Let’s talk about emotional abuse

When we think of an abusive relationship, what typically comes to mind is an adult couple where one party is physically abusive and aggressive towards their partner.

We tend to overlook the growing issue of emotional and mental abuse within relationships, especially in younger people, despite the fact that women between the ages of 16 and 20 are most at risk.

Emotional abuse is defined as “any act including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilisation, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth”.

We spoke to Anna, a survivor of emotional abuse, her name has been changed to protect her identity. She was with her ex-boyfriend for almost four years, from the age of 14:

“He was my first proper boyfriend, and obviously I thought I was totally in love with him, as you do at that age,” she told Artefact.

“He was totally controlling, emotionally abusive throughout the whole relationship, and physically abusive on occasion.

“I knew for a lot of the relationship that I was unhappy, but he convinced me that when it was good, it was great, and that that made it worth it,” she said.

“Clearly, being made to feel bad about yourself constantly, being miserable, and having your life controlled is not justified by the few rare occasions when it was good and I thought I was happy.

“But with the hold he had over me he convinced me that this was normal, and that leaving the relationship would only make me more miserable.”

Anna said it was talking to her family that convinced her she had to act: “The situation escalated four years into the relationship, when I moved away to university. I was driving home with my Dad one day and asked him why I had to put up with this, and he bluntly said that I didn’t.

“I broke up with him later that day. It was obviously not as simple as that, and for months after he harassed me with phone calls, messages in every form, e-mails, even threatening phone calls to my parents and friends because he felt it was unjust for me to end things.

“But that was the start of the end, when I finally stood up to him.”

It is presumed that the younger generation don’t have to suffer in silence with these issues, that society has moved forward and erased the taboo behind abuse in relationships. 

But it seems that the “behind closed doors” mentality of our parents’ era may still be very much in play.

Young people are more aware of the issues and know that it’s wrong, but when put in that situation would you know where to turn for help?

Anna was lucky that she had a strong support network behind her in the shape of her family and close friends, but unfortunately that is not always the case.

In any abusive situation, but particularly emotional abuse, victims tend to be bullied into cutting ties with their support networks, leaving them with no-one to turn to or rely on but their abuser.

If you’re a soap fan, you’ll have seen this situation portrayed on Eastenders recently in the Roxy and Dean storyline.

The usually sassy and strong character of Roxy is losing both her charm and her family, including her very close older sister, due to her rapist boyfriend and his control over her. He’s attempting to move her away from her family’s area all together, totally isolating her.

Anna told us more about her loved ones’ reactions throughout her ordeal, and how it affected her relationship with them.

“I know for a fact that my parents were unhappy with what was going on and I think they’d be really shocked if they knew the full extent of what happened,” she said.

“There’s quite a lot I’m embarrassed about and don’t ever plan on sharing with them. I caused them a lot of issues while I was with him. I took being a typical occasionally moody teenager to a whole new level. It was extreme and it was all the time.

“Despite this they endlessly supported me and always pushed me to be assertive and confident, which I think helped a great deal,” she told us.

“My closest friend was there for me throughout the whole thing and I will always be thankful for her support, and the countless times I wept down the phone to her. She thought he was just awful.

“It’s made me appreciate the people in my life who will always be there to support me, and it’s changed my relationship with my parents and best friend for the better,” she explained.

“The chances are if they were willing to stick by me while I was totally blinded by his control and not acting like my self, then they will support me with whatever life throws at me.

“In terms of romantic relationships since him, it’s made me so aware of the signs of abuse, and I’ve been able to avoid ever going down that path again.”

Anna felt that if she didn’t have this strong support network, which a lot of young people don’t, she may not have known where to turn.

“I wasn’t aware that it was something that could be helped in a professional way. Abuse to me at that point only meant something physical.

“I don’t think the term ‘emotional abuse’ was being used all that often when I was going through it five years ago. If it was, it wasn’t something anyone ever linked to my relationship, so I thought it was fine and normal,” she said.

“I still think people don’t really get it now when I say I was in an abusive relationship, especially when I say it was emotionally abusive. It’s like it doesn’t really count because I wasn’t getting punched in the face every week.

“Awareness of the issue is so, so important.”

The charity This Is Abuse work hard to raise awareness of emotional abuse and to get young people talking about the issue.

They promote being aware not only of the signs of if you’re being abused but also when to know if your behaviour towards a partner is wrong or abusive.

Their television ad campaign shows a young couple where the boy is being very controlling and aggressive towards his girlfriend, and asks the question “If you could see yourself, would you stop yourself?”

They also promote strongly that relationship abuse is not just a female issue. Boys are often made to feel that suffering from abuse weakens them in people’s eyes, and that they will simply not be believed if they try to get help from either friends and family, or a professional.

However, abuse is abuse regardless of gender, age or the nature of the abuse, and it is always a serious issue.

This Is Abuse report that one in six boys will experience abuse within a relationship.

Anna’s advice for anyone who thinks they might be stuck in an abusive relationship is to trust your gut instinct.

“If you think it might be abuse, it almost definitely is. If you’re not being made to feel safe and loved in a relationship then it’s not worth it and not how a relationship should be.”

If you or anyone you know needs help with this issue, you can contact one of these organisations:

This Is Abuse offers advice to those who think they may be suffering from abuse, or those who think they may be abusing their partner. 

Women’s Aid offers information and support, including a forum of stories from survivors.

Men’s Advice Line offers information and support to male victims of abuse; you can visit their website or call 0808 801 0327


Featured image by Jessica Lucia via Flickr CC.