Survivor’s Denial: Hindrances to Recognizing Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse, the silent offender, casts its darkness over much more of society than we may realize. While the damaging epidemic of emotional abuse in all its forms is becoming more known, it still hides behind the other horrendous abusive situations like physical and sexual abuse. The truth is, this kind of abuse has been swept under the rug for far too long. Because of this, it can be nearly impossible for perpetrators to receive rightful punishment, society to take into account its severity, and for survivors to even realize let alone find healing from its effects. Emotional abuse for the sake of this article will encompass all forms of psychological and verbal manifestations.

The numbing truth of the matter is that emotional abusers come in many forms: from the minds of our teachers, parents, siblings, friends, peers, co-workers, neighbors, mentors, romantic partners or anyone else in our social circles. One of the reasons emotional abuse may be hard to come to terms with as a survivor is that there is still some debate about what it truly entails. There is no true definition of emotional abuse, which makes outreach even more difficult. Many domestic violence agencies, organizations, and resources cater to those who have survived sexual abuse and physical violence. As noble and necessary as those resources are, more needs to be done to tend to those damaged by emotional abuse. The scars possessed by survivors of emotional abuse, are just that, emotional. There can never be
physical evidence of emotional abuse. For that one simple fact, it can be easily downgraded by those who have never felt its poisonous claws for themselves.

Regardless of the lack of an official definition, emotional abuse exhibits common characteristics such as: verbal assaults, dominance, ridicule, degradation, overly controlling behavior, forced isolation, harmful threats, gaslighting, chronic lying, forced abandonment, intense blame, and many more toxic behaviors. Because of the nature of emotional abuse, it can be seemingly impossible to know for sure the deep secrets buried in a relationship since the abuser’s tactics rely on manipulation and degradation of self image and self reliance. Many survivors recall being unable to realize if a relationship was toxic or not because the abuser was so apt at persuading the victim that they were the one at fault. Subtle emotional tactics are used by abusers in these cases to belittle and lie to their abusive targets and to third party observers. That way, the victim feels less believable and more isolated. An example would be of an abusive individual who privately berates and manipulates their friend, but when out in public, the abuser manipulates appearances by being supportive. In a public or private situation, the abuser would maintain the power of control.

Another disturbing example of emotional abuse that until very recently has been swept under the rug is the harsh reality of the bullying epidemic. Experts now recognize bullying as a form of peer abuse. Multiple studies have shown how detrimental bullying can be to victims in the short and long term. For decades, bullying has been seen as a rite of passage and as a normal occurrence by parents and school employees. Despite what package emotional abuse appears in, it is never acceptable.

Another hindrance to realizing the true nature of emotional abuse is the portrayal of toxic relationships within pop culture. With the normalization of emotional abuse in the media, it is no wonder that so many relationships are plagued by this detrimental force. Various films, television shows, and mainstream songs demonstrate harmful relationship paradigms. Well known TV shows and films that feature abuse include “Twilight,” “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “The Notebook,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Game of Thrones,” “Glee,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Supernatural,” “Jane Eyre,” and many other popular forms of entertainment. Not only do these stories demonstrate obvious forms of abuse, they are are romanticized and idealized for and by
audiences.

While some forms of emotional abuse may be more evident as toxic, sometimes the dynamic of the relationship itself can hinder realizations of emotional abuse being at play. For example, sibling abuse is hard to confirm because of the common rifts that so often occur with siblings. It can take years for a survivor of sibling abuse to realize its toxicity beyond the bounds of “normalcy.” Likewise, those with authority are usually expected to be controlling, manipulative, and verbally harsh. Similarly, parents and extended family members who grew up in a generation that exhibited harsher forms of punishment have grown accustomed to using emotional abuse despite its detrimental consequences. These kinds of considerations must be taken into account when trying to navigate social spheres. Even if elements of emotional abuse are normalized, it does not, under any circumstance, mean that it is healthy. While emotional abuse can stand on its own, it may also coincide with physical abuse in many cases. According to one study, women can be perpetrators of emotional abuse as often as men, whereas physical abuse is more often inflicted by men. Women are just as capable as men to be abusive, and
that fact must not be swept under the rug either.

It is imperative to be aware of the signs of emotional abuse in every past, present, potential relationship. The psychological, emotional, and social effects are far too damaging to go unnoticed any longer. Victim blaming must stop from all sides. Survivors must learn to accept the truth that they were not at fault, no matter how their abuser made them feel. There is hope for recognizing and overcoming emotionally abusive situations. While abuse in every form leaves emotional scars, there is no doubt that there is an inspiring resilience cultivated in the mind and will of a survivor: the strength to rise above and journey forth towards a healthier social future.

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