"I'm not being hit but..." : inside emotional abuse

"I'm not being hit or anything but..."

She locks me in rooms and won't let me leave.

He pressures me into wearing more provocative clothes than I'm comfortable with.

She limits my contact with my old friends.

He leaves his gun out.

Emotional abuse (or mental abuse) is a form of domestic violence. It can look many different ways. But it always feels wrong. Emotional abuse is sometimes called crazy-making or gas-lighting. It's a series of actions, micro-aggressions almost, that an abuser says or does to maintain power and control over someone else. Those actions can make the survivor doubt her own judgment and/or sanity and sometimes, as a result, become more dependent on the abuser. Below is a partial checklist of some of the signs of emotional abuse:

  1. Controlling behavior: Putting limits on your behavior or language which curb your autonomy or personal agency. That can look like preventing you from working outside the home, limiting use of a vehicle, choosing clothes for you or making (or canceling) plans without your input/participation. 
  2. Jealousy/ possessiveness: Jealousy is a form of control which sometimes looks flattering or can feel exciting, especially in the early days of a relationship. But a partner acting jealous or behaving in a way which makes you feel like property or less your own person is not exciting over the long term. And it's definitely not love! Jealousy is not "natural" in a healthy relationship. 
  3. Disrespect: Power and control are essential for abusers. So listen and watch them, especially early on in your relationship. Does s/he respect someone who is less "powerful" than s/he is (a barista, restaurant server)? What about parents or former partners? Treating others disrespectfully, especially if that feels like the norm with most people s/he encounters, could be a sign that s/he will be disrespectful to you.
  4. Negativity: The negative language of an abuser can almost sound paranoid. They are usually negative about most things, from people they know to the state of the world. Abusers also find everyone else at fault other than them. His boss doesn't understand how hard he works, her family has never supported her, your friends are too fat/stupid/far away, etc. It usually sounds like everyone is out to get him. 
  5. Pressure: Are you accepted by your partner just the way you are? Or, would it be better if you dressed differently? Has your partner ever pressured you to lose weight? Do you give in and have sex with her even though you aren't in the mood because she's not taking "no" for an answer? In a healthy relationship, "no" means "no" and partners don't pressure each other to change anything about themselves.
  6. Entitlement: People do bad things to someone else for two reasons. One of them is privilege. They do it because they can. Abusers feel entitled to use power to control someone else. They believe that they have the right to. Spoken entitlement can often sound misogynistic ("every woman needs to be knocked around once in a while,") and/or feel like a double standard: s/he can do one thing but the partner cannot.
  7. Isolation: Abusers know their highest form of power comes from controlling you. Friends, community, church, family, etc. get in the way of that control. Abusers don't want you to maintain relationships with anyone other than themselves. Abusers are often isolated themselves. There are usually no good friends, trusted coworkers or close family.
  8. Using sense/reason - Abusers are bullies and are motivated completely by their own needs. So "fair fights" are non-existent but abusers use "logic" against you as a way to discredit or bully you into submission. That can sound like: 
    1. "Let's stick to the facts."
    2.  "This is no reason to get so upset."
    3. "I wouldn't ____ if you would ______."
  9. Listening: Can s/he listen to you without interrupting? When you talk do you get the feeling that your partner is tuning you out? Does your partner openly mock you? Not everyone is a good listener but listening is a sign of respect (see #3 above). 
  10. Intimidation: This can be contact (unwanted touching your body) or non-contact (leaving a weapon out, a door open). Intimidation can feel like irrational fear; why would an open door be scary for example? It's scary because it could be a sign that the abuser was in the house when you weren't home. Intimidation also often includes spoken threats ("you don't want to make me mad,").

Bottom line when trying to understand emotional abuse or if your partner is emotionally abusive- is there space for your feelings in the relationship? Any and all of your feelings. Not just excitement when things are going really well but also "hard" emotions like disappointment, fear, anger. nervousness, grief or concern. If there is space for all of your emotions on a continued, consistent basis over the course of your time with your partner, chances are good that yours is not an emotionally abusive relationship.

What would you add to this list? Leave a comment below.