Inner Trek

Therapy Questions: Episode 10

Therapy Questions: Emotional Abuse


Hey there! My name is Dana Mooney, licensed mental health counselor with Inner Trek, LLC and welcome to Therapy Questions! This is episode number 10. And this is where I answer your questions that I get as a therapist.

So today's question is about a heavy topic and it's gonna be a little bit long, but I promise it'll be a lot of good info. The topic is emotional abuse. So the question is: "Some of my friends have been telling me that my relationship with my partner is unhealthy and emotionally abusive. I googled and I found some lists of signs that do sound a lot like our relationship. How do I know whether things can get better or if it's just time to leave my partner?" So first of all, I want to say I'm really sorry that you're in this spot. I know that it's a really really painful spot to be in and it's a really hard choice to make. And ultimately I can't tell you what's the right choice or give you a line for how to know when it's time to leave, or if it's time to leave, or if things can get better. But I am gonna give you some information that maybe will help you make that choice in an informed way.

So I'm gonna break this down in a couple different categories. So the first one is going to be I'll talk about what the signs of emotional abuse are. I know that you said you googled the signs, but for those following along I just want to cover that just in case. I'll also talk about the cycle of abuse emotional abuse and some, and then I'll talk about signs that a person is changing and taking responsibility to change, and at the end I'll talk a little bit about some statistics to help you kind of make good choices.

So starting with signs of emotional abuse. Man emotional abuse can be really hard to tease out. It's not like physical abuse where you can go, "Oh! My partner hit me. I know that that's bad. I know that there's physical abuse. "Here it's more, it can be more subtle than that. So first sign is isolating.

So a person might isolate their partner from their friends or their family. It could look like actually saying, "Only stay in and hang out with me. Being like almost like clingy and saying like oh don't go hang out with so-and-so. You know they may be putting down your family and friends and sort of like trying to drive a wedge between you and them so that they become the only good option to hang out with, and therefore isolating you from the rest of you’re your support system.

It may look like them being overly jealous or possessive. This can look like constantly questioning your motives, constantly accusing you of cheating, or accusing you of you wanting to leave, looking at your text messages, checking your phone, checking your email, checking your Facebook, or you know whatever the thing is, but like trying to control your communication with other people or your actions or the way that you spend your time.

And it can also look like stalking, you know following you. "I don't trust you so I'm gonna follow you and make sure that you're telling me the truth."

It can look like being critical, overly critical, so this can be in private or in public in front of other people, but putting you down for the way that you look, or your ideas, or your self-worth, or the things that you think or say, making you feel like that you're not worthy to take up the space there.

It may look also like threatening or intimidating or harassing as a means of control. And this can be threatening violence. This could be even stuff like threatening to leave as a means of control, threatening to kill themselves as a means of control, threatening to take the children or pets as a means to control your behavior.

Also can look like using financial means of control. So sometimes with partners it'll look like the person, they'll get their partner into a spot where they're financially dependent on them and so they need to stay in order to survive basically. It can also look like making all the financial decisions or even life decisions that are big that impact both of you without consulting you. That's another means of manipulation and control.

Let's see, and then on top of all of this, there is gonna be blaming of you for all of those behaviors that we just went over. It's not that they're doing anything wrong it's that you're making them feel insecure and like that they can't trust you. You're making them do these things. And so you'll start to feel crazy when you bring anything up because you'll feel like it's your fault that you created this problem, and just kind of always questioning yourself because of this gaslighting, and making you think that you're part, you're the whole problem, not even part of the problem. And that you, you know, deserve this treatment because of these things that you're doing, and the behaviors that you're creating and you're inciting. And in fact that's not true at all.

So those are the signs of emotional abuse.

Let's talk about the cycle of abuse. And I want to talk about that before we get to what it looks like to change just because it can be really hard to determine whether or not someone's really committed to changing because of the way that this cycle happens. So I'm going to talk about the four stages in the cycle of abuse

The first one is that tension is building. Okay so tension building might look like there's like a breakdown in communication. Someone says something and it got misconstrued and suddenly there's like arguing and you know maybe some criticism, and then the person who is being abused gets scared gets intimidated and then feels like they need to placate their abuser. And that's where this feeling of like walking on eggshells, like I can't say anything, I can't do anything right because I'm gonna I'm gonna get hurt. I'm gonna get lashed out on. So the tension builds.

Then there's an incident. So this can be a verbal emotional or physical incident. But there's abuse happening and then there's blame. There's maybe arguing. There's maybe threats. There's an intimidation. But it's all gonna seem like it's your fault. It's not their fault that this is happening. It's yours.

After that, (where am I?) reconciliation. So reconciliation can look like a lot of things. Sometimes it looks like a person, it may look like they're actually taking responsibility for their actions but it's not exactly that. So it can look like, "Oh I'm so sorry that I did that. You just made me so angry." And you see how like that is not exactly taking responsibility for my behavior? It's putting the onus on you for making me feel a certain way. It also may look like downplaying the incident that actually happened or denying it completely, "That didn't happen. I didn't say that." Let's see yeah, and basically yeah, what blaming the victim are making excuses for that kind of behavior is usually what happens. But but when you're in this spot an apology can just feel so good, even if there's a whole bunch of, "But I just blank."

And so sometimes that apology is accepted and then we just move on to the next stage which is this calm stage, where you just kind of "forget". And I put "forgetting" quotes because it's not really forgetting. You don't forget what happened. We just sweep it under the rug and don't talk about it. Pretend like it didn't happen.

And then of course the honeymoon phase. And this part is where like we just pretend like it didn't happen and we love each other. And maybe like you know, we go do all those things that we used to love, and like when we were having sex, and like it's fine. And this sort of like reconciliation period can be really addictive because there's a sense of like, this like discord and non like the attachment is broken, and then when it comes back together your brain gets flooded with all kinds of real good feel-good chemicals. And this cycle is self-perpetuating because it sucks you back in during that honeymoon period.

And the reason I go over that is because it can be really difficult to tell if the person has intent to change or if you're just stuck in this cycle. So something to think about when you're evaluating if your partner is actually trying to change or not.

So let me talk about some signs of change. It is possible for people to change. It does happen. The statistics show that the rates of people making honest efforts to change this type of ingrained behavior is low. It also shows that it takes a lot of time. So this is a recovery process basically. It's not just like, "Oh, I realize I did something bad and like this is a pattern, so I'm gonna stop." And then it's fine the next day. The process of recovering from this type of deeply ingrained behavior can be decades long or a lifetime of hard committed effort that's internally motivated by them, and not by anyone else.

So signs that the person wants to change and is committed to changing might look like them fully admitting their role and fully taking responsibility, with no blame on you or anyone else for why they're doing those things. They're not making any excuses, they are in fact making amends. "I'm so sorry that I did that. I understand why this was wrong. I'm committed to not doing this again."

And then it's followed with actual behaviors of them generating new patterns of behavior where they're sharing power with you, where they are carrying their weight in the relationship, and taking on the responsibility of being an equal partner, where they are changing their responses to the grievances that you bring up and saying, "Yeah that's a really good point. Maybe I should take responsibility and make a change here." They are accepting consequences for their behaviors if they do something that is negative or hurtful they understand that there's going to be withdrawal. They are developing new kind of respectful and kind behaviors, supportive behaviors of their partner, and they are identifying new patterns and new attitudes to adopt. And this is all internally motivated by themselves. It's not because you asked them to or you you want them to change. They decided to make this change themselves, and they are committed to doing it. Ultimately hopefully they're doing it with a mental health professional if possible, trying to make those changes or at least maybe going to an anger management class or a batterers intervention class as a way to start learning about themselves and making those changes. So those are some signs that a person is committed to those changes.

Now that's about them. Let's talk about you for a second. So if you're in this spot, it's really hard sometimes to think about the impact on you, because most of the relationship is about the other person, or they make it about the other person. So effects on your mental health for being existing in an emotionally abusive relationship. The statistics show that sent a seven out of ten women experience PTSD or depression when they're in psychologically or emotionally abusive relationships. And that's women. There are also men or people of all genders. If you get into an emotional emotionally abusive relationship chances are you're probably going to develop PTSD or depression. There's not really like a gendered thing. But that statistic that's out there.

Also they've found that folks that are in psychologically abusive relationships, when they go to the doctor they have poorer mental health and physical health as a result of existing in this relationship. They've also shown, they've also found that emotional abuse is a higher predictor of developing PTSD than physical abuse, which is really significant because a lot of people kind of downplay how harmful psychological abuse is and it's actually more psychologically harmful than physical abuse. So these are some things to consider when you're trying to decide whether it's time to leave or not. The longer that you stay in a relationship like this without there being this like constant motivation on your partner's part to change and make changes, and they're still acting out these unhealthy patterns, the longer that you stay in that, the more likely you are to develop mental health issues and physical health issues, if that hasn't already happened.

Another important thing I want to talk about is the statistics also show that leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time. And so even if there's not physical abuse present, the likelihood of physical abuse is 500 times more during a time of a person leaving in a relationship. So this is something really to consider if you decide that you do want to leave. And you may want to make a safety plan with a mental health professional, or I can link some tools for how to make a safety plan in the description. And also I'm gonna link some hotlines, crisis hotlines where you can kind of talk this through with people who get it if this is a decision that you want to make. Because if it is, it's a very important to make sure that you're gonna make a plan to leave where you're gonna be safe and you're not going to be in harm's way.

So I hope, I know there was a lot of information, and I hope it was helpful to for you to make a good decision. If you have any questions feel free to reach out. If you have questions you want to see answered on Therapy Questions, you can put them in the comments, you can send them to me in an email at or you can put them in the submission form on the website at

Thank you so much for watching! Be well!