“I feel like I am walking on eggshells with my boyfriend,” my best friend said.
Looking her straight in the eye, I took a deep breath. Then I asked, “Do you think you are in an emotionally abusive relationship?”
“Absolutely not. Sure, we have problems. I know I cry a lot and seem miserable at times. But honestly, it’s probably my fault for making him angry anyway. Abusive? No way.”
She was wrong, and all the signs told me so.
She knows now but didn’t know then that some of the most painful and damaging forms of abuse are subtle. Sure, it can be loud and amplified and completely obvious. However, abuse can also be a quiet and slow undermining of your confidence and psychological health.
ABUSE IN INTIMATE RELATIONSHIPS OFTEN GOES UNDETECTED.
Any abuse (physical, emotional, and spiritual) gnaws at the edges of your psyche, then slowly eats its way into your mental health, confidence, and even your identity. Abuse in intimate relationships often goes undetected. Secrecy, fed by shame, allows abuse to continue, so its very existence relies on that.
If you don’t know what abuse looks like, we’re here to shed some light.
What are some signs that you’re in an abusive relationship?
1. YOU’RE MADE TO FEEL LIKE YOU’RE GOING CRAZY.
One of the most insidious and powerful tools in an abusive partner’s arsenal is ‘gaslighting’. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it’s a technique to make a person doubt reality. The word ‘crazy’ is often used to describe how gaslit people are made to feel. For example, your partner may keep denying something you had known to be true to the point where you begin to believe them. Or, if you get upset when they speak harshly toward you, they may insist that you’re overreacting, so you begin to doubt your justification for anger. The whole point of gaslighting is to control you by tipping you off balance and making you mistrust your instincts and beliefs. Gaslighting makes you think eventually, “Am I the one who is the problem?”
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER IS TO NEVER MINIMISE OR MAKE EXCUSES FOR ANY OF THEIR ABUSIVE BEHAVIOURS.
2. YOU FIND YOURSELF ISOLATED FROM YOUR COMMUNITY.
An abuser may try to come between you and your people to make you more dependent on him. Isolation can start subtly. For example, the abuser could insist you “check in” at all times or tell you to quit activities because the only thing that should matter is your relationship with him. Or, he may slowly poison your other relationships by telling you negative things about the people you love, sowing doubt and discord.
Isolation gives abusers more control. If they know that you have no one to turn to, then the power is in their hands. Ultimately, this leaves you without a support system during your most significant time of need — which may be just what the abuser wants.
3. YOU’RE TREATED WITH CONTEMPT.
For my best friend, the emotional abuse didn’t come in the form of shouting matches — instead, it was the slow drip, drip, drip of gaslighting and also subtle forms of contempt. Contempt is expressed in many ways, including hostile humour, sarcasm, mockery, and name-calling. If your partner is exhibiting these kinds of behaviour, the relationship is emotionally abusive.
It is essential to ask yourself, does your partner criticise you in public? Or get sarcastic and tell others negative and embarrassing things about you? If so, you should consider these actions as red flags, because it shows you that your partner ignores or doesn’t even detect social decency rules. Abusive relationships rarely start with physical abuse. These are warning signs that your partner might act out even worse abusive behaviours behind closed doors.
ISOLATION GIVES ABUSERS MORE CONTROL. IF YOU HAVE NO ONE TO TURN TO, THEN THE POWER IS IN THEIR HANDS.
4. YOU’RE AFRAID OF THEIR ANGER.
It’s normal for someone to get angry and lose their temper once in a while. But for it to happen continually and explosively is a classic sign of abuse. Unlike the other signs, this one is easier to spot but no less damaging. Abusers may get aggressive or angry if you fail to do what they want, but because they can be warm and loving, before turning cold and angry in an instant, you may find yourself feeling like you need to be super careful to avoid making them upset.
GET OUT, AND GET HELP
If any of these signs sound painfully familiar, the first thing you need to realise is that the behaviour is totally unacceptable, and you are worthy of better. It’s time for things to change — immediately.
I know that advice is easier to give than to take, especially if you love your partner or are afraid to leave them. The most important thing to remember is to never minimise or make excuses for any of their abusive behaviours. Everyone goes through stress and frustration, experiences anger, and gets upset, but this is no excuse for acting in ways that harm others, emotionally or physically.
Please know that you are not alone. Like a tree, I encourage you to reach up to God in the knowledge that Jesus through His deep suffering understands the pain you’re going through and desires for your healing; reach out to your friends and loved ones for support; and dig down into the identity you have as a beloved daughter of God. If you need specialised help or know someone who does, it is readily available. In Singapore, the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s Break the Silence webpage <https://www.msf.gov.sg/breakthesilence/> provides hotlines and further information on abusive behaviour. If your school has counsellors, speak to them. There is a way out! Freedom and healing are on the other side of your courage.