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Why emotional abuse is often ignored

As Netflix’s ‘Maid’ depicts, emotional abuse is so subtle that it can be overlooked. Experts explain how damaging it really is

Alex Langley, the protagonist of Netflix’s Maid is trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship 
Alex Langley, the protagonist of Netflix’s Maid is trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship  (IMDb)

Devika Mathur, 30, was seemingly happy with her soulmate, who was everything she ever wanted. He was pretty, social, outgoing, supportive, open-minded. Slowly, things started taking a dramatic turn without her even realising it. Her partner started criticising her male friends, reading her texts, doubting her every move and being extremely possessive of her. He started questioning her professional abilities and dismissing her success. Before she knew it, Devika started questioning herself, developing low self-esteem and underperforming at work. She withdrew from her social circle and began to believe that there was something wrong with her. 

I didn't see it at the time, but there was something wrong with him instead," she says. "He was the one who needed therapy. Three years of that relationship took a huge toll on me. I still feel guilty for leaving him," she confesses.

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Devika's is a classic case of emotional abuse, a form of domestic abuse, characterised by the conscious effort of a partner, parent, or individual to control, manipulate, threaten and/or isolate you. Netflix's 'Maid', based on writer Stephanie Land's memoir of her attempt to escape an emotionally abusive relationship and poverty, for instance, does a great job of chronicling the complexity of emotional abuse. While the series shows the cyclicity of the behaviour and how it impacts the victim's reality and sense of self, it also paints the abuser in shades of grey, helping an audience understand why it is so easy for society to ignore emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse can happen in many forms - knowing somebody and using that information against them to hurt them, knowing someone's triggers and deliberately using those triggers to break them. It can be gaslighting, which includes dismissing someone's experiences, diminishing or silencing their presence. It could also be about consciously humiliating, belittling or minimising someone. However, unlike physical abuse, which is explicit, emotional abuse often goes unnoticed. And yet, it is as damaging as physical abuse as it chips away at your very sense of self.

Emotional Abuse is as damaging as physical abuse
Emotional Abuse is as damaging as physical abuse (Pexels)

Identifying Emotional Abuse

To begin with, one needs to differentiate between emotional abuse and emotional hurt. Anshuma Kshetrapal, a Delhi-based psychotherapist as well as a drama and movement therapist, elucidates, "Emotional hurt is inevitable. It is the byproduct of conflict in a relationship, and the intention will be to move past the occurrence. Abuse happens when a length of time has passed, and it is a deliberate attempt to manipulate and hurt." Samriti Makkar Midha, a Mumbai- based clinical psychologist, elaborates on this aspect by saying, "A single event of berating, insulting, screaming wouldn't qualify as emotional abuse. There needs to be a pattern of behaviour or repeated occurrences where a person feels devalued, disrespected, humiliated in a particular relationship."

Abuse can manifest in one or more of the following ways:

● Gaslighting: This is if the perpetrator tries to convince you that certain things are untrue or make you doubt things that you know to be true.

● Control: This could be as open as being told whom to see, who to talk to or be friends with, when and where to meet people, how to dress, monitoring your social media, phone calls, texts, etc. It can also include not allowing any access to financial resources and making an account for every penny you spend.

● Stonewalling: This is a form of nonverbal emotional abuse. This can include not making eye contact, dismissing your feelings, refusing to answer questions, and being evasive.

● Isolation: Jealousy could be used as a tactic to isolate you from your friends and family- for example, asking if you prefer your friends, or even your parents, over them.

● Shaming: Victims of emotional abuse are often made to feel shameful and guilty like they deserve to feel the pain and hurt they are getting.

● Humiliation: Feeling humiliated because of your partner lying, cheating, calling you names, making hurtful jokes at your expense, insulting your appearance, etc.

● Blaming and Criticising: Criticising one's beliefs and saying that problems in the relationship are because of the victim's fault

● Character assassination: Using the "You are ALWAYS doing this' statements.

● Public embarrassment: picking fights, exposing secrets in front of known or unknown people;

● Derogatory pet names: "my chubby pumpkin", "Mera/meri kaddu", "motu"

● Dismissive Attitude: Your problems are never important enough or "you need to really relax and chill" attitude towards the victim

● Sarcasm: A subtle sense of taking a dig at you, aimed at hurting you

● Mood swings and being erratic: Emotionally abusive partners tend to have erratic moods- tempers that may flare seemingly out of nowhere; they could be showering you with gifts one moment and yelling at you the next.

● Coercion: This could include being forced to do sexual activities you do not want to or even other mundane things that they force you to do. They may force you to leave work because they can "take care of you", they might force you on what to wear, who to be friends with- this is all about control.

● Threats and boundary violations: Emotionally abusive partners are not always subtle- they may overtly threaten you if you do not obey them and frequently over-step your boundaries.

The fundamental goal of emotional abuse is to control the victim by silencing, isolating, and discrediting them. Emotional abuse is real abuse.

Tanu Choksi, Mumbai based Psychotherapist/Psychologist, an Associate Fellow and Supervisor in RE- CBT from The Albert Ellis Institute, New York shares, "It is tough to recognise emotional abuse for what it is because of its nature- it can be overtly controlling or subtle and deceptive. It is, ultimately, traumatising, erodes the person's self-esteem, and leaves them feeling trapped. In most cases, the victim feels too afraid to leave the relationship, and so the cycle continues."

The victim feels too afraid to leave the relationship
The victim feels too afraid to leave the relationship (Unsplash)

Understanding the perpetrator and victim

In most cases of abuse, we often identify the two parties as "abuser" and "victim", it is usually not such a straight boundary. Things are more complicated than that. Aditi Kumar, a Delhi based Counselling Psychologist, says, "Often abusers could be a victim themselves (from past relationships, conditioning etc.), and even the victims can later in their life manifest these cycles of abuse that they experience. It's also important to note that these behaviours and actions (of emotional abuse) exist on a spectrum."

If one feels their partner is constantly questioning their version of events, manipulating facts or memories to suit their narrative, using emotions to control their behaviour (eg. guilt, sadness, withdrawing from the relationship when things don't happen the way they'd like) as well as their feelings, it's a red flag.

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Sneh Kapoor, a Delhi-based Counsellor & Psychotherapist, puts cultural context to the behaviours. "Very often, we discount some seriously problematic behaviour because the partner "doesn't do ALL those things'' - what is important to remember is that it's a problem even if they do just one or two. It doesn't take much for abusive behaviour to escalate." We often find this kind of behaviour in people with narcissistic tendencies, emotionally unstable people (very quick to move from one emotion to the next), people with a disturbing history of relationships - romantic or otherwise. This is, of course, not to say that all people with disturbed relationships or emotional lability will act in abusive ways.

If you are a victim of an abusive relationship, you will know that the abuse has been happening for a while. However, you will discover it much later as the perpetrator will start priming you for it much before the real abuse begins. "The individual will perhaps try to get close to you; they will use affection to weave their way into your life, make themselves indispensable, and make you trust them. You are primed by them telling you that you are not worthy of good treatment; they will make you doubt your self-worth and bring down your self-esteem," shares Kshetrapal. "The victim believes that they deserve it," she adds. "By the time you realise you are a victim, you are already caught up in a volatile relationship. You will have conflicting feelings of love and affection and anger and hatred at the same time. Abuse is cyclical as there is love and affection followed by hatred and distress."

The victim is cut off from their social support of friends and families (that happens over some time) and finds themselves isolated and lonely, with a doubtful sense of self and lacks the confidence to make any decisions.

Choksi mentions that the victim may anticipate the perpetrator's violence as a trauma response and hence end up feeling on edge all the time and even feel anxious or depressed.

The road to change

While it may seem impossible or even difficult to recover from emotional abuse or make the relationship healthier, it is possible to do so at times. Repair is about moving forward. It takes introspection and self-analysis." Rebuilding trust, emotional safety, healthier patterns of relating would be some of the focal areas where the relationship is concerned. However, the intention of both parties counts while trying to work things out. Kshetrapal states, "Repairing an abusive relationship is a lot of hard work. One has to bring in honesty, communication and awareness as well. And one has to keep in mind that it is not something that only one person can do - you will have to work together." She also points out that going back to an ideal state won't be possible, but one will have to re-establish newer boundaries and ways of communication instead. "Repair is about moving forward. It takes introspection and self-analysis."

You will have to work together
You will have to work together (Unsplash)

Noticing the patterns in the perpetrator and victim in the cycle of abuse is an important way of addressing it. "In an emotional cycle of abuse, self-awareness plays an important role both from the perpetrator's and victim's end. Emotional intelligence always begins with self-awareness and understanding your emotional position about another person," mentions Kumar.

Once you're aware, the next step is to choose to be kind - either to yourself or someone else. The willingness to change after identifying the red flags needs to come from both parties; no relationship will work if only one partner wants to change.

For the victim of emotional abuse, must they choose to exit the relationship, the road to recovery can be a slow but sure process. "The important thing to realise is that you will recover, and you are not trapped with that person forever," says Choksi. She adds that building a support system of friends and family works because they are a reminder that you are not as dependent on that person as you think. "You are more than capable of helping yourself, and if you falter, your safety net is there to catch you," Choksi adds.

Also read: How to stop eating your emotions

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