*NB: I have used the male pronoun for ease of writing and because many abusive partners are male, though certainly not all. These points apply equally to females who are repeatedly abusive. These principles may also apply to emotional abuse in other relationships, such as friendships, sibling, colleague, and parent-child relationships.
Emotional abuse is more than just verbal insults. It consists of repeated behaviours that degrade the other person and trigger hurt, fear, anxiety, guilt or shame. These behaviours include insults, put-downs, threats, punishment, rejection, emotional manipulation, blaming, ignoring, silent treatment, or teasing. Emotional abuse doesn’t always seem severe or dramatic, but its effects over time can be profound.
Some of my clients will say things like: “But it’s true. I am fat (…”bad with money,” “over-sensitive” etc.) Criticisms and put-downs that appear to have some truth to them are the hardest ones to deal with for people living with abusive partners. One client of mine had an ex-partner who called her a ‘psycho’ regularly, and the truth was, she had done some things she now regretted.
Does that mean her ex was trying to help her face some things she could work on in herself? Does it mean she was wrong to feel incensed about the way he tried to bludgeon her with his words?
The truth is that even when they seem to be right, they are still wrong. They are definitely not trying to help you, though they may tell you differently. If they genuinely had the intention of helping and supporting you to face some difficult aspect of yourself or your life, would they go about it in this way?
Here are some reasons not to take those put-downs into your heart:
- The abuser is exaggerating your difficulties or shortcomings in order to hurt you, even if there is some truth to his words.
- The abuser is telling you (or implying) that all the difficulties in your life are your own fault, which just shows what a weak (selfish, lazy, stupid etc.) person you are underneath. And that is completely incorrect.
- He is ignoring how his mistreatment of you has contributed to these problems, or maybe created them entirely in some cases. When you live with criticism and undermining behaviours, your self-esteem suffers. Your other relationships can suffer. Your concentration and motivation may suffer. And he is definitely not helping things, but rather making things worse.
- Our struggles and flaws do not – and should not – define who we are as a human being.
- An abuser who chronically mistreats you is a terrible source of information about who you are. His vision is distorted, self-centred, and self-serving. His comments lack useful clarity, especially if the subject is you.
It is impossible for anyone to see us clearly while they are trying to control us, abuse us, or manipulate us.
So what can you do?
You cannot make him change, so stop trying. You have to garner your inner-strength, your personal power, start to trust your feelings, and listen to your inner voice and to the people who do love you and do treat you well. In time, I hope you will have the strength to move right away from the abuser in your life, and if you cannot completely do that, you can learn to let his tirades and criticism go in one ear and out the other.For domestic violence support you can call: 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732): National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service.