Understanding Emotional Abuse in a Marriage
In romantic relationships, shame shrouds an all-too-common phenomenon that wreaks havoc on one (frequently physically or financially weaker) partner. Abuse transcends racial, religious, and socio-economic boundaries, and yet it is rarely discussed openly. In India, an estimated 30% of women reported at least one instance of spousal violence in a recent survey. But the less recognized, yet equally harmful, impact of emotional abuse is almost never addressed. It’s insidious precisely because the torment is not as definitive and identifiable as an instance of physical violence.
Emotional abuse usually escalates gradually, and is characterized by the abuser’s effort to undermine the partner by systemic emotional manipulation and control, to the point that it diminishes the victim’s self-esteem. This only reinforces the cycle of abuse, as the victim experiences a sort of “frog in the pot” problem: the abuse starts subtly, but as it escalates, it becomes increasingly difficult to break the cycle. The perpetrator is so adept at perpetuating feelings of helplessness and isolation that the abused spouse finds it impossible to leave or fight back.
Many victims of emotional abuse may feel unhappy and helpless, yet they may not even realize that these feelings are the result of an abusive relationship. This happens in part because abusers are so adept at blaming others, but it’s also because emotional abuse is not clearly defined by one specific event. Rather, it’s a pattern of behavior through which the abuser seeks to dominate, intimidate, and undermine the partner.
Emotional abuse can include:
- Verbal abuse that undermines and humiliates
- Stonewalling and lack of emotional support
- Belittling accomplishments
- Constantly blaming others for the abuser’s bad behavior
- Need to control money and finances
- Highly possessive and jealous behavior
- Expecting obedience from the victim
- Creating a feeling of isolation; blocking the partner off from access to friends and family, or preventing the partner from working
- Making threats about to scare partners into staying with them; threats can be about violence or issues relating to children or other family members
- Denial that the abuser’s actions are problematic or blameworthy
Emotional abuse happens because the abuser is seeking to control the victim. Abusers are particularly good at shifting the blame for their behavior, or making their partners feel that the abuse is somehow their fault.
Every couple fights, and every couple has fights that occasionally provoke someone to say things they later regret. So how can you tell the difference between normal, healthy conflict and emotional abuse?
Many experts point to the “walking on eggshells” test; if you are constantly modifying your behavior so as to avoid triggering a reaction from your partner, and worrying about the next time your spouse will react, this is a good sign that you are experiencing a pattern of abuse.
Other signs include feelings of powerlessness and isolation, embarrassment in front of others (when the abuser makes humiliating comments), and constant self-doubt stemming from these conflicts.
Emotional abuse creates a cycle that is particularly difficult to break, and for this reason, it’s especially important for anyone who is experiencing this type of abuse to recognize it, and seek the support of a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional.