Updated: Aug 21, 2019
When we hear the words "abuse" we often think of actual physical violence. Cuts, bruises or broken bones that are visible and hard to ignore. But what about abusive behaviours that are not so easy to see? The aim of this article is to look at both covert and overt types of abusive behaviour, particularly of the emotional and psychological kind, the effects of this type of abuse and explore briefly why abusers feel the need to control their victims. Here is where I'd like point out at the very start and at every opportunity I have throughout this article to remind you that YOU do not cause an abuser to abuse. There is absolutely NO justification or excuse WHATSOEVER for this kind of behaviour or for someone to have any power and control over your mind and body.
But first, lets briefly look at the many types of abuse that define and make up the umbrella term "abuse";
sexual (rape, sexual harassment, any form of non consensual or coercive sexual acts e.g., photography, exposure to pornography or inappropriate looking and touching),
physical (violence, actual physical contact, threatened or attempted physical contact)
verbal (verbal communication-written, in print, social media posts, identifiable gestures, etc.)
financial and material (theft, fraud, controlling partner’s finances),
domestic (within the household, between partners and families which include psychological, physical, sexual, financial, emotional abuse in all various forms)
organisational (poor professional practice e.g. care homes, hospitals etc),
discrimination (racial, gender, sexuality)
emotional and psychological (harassment, intimidation, cyber-bullying, controlling, intimidation, coercion, threats)
This article shall predominantly focus on abuse of the emotional and psychological type. But what actually is the difference between them?
Psychological abuse focuses on the mind and is about gaining power and control over another person’s perception of reality (e.g. gaslighting) whereas emotional abuse focuses on the emotions and is about gaining power and control over another person’s confidence and self esteem.
You may be thinking that both these types of abuse cause an eroded sense of self esteem and you would be right in thinking that and we shall look at more effects of both these types of abuse later on. However as mentioned earlier, some forms of abuse are more visible and easier to spot than others. Maybe not so easy when you are within the relationship yourself and involved with the abuser first hand, but possibly to a third party looking in that can spot the signs of emotional and psychological abuse if they are allowed close enough to witness such behaviours. This is called 'overt' behaviour; something that is clearly observable, publicly noticeable and obvious. For example, we see a man walking down the road. We know that he is walking as it is observable (or an 'overt' behaviour) but we do not know where he where he is heading or what he will do when he gets there. This is what we call 'covert' behaviour; something that is not openly acknowledged or displayed, something that is unknown or secret or even something that happens behind the scenes. Covert abuse is therefore much harder to define and to observe which can be hidden easily within passive/aggressive types of behaviour that keeps the victim in a state of confusion. Physical and verbal abuse for example can be classed as overt abuse as effects are observable and usually very clearly defined. Emotional and psychological abuse however would usually be more covert abuse as it is hidden and less easily defined. A person cannot be physically or verbally abusive without also being psychologically and emotionally abusive. But, a person can be psychologically abusive without being physically abusive.
It is important to understand that because covert abuse is not so easily recognised by others or even yourself, not at least until some quite serious emotional and psychological damage has been done, that you must not blame yourself for not seeing the red flags earlier. Often this kind of covert abuse may sometimes look like "accidental" behaviour from the abuser and after such a prolonged period of time can crush the victims' self esteem. Blame for the unhealthy behaviour is often deflected onto the victim and is one of the red flags to look out for. This causes a distorted perception of reality and keeps the victim the toxic relationship and in a state of psychological and emotional confusion as they do not have the strength or confidence to leave.
Here I would like to point out that although I dislike using the word "victim" while writing this blog, it is the easiest way to explain and keep things simple. In no way are you a victim if you have suffered any form of abuse. You are a survivor and you deserve to thrive being the person you are meant to be and definitely not crushed by someone who is unable to treat others with respect and love. It is also important to note here that all the information in this article is not gender specific. Male and female can both be either victim or perpetrator of abuse and should not be tolerated in what ever gender it manifests.
We often hear the term "red flags" within a relationship, but what exactly are we looking out for? Something that is alerting us to a problem can often go unnoticed, especially if we are dealing with a covert abuser. The list below is some of the signs that you should look out for from the other person (albeit a partner, friend or family member) within an unhealthy relationship:
criticism and constant put-downs
undermining your decisions
lack of empathy for other people and it being all about "themselves"
being nice to other people in public but not to you in private (Jekyll and Hyde)
feeling unsafe when in their company but not being able to put a finger on why that is the case
stares and glares
being made to feel guilty
telling you what you can and can’t do or who to not speak to
being intimidating and threatening or passive-aggressive
discounting other people’s feelings and opinions
blames others and using others as a scapegoat
constant texting/phone calls when not with them
tracking your whereabouts at all times
threatening to commit suicide/self-harm if you leave or not do as they say
often saying things like "If you don’t ___, I will __" or when I met you, you were ____but now you're ___"
extreme moodiness and the feeling of 'walking on eggshells'
silent treatment, withholding affection or withdrawing if not getting their own way
acting the victim
playing mind games
blame you for their own unhappiness
humiliation and manipulation
never taking responsibility for their own actions
showers you with gifts/being overly 'nice' to erase the bad treatment and promises to change, but doesn't
character assassination to friends, family, employers, social media etc.
gaslighting - altering the victims sense of reality of what is and isn't acceptable - often by abuser denying that previous abusive incidents ever occurred to even staging bizarre events with the intention of confusing the victim. This can make you doubt your own memory of events which makes it easier to fall under the manipulative control of the abuser.
Why do abusers behave this way?
It is so important to understand that someone else's behaviour does not define who you are as a person. It is a reflection of them and how they feel inside because of their unhealed or even unrecognised lack of self esteem. Abusers feel the need to control others to gain a false sense power over their victims so they do not have to face their own personal feelings and distress. They feel powerless next to you and the only way to feel better about themselves is to divert their pain elsewhere. It is scary to feel loneliness, abandonment and to not be able to handle fear but to project those insecurities on to someone else is not the right way of dealing with things. Abusers often feel the need to 'win' and to be seen as the 'good' person in public to cover up their own flaws at whatever cost. The often overt behaviour of the abuser 'playing the victim' is common as manipulating others (not just the victim) comes easily to them as they have had a lot of practice doing so. This type of behaviour can and should be worked on in counselling or some other kind of appropriate therapy. It is not for the other person in the relationship to 'fix' things. Everybody has a responsibility to themselves to heal their own problems without taking them into personal relationships. To pass the pain on to another person which isn't theirs to hold, only allows the cycle of abuse to continue. Covering up weaknesses at the detriment of someone you are meant to love, is not love, it is abusive behaviour. Plain and simple.
The effects of psychological and emotional abuse
The effects of abuse can be traumatic and long lasting. If you or someone you know are showing any of the signs or symptoms below, please seek help and support.
Does the other person make you feel:
unable to talk about the abusive behaviour without the fear of some sort of backlash or further continuation of the abusive behaviour?
that you cannot express yourself openly?
that you have to change your actions to accomodate the other person?
that you are even thinking what the other person will say/think/do before you've even made a decision or do something for yourself?
Do you feel:
lacking in confidence?
that your personality has changed for the worse since being around the abuser?
you have lost friends due to the abusive relationship?
you are not sleeping properly?
the need to self harm or thoughts of suicide?
the need to use alcohol or drugs to self medicate and escape all of the obove feelings?
So maybe after reading this article you feel that you recognise yourself in an abusive relationship currently or sometime in the past, then please reach out for help. Or maybe you feel in fact that you are the abusive one towards others and want to stop but don't know how, then please also seek help. The only way to end any pattern of behaviour is to break the cycle. Either for yourself if you feel that you find yourself in abusive relationships frequently or on the other side of the coin, that you are the one taking your unhealthy behaviours from one relationship to the next.
Remember....you are not a victim.... you are a survivor.
About the Author:
Kat Quinn ~ BSc. (Hons.), Fd. Couns. MNCS is a qualified and experienced Person Centred counsellor and is an accredited member of The National Counselling Society with her private practice based at Tardebigge Court, Redditch, Worcestershire, England. Please visit her website for more information and to contact her to arrange counselling if you feel you need help in an abusive relationship.