of my abusive husband, afraid to divorce him
3. Change your reaction to the communication
If you are caught in the web of “He treats me badly yet I don’t want to leave him”, then stop participating in the conversations that make you feel bad and low about yourselves. Tell your partner that you are uncomfortable and walk away from the conversation or completely tune out whatever he is saying. The latter is going to be tough and you might have to swallow a lot of rage fuming inside you, but if you are stuck with the verbal abuse, for example in a car or afraid about what will happen if you walk away, then the best you can do is escape the abuse in your mind for your own psychological well-being.
4. Laugh it out
The best way to escape the emotional abuse is to laugh it out. When you find yourself asking “why does my husband treat me badly?”, tell yourself it’s because he is ridiculous to frame stories about you in his mind and it’s he who needs help. If that doesn’t work, think of a funny cat purring or dog laughing video you saw on YouTube and detach your mind from the accusations he has just made.
This way works because you might not be able to control how your spouse behaves and thinks, but you sure can train your mind to not get affected by his silly yet hurtful remarks.
5. Know that you have a way out
Last but not the least, the biggest reason you are suffering emotional abuse is because despite all the nasty allegations and manipulations, you wake up telling yourself “I can’t leave him no matter what” and that right there diminishes your sense of self-worth and reduces your power. To cope with emotional abuse right, you need to get your power back. It’s important to remind yourself that there is always an exit door in your marriage that you can take if need be.
Reminding yourself of this and preparing your mind-set accordingly will help you deal with the abuse from a place of power, and not fear.