Emotional abuse is a form of violence that often goes unnoticed. Yet worse, in a lot of situations, emotionally abusive behaviours are normalized. The abuser can be your intimate partner, a close friend, a parent, etc. There are many kinds of emotionally abusive behaviours and manipulative tactics, some more overt than others. Overt emotional abuse in intimate relationships can take the form of controlling, humiliating, threatening to leave the relationship, threatening suicide if the other partner leaves, to name a few. 

“An abuser can seem emotionally needy. You can get caught in a trap of catering to him, trying to fill a bottomless pit. But he’s not so much needy as entitled, so no matter how much you give him, it will never be enough. He will just keep coming up with more demands because he believes his needs are your responsibility, until you feel drained down to nothing.” 
― Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men

However, in far more instances, emotional abuse takes a subtler form. It could lead to the victim of abuse blaming their own self, feeling worthless or dependent on their abusive partner. Like most abusive behaviours, emotional abuse will generally have a pattern that can be traced over time.

Here are a few behaviours to look out for- 

1. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is, simply put, making a person doubt their own perceptions. For example, when you try to confront problematic behaviour or bring up how you felt about something, they respond by making you question your perception. They dismiss your feelings or opinions entirely, do not respond to the issue raised, and leave you feeling like you “overreacted”. When subjected to gaslighting repeatedly, a person might develop a habit of questioning/doubting their own feelings before they even bring them up in conversation. It can be a confusing state of mind, it can lower self-esteem because the victims have been made to feel like they are crazy over and over again.

“With emotional abuse, the insults, insinuations, criticism, and accusations slowly eat away at the victim’s self-esteem until he or she is incapable of judging a situation realistically. He or she may begin to believe that there is something wrong with them or even fear they are losing their mind. They have become so beaten down emotionally that they blame themselves for the abuse.” 
― Beverly EngelThe Emotionally Abusive Relationship: How to Stop Being Abused and How to Stop Abusing

2. Stonewalling

Stonewalling is when a person refuses to listen or consider their partner’s perspective. The person who stonewalls uses silence or withdrawal as a form of manipulation. They might abruptly end the conversation, leaving the other person feeling guilty. Withholding conversation on important matters is never a healthy behaviour, and you should be aware of such ultimatums. 

3. Shifting Blame

Shifting blame is a way to regain power. The abuser might make their partner feel responsible for things they didn’t do or had no control over. They might use phrases like “you MADE ME so angry that I did this”, or “You left me no choice but to react this way”. They shift blame for their actions onto their partner. 

“The scars from mental cruelty can be as deep and long-lasting as wounds from punches or slaps but are often not as
obvious. In fact, even among women who have experienced violence from a partner, half or more report that the man’s emotional abuse is what is causing them the greatest harm.” 
― Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men

4. Giving Apologies as a Favour

The best apology is changed behaviour. At the very least, a real apology is unconditional and sincere. Abusers might apologize as a favour to their partner, make them feel like this is a huge concession on their part. They might force or pressurise their partner to accept the apology.

5. Using Disappointment 

Another abusive tactic is to use disappointment to achieve desired ends. An abuser withholds approval until they get the victim to do as they please or expect. They might reinforce negative beliefs about the victim, or claim that they only have their “best interests” in mind.

“It is not the bruises on the body that hurt. It is the wounds of the heart and the scars on the mind.” 
― Aisha Mirza

There are many subtle forms of emotional abuse, but the bottom line is that abuse is never your fault. If you feel like you are being emotionally abused, you must believe your own assessment of the situation instead of dismissing those feelings. Speak to the people around you and consider talking to a professional who can help you process your feelings.

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