Anxiety is common in abusive relationships.
But not all relationship abuse is physical.
Domestic violence remains a serious, significant problem in the world today. Despite all of the anti-violence campaigns, the public shaming, the backlash, and the effort in schools and media to teach domestic violence prevention, it remains an all-too-common, and all-too-serious issue today.
There is no denying that domestic violence is perhaps one of the most serious issues in our time, and this article is not meant to dispute that.
However, there is another type of abuse that is also very common, and it is a type of abuse that gets discussed even less despite having serious, significant consequences to the person on the receiving end of the abuse.
We’re talking about emotional abuse.
Emotional abuse occurs across genders. It is sometimes blatant, but often subtle, and most relationships have “normalized” this type of abuse to such a degree that they have no idea it is happening. Even the abusive partner often has no idea it is occurring, and in some cases, both partners are responsible for it.
What is Emotional Abuse?
Emotional abuse is a term for behaviors that one partner uses to hurt, control, manipulate, or scare their partner. It is abuse against someone’s emotions, rather than someone’s physical body.
It is also present in some form in most relationships.
There are both blatant and more subtle forms of emotional abuse that can occur in relationships, which is why it can be hard to notice when abuse occurs. Examples of more blatant forms of emotional abuse include:
- Threatening suicide if your partner leaves you or does something you don’t want them to.
- Frequent insults, put-downs, and statements about you that are hurtful.
- Controlling your behaviors, including your appearance, who you can see, and what you can do.
- Threats or intimidating behaviors.
- Manipulating behaviors, like gaslighting or constant lying.
These are some of the clearer forms of emotional abuse. Yet there are far more subtle forms that happen at times in most relationships:
- The “silent treatments,” where the person refuses to talk to someone.
- Withholding sex to get something (does not include simply not being in the mood).
- Joking put downs without any compliments or attempts to boost a person up.
- Threatening to break up or leave a relationship (or leaving the house) from a small fight.
- Not allowing you to talk to anyone of the opposite sex.
- Going through your phone to check up on you.
- Frequent jealously, even if you do not deserve it.
- Blaming you for things that are going wrong in their life.
Usually, both parties are at fault for at least a few of these behaviors. Very few people can say they have never given their partner the silent treatment or been jealous of someone for no reason, or even made an insult or two once in a while.
But if it happens often, and it affects how you or your partner think, feel, or act, you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship, and unfortunately, the effects of that relationship can be life-altering. And NOTE: Not all emotionally abusive relationships are with romantic partners. Family and friendships have them as well.
The Effects of Emotional Abuse
Emotional abuse may not cause any physical bruises or put you at risk for any significant physical injury.
But the effects of emotionally abusive relationships can be significant. Indeed, they can cause long-lasting emotional consequences that extend for years, sometimes even the rest of your life if they go untreated. Within the relationship, you may feel as though:
- You are walking on eggshells like you cannot do anything without getting yelled at.
- You are worthless, as emotionally abusive relationships can eat at your self-esteem/confidence.
- You are sad, depressed, or feel sick to your stomach for no apparent reason.
- You are lonely or feel you will be lonely if you or your partner ever break up.
Not everyone experiences these symptoms, however. Everyone is different. For example, because emotional abuse can be two-sided (ie, you both emotionally abuse each other), you may also find that you are prone to the same behaviors: anger, silent treatments, yelling, etc. as a result of the abuse.
There is also one symptom that tends to extend outside of the relationship, and one that can last a lifetime when it goes untreated. That symptom is anxiety.
Anxiety From Emotional Abuse
Anxiety is perhaps one of the most common symptoms of emotional abuse.
Sometimes anxiety is limited to the relationship, which is stressful enough because you are with your partner often. But other times it can even extend to other situations as well, like the workplace. It may also last even if you end the relationship.
Emotionally abuse often causes anxiety because emotional abuse is almost the perfect storm of anxiety-producing events:
- It causes chronic stress, which is one of the most common causes of anxiety.
- It causes overthinking.
- It leads to poor self-esteem and confidence.
- It makes people on-edge/nervous, worried that they will be hurt again.
- It takes away your social support since it is caused by someone you need for support.
This combination of different issues means that emotional abuse can and does easily trigger anxiety symptoms in those that experience it in the short and long term, and in severe cases may lead to a combination of anxiety and depression or panic attacks.
What to Do to Help with Emotional Abuse and Anxiety
Treating emotional abuse related anxiety can be tricky. There are several issues that stand in its way. First, as we discussed, emotional abuse can be especially difficult to see. While severe forms of emotional abuse, like those where someone is controlled, intimidated, or threatened are a bit easier to acknowledge, other forms may not be as clear.
In addition, because both partners may be engaging in the emotionally abusive behavior (at least in its less blatant forms), there are many things that may need to change in your relationship before the abuse can be cared for.
In severely emotionally abusive relationships, ending the relationship or seeking immediate couples counseling is very important, because if the abuse continues, there is no way to reduce the anxiety. It is very important to evaluate your relationship and either leave or determine an intervention that will work for you.
In more subtly emotionally damaging relationships, you will still need to address it:
- Consider seeing a couples counselor.
- Talk to your partner about the abuse, and how it is affecting you.
- Lay ground rules, and create an action plan to save your relationship.
Emotionally abuse will always be damaging in all forms, so until you can address it in a meaningful way, it is going to be very hard to find relief from your anxiety. Learning to handle emotional abuse itself is best left to experts, so you may need to speak with someone that handles abusive relationships if you feel that it has become scary or dangerous.
This is not a replacement for recovering from emotional abuse itself. That can often be so difficult, it requires specific expertise to rebuild the ability to trust, learn to love, and figure out how to rebuild your self-esteem. Do not be afraid to see a psychologist if needed. It can be life-changing.
Here, we can at least discuss how to address the anxiety that happens as a result of emotionally abusive relationships after the abuse itself has been dealt with. For that, consider the following:
- Evaluating the Causes of Anxiety – Rarely do we take the time to inventory what leads to our anxiety experience, so it is a good idea to first make a list of what seems to lead to the anxiousness. Is it always present? How does it become worse/better? What thoughts occur before, during, and after? This list will give you a better understanding of what you are experiencing, which in turn can help you address it more.
- Give Yourself Positive Reminders – You’ve spent a long time being told negative things about yourself. It may feel silly at first, but telling yourself positive things about yourself in the mirror, like an “Affirmation” can really help you remind yourself that life isn’t as nervous as it seems.
- Run it Out – Anxiety builds tension. That tension never stops when you’re in an emotionally abusive situation, leading to this buildup of negative energy that seems to be always present. Running – or at least, an exercise that uses up a lot of energy – is a good way to try to melt that experience away by using up all of that energy and giving you some physical relief and relaxation. It also has mood-boosting benefits, improves sleep, and may even help you feel more confident about yourself.
- Reinvigorate Your Relationship with Your Friends – Emotionally abusive relationships often create a distance between you and some of the friendships and support people you have in your life. Bringing them back into your life can give you back that support, and help you build trust and love with positive people that trust and love you back. If there is anyone that is kind, thoughtful, and a positive voice in your life that you can become closer to in a non-romantic way, it can improve how you feel about the safety of the world around you.
- Address Anxiety in Traditional Ways – The tips above are specific to emotional abuse. But anxiety is also anxiety. You can find some relief by addressing anxiety in traditional ways. You can start with our anxiety guide, and begin exploring to find more about potential anxiety treatments.
You should also consider taking our free 7-minute anxiety test. This test is a useful way to analyze how much anxiety you feel, and what you can do to start eliminating it.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated May 15, 2018.