Recognizing Emotional Abuse
Broken bones mend. Black eyes fade.
But the unseen wounds and invisible
scars of emotional battering remain.
– Sandra D. Wilson, Hurt People Hurt People
Emotional abuse is an ongoing pattern of non-physical behavior that uses degradation, isolation, and humiliation to control, intimidate, discredit, punish, and belittle you. It can include insults, put-downs, verbal threats, or other such actions that make you feel guilty, fearful, ashamed, and bad about yourself.
Most commonly it occurs in dating or marriage relationships, but the abuser can also be a friend, a family member, or a co-worker. A person may suffer emotional abuse with no one ever knowing about it because, unlike physical abuse, they cannot see its effects the way they would be able to see cuts or bruises.
Recognizing emotional abuse
Emotional abuse can be subtle and hard to detect – especially at the start of a relationship. In the beginning, it may seem normal and loving, with the emotionally abusive behaviors starting to creep in so slowly you barely notice them. However, as the relationship progresses, the abuser will gradually increase his or her tactics to control, silence, and isolate you.
If you’re not sure whether you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, stop and think about your interactions with your partner, friend, or family member. Do they consistently wind up making you feel wounded, misunderstood, anxious, frustrated, worthless, or depressed? If so, chances are high that you are.
Don’t fall into the trap of minimizing their behavior or making excuses for it. If you excuse them once, you will have to do it repeatedly (Proverbs 19:19). Everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and respect. You were created to have emotional freedom, inner peace, and self-esteem. Nowhere in the Bible does God sanction abuse of any kind.1 Corinthians 13 tells us what love is and what it is not, and although the term “emotional abuse” is not used in this passage, the verses make it quite clear that emotional abuse is wrong:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Types of emotional abuse
Emotional abuse can manifest in many ways. There is no stereotype, but always the goal is to control and cause harm, using fear, humiliation, and degradation. The following are some examples:
- Threats, insults, and constant criticism
- Withholding affection or using the silent treatment to punish you
- Withholding financial resources
- Demanding to know where you are at all times
- Putting you down in front of others
- Trying to isolate you from your friends and family
- Yelling or name-calling
- Trivializing your concerns
- Demanding you spend all your time together
- Undermining, dismissing, and/or distorting everything you say
- Humiliating or embarrassing you
- Invalidating your thoughts and feelings
- Accusing you of blowing things out of proportion
- Accusing you of being stupid, oversensitive, or crazy
- Making jokes at your expense
- Talking down to you, being condescending
Impact and effects
Contrary to the old rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” research indicates that the wounds inflicted by emotional abuse can be every bit as severe as those caused by physical abuse, often even more so. The wounds of emotional abuse may be invisible to others, but they can lead to broken hearts, loss of self-esteem, self-doubt, feelings of worthlessness, and even self-loathing.
Dealing with traumaThe first and probably most important step is to recognize the abuse, acknowledge that it is happening, and realize that you cannot control your abuser’s actions, no matter how hard you try. The only thing you can change is your response to it.
Even when it feels like no one else understands what you are going through, God does. He knows the truth about your situation. Pray, and ask Him to give you wisdom as to what steps to take next. Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us to “Trust in the LORD with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take.”
I waited patiently for the LORD to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along. He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God. – Psalm 40:1-3a
Abuse is never justified, nor are you ever to blame. Establish boundaries and follow through on them. For instance, identify an area where you are continually being disrespected, such as being yelled at or being called names, and firmly and calmly tell your abuser that he or she may no longer do this, or you will end the conversation and leave the room. Then be consistent to follow through each time it happens.Avoid engaging with your abuser. This will only set you up for more abuse and heartache. No matter how hard you try, you won’t ever be able to make things right in their eyes. Trying to argue with him or her can escalate the problem and may even result in violence. The safest thing to do is to calmly walk away from the situation if you can.
Build a support network of trusted friends and family members you can reach out to who can provide emotional support, as well as a trained counselor who can help you think clearly and steer you toward which actions to take and which to avoid.
Have a safety plan in place. Emotional abuse can be a precursor to physical abuse and violence, and it often escalates when you decide to leave. If you feel unsafe, don’t wait around until you get hurt, or believe that abuse isn’t real unless it’s physical.
Replace the lies you have been led to believe with the truth of God’s Word. Your identity is who God says you are.
- You are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).
- You are God’s masterpiece, created for a purpose no one else can fulfill (Ephesians 2:10).
- You were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26a).
- You are God’s child (1 John 3:1a).
- Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19).
- You were bought with a high price (1 Corinthians 6:20).
- Nothing can separate you from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39)
- God keeps track of all your sorrows and tears (Psalm 56:8).
- God is for you. He wants to help you (Psalm 10:14).
Remember that healing takes time.
Christian counseling for victims
Christian counseling involves a combination of Biblical principles and clinical intervention. If you have questions or would like to set up an appointment, please reach out to one of the faith-based counselors in our online counselor directory today. We would be happy to meet with you to help you identify the presence and impact of emotional abuse you may be facing, help you manage the challenges you face, and support and encourage you along the way.
Kari Trent Stageberg (June 23, 2020). Setting Boundaries To Create Safety: Healing An Emotionally Abusive Relationship, Focus on the Family.com.
Mary Jenkins (February 1, 2007). FAQS About Emotional Abuse, Focus on the Family.com.
Sherri Gordon (September 17, 2020). What Is Emotional Abuse? verywellmind.com/identify-and-cope-with-emotional-abuse-4156673.
“Tears”, Courtesy of Luis Galvez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Feeling Down”, Courtesy of Molnar Balint, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Talk to the Hand”, Courtesy of Nadine Shaabana, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Barely Making It”, Courtesy of Anh Nguyen, Unsplash.com, CC0 License