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  • Writer's pictureDr Heather Dyson

Behind Closed Doors: Six Signs of a Psychologically Abusive Relationship

Our connections with others should be a source of comfort and support, but unfortunately, not all relationships are healthy. Psychological abuse, also known as emotional or mental abuse, can be just as damaging as physical abuse, yet it often goes unnoticed. In this blog, we will shed light on the signs that you may be in a psychologically abusive relationship. Understanding and recognising these red flags can help all of us to become aware of the signs (and dangers) of this often overlooked form of abuse.

1. Constant Criticism and Belittlement: The Slow Erosion of Self-Esteem In a psychologically abusive relationship, constant criticism and belittlement can be one of the most devastating tactics employed by the abusive partner. This form of abuse is not a manifestation of love or care; instead, it's a means of control and manipulation that chips away at a persons self-esteem and self-worth.

Frequent Demeaning Comments: An abusive partner often launches a relentless campaign of demeaning comments aimed at undermining their victims confidence. These comments may target their appearance, intelligence, abilities, or choices. They might say things like, "You're so stupid," "You'll never amount to anything," or "No one else would ever want you." These hurtful remarks are designed to make the victim doubt themselves and their worth. Disguised as Jokes: Abusers are frequently skilled at disguising their criticism as jokes or playful banter. They may mockingly tease the victim in front of others and then dismiss their hurt feelings by saying, "Can't you take a joke?" This tactic is particularly insidious because it not only belittles the individual but also makes them feel overly sensitive for reacting negatively.

Cycle of Negativity: The cycle of negativity created by constant criticism can become all-consuming. The victim may find themselves constantly seeking approval from their abuser, desperately trying to avoid the abuser’s disapproval, and tiptoeing around their moods to prevent further criticism. This cycle is emotionally exhausting and can leave the victim feeling trapped. Impact on Self-Esteem: Even the more robust and confident individuals can, under the right circumstances, fall foul of psychological abuse. Their self-esteem, once healthy and robust, begins to crumble under the weight of incessant criticism. They may start to believe the negative messages the abuser is feeding them. As their self-esteem diminishes, it becomes even more challenging to assert themselves, recognise that they have value, or consider leaving the abusive relationship. Normalisation of Abuse: Over time, the victim may come to see this constant criticism as normal, believing that everyone experiences this level of negativity in their relationships. This normalisation of abuse may prevent individuals from recognising the abuse and seeking help.

Once we come to understand that the constant barrage of criticism and belittlement is a sign of psychological abuse, we can begin to understand that these accusations are in fact not a reflection of our inadequacy but rather a tactic used by the abuser to maintain control. 2. Isolation from Loved Ones: The Lonely Path to Control Isolation involves the deliberate manipulation of your social connections, often leading you down a path of loneliness and dependence.

Severing Support Systems: Abusers understand that friends and family can provide emotional support and a reality check when their behaviour becomes questionable. To undermine this, they may employ various strategies to isolate their victim from their loved ones. This can include belittling their friends or family, spreading rumours about them, or creating conflicts that make the victim choose between their friends and family, and their abuser. Over time, they may find themselves increasingly struggling to maintain these relationships, consequently, drifting away from the people who genuinely care about their well-being and safety.

Isolation Techniques: Abusers employ a range of techniques to isolate their victims. They may start with subtle tactics like making negative comments about the victim’s friends or guilt-tripping them for spending time with family. As the abuse escalates, these tactics can become more overt, such as threatening to leave if you continue to see certain people. Some abusers may even go so far as to physically prevent their victim from seeing loved ones or monitoring their communication to ensure it aligns with their wishes.

3. Gaslighting: A Tool of Psychological Abuse Gaslighting is a particularly deceptive and manipulative technique employed by psychologically abusive partners to destabilise your sense of reality and self-worth. The term "gaslighting" originates from the 1944 movie "Gaslight," in which a husband manipulates his wife into questioning her sanity. In real-life relationships, gaslighting is just as damaging and emotionally distressing.

Denial and Contradiction: Gaslighters often deny or contradict things they've said or done, even when evidence proves otherwise. For example, they might say, "I never said that," or "You're making things up." This makes the victim question their own memory and judgment. Trivialising Concerns: When the victim express concerns or emotions, the abuser might dismiss them as unimportant or irrational. They could say things like, "You're too sensitive," or "You're overreacting." This invalidation of the victim’s feelings chips away at their self-confidence.

Shifting Blame: Gaslighters frequently shift the blame for their actions onto the victim. They may say, "You made me do this," or "If you weren't so difficult, I wouldn't have to treat you this way." This can make the victim feel responsible for their abusive behaviour. Projection: Abusers may project their own negative qualities onto their victim. For example, if they're cheating, they might accuse you of infidelity. This serves to divert attention away from their actions and onto their partner.

Using Others as Allies: Gaslighters may enlist the support of others to corroborate their version of events, making you feel isolated and unsupported. This could involve convincing friends, family members, or even therapists that you are the problem.

4. Emotional Manipulation: Emotional manipulation is a central tactic employed by psychological abusers to maintain dominance and control over their victims. It involves methods designed to play with the victim’s emotions, making it challenging to discern reality from the manipulator's twisted version of it. Here are some common tactics used in emotional manipulation:

Guilt-Tripping: An abusive partner often masters the art of making the victim feel guilty for the simplest of actions or decisions. They may use phrases like "If you loved me, you would..." or "You're so selfish for doing that," making their partner question their intentions and choices.

Silent Treatment: Withholding communication or affection, often referred to as the "silent treatment," is a manipulative tool. The abuser may ignore the victim for days or even weeks, leaving you desperate for their attention and eager to do whatever it takes to end their silence.

Emotional Blackmail: Abusers may threaten to reveal their victim’s secrets, embarrassing or damaging information, or private photos as a means to control them. They use this leverage to coerce their victim into complying with their demands or staying in the relationship.

Shifting Blame: Manipulators often refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Instead, they deflect blame onto their victim, making them believe that they are the cause of their negative behaviour. They may say things like, "You made me do this," or "You're the one who's always causing problems."

Playing the Victim: Psychological abusers are skilled at portraying themselves as victims in the relationship. They twist events to make it seem as though the victim is the one mistreating them, evoking sympathy and support from those around them. This tactic leaves the victim feeling guilty and isolated.

Love-Bombing: Emotional manipulators frequently alternate between extreme affection and cruelty. This rapid shift between disdain and cruelty to adoration and affection, can leave their victims confused and questioning their own understanding of their partner’s behaviours. They may start to justify their partner’s behaviour as understandable, (for example “they’re just stressed out with work”) and believe that this love bombing can become the norm for the relationship.

Using Children or Loved Ones: In some, more extreme cases, emotional manipulators may threaten to harm the victims children, pets, or loved ones as a way to control them. Likewise, the abuser may also threaten to take their own life if the victim ever leaves them. This places immense pressure on the victim to comply with their demands to protect their loved ones as well as avoid the potential consequences if their abuser does end their life by suicide.

5. Unpredictable Mood Swings: Walking on Eggshells One of the most distressing aspects of a psychologically abusive relationship is dealing with the unpredictable mood swings of the abusive partner. These mood swings are like a storm brewing on the horizon, meaning the victim never quite knows when they will strike, leaving them in a constant state of anxiety and unease.

Drastic Emotional Shifts: In an abusive relationship, their partner's emotional state can shift dramatically and without warning. They may go from being loving and affectionate to hostile and angry in the blink of an eye. This rollercoaster of emotions creates a toxic and unstable environment that can be emotionally draining and mentally exhausting.

Walking on Eggshells: Living with someone who has unpredictable mood swings means the victim is constantly walking on eggshells, trying to avoid triggering the abuser’s anger or hostility. They might become hyper-vigilant, carefully monitoring their words and actions, out of fear that the slightest misstep could set their abuser off. This hyper-awareness can lead to chronic stress and anxiety.

Fear of Consequences: The fear of their partner's unpredictable reactions can be paralysing. The victim may become hesitant to express their thoughts or feelings, fearing that doing so will lead to a torrent of emotional abuse, manipulation, or even threats. This fear often leads to a gradual erosion of their self-expression and individuality.

6. Threats and Intimidation: The Tactic of Fear In psychologically abusive relationships, threats and intimidation are potent tools that manipulative partners may wield to maintain control and instil fear over their victims. These tactics create a toxic atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty, where victims often feel trapped and powerless.

Physical Threats: Abusive partners may use physical intimidation to assert dominance. This can range from menacing gestures and aggressive postures to direct threats of physical harm. The fear of physical violence keeps victims compliant and afraid to challenge their abusers. Threats to Self-Harm: Some abusers may resort to self-harm as a means of controlling their partners. They may threaten to harm themselves or engage in self-destructive behaviours if their demands aren't met. These threats place an enormous emotional burden on the victim, often making them feel responsible for preventing harm to their partner. Financial Threats: In some cases, abusers exert control through financial intimidation. They may threaten to withhold financial support, take away access to money, or damage the victim's credit. This financial dependence makes it extremely difficult for the victim to escape the relationship.

Psychological abuse, with its insidious and often hidden nature, can impact individuals across diverse backgrounds, regardless of age, gender, race, or socioeconomic status. It's crucial to approach this issue through a trauma-informed lens, recognising that anyone can become a victim of psychological abuse. Trauma knows no boundaries; it can affect the resilient spirit of even the strongest souls.

Whether you are a survivor who has faced this trauma, a friend offering support, or a professional providing assistance, approaching the issue with empathy, and understanding, is essential in helping survivors heal and regain their sense of self and security. By acknowledging the universality of this issue, we can better work towards creating a world where everyone is empowered to break free from the shackles of psychological abuse and rebuild their lives.

Recognising the signs of psychological abuse is the first step toward breaking free from an unhealthy relationship. If you find yourself experiencing any of these red flags, it's crucial to seek support from friends, family, or a therapist. Remember that you deserve love, respect, and a healthy, nurturing relationship. By acknowledging the signs and seeking help, you can take the necessary steps to reclaim your emotional well-being and move toward a brighter, abuse-free future.

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