Emotional abuse often goes undetected.


An emotional abuser leaves no obvious marks on your body.

The tools of the emotional abuser can include isolation, humiliation, shaming, control and psychological intimidation. An emotional abuser will simultaneously terrify you, distance you from your friends, and skillfully leave you with the feeling that these things are the simple consequences of your own inadequacies.

When you’re in a relationship with an emotional abuser it often feels like you’re with a very needy child. This is because in a sense, it is true. You’re with a ‘child’ who is in a state of terrible fear and denial about their own vulnerability.

One of the main reasons that women in particular struggle to recognise emotional abuse when it’s happening is because the child in the abuser may trigger the parenting instinct, and the psychological violence that is experienced may largely register as emotional need – much the same as the way a mother registers a babies screaming as a need for love or food, rather than a deafening noise.

Clearly this isn’t psychologically or emotionally good for you. Let’s call these tendencies your caregiving blindspot.

Recognising emotional abuse is often the hard part.

In some ways it’s very easy to say what emotional abuse looks like to the casual observer.

A third party might witness you being subjected to:

  • shaming
  • control
  • isolation
  • psychological intimidation.

One thing I hear repeatedly in my practice is that close friends watch with pain as a suffering friend goes back time and time again to be subjected to the same torture.

This can happen to the point where you and they start to question your sanity. The problem then is that the abuser has already been working to remove any self you may still have, and questioning your own sanity tends to play right into their hands.

For that reason it is essential to understand your own caregiving blindspot. These are the parental instincts I described earlier that trick you into responding with guilt to abuse, rather than with a sense of self-preservation.

Remember that you may well be unconsciously reacting to the abuser as though they are a deeply needy child. The bind here is that in some senses, they are. However, they are not actually children, and they are definitely not your children.

The other aspect to be aware of is that emotional abusers actually rely on the guilt prone parental part of your underlying personality to maintain you in a position of unquestioning servility and compliance. So it follows that knowing and changing this blind spot is often the most important part in changing your relationship to emotional abuse.

What effect does emotional abuse have on you?

It may sound strange, but the overall desired effect of emotional abuse to the abuser is to reduce the sufferer to the level of the dependent child that mirrors the fragile part of the abuser. The outcome of weakening and increasing the dependence of the victim is one all abusers work hard to achieve.

This is for a couple of reasons, the first of which is envy.

Abusers unconsciously deeply envy the imaginary strength of the ‘adults’ they depend on, and try to demolish that person’s awareness of their own strengths by any means.

Secondly, abusers want you to take up the powerless, dependent position they hold.

They work to force you to feel their own sense of inner self-loathing, and often do this with great success.

Why might you tolerate emotional abuse?

This is a thorny question, mainly because asking it makes it look like you are colluding with your own abuse.

I think that is often the confusion friends have when they witness your apparent inability to escape what is an apparently destructive relationship. The truth is that there may actually be a degree of truth in this perspective. But it is only true to a certain extent, because your reasons for colluding lay and in your unconscious mind.

That is where your caregiving blindspot lives. It’s like a person with authority over your thinking and actions that lives just out of view. It may operate a bit like the abuser, shaming and blaming you for being inadequate and risking the ill feeling of those around you by daring to consider your own needs. Little wonder you have a job seeing an abuser for what they are, when you secretly agree with what they say about you.

If you are a little emotionally insecure, you may worry a bit too much about how others perceive you, and strive at all times to ensure the happiness of others – often to the detriment of your own needs.

These behaviours are a gift to an abuser who depends on your feelings of guilt to maintain you in a subservient role.

It is the interaction between your guilt and the abuser’s manipulation of it that ensures the longevity of abusive relationships.

What can you do?

There are a number of realistic and practical things you can do in relieving the pressure of emotional abuse. You need to be mindful and careful if you choose to act on them.

Here are a couple of basic ideas to get you thinking and started down the right path:

  • Firstly, sit down and take a moment to describe the kind of life that would be healthy and positive for you. This is particularly important if you have children, because as you go on it will become increasingly apparent that the every negative compromise you make to ‘care for’ the abuser will be at both your and their expense.
  • Look at the vision of a positive life you’ve just created. Visualise yourself living it. This is where you should be. It is everything you’re capable of achieving if you free yourself from the guilt that binds you to the emotional abuser. Remember that this guilt actually has little or no relationship to the abuser themselves, and stems largely from your own self image. You are capable of improving on that.
  • Examine and understand your own caregiving blindspot. It is wrongly telling you to put the suffering of the abuser above your own needs. It may also be telling you that if you do this, one day they will transform into someone thoughtful and caring and you will be loved for it. This is highly unlikely. It is more likely that you will end up a tired and spent force with nothing left for yourself or the people who really care about you. Get to know this caregiving blindspot, accept that it is really there, and be prepared to work on it.
  • Seek professional help to break the pattern of co-dependence that exists between you and the abuser. Co -dependence happens when two people unconsciously collude over promoting the negative behaviours that are bad for them. This is known as ‘enabling’.

What are the effects/benefits of taking action?

It should be remembered that emotional abusers can be capable of great coldness and self centredness, and will not generally respond positively to pressure to change.

If you start to disengage from ‘enabling’ an abuser, you will start to grow as an individual. In time you may find that many of the depressive, anxious feelings you experienced previously start to subside.

However, the abuser will respond angrily to the change (because they deeply fear losing their hold over you).

As you embark on a conscious period of growth you may need to make sure you have a place of safety to go to if things become traumatic.

Making a positive change is ultimately worth it, as it will rid you of a deeply destructive force in your own life.

Dealing with emotional abuse in a more normal relationship.

There are degrees of emotional abuse in all relationships. The truth is we are all capable of acting that way to a greater or lesser extent. This is because an emotional abuser is, generally speaking, a selfish child in an adult’s body. Where the abuse is not systematic and extreme, it may be within this normal range. In this case, it may be possible to change the situation by simply starting to disengage from meeting all of their demands and acting more like an independent adult. Most children need boundaries, they may not admit it readily, but they experience a great sense of relief when the adult carer/parent acts to curtail their excessive demanding side. They will protest, but this actually provides a feeling that you are fundamentally reliable and not prone to childlike wildness yourself.

When you embody the adult yourself, the child relaxes and starts to listen to you. The same can be true for normal adults acting a childish and demanding way.

It is important to remember that if you are unsure of whether your own situation could be considered normal in this regard, it is best to seek professional support to help clarify and work through these and other issues you may be experiencing, both as an individual and as part of your relationship.