Question

I’ve come to realize that I suffered extreme verbal, mental, and emotional abuse growing up. There wasn’t much awareness of these issues until recently. There seems to be plenty of training on how to spot indicators of sexual and physical abuse as well as neglect. However, what are the indicators of verbal, mental and emotional abuse? From my own experience, I can only come up with a handful which included being very negative in my thinking and speaking. This made me unpleasant to be around and people avoided me which made the problem worse. Are there indicators that we can look for that will enable us to identify and help people suffering this sort of abuse?

Answer

I respect your humility and willingness to ask these questions so you can not only be a safer person for others, but also help those who might be experiencing emotional abuse. Even though you grew up in an abusive home, you can do so much to make sure these patterns don’t get passed on in your own life. Your willingness to be a chain breaker will bless countless lives.

Emotional abuse takes many forms. Some forms are more obvious like hurling cruel insults while other forms are more subtle, such as invalidating someone’s experience. Regardless of the outward intensity of the emotional abuse, the effect is the same. Anytime we control, intimidate, humiliate, diminish, or isolate another person, we’re being emotionally abusive.

Here are a few examples of emotional abuse from author Beverly Engel[i]:

  • Humiliation and degradation
  • Discounting and negating
  • Domination and control
  • Judging and criticizing
  • Accusing and blaming
  • Trivial and unreasonable demands or expectations
  • Emotional distancing and silent treatment
  • Isolation
  • Withholding of attention or affection
  • Disapproving, dismissive, contemptuous, or condescending comments and behavior
  • Sulking and pouting
  • Projection and/or accusations
  • Subtle threats of abandonment (either physical or emotional)

The Church website also describes emotional abuse with these examples[ii]:

  • Calling you names or referring to you in demeaning ways.
  • Embarrassing you in public.
  • Criticizing and devaluing your accomplishments and what you do.
  • Blaming you for their actions and not taking accountability.
  • Making you feel guilty so you will do something for them because they did something for you.
  • Isolating you from others and controlling how you spend your time.
  • Making threats if you do not act a certain way or do certain things.
  • Withholding affection until you do certain things for them.
  • Manipulating you spiritually by using religious beliefs to control you.

As you can see, there are a variety of ways to emotionally abuse someone. Even though there is a wide range of behaviors, there is a core attitude of entitlement and devaluing of others that resides in the hearts of those who emotionally abuse. It takes tremendous honesty and humility for someone to acknowledge their emotionally abusive behaviors.

Healthy relationships with others, especially our family members, should leave us feeling uplifted and strengthened. If you consistently feel devalued and diminished around another person, it’s important to create enough distance to evaluate how you’re being treated. It can be helpful to open up to a trusted confidant who can help you evaluate the health of the relationship. Many times, we’re so close to the relationship or feel protective without realizing that we’re being mistreated.

All relationships go through periods of stress and strain that may involve behaviors that could be considered emotionally abusive. It doesn’t mean we automatically need to exit out of the relationship, but it does mean we need to confront the abusive behavior so it doesn’t continue. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt is understandable on occasion, but when emotional abuse is present, this only becomes an enabling behavior to perpetuate more abuse.

If someone is truly a safe person, they will immediately recognize the harm they’re causing and reverse course. Those who are abusive will usually deny their behavior while criticizing their victim’s behavior. If you’re terrified to address the issue because of how the other person will respond, then chances are you’re in an abusive relationship.

It’s not uncommon for emotional abuse to accompany other forms of abuse, so it’s critical to assess for safety issues before taking action. A trusted professional counselor or domestic violence center can help create a safety plan if there is a threat of serious harm.

There is a wealth of information online about how to recognize emotional abuse and address it. The more educated you are about emotional abuse, the quicker you can recognize it and call it out. Emotional abuse has no place in any relationship.

If you’re wondering how to support someone who is in an emotionally abusive relationship, it’s important for you to believe them, allow them to talk, and help them recognize signs of unhealthy behaviors. Many times, victims of emotional abuse will make excuses for harmful behaviors because they’re worried about losing a relationship. Encourage them to get professional and community support so they can begin to see the patterns more clearly and have the personal strength to stop the harmful patterns. Not all abusive relationships must immediately end, but if a relationship is going to survive, all abusive patterns must end.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at ge***@ge**********.com   

Download Geoff’s FREE guide to help you quickly end arguments with your spouse: https://www.geoffsteurer.com/3-steps-to-end-your-marriage-argument

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About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

 

[i] The emotionally abusive relationship – Beverly Engel

[ii] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2020/10/recognizing-emotional-abuse