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What is emotional abuse?

Did you know that one in every four women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime? Even more concerning is that most women are afraid to report abuse by an intimate partner. Domestic violence is one of the most chronically underreported crimes, with only approximately one-quarter of all physical assaults and one-fifth of all rapes being reported to the police. But what about when the abuse doesn’t leave physical marks? Gunta Krumins, BA, PMP, author of The Detrimental Effects of Emotional Abuse, says psychological or emotional abuse isn’t readily reported and, because it is hard to prove, is essentially a silent epidemic that many women wrongly endure. Krumins is on a mission to expose emotional abusers and fight for the rights of the victims.

Crying abused woman

“Emotional abuse is the silent monster in our midst, occurring in neighbors’ and loved ones’ homes more than we realize. It is a tragic situation that’s a daily reality for millions,” Krumins says. “A widespread illegal activity is being ignored when people are victimized in their own homes. What emotional abusers are doing to their victims is criminal and has to be stopped.”

What exactly is emotional abuse?

Bruises and broken bones are potential signs of physical abuse, but emotional abuse leaves no obvious marks. “Emotional abuse is about someone manipulating your emotions on a psychological level,” Krumins explains. “And it goes beyond simple verbal bullying.” Emotional abusers may come across as bullies, yet they are often “silent monsters” that fake affection while knowing precisely how to manipulate situations, hurt and humiliate their victims and do whatever it takes to stay in control of the situation and their victims.

Even though emotional abusers can quickly explain away or make excuses for their abusive behavior, Krumins is quick to state that emotional abusers know exactly what they’re doing. Emotional abusers are masters of manipulation, lying, intimidation and guilt. “They’ve been perfecting what they do to people ever since they were little — and they chose to be this way,” she adds. “They don’t want to change and they don’t care who they hurt as long as no one suspects them, and the situation works for them.”

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What are the signs of emotional abuse?

Because emotional abuse doesn’t leave physical scars, it can be hard to discern. Krumins says the signs are subtle and that awareness goes a long way in helping to spot emotional abuse. Oftentimes, nothing seems obviously wrong, but you just get a sense that something seems off. For example, your best friend’s new boyfriend appears to be “too good to be true” yet your gut doesn’t trust that the affections are genuine. “You may see or feel things that are off and start second-guessing yourself or making excuses for oddities,” she explains. “Trust your instincts. They’re usually right. And if you know what you’re looking for, you’ll be able to help your best friend.”

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Are you a victim of emotional abuse?

What about when you’re the one being emotionally abused? It’s hard to admit that your boyfriend or husband is hurting you, but don’t let embarrassment keep you in an unhealthy relationship. Krumins warns that women in emotionally abusive relationships suffer feelings of conflict, grief, insecurity, feeling overwhelmingly stifled and that nothing they do or say is right or good enough. Whether they disagree with their abuser or tell the abuser exactly what he wants to hear, the abuse doesn’t readily ease up. “This negative pressure will come at you in various forms, such as threatening, blaming, accusing, yelling, teasing and even laughing, and is applied 24/7 in extreme cases,” says Krumins, leaving you feeling confused, ashamed, and afraid.

Krumins says if you suspect you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, answer these questions:

  • Is he always blaming you for problems in your relationship?
  • Do your conflicts really ever get resolved?
  • Is he always controlling the relationship or you?
  • Are you constantly confused or insecure about where the relationship is going?
  • Does he run hot and cold, fly into rages out of the blue and blame you for them?
  • Do you feel trapped or cornered?
  • Does he put you on a guilt trip for expressing your opinion — or are you afraid to even express your feelings or opinions?
  • Do you feel like you’re always walking on eggshells for fear you’ll say the wrong thing?
  • Is everything you do or say being scrutinized or judged by him?
  • Does he make you feel worn down mentally and physically until you just give in to what he wants?

“If you answer yes to these questions, I would tell you that it is not normal. You are being emotionally abused,” Krumins warns. “As a victim, no matter what you are being told, you must know that it is not your fault and know that the abuser has no intention of changing. The only thing you can do is leave. Get someone to help you pack your bags and stay away from this person. Never go back. He means you harm.”

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Report emotional abuse even though it is hard to prove

It’s true: Emotional abuse is hard to prove, but you have a right to be protected, even if it means getting authorities involved. Krumins says, “You can’t prove emotional abuse by treating it as a private family matter. It has to be investigated as a crime by professionals who are properly trained.” When you report it, Krumins recommends keeping the following points in mind.

  • Understand it is not your fault. You have been violated and have the right to report it even if your abuser makes you feel ashamed or embarrassed.
  • Your abuser knows what he is doing. Perpetrators of emotional abuse do what they do by choice. They do not want to change. If you try to leave them or report them, do not listen to their pleading, promises or excuses. They are merely pulling out all the stops to keep you from taking the action you want to take. They will be desperate to get you back under their control and will do whatever it takes.
  • Reporting abuse is protecting yourself and others. If he is abusing you, he will abuse someone else. If he leaves you, he will find someone else to abuse. By standing up to the abuser and reporting abuse, you will expose him and hopefully help prevent him from hurting others — and you.
  • Put a support system in place. “Abusers know that there are few laws in place to protect victims from emotional abuse, which builds up their confidence in continuing their abusive tactics,” warns Krumins. “Abusers also know that if they put up enough roadblocks and smokescreens when anyone tries to intervene, they’ll be able to discourage these interveners enough so that they just walk away. The abusers are counting on this.” As a victim, build up your support system. Go to your church, your family and friends, professionals, and any other person or source of support who will stand behind you and help protect you from the abuser. If you report your abuser and have no one to help support you, you could end up in more danger from your abuser.

Reach out and help stop emotional abuse

Whether you are the loved one of someone who is being emotionally abused or are a victim of emotional abuse, Krumins says it is critical that you don’t stay silent. “As a community, we have to change our attitude toward emotional abuse. If we continue to ignore it or walk away from those who need our help, we just become enablers ourselves. We have to openly start challenging abusers and holding them accountable for their actions. Exposing the perpetrators of emotional abuse is the very least we can all do to help the victims.”

Krumins hopes that with the increase of public awareness campaigns, there can be social change that puts policies and protocols in place that classify emotional abuse as a crime and render appropriate punishment to the offenders. “By exposing emotional abusers and having them face consequences for their actions, we’re managing them and we’re one step closer to stopping emotional abuse.”

More on domestic abuse and violence against women

Rape: Lessons for surviving sexual assault
How to help victims of domestic violence
10 Tips to protect yourself against date rape and abuse

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