Emotional abuse is tough.

Damaging on every level, emotional abuse, also called psychological abuse, doesn’t just take a toll on our mental state and our self-esteem, but it also impacts how we feel about ourselves and our relationships with other people. As we have seen in the media from victims who are coming forth in the wake of #MeToo, sometimes people in emotionally abusive relationships don’t actually realize that they’re in one, because the most common hallmarks we associate with abuse just aren’t there. There are no physical scars, the abuser relying on verbal and psychological attacks instead, which can be just as damaging in the long run. 

Avery Neal, a psychotherapist and founder of the Women’s Therapy Clinic has literally written the book on emotional abuse for the 21st century.  If He’s So Great, Why Do I Feel So Bad?: Recognizing and Overcoming Subtle Abuse (March 27, 2018, Citadel Press) is the new gold-standard on not only how to recognize emotionally abusive relationships, but how to recover from the damage.

Neal shared her perspective and experience with BookTrib and provided insight as to why emotional abuse is so difficult to recognize, ways in which we need to evaluate our relationships with others and the steps we can take toward fostering healthier human connections.

BookTrib: Your book talks about emotional abuse, something that can be overlooked so easily and is often unrecognized as abuse. Can you explain what emotional abuse is and the signs to look for in interpersonal relationships?

Avery Neal: This is such a simple, straightforward question, however, the answer is anything but! Psychological abuse and emotional abuse are synonymous and are characterized as behaviors that are intended to degrade or humiliate someone by attacking their value and worth, disrupting the victim’s psychological well-being. Psychological abuse can be direct or indirect, overt or covert.

In the case of emotional abuse, the more overt markers of abuse are often not being met, making it all the more confusing for the recipient of the abuse. In fact, for many people the term “abuse” never enters their mind, leaving them less likely to get the support they need to navigate their relationship effectively. 

There are many signs that are indicative of a psychologically abusive relationship. Often how you feel in the relationship is the biggest indication, yet it is the very thing that is most frequently ignored. Some questions to ask yourself are:

Is your partner empathetic? Abusers typically have very little empathy for anyone else, which becomes more evident as the relationship progresses.

Does your partner take responsibility for him/herself? Or, does your partner blame others for problems? Abusers have a pattern of not taking responsibility for themselves.

Are your partner’s words consistent with his/her actions? Abusers are very good with words, so it is easy to get distracted and manipulated. Focus on the actions.

Does your partner use humor to put you down? This is a very common pattern in abusive relationships. It is intended to diminish the recipient, no matter how cleverly it is disguised.

These are just a few questions to ask yourself. If you answered, ‘yes’ to any of them, it is a good idea to educate yourself further on the warning signs and symptoms of psychologically abusive relationships.

BookTrib: Emotional abuse is incredibly damaging, taking a toll not just psychologically, but also in terms of our physical health by causing stress, sometimes headaches and digestive issues. Why do you think it’s so hard to recognize, especially when it’s happening?

AN: Emotional abuse can be very hard to identify if the more overt markers of abuse are not being met. And, because the hurtful behaviors are interspersed with loving interactions, it makes it all the more confusing to the recipient of this type of abuse.

In addition, abusers are incredibly skillful at twisting things around, providing calm and seemingly logical responses, denying responsibility, or using humor to degrade or diminish their partner’s sense of worth. The more we question and doubt ourselves, the weaker we become, giving the abuser the power and control in the relationship.

It’s not uncommon for the victims of abuse to have symptoms ranging from depression and anxiety to chronic illness and addiction issues. An abusive dynamic may never even be identified if there is no blatant physical or verbal abuse, despite the fact that it may be the root cause of the chronic, ongoing stress and trauma leading up to the physiological symptoms.

BookTrib: One thing that people who have survived abusive relationships worry about is whether their next relationship will be the same way. Do you have any advice for avoiding or recognizing early signs you’re in an abusive relationship?

AN: It is quite common to worry about entering another abusive relationship after previously enduring mistreatment. One of the most proactive things we can do to protect ourselves is to become familiar with the early warning signs of aggression and control. Often these “warning signs” or early behaviors in a relationship may not seem worrisome at all at first, such as a person seeming intently interested in us. However, given enough time, these patterns can point to problems down the road.

Some deceptive super-early warning signs we all need to know include:

Intensity and over-involvement, overly charming/charismatic demeanor, a need for constant contact, getting too serious too quickly, being overly friendly, discouraging you to spend time with others or engaging in other interests, calling or texting incessantly, speaking disrespectfully about former partners, doing favors that you don’t want or that make you feel uncomfortable or indebted.

A little further down the line, you may notice:

Your partner making fun of you or humiliating you in private or in front of others, a lack of accountability for him/herself, blaming others, a need to be right, jealousy, playing “devil’s advocate”, and putting down/minimizing your accomplishments or goals, guilting you so that you accommodate, and isolating you from your support system.

BookTrib: Because a lot of psychological abuse relies on the abuser manipulating or “playing” their partner, it can often harm their ability to trust others. What would you say is the best technique or avenue to repairing the ability to trust?

AN: What we need to realize is that our lack of trust in others is really a lack of trust in ourselves to see harmful patterns accurately. Learning to trust ourselves again is one of the hardest parts of healing from a manipulative relationship (and all abusive relationships are manipulative). It is important to reflect upon the early stages in our past abusive relationship. Most of the time we find that our intuition told us that something didn’t feel right, but we either couldn’t put our finger on it and so we dismissed our gut feeling, or we just blatantly ignored our feelings and rationalized our decision to remain engaged in the relationship. This distinction is very important to make, because when we realize that our intuition did not let us down, but rather we chose to override it, we can begin to develop that trust in ourselves again.

BookTrib: One of the hardest and most dangerous times in an abusive relationship is when the victim is trying to leave. For those who are thinking about leaving an abusive relationship, what advice do you have for them?

AN: Leaving an abusive relationship is the most vulnerable and risky time. Regardless of the type of abuse, it is helpful to have a game plan before leaving the relationship with preparations so that you and your children are physically and financially safe. Sometimes this isn’t possible. What is most important is that you do not put yourself in a position to be alone with your abuser when you tell him/her that you are leaving. There is safety in numbers. If you have to deliver the news in person, make sure that you are in a public setting and that you are not alone when leaving the area. Don’t engage in predicable routines for quite a while, where an abuser could corner you or get you alone. Surround yourself with family and friends as much as possible until your abuser has settled down. There is no set length of time for this; it depends of the abuser and his/her mental state. Trust your instincts and remember that it is better to be overly careful and cautious during this time.

BookTrib: Abusive partners can sometimes work to isolate their partner from their loved ones. Do you have any advice for family or friends of someone who is in an emotionally abusive relationship?

AN: It is essential that friends and family members educate themselves about emotional abuse and the abusive cycle. For those who have never been in an abusive relationship, it is hard to understand why a person stays in a destructive relationship. It can be absolutely heartbreaking and maddening to stand and watch your loved one slip further and further away.

If you are too aggressive in your approach, your loved one will get defensive of his/her partner and potentially blame you for the problems. You may even risk losing contact. One of the best things that you can do is to remain a patient support system for your loved one. Your loving and supportive relationship serves as a reminder of what a healthy relationship should feel like; a direct contrast to their abusive relationship.

Encourage your loved one to engage in things that build his/her confidence or that make him/her feel good. Keep inviting your loved one to participate in social engagements. It may take longer than you would like, but at some point your loved one may choose to leave, and when that time comes, he/she will need as much strength and support as possible.

BookTrib: Finally, if there was one piece of advice you could share with everyone who is in an emotionally abusive relationship, or who has survived one, what would it be?

AN: The one piece of advice that I would give to those in a psychologically abusive relationship is that your feelings are enough. You do not have to put your finger on exactly what is going wrong in your relationship, which is nearly impossible when you’re engaged with a masterful manipulator. Nor do you have to have proof or an excuse to leave. It’s common to believe that you have to provide clear evidence to justify leaving a relationship, but because psychological abuse is so confusing and difficult to identify, often the most tangible evidence is how you feel in the relationship. Pay attention to these feelings.


Courtesy of Women’s Therapy Clinic.

Avery is the author of If He’s So Great, Why Do I Feel So Bad?: Recognizing and Overcoming Subtle Abuse, released April 2018. Her articles have been published by Oprah.com, Best Self Magazine, Hitched Magazine, and PKWY Magazine. In 2017, the International Association of HealthCare Professionals nominated her as one of the top psychologists in Houston.

For more information on Avery Neal, visit her website at www.averyneal.com. For more information on emotional abuse, please visit www.womenstherapyclinic.com, or www.womenshealth.gov.

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