Abusive relationships aren’t limited to physical violence. The umbrella term “domestic abuse” encompasses various forms of abuse, such as psychological and emotional abuse. Identifying emotional abuse can be challenging, but typically, a relationship is classified as emotionally abusive when there is a recurring pattern of abusive words and behaviors that chip away at one’s self-esteem and harm their mental well-being.
Leaving an abusive relationship is a crucial step, it can also be one of the most challenging experiences an individual may face. Even after successfully removing their ex from their life, the emotional and mental impact of the abuse can persist. They may continue to struggle with a range of emotions, such as depression, guilt, anger, and grief, and may even experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Why do we stay…
There are a variety of reasons why people may stay in emotionally abusive relationships from a psychological standpoint. Here are a few possibilities:
- Trauma bonding: Emotionally abusive relationships can be traumatic, and traumatic experiences can create a bond between the victim and the abuser. This bond is often referred to as “trauma bonding.” Victims may feel a sense of loyalty or attachment to their abuser, even if the abuse is ongoing and severe. This can make it difficult for them to leave the relationship, as they may feel like they are abandoning the abuser.
- Low self-esteem: Victims of emotional abuse may have low self-esteem or a negative self-image. They may believe that they don’t deserve to be treated well, or that they won’t be able to find someone else who will treat them better. This can make it difficult for them to leave the relationship, as they may feel like they are not worthy of a better partner.
- Fear of retaliation: Victims of emotional abuse may be afraid of what their abuser will do if they try to leave. The abuser may have threatened them or their loved ones or may have convinced them that they will never be able to leave without suffering severe consequences.
- Gaslighting: Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which the abuser manipulates the victim’s perception of reality. The abuser may deny that the abuse is happening, blame the victim for the abuse, or twist the victim’s words or actions to make them seem irrational or crazy. Gaslighting can make it difficult for victims to trust their own perceptions and can cause them to doubt their own sanity. This can make it difficult for them to leave the relationship, as they may feel like they can’t trust their own judgment.
- Lack of support: Victims of emotional abuse may feel isolated and alone. They may not have friends or family who they feel comfortable confiding in, or they may not have access to resources like therapy or support groups. Without support, it can be difficult for victims to leave the relationship and to begin healing from the abuse.
It’s important to note that every situation is unique, and there are many other factors that may contribute to why someone stays in an emotionally abusive relationship. However, these are some common psychological factors that may play a role. Arcidiacono et al. (2018) found that individuals with insecure attachment styles and lower levels of empathy may be more likely to perpetrate emotional abuse in their relationships and choose partners that were easily manipulated.
Bornstein (2013) provided a comprehensive review of the complex relationship between dependency and domestic violence. He discussed the psychological ramifications of dependency, self-esteem, and history of trauma, to name a few, that culminate in an environment that emotional, mental and physical are more likely to occur. Understanding those complexities between those dependencies and the abuse itself allows us to develop more effective preventions and interventions for those impacted by abuse.
What do I do next…
Leaving an emotionally abusive relationship can be a difficult and complex process, and it’s important to prioritize your safety and well-being. Here are some general steps that may be helpful in leaving an emotionally abusive relationship.
- Recognize the abuse: It’s important to acknowledge that you are in an emotionally abusive relationship and that the behavior of your partner is not acceptable. Seek support from trusted friends, family members, or a professional counselor.
- Develop a safety plan: Create a safety plan that outlines steps to take in case of an emergency, including a place to stay, a list of emergency contacts, and a plan for how to leave safely.
- Set boundaries: Establish clear boundaries with your partner, such as what behaviors are acceptable and which are not, and communicate these boundaries clearly.
- Seek legal support: Consider seeking legal support to obtain a restraining order or other legal protections.
- Build a support network: Reach out to friends, family members, or a support group to build a network of people who can provide emotional support and practical assistance.
- Take care of yourself: Prioritize self-care activities such as exercise, meditation, and spending time with loved ones. Seek out professional counseling or therapy if needed.
- Make a plan for the future: Create a plan for your future, including financial and housing arrangements, and set goals for your personal and professional life.
Remember that leaving an emotionally abusive relationship can be a difficult and gradual process. It’s important to prioritize your safety and well-being, and to seek out support and resources to help you through this transition.
Taking the next step…
Healing from an emotionally abusive relationship can vary from person to person and is influenced by a range of factors, including the severity and duration of the abuse, the individual’s personality and coping style, and the availability of support and resources.
For some individuals, healing may involve seeking professional counseling or therapy to address trauma and work through the emotional impact of the abuse. Others may find that self-care activities, such as exercise, meditation, and spending time with loved ones, are helpful in the healing process. Still others may find that engaging in creative activities, such as art or music, provides a sense of healing and empowerment.
It’s important to remember that healing from an emotionally abusive relationship is a gradual process that requires time, patience, and support. What works for one person may not work for another, and there is no one “right” way to heal. It’s important to prioritize self-care and seek out support and resources that feel right for you.
There are people out there that care, that have your best interests at heart. If you need help, reach out. I am listing some international resources that touch base in different parts of the world:
1. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (USA): Provides free and confidential support to anyone experiencing domestic violence or abuse, including emotional abuse. Phone: 1-800-799-7233. Website: https://www.thehotline.org/
2. Women’s Aid (UK): Provides support and resources for women experiencing domestic violence and abuse, including emotional abuse. Phone: 0808 2000 247. Website: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/
3. The National Network of Shelters for Women and Children (Mexico): Provides emergency shelter and support services for women and children experiencing domestic violence, including emotional abuse. Phone: +52 55 5512 5700. Website: https://www.rutamujeresresilientes.com/
4. The National Association of Women’s and Children’s Crisis Centers (Japan): Provides support services and advocacy for women and children experiencing domestic violence and abuse, including emotional abuse. Phone: +81 3 5979 7712. Website: https://www.ncwcc.jp/
5. The Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse: Provides information, resources, and support for individuals and organizations working to address domestic and family violence in Australia, including emotional abuse. Website: https://www.adfvc.unsw.edu.au/
Arcidiacono, C., Donato, S., Iafrate, R., & Velotti, P. (2018). Psychological abuse in intimate partner relationships: The role of attachment styles and empathy. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 33(11), 1801-1823. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260515592943
Bornstein, R. F. (2018). The complex relationship between dependency and domestic violence: Converging psychological factors and social forces. American Psychologist, 61(6), 595-606. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.61.6.595