It’s not easy for men and women to leave emotionally abusive relationships, and it’s difficult for friends and family to understand why they often continue to stay trapped in abusive situations. Many men and women find it hard to let go, even when health and wellbeing are threatened or children are in danger. In some cases, people actually become emotionally addicted to their abuser and may remain in the relationship for many years, sometimes for life. This is not real love, but a destructive, one-sided relationship built on manipulation and control.
It’s important to note that emotional abuse is not confined to one gender. Abuse can happen to anybody, regardless of gender, culture, age, wealth, education or social background. However, women are more likely to experience emotional abuse than men. A 2012 study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that emotional abuse affects 25 percent of women age 15 and older, compared to 14 percent of men in that age group. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that women are more likely to remain in abusive relationships than men.
Why People Stay in Abusive Relationships
Once emotional abuse begins, the abuser finds it increasingly easy to gain dominance by manipulating and controlling the other person. Many victims believe the abuser will change, or the abuser may have convinced the victim that the abuse is her fault. Some may be afraid to leave, and some suffer from self-esteem so damaged that they believe they can’t function independently or aren’t worthy of being treated with kindness and respect. Some lack money or other resources, or remain in the relationship due to religion or cultural issues.
Emotional Abuse and Substance Use
Emotional abuse and trauma are often at the root of addiction, as victims may turn to alcohol, prescription drugs or illegal drugs in an attempt to cope with the pain and stress of abuse. Although drugs and alcohol may relieve the pain and misery for a short time, the long-term effects only add to the original problem and intensify the misery. Continued use of drugs and alcohol often leads to tolerance in which the substances alter certain chemicals in the brain. As a result, more and more of the substance is needed to provide the same level of relief. Far too often, the result is legal and financial problems, as well as addiction, increased risk of overdose, accidents, illness and death.
Signs of Emotional Abuse
Perpetrators of emotional abuse use many tactics to control their victims. Abusers may:
- Rationalize the abuse and dismiss the victim’s feelings by making comments such as, “I’m saying this for your own good,” “It’s all in your mind,” “You’re being too sensitive,” or, “I’m only kidding.”
- Undermine self-esteem by name-calling, humiliation, criticism, sarcasm, ridicule or other demeaning behavior.
- Control the victim by swearing, yelling, or making threats.
- Act in a neglectful manner, such as forgetting promises or staying out all night without calling.
- Intimidating the victim, which may consist simply of tone of voice or changes in facial expression.
- Exerting control by restricting where the victim can go and whom she can see, or denying access to credit cards or money.
- Demand or withhold sex, often as a form of punishment.
- Make cruel comments about appearance, weight, race or ethnic background.
- Twist words, manipulate, confuse, or play other mind games.
Stopping the Abuse
Victims of emotional abuse are at higher risk of suicide or homicide. If you are a victim of emotional abuse, it’s important to take care of yourself and stop the abuse:
- Set boundaries. Let the abuser know exactly what you aren’t willing to tolerate, and then stick to your guns.
- Walk away from conflict and don’t react to emotional abuse. Abusers seek to gain power and control, and by engaging, you give them exactly what they want.
- Spend time with positive people, especially supportive friends and family members. Talking to people who care will bolster your self-esteem and prevent you from becoming isolated, which contribute to stress, anxiety and depression.
- Remember that you aren’t responsible for the other person’s behavior and it isn’t your fault. Nobody deserves to be treated poorly.
- If nothing works, it may be best to end the relationship and break all ties with the abuser.
Counseling can help you let go of guilt and shame and regain a sense of independence and emotional strength. If you decide to leave the emotionally abusive person, talking to a counselor or therapist can help you work through difficult emotions such as loss or grief.
If you use drugs and alcohol to cope with the pain of emotional abuse, drug and alcohol treatment or rehab can help you find healthier ways of dealing with emotions such as stress, anxiety or depression. Treatment or rehab can also help you give up emotional addiction to the abusive person and empower you to move forward with confidence.