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Last week I consulted with a highly qualified, vivacious, articulate woman in her early 30s. She had brought her 10-year-old son, who has severe eczema. It had flared up horribly after he witnessed a verbal altercation between his mom and dad the previous day.  

This was the usual pattern, she said, and proceeded to explain the incident.  

As she spoke, I couldn’t help noticing she gradually lost her composure, and her initial confidence gave way to a nervous, shaky disposition. She has been married for 13 years to a man who is frequently unemployed, wastes the family money and has, over the years, had many affairs.  

This incident occurred when she had discovered yet another affair. I asked her what kind of support system she had, and she explained that her family and friends were tired of her now, as they had heard this story many times before.  

inquired as to why she had not left him, and she then broke down completely and said: “No one else would ever want me.” I asked whether her husband had ever physically abused her and if she considered herself an abused woman. Not surprisingly, she said no. Yet almost every psychologist who treats such patients will tell you she is a woman who is clearly suffering from emotional abuse.  

Emotional abuse is different to physical abuse in that the person does not physically beat the other person. They are, however, in my opinion, more insidious. So what is emotional abuse? The one that makes most sense to me is: any behaviour designed to subjugate and control through fear, humiliation, intimidation, guilt, coercion and manipulation.  

According to Steve Hein, emotional abuse systematically wears away the victim’s self-confidence, self-worth, and trust in their own perceptions. Whether by constant berating, belittling, intimidation or under the guise of guidance, advice or teaching, the results are the same. 

With emotional abuse the insults, insinuations, criticism and accusations eat away at the victim’s self-esteem until they are incapable of judging their situation realistically. They become so beaten down emotionally, they blame themselves for the abuse. Their self-esteem becomes so low, they cling to the abuser, which is what the abuser wants.  

There are many types of emotional abuse. Some of them are:  

  • ABUSE EXPECTATIONS: Unreasonable demands are placed on you and you are expected to put everything else aside to tend to the other’s needs, but no matter how much you give, it is never enough.  
  • AGGRESSING: Accusing, blaming, ordering and threatening. The abuser reduces the relationship to a parent-child pattern of communication and undermines the equality and autonomy characteristic of adult relationships.  
  • DENYING: Denying a person’s emotional needs with the intention of hurting, punishing or humiliating them. The abuser denies your perceptions, memory and sanity by saying “I never said that”; “I don’t know what you’re talking about” or “Why are you making up these stories?“.  
  • THE SILENT TREATMENT: When the abuser refuses to listen or communicate and withdraws emotionally as punishment.  
  • DOMINATING: The abuser tries to control your actions. They have to have their own way and will resort to threats to get it.  
  • EMOTIONAL BLACKMAIL: The abuser plays on your guilt, fear, compassion and values to get what they want.  
  • UNPREDICTABLE RESPONSES: Drastic mood changes and sudden emotional outbursts. They react differently at different times to the same behaviours from you. They tell you they like it today and then hate it tomorrow. This behaviour puts the abused person constantly on edge as they never know what to expect, making them frightened and unsettled.  
  • VERBAL ASSAULT: Berating, belittling, criticising. Children who hear or see their mothers being abused are victims of emotional abuse too. Growing up in such an environment is terrifying and can severely affect a child’s psychological development Boys may learn to model abusive behaviours while girls may learn that being abused is a normal part of relationships. Thus the cycle continues.  

But there is hope. Recognising your symptoms of emotional abuse is the first step. Then have the courage to seek help. Positive action can help to heal you.  

Rafiq Lockhat is resident psychologist at Men’s Health 

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