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Recognizing Emotional & Verbal Abuse

Updated on August 6, 2018

Now I Know

I didn't know anything about emotional abuse until it happened to me.

Part of a larger problem called "Domestic Abuse", we recognize it more easily when it's physical. If someone we work with, for instance, shows up repeatedly with bruises or black eyes and says it was an accident, after a while we start to wonder if it could be the result of an abusive relationship.

But, did you know there is another more hidden and insidious kind of domestic abuse--one which doesn't reveal it's damage in such an obvious way? Experienced behind closed doors and with no clear, outward indication of it's presence, emotional and verbal abuse is considered to be even worse than physical abuse.

I'll tell you why.

"How Could You Have Gotten Into An Abusive Relationship!?"

This is such a common question and often said in disbelief and judgement. My experience is that anyone who does not understand abuse asks this question.

So, what follows is an explanation for you written as a sequence of steps most common in an abusive relationship. All of it happened to me. It will help you to understand some of the major traits of an emotionally abusive relationship and to begin to grasp just how tricky it can be.

I refer to the abuser as male and the victim as female knowing that it can also go the other way. However, as it was for me, in the majority of circumstances the victim is female.

I. You're "the ONE": Quick Involvement

Immediately and upon first meeting you, he is enthralled with you. You're "the one", he says. He's incredibly romantic and promises you everything you've ever wanted. Even though you've only just met, this man seems to know you so well, pursue you, give you lots of attention, shower you with gifts and is always there for you.

You? You're the one your friends always refer to as "one of the nicest people they've ever met". You're a genuinely nice, kind person. He recognizes that too. "You're the nicest nice person I've ever known.", he may say.

Finally it seems you've met someone who really, really cares and is very charming. It happened so fast! it must be love at first sight and meant to be.

2. He Wants You Close to Him

The romance continues. He immediately wants you close to him. He wants you to move in with him. He wants to get married. He continues to declare his love for you and gives you lots of attention and gifts. He showers you with words that you have wanted to hear: "You're the one for me." "I finally found you." "I've never felt this way before."

3. A Commitment is Made

You move in, or you get married. Either way, you are now entwined emotionally, financially and in every other way. There is no more need for him to pursue you, court you, "win" your heart. In his mind you are "his". He can relax.


4. And, So It Begins...

Criticism. Teasing. Taunting. Sarcasm. These begin. It doesn't happen often and you decide there must be a good and understandable explanation for his new behavior. You try and talk about it without any resolution. You come up with reasons for why this is happening and how it can be fixed. After all, he clearly loves and cherishes you, for he continues to tell you so.

5.You Love Him

He is still his charming, loving self, but interspersed with occasional lashes of criticism. You love him and value his opinion and start to wonder if maybe the things he says about you are true. Maybe you aren’t very good at some things. It's fortunate that you have a partner to balance out your weaknesses.

Now, let me stop you here, lest you think that a person should know this is not a good thing. This all happens very gradually. The initial courtship is so intense and convincing that you tend not to question the bond. In an abusive relationship there is truly a slow, calculated brainwashing that takes place over time.

6. He Takes Control of Major Decisions

He begins to take control of bill paying and major financial decisions, perhaps because you're "a bit spacey”, or "don't know how to do it properly", or "aren't very smart in that area" and he’ll keep track of the “difficult” things for you both. This, too, is a gradual process. As he slowly takes more and more control over finances, travel decisions and family visits you may not even notice what's happening. Eventually, if you have a different opinion or idea, he may become irritated or defensive.

7. He Seems to Have Developed a Temper

After a while, he seems to have developed a temper and will suddenly get very angry. You never know when he'll explode. You wonder why this is happening, but he won't talk about it and is irritated when you ask. You start to be very careful about what you talk about, how clean the house is, how on-time and good the meals are and how you take care of your looks. It seems you must be getting less attractive--after all, he has commented on it. Counseling, if he agrees to go, is not useful. He is very pleasant and charming toward the counselor and dismissive of you. He does enough to make it seem as if all is well and implies that you may be stressed out and difficult.


8. You Start to Live Like You're Walking on Eggshells

If you try to talk about your concerns or express discomfort or unhappiness, he “punishes” you for doubting his love for you. He may give you the silent treatment. He may turn it back on you, pointing out how difficult it is to deal with some of your faults. You become more and more careful and try not to "bother" him. You believe that if only you can find the right approach it will get better. And, it does get better. He woos you again, he declares his love for you. He apologizes. And, whenever he is at his worst, you are extra careful and very nice to him. When you anticipate his arrival home after work or a trip, for instance, you may find yourself feeling anxious Because you don't know how he will act.

9. He Cycles Between Being Loving and Being Mean

He feels more in control of everything, including you. In order to maintain that control, he cycles back and forth between being very good and loving to you and being critical and angry--keeping you off balance and confused. You still love him and you feel there must be some way to improve the situation and make it work better. You still love HIM. You don't like his actions. You have started to think that you are part of the problem.

10. You Begin to Feel Incompetent

You begin to feel extremely incompetent. You may even have gone so far as to believe that it's good you are with him because, as he has said, "Who else would be able to put up with you?". You've reached the point where you have gotten used to being criticized. You've reached the point where that feels normal. You consider that he is right. You have literally been brainwashed over time.


11. You Become More Isolated

You don't see your own family very often and most of the plans are made with his family. He wants you around all the time so you aren't able to develop many close friendships. He gets very upset if you are even a little bit late coming home from work or an outing and tells you it’s only because he worries about you. For the same reason, so he says, he wants to know all of your plans–every little detail. He starts to micromanage the money, examining the bills and noting to you everything you bought. Everything he buys is justified, however.

12. Could You Even Make it on Your Own?

Every now and then, you wonder if you should leave the relationship, but you've lost so much of your self confidence that you wonder how you could possibly make it on your own. In fact, how would you even support yourself? You have limited access to money. You haven't developed any outside contacts. Everyone thinks that your spouse is so charming and accomplished. How could you possibly start over at this point?


13. You Feel Hopeless

The more hopeless you feel the more critical and short-tempered he is. Now, nothing you do to please him works anymore. But, you still don’t even recognize that you are in an abusive relationship. You may try individual counseling and you may learn about abusive relationships, but can't grasp that this is something that could happen to you.

14. Back & Forth, Back & Forth

You still remember the loving romantic man that used to be your husband and you long for him to return. You still love him. If only you could get some help or if only he could understand how much he is hurting you, things might get better. And, they do get better, unfortunately it doesn’t last long before the other side of him returns. Back and forth, back and forth.

15. He Limits Your Access to Financial Assets

He senses your doubts about the relationship. First, he may open a separate bank account just for himself in his name and deposits his checks there. He takes your name off of some of the credit cards. While you are on a quick trip by yourself he cancels the last credit card you have and you are stranded until some people hear of your situation and give you money. You are off balance and humiliated. You feel incompetent and foolish.

16. You No Longer Know What "Normal" Is

You are so caught up in trying to cope that you don't even know what's happening. People you may have told about your situation wonder why you stay. You have no money or resources, very few friends and your relatives have no idea what you're going through. To the outside world, he is extremely bright and charming. It doesn't occur to you that others have very different kinds of relationships where they feel supported and valued.


17. You Feel Trapped

You feel trapped. In a very real sense, you are trapped. You give up. Unless you manage to rise out of the fog far enough to see the options and act on them, and unless you have lots of strong, committed and persistent help from others, you don't see how you can handle what needs to be done in order to escape the relationship.

Does This Sound Familiar to You?

What is your situation?

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It is VERY Difficult to Leave an Abusive Relationship

It takes tremendous courage and self-confidence to leave an abusive relationship--both of which have been squashed.

It takes money, transportation, and other resources--all of which have been taken away or restricted.

No one understands what the problem is, after all, he is such a great guy. One of his main concerns is how others view him, so he will go to any lengths to make you look like the one who is flawed and engender sympathy for himself.

Emotional and practical support is crucial and he has kept you so much to himself that you lose touch with those who could help you. Those who do know about it may think, "Why doesn't she just leave?" They think we can "just leave". But, it doesn't work that way. We need their help. We need your help--and lots of it--in order to leave.

Abuse is very rarely understood by those who are not affected by it and what little community or government support there is varies greatly from state to state.


Physical vs Emotional Abuse

Which is worse?

With physical abuse, as horrible and as absolutely wrong as it is, you and those around you have more concrete evidence and knowledge of what is happening to you. I even found myself wishing that he might some day hit me so there would be concrete evidence of my situation, both for others and for myself.

With emotional abuse, it is subtle, it escalates very slowly, your self-esteem is broken down gradually until you believe what you are being told. In the meantime, your partner or spouse is seen by others as bright, charming and confident and is usually well-respected in the community. It's as if you have been poisoned, and you have. You have been poisoned by a very skilled and motivated narcissist.

It's NOT Your Fault

if you are in an abusive relationship, know that it is NOT your fault and there is nothing you can do to change it. This is the hardest thing to grasp, but also the most important.

Characteristics of an Abusive Partner

Whether you think you may be in one or you are observing someone else's situation, this information will help you to better recognize an emotionally abusive situation.

Things He Said to Me

Here are some of the things my abuser said over and over to me. When I started to learn about verbal abuse I was surprised that the typical, commonly used phrases were almost exact in their wording. It is uncanny. Perhaps you will find things that have been said to you here.

Don't be so sensitive!

There are lots of things that are important to me and you are not.

No wonder you don't have any friends.

I'm not attracted to you anymore.

I can't say anything to you.

And, very common in someone who is abusive, he often just refuses to talk at all, giving the complete silent treatment.

I haven't included some of the things he said because they may be too offensive. Typical of an abuser, they will throw things or damage something in front of you, hurt something you care about like a pet, and declare they are not abusive because they never touched you.

"You cannot heal from something while you are still in the middle of it."

— The best advice I received from my counselor

Leave & Do Not Return

If you are reading this and you know you are in an abusive relationship, leave.

Leave and do not return, even though you will feel you want to.

Plan ahead. DO NOT tell him you are going to leave. Get lots and lots of help. Don't hesitate to ask for all the help you can get. Leave and KEEP seeking help. Things will get better and you will find yourself again and you will know you did the right thing. Staying is never good. I've been told by counselors that only 1% of abusers actually change. Leave. Even though it may be the hardest thing you'll ever do. Leave. I did it and you can too.

There is Help Available. Call For Help.


Save, Gather and Be Safe

Under NO circumstances should you tell him you are leaving.

Open your own account at a bank or credit union not used by your spouse.

Get cash back from grocery and other credit card or check purchases, if you can.

Gradually take your valuable, personal belongings to a friends house.

Copy important documents.

Tell a friend or family member what you are going through and elicit their help.

Find a supportive place to stay far, far away from where you are now.

Change your cell phone number and do not communicate with him.

Contact agencies who help women in abusive situations and take all the help they can give, including a place to stay.

Get individual counseling.

Plan on feeling disoriented and miserable for a while. That’s normal. Don’t look back.

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