By: Damita Glaude
Emotional abuse can manifest itself in any type of relationship from familial to romantic. There is a severe lack of statistical information, both locally in the Atlanta area and worldwide, on emotional abuse and a great deal of shame that comes with acknowledging you have been hurt, not physically, but mentally. Understanding what emotional abuse is and the psychological impact this type of abuse has, can lead to a greater awareness.
KENNESAW, Ga. — Amy Bear has been running her private emotional abuse counseling practice since 2009 and says that abuse is an epidemic. “I think there are a lot of people out there who are psychologically damaged and have a profound sense of insecurity and when someone is emotionally abused there is a possibility of them perpetuating that abuse in other relationships,” Bear said. Bear is one of the only therapists in the Atlanta area that strictly focuses on emotional abuse.
So, What Exactly is Emotional Abuse?
The term emotional abuse is often used in conjunction with other forms of abuse such as sexual and physical abuse. Such terms are often grouped together under the umbrella of domestic violence which, defined by Domestic Violence Roundtable, is when one partner in an intimate relationship abuses one the other through physical, sexual and/or emotional means. However, the physical part of domestic violence often seems to eclipse the mental aspect of it.
Emotional abuse can be defined as any non-physical act that may diminish one’s self-worth. As opposed to hurting someone physically, one may be scarring a person mentally instead. In that case it is much harder to prove that someone is being abused emotionally because they don’t have any sort of physical evidence to prove it.
Present in Many Different Relationships
Many of the resources available concerning domestic abuse focuses specifically on romantic relationships with examples that are mostly about women being abused by her partner, usually assumed to be male. Contrary to this narrative, anyone can be capable of emotionally abusing someone.
Kennesaw State University junior, Zoe Ragin, has personally experienced emotional abuse from her mother. “She would always make fun of me growing up and expect me to be ok with it,” Ragin said. “She completely refuses to help me in college even though she has the money to do so, because she thinks I will be a stronger person without her help.”
Paige Gritti also experienced both physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her younger brother. “We would have periods where we would get along and then we wouldn’t and he would try to choke me sometimes,” Gritti said. He would just call me horrible names saying I was a slut or a whore and my parents would never do anything.”
Gritti, who was abused from her last year of middle school up until she graduated high school, says it took her a while to recognize that her relationship with her younger brother went beyond petty sibling rivalry and that sibling relationships weren’t supposed to be like this.
In addition to most resources leaning towards heterosexual relationships and geared towards women, there is a severe lack of statistics centered around how common emotional abuse is in any and all types of relationships and who is getting abused most frequently. Most of the statistics that did pop up were outdated and/or from another country.
What Do I Look For?
Because emotional abuse is mostly mental, it’s hard to point out when it is happening if you don’t know what to look for. Emily Girdler experienced this in her two-year relationship with her ex-boyfriend. “I honestly didn’t know what I was going through. I just thought to myself ‘ok, get over it’ or ‘it’s not that big of a deal’ but sometimes I’d be in bed crying for a week, so I didn’t know what was happening,” Girdler said.
Some of the more common abuse tactics are things like threats or gaslighting. An example of threat would be if a couple has a child and one partner threatens to take their child away from them if they leave the relationship. Another one would be someone threatening to ruin one’s reputation if they don’t do what they want them to do.
Gaslighting is when the abuser makes a person doubt their own sanity by lying about events and twisting situations so that it is always the victim’s fault. No matter what the situation or argument is, it is always the victim’s fault that it happened. The goal is to chip away at a person’s self-esteem and maintain a certain level of power over someone. If people can identify these patterns of abuse, they might have an easier time leaving or avoiding abusive people depending on the type of relationship.
Director of KSU’s Women’s Resource Center, Shameka Wilson, says that emotional abuse is often coupled with another form of abuse. “It’s not one thing that usually happens in isolation, so there may be emotional abuse mixed with someone withholding money from that person, which would be economic abuse,” Wilson said.
KSU’s Women’s Resource Center deals with all aspects of interpersonal violence from domestic violence to stalking. It is the center’s job to help women seek out resources to get out of abusive situations and seek help.
Therapy and the Recovery Process
Bear says that if someone should seek out therapy during and after their abusive relationship, the most important step in the recovery process is to acknowledge and express your feelings and have them validated.
“If someone is putting you down, that is really hard to live with,” Bear said. “The person probably hasn’t had anyone to talk to about their feelings and that leads to a lot of shame, so making sure a person feels validated in their emotions is the first step.”
Much of the time, emotional abuse leaves a lasting impression even if you’ve cut all contact with that person. It can have a deep impact on one’s self-esteem and the way they communicate with other people.
“I’ve realized that the patterns of communication I developed in my household weren’t healthy and I was taking them to pretty much every relationship I’ve been in,” Gritti said. “It wasn’t just romantic relationships, but friendships as well.”
Even after leaving an abusive situation and recognizing the tactics of emotional abuse, the recovery process can be very slow. “Going on dates was so hard at first,” Girdler said. “When I’m on the date it’s fine, but in the two years we’ve broken up, I haven’t been dating anyone seriously because it takes me a while to move on and forget.”
It’s a Cycle
Emotional abuse isn’t something that happens in a vacuum. It is often passed down through generations and branches out into other relationships. There is no way to tell who emotionally abuses someone because abusers don’t have one defined look. Abusers can be preachers, community leaders, politicians, teachers, parents, etc. In order to break the cycle and end the invisible epidemic, more research needs to be done and different types of emotional abusive relationships and the patterns that occur. There simply is not enough research out there being done solely on the mental side, which is necessary for prevention.