Part I: Signs of an Abusive Relationship
I’m not ready to tell my story yet. I don’t know when or if I ever will be. But I am writing for my younger self, who was in the middle of a toxic situation and didn’t have the language to understand what was happening to her. I have not studied this academically — I am just talking about my own experience. And sometimes that’s what people need to listen to. I know I did and still do.
Emotional abuse is an attempt to control another person through behavior that causes psychological trauma or distress. Continue reading to identify the warning signs of an emotionally abusive relationship.
They body shame you. It may be in a sarcastic tone or disguised as a joke, just ways for them to tease you because they “like you.” It may also be covert; they might not directly call you fat or ugly, but find other ways to degrade your body. Tell you you’re too slow. You don’t run fast enough. You’re not strong enough. They may make fun of your athletic ability, call you names even if you’re just playing a game for fun.
Their mood is unreliable. Everyone has good days and bad days, but the kind of day anyone is having should not determine how they treat people. They’re happy to see you one minute and completely ignoring you the next. They are flirting with you one minute and glaring at you 15 minutes later. You haven’t changed your behavior or what you have said. Whether you can have a nice conversation is totally dependent on their behavior, giving them complete control of the situation. They make you feel like everything is your fault. You find yourself asking questions like, “What am I doing wrong to make this person so upset?” That is a power imbalance, which is one way they trap you: It makes you think that “they have good moments too, they are not always bad” — because if they were always horrible it would make it easier for you to leave. This back-and-forth unpredictability is a way to control you.
Gaslighting. Do you feel like every time you try to tell your abuser that what they are doing is wrong, you find yourself apologizing to them, or leaving feeling like it was all in your head? That’s called gaslighting, which is the act of manipulating someone into questioning their own sanity or reality. It’s a tactic abusers use to gain power over their victims, and it is never OK.
They isolate you. They may try to control who you see or talk to. They may abuse you only when no one is around. Or, in a group setting, you may notice they are sweet and friendly to everyone else, but terrible to you. Because you are the only one they are abusive to, it becomes personal, and you start to blame yourself, making it harder to talk to others about what’s going on.
They touch you without your consent. Whether they grope you, hit you, or pressure you into sex, if someone touches you without getting your consent (explicit, enthusiastic, and sober) it is a violation. Consent violations can also include manipulating you into not using a condom during sex, or sabotaging your birth control to potentially trap you in the relationship.
They make you feel small to make themselves feel bigger. Nothing you do is ever good enough for them. They constantly remind you how much you suck and how much better they are than you. Anyone who truly loves you will try to lift you up rather than bring you down.
They corner you with inappropriate subjects. Do they ever ask you weird sexual questions at inappropriate times, or suddenly start talking about their genitalia? Do they ever back you into a corner and pressure you to reveal personal information about yourself? You might freeze up. They have all the power in this type of conversation, and it can be incredibly difficult to ask them to stop.
You’re a different person around them. You find yourself doing and saying things you normally wouldn’t do but you have to in order to get through the interaction. You don’t like who you are around them but it can seem like you have no other choice.
Remember: You don’t have to be in a romantic or sexual relationship for someone’s bad treatment to be emotionally abusive. You can be friends, family, coworkers, in a weird phase where you’re dating but not dating, friends but not friends. If you don’t understand who you are to the other person, what you mean to them, or if they genuinely care about you, that is a sign something is wrong. You should know and understand what you mean to the people around you. People of all genders, sexualities, races, and ages can be perpetrators or victims — emotional abuse is not simply a man-woman issue.
Part II: Healing After an Abusive Relationship
After my experience with emotional abuse, I was lucky I had a clean break, without real damage. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many people. I am also very lucky I had access to the mental health treatment I needed, which is not accessible to everyone in this country.
I cannot give advice on how to get away from your abuser. Here is a great resource that can. I will just be talking about what I learned about healing once I was able to leave.
Trust your instincts. Just because everyone around you isn’t saying anything or doesn’t believe you doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Trust that. Predatory behavior is normalized by rape culture, and anyone of any gender who is a victim is often blamed for it. Someone does not have to hit you to cause you pain. In fact, research shows that emotional abuse can be just as bad, and sometimes even worse, than physical abuse. A study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that children who experienced emotional abuse suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts/ideation, anxiety, and depression at the same or even higher rates than those who had been physically or sexually abused.
You will not get closure from them. The only closure you can get is from yourself. If you try to get them to apologize or tell you why they hurt you, they will probably end up using the same manipulation tactics as before. Set healthy boundaries. Block them on everything — social media, your phone, your email — and do your best never to talk to them or see them again. Write a letter to them that you will never send. It’s a way for you to say everything you want to say without consequence.
Take care of your mental health. Therapy has helped me more than anything else in my healing journey. Having a great therapist, especially one who is well-versed in trauma, can be life-changing. However, this is something to do only when you feel truly ready for it, because being forced into therapy is not going to help you. It will probably be uncomfortable and take a lot of trial and error to find the right therapist, but I promise it’s worth it. Here is a video with advice on how to find the right therapist. Therapy can be really expensive, but you may be able to find an affordable option. There are also several kinds of mental health professionals, and many different types of therapy you can look into.
See if medication is right for you. Getting on an antidepressant gave me the boost I needed to function, and has also helped my therapy practice work better. There is no shame in taking medication for mental health. Medication may not be right for everyone, but it can also be life-changing, and many insurance plans with prescription drug coverage cover the majority of the cost of antidepressants. It also can take a long time to kick in, so be aware of that. Talk to a primary care provider or psychiatrist to see if medication is right for you, and if it is accessible.
Self-care is not selfish. Self-care is the practice of actively taking a role in protecting your own well-being, which can mean different things to different people. It can mean going to therapy, taking 30 minutes every day to meditate, removing toxic people from your life, exercising, or taking a break from social media. It is often a combination of many different actions that prioritize your well-being. Whether it’s cycling, yoga, boxing, writing, making art, or hanging out with your pet, spend time feeding your soul. It’s OK to tell your loved ones what you need right now, and even what you need them to tell you. You deserve to devote this time to healing yourself. Self-care is necessary to our survival. Nothing about it is inherently selfish. In fact, self-care ultimately helps you be present for those who you love later on.
Your feelings are valid. It’s OK to still love or miss your abuser. Those feelings often don’t disappear overnight. It’s OK to be angry. It’s OK to be sad. It’s OK to be confused. The mind control and emotional manipulation that comes with abuse takes a lot of time to undo. All of the emotions you are feeling are just part of your process.
But also remember: None of this is your fault. The victim-blaming narrative that survivors of abuse are so often confronted with, directly and indirectly, can frequently be internalized. You may beat yourself up over the fact that you got into this situation in the first place: Why didn’t I know better? Why didn’t I fight back? Was I asking for it? All of this is completely untrue. Abuse can happen to anyone at any time, and can even happen to the same person multiple times. I know it has for me. Absolutely none of what happened to you is your fault. It is all on the perpetrator. It was wrong for them to victimize you. Their behavior has everything to do with them and nothing to do with you.
If you think you are in an abusive situation, there are websites you can visit or places you can call to help you, depending on what situation you are in. You can also contact the crisis text line, and they will lead you to the right resources. If you are in immediate danger, call 911 now.
If you think you are an abuser, please get help. There is no shame in asking for help — it will only make you better and ultimately help others in the process.
As always, for any of your health care needs, Planned Parenthood is here for you.