Emotional abuse - survival, recovery, and learning to live again
The impact of physical abuse within relationships - domestic violence - is devastating, painful, humiliating, and traumatising; physical violence and the aggression, shouting, and threats which accompany it and lead to it. Violence against objects - throwing and smashing things in your home - is still violence, even if not directed directly against you. Such experiences easily fit the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as there has been an actual or perceived threat to life.
Emotional and psychological abuse also have serious impacts, which can stay in the mind and body for years as trauma, undermining the survivor’s sense of who they are, and undermining attempts to form healthy, safe, and loving relationships in the future. Physical abuse is almost always accompanied by emotional abuse, though this form of abuse can very often occur without actual violence and can itself be devastating.
I’m going to explore the different forms emotional abuse can take and how these experiences can be traumatising, but also how eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) can help you recover.
So what is emotional abuse? Physical abuse is easier to see and identify, by its very nature. Emotional abuse can be more subtle, and for a long time, you may not even be aware that it's happening, but if your partner is constantly putting you down about your looks, personality, beliefs, or other things you hold dear, you may want to start asking yourself if the relationship is actually healthy.
Control and manipulation are also forms of abuse; if your partner seeks to control what you wear, where you go, who you see, how you spend your money, or even preventing you from accessing your own money. If you find you have less and less say in your relationship and decisions affecting your life if it seems your partner is turning your friends and family against you, if they behave differently when other people are around, so no-one seems to believe you when you complain, the situation may be abusive.
Sexual control and manipulation are a part of this, and if you feel you have no say over when and whether to have sex or how you have sex, again this could be abusive. Partners in a sexual relationship still need to gain consent around sex, and everyone has the right to say no, at any time. If you are being denied this right, then what is happening could be sexual abuse or even rape.
This can all leave you isolated and unable to access help and support at the very moment you need it most. You might have started to question yourself, feeling that everything that is going wrong - your partner’s moods, their outbursts, their ignoring you for days - that all of it might be your fault, that you are causing the problems, or that maybe its not really happening - that it's all in your mind. So widespread has this practice become that there is now a word for it - 'gaslighting'. This is where a bully (and let’s be clear, someone who abuses their partner is a bully), mistreats someone in some way and then uses their influence over that person to make them believe they caused what happened. At the same time, an emotionally abusive partner can also be charming, seductive, and loving, which just adds to the feelings of confusion and isolation, making it all the more difficult to perceive whether what is happening is actually abuse.
Sometimes, the longer you are in an abusive relationship, the more difficult it can be to seek help. Society is often judgemental about people (particularly women), who stay in abusive relationships, almost blaming them for staying for so long, or refusing to believe what they are being told, not realising this is playing into abusers' hands as it continues the abuse and discourages survivors from leaving or speaking out.
If any or all of this is happening in your relationship, talking to someone independent is a really important first step. A counsellor or psychotherapist will listen without judging and will help you find the calm space you need to think clearly, fully perceive what is actually happening, and what you need to do to be safe and free from abuse. If you feel in danger, please call the police or a charity such as Women's Aid.
It might be you have left the abusive relationship, perhaps several years ago, but that you are still haunted by it. Lots of things remind you of the abuse or the abuser, and you find yourself feeling as if it's all happening again, without being clear why.
These experiences can lodge in the brain and the body just as memories of physically violent assaults. Criticism from someone you don’t know can be easily dismissed, but within a long-term relationship, when your self-esteem and confidence are low and you cannot see yourself ever getting away or being able to start again, the situation is very different. The constant stream of criticism, threat, and manipulation build into a pervasive and ever-present fear - leading to you never knowing what will happen next. You can’t let your guard down, and you need to be constantly on edge and on alert.
Within your brain, your 'fight or flight' mechanism is being triggered by your Amygdala, the brain’s alarm system, releasing cholesterol and other stress hormones through your central nervous system to get your heart, lungs, and muscles ready for the physical exertion of literally fighting the danger, or running away from it. This physical activity would, as well as making you safe, also discharge/burn up the stress hormones, helping you to return to a state of calm once the danger has passed.
But if you can’t get away or protect yourself, which is often the case if you are trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship, there is no way to burn off the hormones. They stay in your body and, with the continuous stream of abuse, your Amygdala gets so overstimulated that the brain’s natural experience processing mechanism gets overwhelmed. The sensations and feelings you feel during the abuse get stuck there, in the alarm system, in the non-verbal, emotional side of your brain. This side of the brain has no sense of time or place, so when something else happens to remind you of the original traumatic experience, your alarm system thinks that all the previous moments are happening again. And because your central nervous system, heart, lungs, and muscles are all triggered and taken over by the fight or flight mechanism, your body may well feel the same sensations as during the original experience. Emotional reactions to the trauma could also be stored in your body and will feel like aches and pains, stiffness in muscles and joints, or knots in your stomach.
These experiences, and the trauma they cause can leave you constantly feeling bad about yourself, and long after the relationship has ended, your confidence can be affected and you can still feel constantly on edge. This can make it very difficult to trust potential new partners and to feel confident that you will be safe with them. And so the abuse continues.
As these experiences are buried deep within the non-verbal areas of the brain and the body, it can be difficult to talk about them. EMDR takes another approach, using eye movements to stimulate the brain’s natural healing mechanisms to process traumatic memories, feelings and sensations, to move them into another area of the brain, the hippocampus - the brain’s library - which does have a sense of time and place. Once in the library, the experience can be remembered as something awful, but something which happened in the past that is now over. You can remember it without having to re-live the experience, and that can be a great relief.
EMDR can also help with worries about situations in the future. Coming out of an abusive relationship can leave you anxious about whether the next person you meet might treat you in the same way; would you be able to spot the signs? How could you decide? Would you be able to protect yourself if a future relationship did turn abusive?
EMDR can help you identify the personal resources (qualities, strengths, and attributes) you feel you would need to address such a situation, and then look within yourself, your relationships, and within the natural world to find such resources and build them up inside - to find ideas, people, aspects of yourself, symbols, animals, oceans - anything which helps you feel stronger in yourself and better able to navigate the minefield of modern dating to find a safe, loving, and fulfilling relationship. If that is what you want, of course. As you recover from the trauma, it can be helpful to spend time in therapy thinking about what you really want from the rest of your life, who you want to be, and how you want to spend it.
You have survived - now go and live.