If you google search ‘what is emotional abuse?’, the first few results point to explainer articles which usually aim to help people identify the signs of emotional abuse.
This is one of the articles I clicked on, from Very Well Mind. The first sentence of the explainer piece immediately talks about a host of behaviours which could be seen as constituting emotional abuse. These include criticism, humiliation, shame and blame.
The above are undoubtedly all tactics of emotional abuse, but they do not capture the full extent of what emotional abuse can include, and nor do they really explain how emotional abuse works.
As a child, I knew very little about intimate partner abuse. My greatest understanding of it was some vague image of a man hitting a woman. I heard of emotional abuse at some point in my early teens but just assumed that it involved a barrage of cruelty from one partner towards the other. When I thought a bit more about this (and tied this in with my vague conceptions of physical abuse) it felt very difficult to understand why someone would stay in an abusive relationship. After all, emotional abuse sounded horrible; constant criticism and negativity were, in my mind, just plain cruel. I couldn’t understand why such behaviour didn’t just drive victims away.
But, of course, my understanding of emotional abuse here was very narrow – and this wasn’t just an issue that I had. It seems that as a society we really struggle to accurately define emotional abuse and determine its true impact on relationships and lives. If I read further in that Very Well Mind article, I am told that emotional abuse is insidious, manipulative and hard to spot – but I’m not exactly told why this is the case – at least, not until we get quite a bit further on.
I can see a list of very negative behaviours, and while this tells me how harrowing emotional abuse is, it doesn’t explain how emotional abusers manage to sustain such relationships.
The answer is because part of emotional abuse lies in displays of kindness, affection and seeming love. In order to manipulate and control others, emotional abusers often operate along ‘carrot and stick’ lines – showering their victim with affection at points and then dashing their hopes with coldness and cruelty at others. It is these moments of affection (no matter how few and fleeting) that often allow such relationships to be sustained. The victim is often manipulated into believing they deserve their abuser’s negative behaviour and constantly seeks to please them to try and reach that point of affection or kindness.
So, the idea that emotional abuse is just a constant barrage of negativity is not only false but also damaging to our understandings of how abuse works.