Marriage & Family Therapist at The West Chester Therapy Group
In addition to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, October is also Domestic Violence (DV) Awareness Month. Domestic violence is a broad umbrella term that encompasses intimate partner violence (IPV), child abuse, sibling abuse, elder abuse, and sexual abuse within a household.
It is imperative to also note that in addition to physical injury and assault, domestic violence can also be emotional and psychological, but is often minimized as not being “that bad,” because it did not cause physical harm. In fact, emotional and psychological abuse is substantially more prevalent than physical abuse, yet is not as often identified and addressed. Explained further below are twelve types of emotional and psychological abuse that do not cause physical injury.
*For the sake of this article, examples will be discussed in relation to IPV.
Sometimes, overprotection can be glamorized as being masculine, “claiming what’s yours”, and dominant. Nevertheless, there is a fine line between being protective and being overprotective. If you are enjoying a conversation or quality time with someone your partner deems as threatening to your relationship, ask yourself if their seemingly abnormal reaction is a response to an objective threat to your relationship (e.g., infidelity, secrecy, etc.), or if it may be coming from possible feelings of insecurity, inferiority, possessiveness, or jealousy. If their aggression or shaming toward your friendship or relationship with others feels intrusive, it's because it probably is intrusive. Ask yourself: do I need to be protected right now?
This one is a doozy. Gaslighting is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the attempt to make (someone) believe that he or she is going insane (as by subjecting that person to a series of experiences that have no rational explanation).” Gaslighting makes you ask yourself, “Am I going nuts? Am I crazy for thinking or feeling this way?” For example, you may attempt to discuss something that they said or did that hurt you, and they outright deny that they ever said or did such thing. They can convince you that you have misinterpreted or remembered something incorrectly, or even that you caused your own hurt, until you start to question your own truth.
The biggest issue with gaslighting is how covert it is. In its most extreme scenarios, it can convince you that your partner is abusing you because of how much they love you, or because of how terrible of a person you are. Only they can love you this much
Name-calling is a pretty obvious one, but is still worth mentioning. It can seem surface-level at times, but some name-calling can cut deep, especially when referring to someone’s identity, sexuality, masculinity/femininity, etc. It is one of the easiest ways to bring someone down. It is another one that we don’t always consider abusive, because it can be disguised as “jokes.” But when used to manipulate, control, or belittle, insulting names are not funny at all.
4. Gradual Isolation
Abusers are highly effective at making sure that they are the only ones that their partner can turn to. They gaslight and convince their partner that their friends and family do not want what’s best for them, and want to tear the relationship apart (oftentimes for good reason). The trap is that when fights and blowouts happen, the only person the victim can turn to for comfort is their abuser, who quickly shows up with “I love you”, “I’m sorry”, and “it won’t happen again, I’ll change.” The victim is vulnerable and susceptible to suggestion, thus returning to their only social support – the abuser.
Cold-shouldering is a commonly used manipulation tactic that can, at its mildest, seem passive aggressive. At its most severe, it can feel like absolute psychological torture. The abuser can be walking around the room, acting as though they do not see or hear the victim, and go about their day as though the victim is invisible. It can feel like a sheer dismissal of the victim’s existence, which leaves them feeling powerless and helpless to resolve whatever the abuser is upset about. Cold-shouldering can go on for hours or even days at a time, leaving the victim vulnerable and ashamed.
Guilt-trips are requests for you to let down your boundaries. We’ve all gotten them (and most likely dished them out, too) from friends, family, partners, and coworkers. Please just call me back. I know I said some messed up stuff, and that you don’t want to talk to me tonight, but I just really need you to listen to me. Sound familiar?
Guilt-trips make us feel guilty for setting and maintaining our boundaries. It’s basically asking for consent to cross or violate the boundaries that you set to protect yourself, because remember this: boundaries are meant to protect you, not hurt them. But the people who benefit from you not setting or maintaining your boundaries are usually the first and only ones to have problems with your boundaries.
7. Coercive Sex
This can also be a very disguised type of emotional abuse related to guilt-tripping. When a partner begs you to have sex until you “give in”, or engages in some version of psychological punishment (such as cold-shouldering) after you have already made it clear you are not interested in the moment (do not want to do the sexual act they are asking for) can be abusive. Sex can be a fun, wonderful, vulnerable way to share intimacy with your partner(s), but only when there is ongoing consent on both sides.
When coerced or guilted into participate in unwanted sexual acts in order to avoid emotional punishment, we can gaslight ourselves into thinking we are consenting or that we can just “get it over with,” but this can do so much more internalized harm than we know. At its most extreme, coercive sex can be escalated into marital rape or pregnancy coercion.
8. Damage to property
This one is as close as it gets to physical assault. Punching holes in walls, kicking in doors, breaking possessions, throwing things around the room or at you… all of the above and more. It is a blatant and inappropriate display of rage that could eventually escalate to physical harm to you.
It is exceptionally easy to stalk people nowadays. We have each other’s location, post our whereabouts on social media with a click of a button, Snapchat Maps, etc. Especially during quarantine, we’re parked on our couches because there’s nowhere else to go. There is very little privacy anymore about where we may be at any given time, thus allowing partners (current and former) to potentially know where we are and possibly whom we are with. Location sharing can be a blessing for those who use it for benevolent purposes, such as making sure a friend got home safely after a night out. On the other hand, it can undeniably be used for malicious purposes, as well, such as showing up unannounced to gaslight, manipulate, and abuse.
10. Body Shaming
This one is related to name-calling, but deserved its own description. Making you feel like you are “less than” because of the size or shape of your body is abusive. We are all worthy of love and respect, regardless of our bodies.
Here’s the thing – you are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea regardless of what your body looks like. Nonetheless, that does not entitle anyone to put you down to make you feel less worthy of love and respect in order to get you to stay in the relationship, for fear that no one else would find you attractive down the road.
11. Financial Abuse
While not talked about nearly as often as emotional and physical forms of domestic abuse, financial abuse is prevalent in almost all abusive relationships as a means of control and manipulation, and can often be one of the first signs. Financial abuse is when one partner controls the other’s ability to obtain, use, or control his or her own finances. This is often exemplified as the victim not being allowed to work, spend money without the abuser’s permission, or have limited access to their shared financial resources. This causes the victim to become financially dependent on the abuser, and thus restricts their power to leave the relationship.
12. Abusive Sleep-Deprivation
We need on average 7-8 hours of sleep per day in order to promote physical and mental well-being. Our mental health is highly reliant on sleep to help us recover from our daily stressors. Of course in the fast-paced world we live in, it is not always possible to achieve 7-8 hours, but I’m sure you can see how when you’re more tired, the more irritable or anxious you can become.
Abusers can purposefully keep you awake at night in order to make you more vulnerable and susceptible to memory blanks and irritability, thus more easily allowing you to be gaslighted and believe you are the problem. It can take the form of startling you awake as you’re about to fall asleep, refusing to let you sleep in order to hash out an argument (long after it should have been over), or waking you up over and over throughout the night, not allowing you to enter the coveted and restorative deep sleep we all desperately need.
All of the above examples of emotional and psychological abuse are just scratching the surface, but all exemplify methods of manipulation, power, and control. Victims often minimize their experience because they love their partner and do not believe he or she “means it.” Regardless, it leads the victim to feeling stuck in a relationship that lowers their quality of life, makes them feel ashamed of themselves, and feel like they are walking on eggshells. Their levels of depression and anxiety skyrocket, and yet they are convinced to believe it is their fault and that they are the problem.
If you or someone you know is struggling in an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship, know that your friends and family love you and want to help. Reach out to a local therapist if you are seeing red flags in your relationship and would like unbiased support on how to pick yourself up and leave. Perhaps you are not ready to make the steps to leave, but having someone on your side to help you clarify your emotions and needs can be the first step to recovering from emotional abuse.
About the Author: Kaitlyn Peabody, MFT is a marriage and family therapist at The West Chester Therapy Group specializing in Domestic Abuse and Emotional Abuse Survivors. If you would like to schedule an appointment with Kaitlyn, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org