10 Questions To Ask If Your Relationship May Be Emotionally Abusive

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10 Questions To Ask If Your Relationship May Be Emotionally Abusive

Do you often feel down after interactions with your loved one? If so, run through this checklist.

What is an emotionally abusive relationship? 

Physical abuse is easy to identify. It's hitting, pushing, slapping, kicking, and worse. Even verbal abuse is fairly easy to label. Name-calling, for instance, clearly falls in the verbal abuse category. 

But what is the nature of emotional abuse? 

In an emotionally abusive relationship, one person says and does things that make the other feel bad. If you forget your loved one's birthday and he says how sad he felt, that is not emotional abuse. You might feel sad, regretful, and maybe embarrassed or guilty, but these feelings make sense in response to a genuine mistake on your part. 

Emotional abuse, by contrast, induces negative feelings when in reality, no situation nor mistake, on your part, has occurred that merits your feeling bad.

When Patricia bought an inexpensive bike off eBay, she shared her delight about her find with her husband George. She also told George that the axle was bent, but that a local garage had fixed that for her for next to nothing. George responded by getting angry and berating Patricia for not having tried the bike before buying it. 

And even more than the words he said, George conveyed disgust via his attitude. As he often did, George's attitude came through a nasty and deprecatory tone of voice conveying, again and again, his message of how she had done it wrong (whatever it might be), that she was stupid, that she had failed. Patricia's joy in her new purchase slipped into shame and sadness. 

That's emotional abuse. 

Patricia one morning watched their toddler son as he played outdoors. She smiled at his delight in splashing in the mud puddle last night's rain had left in their yard. That night, George sees his son's muddy clothes and became furious. He didn't yell. He didn't call Patricia names. He just stopped talking to her. 

Patricia felt the tension, expecting him at any moment to break out into shouting at her. George never shouted, though. He conveyed his message of rage instead via his silence. Again, his hostile silence said, she had done something wrong and stupid. 

The hostile look in his eye and his angry scowls were ways of punishing Patricia and they are also emotional abuse.

Does Patricia's experience sound familiar? Do you think you're in an emotionally abusive relationship?

This emotional checklist goes through 10 questions you need to ask yourself to see if what you are experiencing in your relationship is emotional abuse.

  1. Does your partner often convey to you, directly or indirectly, that you have done something wrong, selfish, or stupid?
  2. Does your partner frequently criticize you?
  3. Do you feel hurt after talking with your partner?
  4. Do you often feel shamed, insulted, or like your partner looks down on you as if there is something wrong with you?
  5. Does your partner "gaslight" you? That is, does he insist that you are crazy when you express disagreement or have a different view of something that happened than what he says happened?
  6. Does your partner act in ways that feel intimidating?
  7. Does your partner often tell you what you should do or what you should have done, instead of assuming that you can do things your way and that's fine, even if your way is different from your partner's way?
  8. Do you often feel sad, mad, scared, or crying in the relationship?
  9. Do you often think, "That's not fair!" after relationship interactions?
  10. Overall, do you partner's ways of treating you leave you feeling worse than good about yourself?

If you answered "yes" to any of the above questions, pay attention. If you answered "yes" to many of the questions, odds are pretty high that your relationship is emotionally abusive.

Why do some folks act emotionally abusive in a relationship? 

There can be many reasons. Often, the abuser thinks they are just trying to be helpful. Often, one or both of the abuser's parents were also abusive so that's what abusers think people do in relationships. 

Control motivates others and emotionally abusive folks aim to control rather than to cooperate with and appreciate their relationship partner. 

Narcissism, sadism, or an out-of-control temper or borderline personality tendency can also drive the abusive behavior. 

Whatever cause drives emotionally abusive behavior, it's most important to remember that emotionally abusive behavior is out of bounds in healthy relationships. 

What do you do if your checklist yielded multiple "yes" answers? 

The relationship is emotionally abusive so you better think about your partnership again. You need to get help or get out. 

If you are seeing that the relationship does seem to be emotionally abusive, better think again about that partnership. Get help or get out.

Emotional abuse is a two-person problem. It's about your interactions. Therefore, individual therapy is highly unlikely to help end an emotional abuse pattern. 

If a therapist is working individually with only one of you, the therapy will only lead to the end of a relationship. You will feel justified in leaving or you will try new behaviors that scare your partner into leaving

So when seeking therapy, be sure to look instead for a couples therapist, especially one who is experienced in treating emotional abuse. 

Going together to one couples therapist instead of to separate individual therapists can lead to learning and growth  If it doesn't, either find another therapist or consider leaving. 

In addition, work together on a relationship education program, such as an online program like Power of Two Marriage (no need to be married to use the website) or books like The Power of Two and The Power of Two Workbook, that teach the skills that enable relationships to stay strong and loving.

If you both are willing together to make changes, the odds zoom up that you will succeed in converting the old emotionally abusive relationship to one that is good for both of you. That will be true love.

Dr. Susan Heitler is a clinical psychologist and author. For more information,visit her website.