Psychological abuse is probably one of the worst parts about an abusive relationship. It’s certainly one thing if your partner hits you, which can easily be ‘defined’ as domestic violence.
But manipulating your thoughts, emotions and actions? That’s an entirely different game, one that is far less well known.
How Does it Start?
It always starts small. After all, if a stranger came up to you and started making comments about your appearance or mental capabilities wouldn’t you walk away?
Of course. That’s why there is always a honeymoon period. Those first magical months or however long, where that person is everything you dreamed in a partner. You probably end up telling everyone how wonderful they are and all the exciting adventures that you’re having.
When the abuse starts, it may just feel like a normal argument. It may feel uncomfortable, but you tend to just brush it away because of all the good times you’ve shared.
At some point, the balance of power and control shifts in their favour, and suddenly you are left scrambling on a ledge with little footholds.
You can’t tell anyone else, it’s embarrassing. There’s a huge degree of shame and self-blame involved even if you aren’t aware of it yourself.
You end up bargaining for your basic human rights, and unfortunately it becomes a downward spiral of events which you just can’t seem to dig yourself out of.
The problem is, they have often convinced you that it is really you that has changed. It’s never their fault.
How Do They Do It?
Controlling, possessive and jealous behaviours can come in all shapes and forms. Usually at first, there will just be little double-edged comments about your appearance, friends and family, job or personality.
Once they are able to get away with more and more behaviour, the abuse becomes more prominent. Outright ridicule, insults, criticism and restricting your behaviour can ensue. In an argument, there are an arsenal of tactics that can be used including;
Intimidation; which can be both physical such as raising their volume and towering over you, or more subtle like underlying threats and their tone.
Apologies; insincere ones where they get mad if you don’t accept it, or the supposed sincerity where you are lulled into believing they may change, yet the behaviour continues.
Denial, distorting and dismissal; the problem is you, they didn’t do anything wrong, it was just you ‘overreacting’ or being ‘sensitive’, or they don’t ‘recall’ it happening because it was all in your head.
Shifting the blame; you are responsible for their behaviour, provoking guilt and reversing the role by playing the victim themselves.
Justification; double standards, you are always wrong, it was your fault, you ‘pushed’ them to do it.
Criticism; breaking down your self-esteem or self-worth, because they are always ‘right’ or ‘better than you’.
Ridicule; often accompanied by insults, eye rolling and belittling. For me this was one I experienced often, the problem or my feelings were never taken seriously and it was always a huge effort on his part to pretend like he was listening to what I had to say.
I could go on and on. But, the purpose is to discredit you. Psychological manipulation slowly wears you down, destroying your sense of self and in severe cases it can end up with Stockholm Syndrome or traumatic bonding.
What’s the Point?
Does the abuser meticulously plan out this honeymoon period only to destroy your self-esteem later on? Probably not. No, in my case he was as genuine as he could be for a narcissist.
They aren’t evil people and it generally isn’t some kind of elaborate scheme. The ultimate goal is control.
The abuser gets addicted to the sense of power, getting their way, the priority always being him and his needs always catered to. The free labour, the financial control. Approval from peers, having a trophy to parade around to make themselves feel important.
All of these and more are the underlying motivations which drive the abuser to push the balance of control in their favour. The more they get, the more they want and the less they are willing to give up.
You end up becoming more and more preoccupied with what’s wrong with you, why you can’t seem to remember things correctly and what you have to do to fix the relationship.
Psychological abuse is much harder to pinpoint than something that leaves a physical mark, which only furthers the abuse.
Because of the benefits, because they can get away with it, and because they’ve manipulated the situation to be your fault, it is so much harder to recognize that you aren’t being treated equally.
The After Effects of Psychological Abuse
The question I found myself asking the most after breaking free was; was it really that bad? I sought for confirmation from every source I could find.
I wanted to prove to myself that I hadn’t gone crazy. The outbursts were justified. I wasn’t losing my mind. At one point I genuinely believed I was developing a personality disorder.
I’m still trying to do that. And the answer is yes. It was that bad.
I found myself minimizing and denying my own treatment long after it had stopped, even as I was slowly discovering that the harsh terms; domestic violence, rape and abuse did in fact apply to my situation.
If my experiences had been told by someone else, if the same treatment had happened to a friend I would have been the first to point out that it wasn’t right. Why then, was I beating myself up about it?
Some of the problem was a lack of awareness. My abuser didn’t hit me, there weren’t dramatic scenes where the police were called like you see on tv.
It didn’t occur to me that it was still rape if you said no, but your partner still coerced, forced or guilted you into it.
Eventually I realized that it didn’t matter if it was your partner or not, non-consent is still non-consent.
He couldn’t have meant to do all that right? Actually yes. Abuse is a conscious choice. They may not realize themselves the motivations behind it, but they still chose to make you feel like crap.
Yet, I still defended him. I was trying to find some reason behind it, some explanation that he didn’t really mean it. It was really difficult to swallow that, yes indeed I had been duped. A normally, quite careful person had fallen into the trap of abuse.
So one of the hardest parts for me has been convincing myself that it was as serious as it sounded. I realized that he was still in my head, and I think that that was part of the key that enabled me to stop thinking like he would, and focus on how I was feeling.
Psychological abuse is something which really needs to be publicized. Lack of awareness leads to minimizing and denying, and in the long run severely damages your mental health.
If you believe you are being psychologically abused, please seek counselling advice.