The slow boiling frog called abuse

When you met him, he was charming. He made you laugh. He flattered you and couldn’t do enough for you. You couldn’t believe that you had met someone so thoughtful and kind. He always had your best interests at heart, didn’t he? Even when he began to tell you to get rid of your baggy jumpers because “your figure is amazing. Don’t cover it up. How about wearing dresses that fit properly and show your curves?” You thought he was flattering you. Until he began to tell you what to wear and you began to listen.


Emotional abuse starts off slow and is so insidious that you are completely unaware of the red flags. It might start off with an unremarkable comment such as, “come on, have another drink. Don’t be so boring.” Or “I was only joking. You are so sensitive.” These comments gradually increase. Your gut reaction might tell you it feels wrong.

Something is off. You might feel a spark of annoyance about these comments. You might think, “How dare he? Am I wrong for feeling upset?” Your head and your thoughts battle it out with your gut reaction. You might tell yourself, “Maybe I am overreacting and now I’ve created an atmosphere just because of one silly remark.” You end up apologising for who you are and what you say. Eventually, the abuse will escalate and can turn into physical abuse.

In this way, abuse is like the metaphor of the frog that gets put into a pot of water. The water temperature can slowly be increased from tepid until it is boiling hot. If you put a frog straight into boiling water, it would jump straight out. But, slowly increase the temperature, and the frog will stay there.

The term ‘gaslighting describes a situation where the victim in the relationship is slowly convinced that they are ‘going mad’ by imagining things. The victim may be told that the way he/she remembers discussions or arguments is inaccurate or that they imagined/made-up how the discussion went. “You are making up that conversation. That is not what I said at all.”

Or it could be that he/she imagined that their partner was flirting with another just to cause an argument. The bottom line is if your partner was openly flirting in front of you and your instinct is telling you so, then that is the case. Gaslighting has you questioning your own mind, memory, and self until you begin to wonder whether you are ‘going mad’

Leaving is complicated

People find leaving these types of relationships very difficult. There might be financial abuse where the victim is not given access to finances, therefore, it is impossible to leave. The victim might be afraid of physical violence if they do attempt to leave. If children are involved, the victim might feel guilty that they are leaving the other parent without a mother/father. There are many reasons why a victim stays in an abusive relationship, and it is often complicated.

The victim is often ‘bonded’ to the abuser. There is often a cycle of abuse whereby once the abuser has exploded, he/she may then be apologetic and a honeymoon period follows. This reinforces the cycle of ‘reward’ and ‘punishment’ for the victim.

The victim might find that once they have managed to gain the emotional strength, support, and finances to leave that the abuse does not stop and can continue for many years. Paranoia and fear are not uncommon for the victim to feel both during and after these types of relationships.

When we are the victim in an abusive relationship, things are happening on the physical and biological level in our brain and body. Our body and the emotional centre in our brain are being put into a constant state of ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. We become hypervigilant and feel constantly in a threatened state.

We might feel that we never feel calm or relaxed and that we are always on the alert for danger. This is because a part of our brain called the ‘amygdala’ is ‘fired up’ and activated. This part of our brain tells us that there is danger present. It is a part of our brain that adapted for survival millions of years ago in order to keep us safe.

So, it is important to be aware that feeling threatened is a normal, adaptive response to your brain and body saying “there is a threat.” You aren’t imagining this biological instinct that you are feeling, and you aren’t ‘making it up.’

Healing takes time

But it is possible!

Recognising what is happening to you is the first step towards change. Remember, the brain and body have been in a threatened state, and it may take some time to calm the nervous system.

Feelings of safety in a trusted relationship can begin this healing. Being with a good friend or relative can start to make you feel safe. Don’t try to do this alone. Reaching out for help is OK! There are many agencies that will help you and counselling can be the first step to take after freeing yourself from this kind of relationship.

How can counselling help?

A therapeutic relationship can offer you a secure space where you can delve into your emotions.

There may be feeling of guilt, shame, anger, and confusion. A therapist can help you through those emotions.

A therapist can offer you tools that will allow you to begin to have self-compassion towards what you have experienced. Self-care is paramount to healing, though this might not be something that you are used to. Eventually, the brain and body will adapt to this new calm state.

Counselling can help by empowering the self through understanding your self-worth. Your self-worth and self-esteem will likely be at an all-time low. Slowly, through talking with a trusted therapist you will begin to return to who you once were.

Recognise that you have been in an abusive relationship. Allow yourself to feel your emotions without denying them. Validate what you have been through. It has been hard and seeing through the fog will take time, but you will get there! Be kind to yourself. You deserve to be loved and cared for. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23
Written by Samantha Flanagan, Anxiety Therapist (PGDIP, Registered member of BACP)
High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23

I am a registered member of BACP with a level 7, Msc in Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy. I am qualified to work with many issues which include but are not limited to: emotional abuse, trauma, anxiety, depression, substance mis-use, developmental trauma, work/life balance and life changes.

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