With the recent allegations against Marilyn Manson, Armie Hammer, and Johnny Depp in the news and social media over the past months, questions about consent and abusive relationships are coming up for a lot of people. But a relationship can be emotionally abusive without it looking like what we’ve seen with these celebrities. And it’s not only romantic partnerships—abusive relationships can happen between friends, coworkers, siblings, parents, and children. Here are some of the things that people in emotionally abusive situations might find:
1) You’re doing a lot of work.
Many relationships that become emotionally abusive usually begin to revolve around the needs of one person. That person may have a way of making everything about them or creating a huge emotional display that you then feel responsible for consoling. You may find you are constantly caretaking and reassuring. And while you might get a show of affection or a momentary feeling of importance from all this emotional labor, upon closer examination, you may come to realize that this other person is so wrapped up in their own inner (or outer) dramas that they don’t really have a genuine interest in your needs.
2) You are afraid that if you stop doing the work, you’ll be punished or abandoned.
Here is where your needs do come in. If you started making excuses for someone as soon as you read that last paragraph—excuses along the lines of but they do things for me too; they take care of me a lot; they show concern all the time—chances are that your deep feelings about the person are actually resentment and anger. This kind of excusing tends to happen when people are afraid or judgmental of their own anger toward someone. People often deny their anger or feel guilty for it and then make up for that feeling by trying to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Excuses may mean you are trying to protect someone from your anger because if you’re angry, that means facing up to some hard truths that might kick up your fear of losing this relationship.
You might also actually be getting something out of putting in the emotional labor. Maybe it is nice to feel needed. Maybe feeling like you are there for someone makes you feel less insecure about your self-worth. You might be trying to give all of yourself in order to feel valuable. But the more you are willing to give, the more a needy or abusive person will take. You might be feeling so bad about your resentment in the relationship that the guilt drives you to overcompensate with service. Meanwhile, the other person’s aggression is allowed to be much more overt. The main thing to explore is what makes it difficult not only to set boundaries in a particular dynamic but to enforce them. Fears of abandonment or loss or being alone are the ones I hear often. Or in severe cases, the fear of retaliation or violence can keep people from speaking up or saying no. Whatever the fear, unless it is really understood and worked through, you may continue to be susceptible to enacting with it in ways that are self-destructive, like excusing abusive behavior and playing into it.
3) You’re being gaslit.
It seems this term has been bandied about quite a bit recently. So, before I get gaslit for using it here, let me talk about what it actually means. The term originates from the Patrick Hamilton play Gas Light which was adapted into a 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman. In it, a husband manipulates his wife into thinking she is going insane by doing things like dimming the gas lights in the house while maintaining to her that the lighting hasn’t changed. This kind of psychological operation may mean you feel belittled, or your feelings are minimized or questioned, rather than seen and acknowledged. You might be put down and undermined. You might hear things like “you’re overreacting,” or “you don’t know what you’re talking about,” while the person who accuses you of that is still taking up a lot of room with their reactions. This is meant to dismantle your trust in yourself so that you become reliant on someone else to tell you what to feel. Basically, the message starts to be that it’s never going to be about you unless you’re being blamed for being the problem. Your demanding of any respect or attention is a threat to the person who needs to be in constant control and who needs to make sure you always feel you owe them something.
4) Having your own agency isn’t ok.
Because your own needs and drives are a threat to the person who wants to be in control, that person might behave in coercive ways, like throw fits and make threats in order to keep you close. As a result, you might start to feel afraid that they might do something unfavorable or dangerous if you don’t keep them happy. Or you may start feeling dependent, like you can’t do anything on your own without this person’s input or sign-off, or even that you are incapable without them. This is what gaslighting can lead to, and it can extend to things like socially isolating yourself from friends and family and being made to feel like you shouldn’t need anyone or anything besides the abuser. Any attempt you make to gain independence or speak up for yourself won’t be tolerated, so exercising your own power and choice will feel like a huge risk. But again, it is important to weigh the risks of not doing it. This is why I often tell patients that if someone in your life is not ok with your self-assertion, they have just shown you who they are and what kind of person they need you to be for them: submissive and amenable.
5) You keep getting sucked in.
Despite knowing that things aren’t working for you, you might find that you keep going back to a bad situation. I hear a lot of people beating themselves up over this: what is wrong with me–why can’t I just move on? This goes back to the point earlier that you, too, are getting something out of this. As much as abusive relationships are toxic, they also have some mutuality. Because whatever fears keep you stuck in this, you will feel a lot of resistance to letting it go. But this provides an opportunity to mine those fears for what they tell you about what you really need and want. If you are lonely, you want to feel connected and understood. So time for a gut check: is this person really providing that for you? Or could they even be exacerbating your loneliness? If you are terrified of being rejected or abandoned, you want to be loved and accepted. Is this person truly making you feel that? If you feel bad, scared, and guilty more than you feel seen and known without judgment, what are you actually getting out of the relationship? If you can get really solid on what is important to you and what can’t be compromised, maybe that gets you closer to being able to say this is not good enough.
Not every abusive relationship will look the same. Each unique dynamic will manifest its own challenges. Regardless of the specifics, it will take advocating for yourself in order to break some of these cycles. I hear people beating themselves up for not having been “stronger” in situations like these, for not being more self-empowered. That is precisely what an abusive dynamic is meant to do—strip you of your power. Anyone can be in this position. It is difficult to set boundaries, let alone in a relationship that is bad for you. It can also be difficult to value yourself enough to believe you deserve (and can have!) better. When a relationship becomes driven by power and control, it can feel infuriating, disorienting, terrifying. But whatever the situation, it is important to know we are each entitled to our own agency. Determining where that agency is, requires being clear on what is and is not ok with you. This is not a process you have to take on alone—seeking support is necessary and never shameful.
Being physically harmed or touched without your unequivocal consent is never ok. If you, a friend, or a family member feels unsafe or has been abused or assaulted, please consider the resources below.
National Sexual Assault Hotline 800 656 HOPE (4673)
National Domestic Violence Hotline 800 799 SAFE (7233)