Psychological Abuse – Is My Relationship Abusive?

Updated: Mar 6

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.

The 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.