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Unhealthy vs Healthy Relationships: Understanding Emotional Abuse

By Olivia Pikul

Picture this. 

You’re dating someone new. They’re cute, they’re fun, and they make you laugh. You’re going out on dates, you’re getting to know each other, your future together is being painted in your mind each minute you spend with them. When you’re with them you feel safe. You are able to be yourself around them, without fear of judgment. You have open and honest communication and are able to bring up hard discussions without fear. When they do something you don’t like, you tell them. They don’t get mad but instead are understanding of your emotions and work on bettering themselves. You don’t feel pressured to do anything you’re not comfortable doing. You help each other learn, grow, and experience life. You are happy.  

Your friend is dating someone new. They’re cute, they’re fun, and they make your friend laugh. They’re going out on dates, getting to know each other, their future is being painted in your friend’s mind with each minute they spend together. As the months go by, your friend doesn’t notice a change in themselves, but you do. You care enough to speak up and mention what you’re seeing. They deny it, but a little piece of your friend knows your concerns are valid. They’re spending more time inside, canceling plans on you. They feel guilty or unsure of their actions, and start apologizing…a lot. They’re fearful to say, do, or act a certain way, for fear that their partner will be upset. They don’t question these feelings, though. They push their feelings aside, make excuses and rationalize them. After all, you don’t know their partner like they do. They’re too focused on their initial feelings of the relationship, the butterflies and all the firsts that they experienced together. They see their partner for their potential, not who they really are. The “what ifs” keep them holding on to a relationship that doesn’t exist anymore. Your friend is not happy but tries to convince themself and those around them that they are. 

When you hear the words “unhealthy relationship,” what comes to mind? Bruises? Broken bones? Public outbursts of anger and yelling? 

The scary truth is that emotional abuse is the most common form of abuse, and extremely detrimental to those affected. The signs can be hard to recognize. Once an emotional attachment occurs it’s very common for defense mechanisms to kick in, causing victims to rationalize what’s happening to them. Emotional abuse is made up of a series of behaviors or incidents that occur over time. Rather than just one offense, abusers work to manipulate and break down their victims over time, thus having an extreme long-term impact. Intentional or not, many survivors of sexual and physical abuse claim that the emotional abuse they experienced had longer lasting effects on them. 

Emotional abusers are likely to be very charming. Their actions are often thought out and intentional, so that in the event that the truth comes out they’re able to back themselves up with a slew of supporters who could never believe such allegations. 

Emotional abuse is a very calculated offense. If someone came up to you and immediately started belittling you and questioning your worth, would you find romantic interest in them? The chances are very unlikely. This is why abusers work hard to build a false sense of trust and comfort, resulting in dependence and a false sense of security before they begin breaking you down. 

According to HuffPost, it starts out small, like a dripping faucet. When you first start dating they check in on you throughout the day, asking where you are, what you’re doing, or who you’re with. It doesn’t seem like an issue at the time; they just care about you. Over time, it remains subtle but more frequent. “Are you really going to go into public wearing that?” “That joke really was not funny.” “You love to post basic pictures of yourself.” 

Jokes turn into insults that hurt, but they didn’t mean it, after all, it was just a joke. Things you’d normally do begin to anger your partner or cause them to be distant or disappointed, because of this reaction you begin to be cautious of your words and actions. After all, it is your fault that they feel this way. Your partner reacts inappropriately, threatens suicide, or claims self-hate. The blame instantly turns to you. They were in the wrong, but for some reason, you’re the one who feels guilty. 

Over time, emotional abusers become more aggressive. Behind closed doors, you’re being yelled at, degraded and belittled, then made to believe that you deserved it all along. You question how your once loving partner turned into this monster, and what you did to create them. The truth is, you didn’t create them. You can’t force someone to say, act, or do anything, in the end, it comes down to who they are and what their intentions were from the start. 

The only preventative measure you can take is educating yourself on the early signs of abuse and leaving a relationship as soon as you notice red flags. Write a list of attributes you want in a relationship and traits that would be deal-breakers for you. Hold yourself accountable to this list each time you start dating someone, expectations can always change but hold true to your worth and never settle for mediocre, potential, or “what ifs.” 

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.

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Sharing our stories can be incredibly empowering while also helping others connect with survivors who have similar experiences.