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The Invisible Injuries Of Emotional Abuse – Or Are They?

As National Safeguarding Week begins, we're focussing on emotional abuse. Despite leaving no physical scars, what impact can it have? Do we realise if we are suffering from it, and how can we get help and support? Judith Sharpe, Healthwatch Norfolk deputy chief executive, explores something that can affect nearly of us at some point in our life.

Where do I start? What do I know about emotional abuse? And … I hate writing. (Give me numbers and a spreadsheet any day.)

These were my initial thoughts when I was asked to write on this topic to help raise awareness and encourage better understanding and improve our cultures.

It would have been very easy (and initially very tempting, as I was just back from a sunny week away in Menorca and 660 emails sitting in the inbox) to say that unfortunately, due to work pressures, I wouldn’t be able to help. However, something in me stirred. I do like a challenge and activities that push me to do something outside my comfort zone. So here we are reader - I’m giving it a go, do bear with me.

I began searching on Google, and very quickly I realised how familiar we all are, if we are being completely honest, with the signs of emotional abuse. I wonder how many of these you have witnessed or experienced or even been guilty of to some extent?

(And yes - that was intended to make all of us feel just a tad uncomfortable.)

Humiliation, negating, criticizing

  • Name-calling. They’ll call you “stupid,” “a loser,” or worse.
  • Derogatory “pet names.”  “My little knuckle dragger” or “My chubby pumpkin” aren’t terms of endearment.
  • Character assassination. This usually involves the word “always.” You’re always late, wrong, screwing up, disagreeable, and so on
  • Shouting, screaming, and swearing are meant to intimidate and make you feel small’
  • Patronizing. “Aw, sweetie, I know you try, but this is just beyond your understanding.”
  • Insults about your appearance.
  • Belittling your accomplishments. 

Control and shame

  • Threats. Telling you they’ll take the kids and disappear.
  • Monitoring your whereabouts. 
  • Digital spying. They might check your internet history, emails, texts, and call log. They might even demand your passwords.
  • Unilateral decision-making. They might close a joint bank account, cancel your doctor’s appointment, or speak with your boss without asking.
  • Financial control. They might keep bank accounts in their name only and make you ask for money. You might be expected to account for every penny you spend.
  • Direct orders. From “Get my dinner on the table now” to “Stop taking the pill,”

Accusing, blaming, and denial

  • Jealousy. They accuse you of flirting or cheating on them.
  • Denying something you know is true. An abuser will deny that an argument or even an agreement took place. This is called gaslighting. It’s meant to make you question your own memory and sanity.
  • Accusing you of abuse. They say you’re the one who has anger and control issues and they’re the helpless victim.
  • Trivializing. When you want to talk about your hurt feelings, they accuse you of overreacting and making mountains out of molehills.

Emotional neglect and isolation

  • Shutting down communication. They’ll ignore your attempts at conversation in person, by text, or by phone.
  • Dehumanizing you. They’ll look away when you’re talking or stare at something else when they speak to you.
  • Trying to come between you and your family. They’ll tell family members that you don’t want to see them or make excuses why you can’t attend family functions.
  • Withholding affection. They won’t touch you, not even to hold your hand or pat you on the shoulder. They may refuse sexual relations to punish you or to get you to do something.
  • Interrupting. You’re on the phone or texting and they get in your face to let you know your attention should be on them.
  • Indifference. They see you hurt or crying and do nothing.

But did you know?

A change in the law in 2015 means it is illegal for your partner to do these things to you:

  • Stop you seeing friends and family
  • Repeatedly put you down
  • Scare you
  • Restrict your access to money
  • Share sexually explicit images of you
  • Threaten to reveal private things about you
  • Tracking your phone using devices or software
  • Being extremely jealous
  • Control what you wear
  • Force you to do things you don’t want to
  • Make you obey their rules

I was struck by how insidious many of these examples of abusive behaviours can be. I checked the definition of insidious just to make sure I was using the right word (I did tell you I am happier with numbers):

…proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with very harmful effects.

Yup, I thought - that is the right word to be using.

Traditionally domestic abuse has been thought of as a violent and abusive relationship and people visualise images of bruised faces and broken bones. However, emotional abuse may be the only type of abuse happening.

So, emotional abuse is not as visible. Or is it?

If we really listen and observe friends, family and colleagues I think we will all be able to recall one or more occasion when we noticed something that made us feel uncomfortable. Many of us can see our own parent’s behaviours replicated in ourselves (and the things we say to our own children). Behaviours we witnessed in our parents’ relationship can seem acceptable (normalised) to us even if they were not. Everyone has disagreements in relationships but there is a point at which a “run of the mill” disagreement turns to abuse. Abuse is consistent behaviour used to assert power or control over a partner in a relationship. Over time emotional abuse can be extremely damaging to your mental health.

 I am hoping that having stuck it out this far with my blog (thank you) that we are both now more knowledgeable about emotional abuse.

 So, what can we all do?

  • Challenge yourself and your own behaviours. Finding reliable statistics on emotional abuse was not easy - there were many discrepancies -but one article cited that between 50% and 80% of all adults in England and Wales have experienced some emotional abuse at some time. This is a huge number and must mean than many of us are doing the abusing from time to time. Just think about that for a moment.
  • Look out for signs of abuse in friends, family and colleagues. Be brave to ask if they are OK, listen and offer support.
  • Talk about emotional abuse in your work environment. Create policies and cultures that encourage us all to be open about this topic.
  • Be ready to provide information about organisations that offer help to people experiencing emotional abuse. Here are a couple of resources:

 Over to you…

Judith Sharpe is Deputy Chief Executive of Healthwatch Norfolk and a member of the Norfolk Safeguarding Adults Board.