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Why is Emotional Abuse so Difficult to Recognize?

By Jenn Rockefeller

When we think of a scar, we often think of one that physically appears on someone’s body. In that sense, a scar is something that shows that someone had a physical injury and now that injury is healing. But what about scars that we cannot see?

Scars that cannot be seen are often the bane of a domestic violence survivor’s existence. These scars result from the silent killer known as emotional abuse.

In fact, an article that appeared on the website The State Press refers to emotional abuse as a silent killer because of how subtle it is. “Psychological abuse is very subtle — it’s not a spew of insults. Often the abuse is carefully constructed so only the victim can understand the depth of their partner’s words. The abuser picks up on the victim’s sensitivities and will specifically target them with subtle manipulations and attempt to confuse them, talking in circles and instilling doubt,” the website stated.

Emotional abuse’s subtlety is one of the many reasons why it is so difficult to recognize. It doesn’t matter if you are the victim of emotional abuse or the loved one of someone who is being abused. The result is the same. You are not certain how to truly detect what that person is going through because of it being so difficult to recognize.

It’s all psychological

An abuser’s psychological mind game is a pattern of behaviors that occur over time. If abusers did this right out of the starting gate, we’d see their end game right away. Instead, they have to play this game carefully, like a chess player. Each move is a carefully constructed set of caustic manipulations meant to destroy you from the inside out.

Abusers focus on causing you the most amount of hurt possible mentally and emotionally. They carefully construct their words and actions to tear you down. They will insult, threaten, belittle, blame, isolate, manipulate and humiliate you into feeling all sorts of guilt and shame. The intention is to create a sense of complete and total unworthiness within you so that you feel lower than low.

All of their words and actions are hidden under the guise of helping or advising you. Maybe they tell you it’s because they love you. Maybe they tell you that all they want is for the relationship to work so you can live happily ever after. Just like the military has its members partake in covert operations, so too does the abuser who wants to keep their actions hidden from outsiders. That’s the intent of emotional abuse – it’s all covert and hidden so that it’s difficult to detect.

And because emotional abuse is a covert game that abusers play, all outsiders ever see is the abuser’s calm demeanor and our mask of normalcy. Outsiders never see what goes on behind closed doors – our reactions and the way we come unglued. Only when the abuser carefully plans for our reactions to be seen do outsiders see us come unglued. Then the abusers will turn and say, “See what I have to deal with?” or “They’re crazy. I’m worried about them.”

The covert nature of emotional abuse 

Emotional abuse is so difficult to recognize because it is so hidden. Abusers use a wide variety of tactics to play this game. Such tactics include, but are not limited to: gaslighting, insulting, name-calling, threatening, blaming, denying, undermining, intimidation, putdowns disguised as “just jokes,” deflection, and projection. The use of all these tactics makes survivors feel like they are going crazy and that they are to blame for the abuse when they actually are not to blame at all.

Master manipulators 

Abusers are so good at playing their psychological game because they are master manipulators. They know how to play the system and skillfully work things in their favor. An article published by Good Therapy stated that these expert manipulators are “very intentional about choosing behaviors that cannot be proven or that come close to crossing lines while retaining deniability. They may manufacture or maintain a chaotic environment, so that it is hard to pin down or describe exactly what is happening. They may also lie about what has happened or rewrite history in order to avoid responsibility for their actions.”

Part of this mastery of manipulation is in the way that abusers portray themselves to the outside world. They project themselves to be the perfect mate who is always so kind, loving, caring and friendly. That’s the main reason why outsiders find it so difficult to recognize that someone is being emotionally abused – because the abuser appears to be the most wonderful human being alive. Why, at that point, would an outsider believe you when you say you are being abused?

The need to be believed

Emotional abuse leaves no visible scars, so when we say we are being abused, it’s hard to prove. That’s why it’s so vital for outsiders to believe us. So, to the loved ones of victims and survivors, please believe your loved one when they say they are being abused. Being believed goes a long way towards a survivor finding their voice again.

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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