An emotionally abusive relationship changes how you define yourself. For one thing, the abuse wears you down until you’re a shell of who you once were. For another, admitting you’re emotionally abused also means acknowledging you’re a victim. And that’s a tough label to wear.
Briefly defined, emotional abuse is the systematic, psychological tearing down of another person over time until that other person loses any real sense of self. The victim also loses perspective on what characterizes acceptable treatment. Folks who emotionally abuse want control so they consistently make their partners feel inadequate, stupid, guilty or ugly.
Because emotional abuse is life-changing, you want to be pretty sure that’s what’s going on in your relationship before you slap that label on it. Here are eight pitfalls common to many relationships that don’t necessarily indicate that abuse is in the mix.
1. You fight. Most couples do. And sometimes about really mundane things like who dented the car fender or who forgot to pay the cable bill. As long as you’re both fighting fairly — staying on point and trying to be respectful while you make your case — that’s not emotional abuse.
However: If your partner calls you names and degrades you during arguments, that’s a sure sign of abusiveness.
2. You disagree about plans for the future. You want another kid and she doesn’t? She wants to move to that neighborhood you can’t afford? Disagreeing about major life decisions isn’t emotional abuse, it’s partnership. You’re not always going to want the same things. Healthy relationships are win some/lose some. Make sure that’s happening in yours.
However: Be aware if things always go your partner’s way because of bullying or intimidation.
3. Your partner doesn’t support (all) your dreams. It’s always nice to have a partner who encourages your self-fulfillment. But what if he thoughtfully questions your motivations or wonders how your plans will affect the family? If your goals really may sideline your kids or put your finances in jeopardy, it could be he has a point.
However: If your partner consistently tries to dissuade you from chasing your dreams by diminishing them or you, that’s a red flag.
4. You have dry spells. Been awhile since she initiated sex? Can’t remember the last time he brought you flowers? All couples in long-term relationships go through periods of disconnection. In addition to trying to get things back on track, try to put it in perspective. No relationship is wine and roses 100 percent of the time.
However: If your dry spell seems to go on forever despite your efforts — and includes being given the silent treatment or treated with overall disdain — it’s time for a second look.
5. Your partner doesn’t always have your back. The argument with your sister? That promotion you didn’t get? Sure, you’d love to have your partner be righteously indignant on your behalf all the time, but what if she’s not? Could be she’s trying to give you perspective in order to calm or enlighten you — even if you’re not ready to hear it. Given enough time together, our partners become our mirrors. And sometimes what they reflect back is not always what we want to see in the moment.
However: If your partner consistently sides against you or is forever pointing out where you’re falling short, this may be an indicator of emotional abuse.
6. Your partner says insensitive things sometimes. Yes, it hurts when he points out you put on a few pounds over the holidays. Or that you chew too loudly. Or that your parallel parking skills suck. Occasionally, he may make comments that won’t have Hallmark knocking at your door. But hopefully, the two of you have managed to keep these contentious quips to a minimum — and heartfelt apologies are made when they do occur.
However: If your partner habitually says unkind and critical things to you or about you, that could signal emotional abuse.
7. Your partner has lied to you. Although there are qualities about lying (especially big ones) that smack of emotional abuse, it could be that this unfortunate behavior doesn’t quite hit the emotional abuse mark. Remember, emotional abuse is systematic. It’s habitual and consistent. If it’s a one-time occurrence, it’s probably not abuse.
However: If your partner continually lies and has done so historically, it may be feeling more and more like emotional abuse.
8. You wonder if you’re in an abusive relationship. Needless to say, pondering something isn’t the same as living it.
However: If your gut tells you you’re being emotional abused, get help clarifying what this means and what your options are. Emotional abuse by a partner is always an inside job: inside the home and inside your head. That’s why you shouldn’t wait another second. Make it an outside job: talk to others, join a support group, get into therapy. Emotional abuse thrives in the dark. It’s time to drag it outside into the light.