Relationships are one of the most important gifts God has given us. They play a huge role in our happiness, and according to a study that spanned over eighty years and included multiple generations, good relationships were identified as the most significant predictor of a person’s overall happiness, life satisfaction, and sense of well-being. Given that we are deeply relational and social creatures, this result is hardly surprising.
When relationships are healthy and fulfilling, they feed into our happiness, but when they are unhealthy, they affect our sense of well-being and wholeness. Emotional abuse is one way a relationship’s health can be negatively affected; this kind of abuse is insidious and can undermine a person’s sense of self-worth, and affect many of their relationships.
What is emotional abuse?Some forms of abuse may seem obvious, while others may be hidden or even get mistaken for healthy behavior. Physical abuse and violence can leave visible traces, but emotional abuse is often more subtle and may become so ingrained in the pattern of a relationship that it becomes invisible to the person being abused.
Emotional abuse is a term that names a pattern of behavior in which the perpetrator insults, humiliates, and generally does and says things designed to instill fear in another person to control them. An isolated occurrence when someone says something that humiliates you isn’t necessarily emotional abuse, but qualifies when it becomes part of a pattern of behavior that creates fear and control.
The words of our mouths are powerful. Proverbs 18: 21 (ESV) says that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” We can enliven another person, build them up, and encourage them in their walk with God by our words. Similarly, we can tear a person down with our words and have them believe destructive lies about themselves.
When a person is exposed to emotional abuse, they can lose touch with who the Lord intends them to be. Unhelpful words and an unhealthy relationship can carve into a person the way a river carves into and forms a canyon. Over time, emotional abuse can wear down a person’s self-worth, confidence, and mental and emotional resilience.
Some examples of emotional abuse in a relationship.
The people closest to you are supposed to be the ones who cheer you on the most. They ought to be the ones eager to speak the truth in love for your well-being. This isn’t always the case, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, people take out their frustrations on others instead of handling them more constructively. Others have never known how to handle their own or other’s emotions with intelligence, or they may be carrying unresolved trauma.
Whatever the reason may be, emotional abuse can worm its way into a relationship and undermine its health. Knowing the signs can help you identify emotional abuse and address it before it goes on too long. Rather than normalizing it and allowing that pattern of relating to one another to become established, abusive speech and actions ought to be uprooted as soon as possible.
One reason for addressing emotional abuse quickly is that it can be difficult to feel sure of yourself if a significant person in your life is constantly demeaning, dismissing, or second-guessing you. You may begin to believe them when they try to gaslight you by telling you that you are overreacting, being overly dramatic, being too emotional, or that you don’t know how to take a joke.
Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior that includes manipulation, isolation, and demeaning or threatening behavior which is often intended to allow the other person to control you. Emotional abuse can occur in any kind of relationship, such as a parent-child relationship, a romantic partnership, or a friendship. Some of the signs of emotional abuse include the following:
- Gaslighting a person, making them question their competence, memory, and perceptions.
- Issuing threats to a person’s safety, property, loved ones, or pet.
- Monitoring and controlling a person’s behavior, including who they spend time with or how they spend their money.
- Shouting a person down.
- Isolating a person from their loved ones, such as family, friends, and acquaintances.
- Making jokes at someone’s expense, demeaning, shaming, or humiliating them.
- Extreme jealousy, unfounded accusations of infidelity, and paranoia.
- Constant criticism about their actions, weight, dress, and choices.
- Undermining or thwarting a person’s professional or personal goals.
- Ridiculing or teasing a person regularly.
- Withdrawing emotional support or financial care, making them conditional on their following certain instructions or behaving in certain ways.
- Refusing to allow a person to spend time by themselves.
- Instilling self-doubt and a sense of worthlessness.
If you see one or more of these unhealthy patterns of behavior in your relationship, you must get help to begin addressing them. Changing the dynamics in your relationship may be difficult, but allowing the situation to remain as it is will be damaging to you and the other person. We were made for love – to give love and receive love – and anything that undermines that means the people in that relationship won’t flourish.
Can an emotionally abusive relationship recover?
One of the big questions when you find that you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship is whether such a relationship can recover. It’s also important to ask whether the relationship can or should be salvaged. These can be deeply complicated questions, particularly in situations such as marriage or with family members where there are deep ties that bind you.
It may seem easier to overlook what you know to be problematic behavior because it seems daunting. When you care about someone and have invested significant time and energy in your relationship with them, you often want to believe the best of them, and you may try to convince yourself that you were overreacting in how you interpreted their hurtful actions or words.
No one ever deserves to be emotionally abused. One of the many dark sides to emotional abuse is that you can begin to believe the lies and denigrate yourself or believe that such abuse is either normal or deserved. There are several things to consider when you’re weighing if an emotionally abusive relationship can recover.
Recognize that there’s a problem.
You won’t fix something if you don’t think it’s broken. Unless you first recognize that something about your relationship is off, you won’t move toward seeking remedies.
Both of you must commit to addressing it.
It takes two to make a relationship flourish. If only one of you wants to put the work in to turn things around, it may be difficult to uproot emotionally abusive behavior. The person who is getting abused needs to learn to identify the behavior and set healthy boundaries for themselves.
Speak with a trusted friend for support.
They know you best and can help you decide how best to address the topic. You may need their help to know how best to approach the subject with the emotionally abusive person. Your approach will be different with someone who is unintentionally abusive and willing to learn versus someone who is intentionally abusive and unwilling to acknowledge their sinful behavior.
Seek help from a counselor or spiritual advisor.
A counselor or pastor can help you identify emotionally abusive behavior, and they can also help you think through whether you want to remain in the relationship. Counseling can also help you begin to disrupt the lies from emotional abuse and begin to recognize God’s truth. There is hope for restoring a broken relationship, but it requires a lot of hard work.
Some relationships that are marked by emotional abuse can be restored. It can be a difficult and excruciating time filled with seemingly impossible choices, but you don’t have to walk alone. Reach out to a Christian counselor who can help you negotiate this difficult season as you seek to bring health to your relationships.
“Emojis”, Courtesy of Domingo Alvarez E, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Tears”, Courtesy of Luis Galvez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “The Window Between”, Courtesy of Zoe, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Emotions”, Courtesy of Alexas_Fotos, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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