You might be a victim of an abusive relationship and don’t even know it. Typically, people think of abuse as physical and between romantic partners or parent and child. This limited view of abuse misses a wide range of harm inflicted through non-physical means within a variety of associations, including relationships with friends, co-workers and superiors.
Emotional abuse can be delivered verbally and non-verbally with subtle actions not immediately recognized by the victim or their family and friends. The wounds inflicted by emotional abuse develop over a period of time as the abuser chips away at the self-confidence of their victim with the goal of gaining compliance and control. The abuser gains power over their victim through threats, intimidation, blame, yelling, criticism, shame, possessiveness, violence towards objects or pets, isolation and entrapment, brainwashing the victim to believe there is no way out.
The cycle of abuse follows often follows a very distinct and classic pattern. Different publications refer to the stages by different names, but most align with the following:
- Tension Building and Abuse: In this stage, the abuser builds tension through control and manipulation of their victim. This can be done imposing limits and controls on the victim’s financial, social, religious or familial freedoms. Jealously and possessiveness are used as an additional means of control and the victim is restricted directly or through fear on who they contact, where they can go and when they can do things; isolating the victim from help and support and creating a sense of fear and dependency. As tension increases, the victim gives in to the abuser, attempting to keep the peace.
- Making-Up: When confronted by the victim, the abuser may apologize for behavior and promises to make changes to continue the relationship. The longer the abuse continues, the more likely an abuser will often shift blame for the incident to their victim or deny anything ever happened rather than apologize. At this point, the victim’s self-esteem is eroded and the abuser has successfully trained the victim concede.
- Calm: During the calm stage, an abuser acts like nothing ever happened. Promises made during 'making-up' stage may be met and the victim will have a false sense of security that the cycle is over. The “Calm” stage could last hours, months or even years, but without true acknowledgement of the issues and professional help, the cycle will begin to repeat itself again with the “tension building” stage.
There are long-term effects on the victim of abuse, often referred to as battered person syndrome, which include dangerously low self-esteem, depression, increased alcohol or drug use, loss of friends and family, job performance issues and withdrawal from life. The victim has trouble recognizing the effects of their abuse and often needs help to see how their life is spiraling out of control. Like physical abuse victims, those suffering from emotional abuse return repeatedly to their abuser. The longer the abuse continues, the more help the victim needs to break the pattern and re-claim their lives.
I “survived” an abusive relationship in my past with my employer; where management and executives controlled their employees through threats to salaries, vacation time, job security, family time and advancement. The entire organization was demoralized, convinced the treatment was deserved, developed inferiority complexes and thought no one else would hire them. Every time I began to recognize the effects of this abuse; the plummeting self-esteem, abuse of food and alcohol, feelings of hopelessness and depression, my employer would recognize the flight-risk and enter the “make-up” phase, showering gifts and attention or messages of bad job markets and horror stories from other employers to ensure I would stay. After a couple of years, I decided to take charge of my life and escape the abusive relationship, “breaking up” with my employer and moving on to another job.
Recently, I realized that I was again becoming a victim of an abusive employment situation with a position change that left me working in a toxic environment of passive-aggressiveness, control, manipulation, favoritism and distrust. Realizing this new position was going to cause long term issues and refusing to become a victim again, I worked with friends and family to take control and confront the issues, facing one of the “aggressors” and moving on to another position in the firm. Battered Person Syndrome is more common than many think, is not limited to physical abuse and can be inflicted by people you interact with everyday. A key to happiness and success is recognizing the issue, the symptoms and taking charge; no one should be a victim of emotional abuse.