New Leaf Counseling Group, LLC - A Diverse Counselor & Therapist Team in Charlotte, NC
Psychological abuse is not as easy to identify and categorize as some other forms of domestic violence (e.g. physical, sexual, financial).
By its nature psychological abuse – in the absence of physical violence – can leave you confused about whether you’re the problem, whether you should give up the entire relationship when you can see your partner has good qualities and you still love him or her, and because the entire structure of psychological abuse is set up to make you doubt yourself and to encourage emotional and psychological instability.
I often describe it as entering the world of Alice in Wonderland, where you might be sitting at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and you’re fairly sure you’re not the crazy one, but the rest of the scene is treated as completely “normal” by the person you’re with.
A few important points about Psychological Abuse:
Psychological Abuse Point #1
We will use the terms verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse differently but they are nearly interchangeable. All point to a relationship in which one person is exercising power and control over the other in ways that are not immediately identifiable as abuse in the same way that physical violence within a relationship clearly points to abuse.
Psychological Abuse Point #2
We use "intimate partner violence" rather than "domestic violence" as a term, because of the negative associations that “domestic violence” suggests a woman physically battered by her male partner who is too weak or frightened to leave. While this certainly happens and tends to be the situations with highest risk of physical harm, tactics of psychological abuse can be used by both Men and Women.
Psychological Abuse Point #3
For the sake of making the tactics of psychological abuse as clear as possible, we will keep the verbiage in this article "gender neutral." We will use the term "Abuser" in order to identify the Partner actively using tactics of psychological abuse. The term "Victim" will be used to identify the Partner who is on the receiving end of the psychological abuse. The term "Survivor" will be used to identify when a "Victim" has freed themselves from the grips of psychological abuse.
Psychological Abuse Point #4
“Intimate partner violence,” as a term, also opens up the conversation to other types of relationships: same-sex or LGBTQ+ relationships; relationships in which one partner is able bodied and the other has some form of disability; or relationships that include overlapping and complicating variables of socio-economic class, race or ethnicity, religious/cultural belief, or age (roughly 1 in 10 relationships in the elderly are reported to include intimate partner violence).
Psychological abuse is difficult because the scars and injuries left aren’t visible; they damage your psyche and your entire well-being but there’s nothing that you can specifically point to and say, “Yes, this is abuse. I’m being assaulted, look at these bruises on my body. I am being injured by my partner.” Instead, there are just a lot of questions:
“Am I crazy? Is this all in my head? Why does the Abuser do these things? How can they be so cruel sometimes and then perfect and loving other times?"
This covert abuse is often called “gaslighting” or “crazy-making.” Just below the surface, the abusive partner starts to undermine you: your self-esteem, your relationships with others, your belief that you are worthy or enough. You start doubting your own perceptions.
The Abuser may tell you that things you know didn’t happen, so many times the Victim begins to think they might indeed be the one making things up!
The Abuser may still say how much they loves the Victim, how they want the Victim to be happy, how no one could love them the way the Abuser does. An Abuser may still have days, weeks, or months where they the person a Victim fell in love with: caring, warm, safe. But then, without warning, it’s back to Wonderland for Alice, and the tone changes: “You’re useless. You’re crazy. You’re lucky to have me in your life because no one else would want you.”
Is My Relationship Abusive? Here are 5 Signs That You Are in a Relationship -with Psychological Abuse
Four main steering points for the question about psychological abuse:
1) psychological abuse is typically secretive; usually only the partner of the abuser witnesses it.
2) Second, verbal abuse becomes more intense over time as the person becomes adapted to the distorted reality her partner is creating.
3) Third, psychological abuse takes many different forms and types of manipulation, making it hard to identify specifically.
4) Finally, Abusers consistently deny that they are abusive. They may even blame shift and play the Victim (more on this later) and claim the Victim is the one abusing them.
Here are some signs that psychological abuse is present in your relationship:
Partner (Abuser) Behavior:
Calling you names, insulting you or continually criticizing you
Refusing to trust you and acting jealous or possessive
Trying to isolate you from family or friends
Monitoring where you go, who you call and who you spend time with
Demanding to know where you are every minute
Trapping you in your home or preventing you from leaving
Using weapons to threaten to hurt you
Punishing you by withholding affection
Threatening to hurt you, the children, your family or your pets
Damaging your property when they’re angry (throwing objects, punching walls, kicking doors, etc.)
Humiliating you in any way
Blaming you for the abuse
Accusing you of cheating and being often jealous of your outside relationships
Serially cheating on you and then blaming you for his or her behavior
Attempting to control your appearance: what you wear, how much/little makeup you wear, etc.
Telling you that you will never find anyone better, or that you are lucky to be with a person like them
(“The Gaslight Effect” by Robin Stern, PhD)
And what happens to you, when these behaviors are present?
You constantly second-guess yourself. You often feel confused and even crazy. You’re always apologizing to your partner. You can’t understand why you aren’t happier. You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior. You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses.
You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself. You start lying to avoid the put downs and reality twists. You have trouble making simple decisions. You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.
You feel hopeless and joyless. You feel as though you can’t do anything right. You wonder if you are a “good enough” partner. (National Domestic Violence Hotline)
The term "gaslighting" or "crazy-making" is used to specifically identify psychological abuse behavior that's intended to make you feel as if you are losing your grip on reality or going crazy.
These are behaviors that destabilize your sense of self and your self-confidence. Over time, their version of reality, no matter how fantastical or how often it changes, becomes the only reality that is acceptable.
What you say, what you believe, and what you do gets manipulated - even when you know the truth. It becomes very difficult to hold on to what you know because your partner uses these types of tactics:
Is My Relationship Abusive? #1 Sign of Psychological Abuse
Withholding: the abusive partner pretends not to understand or refuses to listen. Ex. “I don’t want to hear this again,” or “You’re trying to confuse me.”
Is My Relationship Abusive? #2 Sign of Psychological Abuse
Countering: the abusive partner questions the victim’s memory of events, even when the victim remembers them accurately. Ex. “You’re wrong, you never remember things correctly.”
Is My Relationship Abusive? #3 Sign of Psychological Abuse
Blocking/Diverting: the abusive partner changes the subject and/or questions the victim’s thoughts. Ex. “Is that another crazy idea you got from [friend/family member]?” or “You’re imagining things.”
Is My Relationship Abusive? #4 Sign of Psychological Abuse
Trivializing: the abusive partner makes the victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant. Ex. “You’re going to get angry over a little thing like that?” or “You’re too sensitive.”
Is My Relationship Abusive? #5 Sign of Psychological Abuse
Forgetting/Denial: the abusive partner pretends to have forgotten what actually occurred or denies things like promises made to the victim. Ex. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “You’re just making stuff up.”
The Cost of Psychological Abuse
Sometimes psychological abuse escalates to physical abuse, and sometimes it doesn’t. What’s more definite is to say that abusive relationships begin with emotional and verbal abuse.
Even that is more than enough to create long-term physical and psychological risks, including neurological disorders, chronic pain, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, hypertension, cancer, cardiovascular diseases. Victims are also at higher long-term risk for depression, suicidal behavior, and substance abuse.
If children are involved in the relationship, be aware that they too are deeply affected by psychological abuse no matter what their age. Children who witness abusive relationships are more likely to suffer from depression, increased anxiety, sleep disturbances, aggressive behavior, hyperactivity, poor performance in school, and be either hyper-emotional or show no emotions.
As with adults, seeing a parent in a psychologically abusive relationship is often more damaging than if a child is being physically abused in terms of long-term effects on their emotional and physical health; long-term effects include increased risk of substance abuse, major depression, anxiety disorders, or PTSD. As adults, they are more likely to get into relationships that are abusive themselves.
Are you considering LEAVING an abusive relationship? If so, please consider reading our other article to see 4 Steps to Leaving an Abusive Relationship.
If you feel you might be in a relationship that involves psychological abuse, or if you need help in any of these areas to set healthy boundaries with tactics of power and control, please contact our diverse counselor and therapist team at New Leaf Counseling Group in Charlotte, NC. You can reach us at 704-774-3078 to schedule a free initial consultation - or click here to book an appointment online.
We have a down to earth counselor and therapist team of with room for you to GROW.