This is the first in a six-part series on emotionally abusive relationships.
Are you starting to wonder if you are in an emotionally abusive relationship? More and more lately, does it seem like there’s an undercurrent of anger/resentment/disapproval that never gets addressed? After every disagreement, does it somehow always end up being your fault – not ever what he said or did, but how you reacted, or overreacted, that was the real problem?
And perhaps he didn’t really say what you thought he did anyway? Perhaps you misheard him, misinterpreted, misremembered. Perhaps you – somehow all roads end up leading back to you. You may even end up apologizing for some caustic remark he directed at you, because in pointing it out to him, he countered with a five-minute monologue that took you on a detour so far from his original comment, you began to wonder if maybe you did mishear, misremember, misinterpret or misunderstand. Watch out for this kind of subtle, sophisticated game of smoke and mirrors, otherwise known as gaslighting.
Women can be guilty of this, too, and men can be victims of this kind of abuse. But our focus is on the more dangerous forms of controlling behavior that tend to be gender-based, as Evan Stark describes in his textbook “Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life.” So, while acknowledging that all genders can be perpetrators or targets of controlling behavior, for the purposes of this series, we’ll use “she” when referring to targets of this kind of abuse and “he” for perpetrators.
In some ways, it would almost be better if he were physically abusive. That blood, those bruises, these broken bones would be all the evidence you would need to prove to anyone, including yourself, that this is indeed an abusive relationship.
But what happens when the abuse is invisible – or nearly so?
When it’s a passing comment, a tone, a gesture, a fleeting smirk?
When it’s sometimes what he does, but sometimes what he doesn’t do?
Like the withdrawal of affection or attention? Or “forgetting” that important occasion? “Forgetting” to do that thing he promised to do for you? Everyone makes mistakes, everyone messes up occasionally, because we’re human. We’re not talking one-offs here. We’re talking patterns.
What happens when he is so verbally agile, he can run rings around you in an argument and leave your head spinning, so you end up apologizing for a promise he broke, or for something he said earlier that embarrassed or hurt you?
Is it your imagination?
Are you misremembering?
Are you too sensitive?
Or is he too cold? Too charming/calculating/persuasive/manipulative?
Does he lie so much better than you tell the truth?
Are all these doubts causing you to ask, “Am I in an emotionally abusive relationship?”
Part 2 in the series will focus on why it’s so important to ask this question.
Ruthven Darlene, M.A, is founder and executive director of WomenSV, a local nonprofit that in the past 10 years has served more than 1,000 survivors of coercive control and covert abuse. For more information, call (833) 966-3678 or visit womensv.org.