Recently I was sitting in a Starbucks catching up on my e-mail when it became impossible not to overhear the conversation happening in such close proximity at the next table. A young couple was engaged in the seemingly benign task of deciding what kind of coffees to order. What grabbed my attention was the subtle but powerful way in which the husband continually dismissed his wife’s timid declaration about what she wanted to drink. “I’ll have a latte,” she said in a whisper. “You don’t really want a latte,” he said with calm authority, “You claim you want a latte but then you never finish it,” he added without humor. “I don’t want to order something you’re not gonna drink.” His wife dropped her head and took on a kind of collapsed body posture. It sounded like a father chastising a small child. She immediately acquiesced, “Okay, then don’t order me anything.”
For the next 20 minutes they sat there. He took his time with his large coffee drink and she patiently waited, drinking nothing. He took out his phone and focused on it as if she weren’t there. The few times she tried to initiate conversation he either ignored her or put up his hand and subtly shook his head no, a clear non-verbal sign that let her know she was interrupting him and whatever he was attending to on his phone was more important. When he was finished he said, “Okay, let’s go.” She dutifully got up and followed a few steps behind him as they left the coffee shop.
In all honesty there were several different times when I wanted to intervene. Despite the fact that he never raised his voice, I could sense how controlling he was and how submissive she needed to be. Looking at it through a therapeutic lens it was a powerful example of an emotionally abusive relationship. These are relationships that can seem unremarkable to the outside world. She had no visible signs of physical trauma, although I would argue that her constricted body language and timid voice spoke volumes. They were both very well dressed and the scenario of sitting in Starbucks seemed innocent enough. He never yelled at her and his dismissive gestures were extremely subtle. Probably to an untrained eye, the entire encounter would have been ignored.
Although emotional abuse can be subtle the impact is profound and can create intense self-doubt, fear, anxiety, anger, and depression.
I have worked with many women and several men, too, who were genuinely surprised at my suggestion that they were in an emotionally abusive relationship. The word “abusive” is most often associated with overt behaviors that cause physical harm. But dynamics of control, intimidation, treating a partner as “less than,” financially withholding, minimizing or belittling their thoughts, feelings, and needs are important signs that are often rationalized or excused by the victim. They are, in fact, indicators of emotional abuse that may or may not escalate to other manifestations of maltreatment.
Everyone has the right to feel safe, respected, validated, understood, and supported in their personal relationships. No one has the right to use power or control to manipulate, subjugate, or demean their partner.
Although emotional abuse can be subtle the impact is profound and can create intense self-doubt, fear, anxiety, anger, and depression. If you are in a relationship where it doesn’t feel safe or productive to use your voice, or you’ve been made to feel unworthy, I urge you to get the support you deserve so you can re-claim your dignity, your voice, and your basic human rights.
Research shows that women and men equally take on the role of either the abuser or the person who is victimized. Emotional abuse can occur in any kind of relationship: intimate partners; a parent and a child; two friends; siblings; a boss and his or her employee; or between colleagues. Although the emotionally abusive interplay between people can fly under the radar or be minimized or rationalized by either person, the cumulative effect takes a profound toll, particularly on one’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
Here are just a few of the classic red flags to look for when considering the possibility that the dynamics in a relationship are emotionally abusive:
- Communication is designed to humiliate, shame, or demean. The abuser enjoys “finding fault” with or “correcting” their partner, frequently pointing out their mistakes as a way to put them down both privately and in front of other people.
- The abuser frequently belittles or disregards the other person’s thoughts, feelings, opinions, suggestions, or ideas, making it unsafe for them to freely or safely express themselves. In addition, they disregard the other person’s right to privacy or boundaries.
- Teasing and sarcasm are employed to make the other person appear foolish. Yet when the victim complains they are accused of being “overly sensitive” or not having a sense of humor.
- The abuser seeks to control all aspects of the relationship through financial withholding, verbal or physical intimidation, sex, granting or denying “permission,” stalking or harassing, or by making unilateral decisions that impact the other person.
- The victim often feels “punished” by the abuser and over time is brainwashed into believing that they deserve the maltreatment they’ve received.
- The abuser is usually emotionally distant and unavailable, forcing their partner to “work for” even the smallest degree of validation, support, or comfort. The victim is also made to feel guilt for wanting any emotional connection at all.
Since all of these behaviors are “normalized” or justified by the abuser, they create tremendous confusion and self-doubt in the victim. Part of why it’s so difficult for the victim to summon the courage to leave an emotionally abusive relationship is because they continually question their right to be upset, afraid, angry, or unhappy.
In these situations, the support, guidance and encouragement of a well trained professional who understands the nuances of emotional abuse becomes a necessary resource.
Lisa Ferentz, LCSW-C, DAPA is a clinical social worker, psychotherapist, educator, and the founder of The Ferentz Institute, formerly known as The Institute for Advanced Psychotherapy Training and Education. She presents workshops and keynote addresses nationally and internationally and is a clinical consultant to practitioners and mental health agencies. She is the author of “Treating Self-Destructive Behaviors in Traumatized Clients: A Clinician’s Guide,” now in its second edition, and “Letting Go of Self-Destructive Behaviors: A Workbook of Hope and Healing.” Lisa’s newest book, “Finding Your Ruby Slippers: Transformative Life Lessons from the Therapist’s Couch,” was recently published in 2017. In 2009, she was voted the “Social Worker of Year” by the Maryland Society for Clinical Social Work.