Over many years I have witnessed & been on the receiving end of emotional abusers & manipulators. The problem is that at the time it is often very difficult to see or understand what is happening: we just assume that there is something wrong with us or it is something of our making. Unless we are able to recognise the situation, the abuser & their behaviours for what they are, we will become entrapped in a mesh of confusion & be constantly unhappy, stressed or even neurotic.
In Part 1 of this series, we defined emotional abuse & manipulation. We also examined typical scenarios (situations) in which emotional abusers & manipulators operate & looked a bit at how they think.
In Part 2 we looked at specific characteristics & behaviours of abusers & manipulators. We saw how they have a well-sharpened quiver of ‘emotional arrows‘ that they shoot to produce chaos, disharmony, isolation & maintain control. We looked into the way they operate.
In Part 3 I used real-life examples to examine how emotional abusers & manipulators use their ‘weapons‘ in everyday settings to achieve their aims
A Reminder Of What Emotional Abuse Is (& Isn’t)
It is important to sort out what is emotional abuse & what isn’t.
Emotional abuse is NOT having an argument with someone, raising our voice or shouting, standing up for ourselves, showing extreme emotions when we are hurt or leaving a room during an argument. These are all normal parts of a healthy relationship & can be part of working things through or bringing problems to the surface for resolution. Even breaking-off a relationships happens in the natural course of life.
Emotional abuse IS when any of these (or the scenarios mentioned in Part 1, Part 2 or Part 3) are used for CONTROL: physical or mental.
Emotional abuse & the consequent manipulation involves a repeating cycle of behaviour which, if unbroken, leads to control, uncertainty, mental illness or even suicide in the victim. Like many issues involving our emotions it has a ‘spectrum of manifestation:‘
- It may be frequent, overt, continually overpowering, demeaning &/or intense
- It may happen gradually, be less frequent, be less intense &/or more subtle
The end result is the same: isolation of the victim, leaving them feeling afraid & that they have no voice, lonely, doubting their memory & sanity, confused, lacking confidence & self-esteem, being resigned to being stuck in the situation because it is obviously their fault & ultimately being very unhappy, anxious & commonly depressed.
Some Encouragement To The Victims Of Emotional Abuse & Manipulation
Firstly, BE ENCOURAGED: Remember that abusers are normally cowards who require back-up & support to execute their plans & maintain their abuse. Their abuse is only as strong as the smoke-screens they create to keep it hidden &, more importantly, as long as the victim allows the cycle to continue.
That may sound harsh, but the reason abuse cycles around & around is because the victim initially allowed the perpetrator to get away with it. This can be hard to accept because we think that we would never let it happen, but we forget that many of the weapons in the abuser’s arsenal involve subtlety, persuasion & stealth. We may have been totally unaware initially of what is happening, but to the abuser, when we accept their behaviour, we endorse it, so they repeat it as a means of gaining & maintaining control. We only realise what has happened when someone else points it out to us or when we feel it is too late to do anything about it.
Breaking-free requires consistency, commitment & courage. It also requires energy, strength & self-belief which are often almost at zero in a victim.
So here are a few helpful tips on starting to claim back your life & making abusive behaviour a thing of the past.
- Don’t try it on your own. Tell a trusted friend or health professional what is going on & enlist their emotional support. You will need it!
- Realise that you have as much of a say about what goes on in the relationship as the other person. You will already have been groomed & conditioned to doubt yourself & feel that you have little or no voice. The reality is that YOU DO HAVE A VOICE & your abuser is scared of it.
- Make a conscious decision to commit to changing the situation. It won’t be easy but without conviction & support, seeing it through to the end will be almost impossible.
- Don’t be afraid to challenge the abuser’s behaviour or reasoning. There will be a lot of noise when you do this because you will catch them off-guard & there are few things more threatening than a victim who fights back.
- You know your story; so believe it. Even though your abuser may try to confuse you, stick to what you know is true. Write it down somewhere so that you have something concrete to refer back to should they try to use confusion to regain control.
It is a threatening & initially painful process but once the victim starts to take a stand the abuser usually begins to crumble.
Dealing with abuse can vary depending upon our relationship with the abuser.
If we are in a platonic relationship then breaking-off contact with the abusive option may be an easier option. But don’t expect them to leave you alone. You may be their one source of security & importance so they will continue to be in contact as much as possible. They may use their emotions to make you feel bad, guilty, pity (as they probably have done before). Below are some suggestions which will help you deal with this behaviour too.
If we are in a long-term, ‘stable‘ relationship with the abuser (e.g., married to them) then we may still love them & be committed to making the marriage work. It may not be practical to simply break-off the marriage & leave (although that may, in some cases, be necessary). In those cases the following strategies can also be very effective.
The emotional abuse may be the result of ‘teamwork’ e.g., parent & child taking the same side against you. This is a very different & difficult situation as there are two targets, two types of abusive behaviour & two different people against you. In this case the following strategies may have to be used with the key-link e.g., the parent, or targeted at the primary cause e.g., the child. Success will depend on the perpetrators seeing & admitting what they are doing & wanting to change. However, it is likely that lies, deceit & denial will make success very difficult.
Remember that emotional abusers target our emotions for their control. When they feel they are losing control they will almost certainly intensify their efforts to regain it by non-violent methods such as shouting, sarcasm, belittling or whatever methods they normally use. However, if at any stage the victim fears for their physical safety they should remove them self from the situation immediately.
So How Can We Break Free of Emotional Abuse?
The answer is fairly simple: break the repeating cycle.
The practice is very difficult because even though the victim may feel worthless, powerless or the wrong person to make a change, they still need to be strong & consistent & not give up if their plans don’t go smoothly.
It all starts with a commitment to change the situation.
Once you accept that you
- Are no longer going to put up with it
- Are worth changing it for
- Have a voice
- Are going to challenge their behaviour & not let them get away with it any more
- DO have the power to change it
- Can find your voice & use it to become your abuser’s greatest fear & worst nightmare
you will be in a position to make permanent changes. You will begin to live again, rather than simply existing.
Decide Enough Is Enough
Progress starts with deciding that you have had enough & it must stop. Without this decision you have no foundation for progress & no conviction to see it through.
Once you see that you have as much of a right to how the relationship works as the other person, realise that your opinion matters & that you are worth it, you can begin to believe in yourself & see a reason for changing the way things are.
I quite often work with a young people’s organisation (National Citizen Service; NCS) whose aims are to empower young people to change & grasp the opportunities in front of them by believing in themselves. They have the slogan, ‘IT ALL STARTS WITH YES!’ All progress starts with our decision to move forward; to saying “Yes” to the need for change.
Find Help & Emotional Support
Sorting out life issues can be draining & confusing for the most energised & focused person. Victims of abuse are often running on a low emotion tank, just the remaining fumes or on empty. Very few can go it alone emotionally, but having someone alongside to whom you can speak also helps you to see things as they are. People outside of the situation looking in at the full story can often be far more objective & less influenced by emotions in their decision-making. They can help you see things that may otherwise go unnoticed. They can also encourage you along the way, give you a constant reference point for where you are (order & consistency are the abuser’s enemies) & highlight the progress being made.
If you have a trusted friend or family member (your choice will depend on where the abuse is happening) they are like gold dust. If you don’t have somebody close enough to trust then consider using a health care professional such as your doctor for support. They can also monitor how you are doing as a person & help with treatment etc that may be necessary or helpful.
Think About How You Want It To Change
Be clear on the boundaries you wish to set.
What is the specific behaviour(s) of the abuser that you will no longer accept or tolerate? Write it down (don’t skip this) e.g., “I will no longer tolerate demeaning or belittling speech”. Think about how you will feel when that goal is achieved & let that motivate you & give you a goal to aim for.
What is the new behaviour that you want the abuser to exhibit & what is the reward for exhibiting that desired behaviour? e.g., It may be resuming the discussion in an environment of mutual respect & working on resolving the underlying issue that they were angry about.
Commit To Making It Happen
Nothing can happen until we start the process & put our thoughts & decisions into actions.
Equally, a plan rarely goes completely without changes & surprises: there will be obstacles like come-backs, attempts by the abuser to regain control through what they say & do.
Your situation may resolve quickly or it may be more of a long-haul. Commitment to seeing it through, especially with support from another person, will make progress possible & bearable.
Learn Your Scripts
In order to regain control of the situation, communication will be necessary.
It is always a good idea to think about the exact words you’ll use when confronting the abuser’s unacceptable behaviour e.g., “You have a right to feel frustrated or angry but you don’t have a right to demean or belittle me”
Write them down, then practice, practice, practice your lines until you’ve memorised them & can say them without getting flustered in the heat of the moment.
Decide The Negative Consequence If The Abuser Continues Their Behaviour
Think of an action you can take immediately that will clearly show that you no longer tolerate their old behaviour e.g., you may choose to end the discussion immediately & leave the room.
Then think about the exact words you’ll use to communicate the negative consequence e.g., “Stop now or I’m ending this discussion and leaving the room”.
Write them down & practice until you can say them easily, with a firm voice & not be too flustered when saying them. As we practice something more often, it moves from being something we have to work at, to something we do naturally, to becoming a habit.
Stand Up To Your Abuser
Using the scripts you have practiced, start to implement your plan. Then, if/when the abuser starts their normal behaviour, challenge them e.g., “Stop! I will no longer tolerate demeaning or belittling speech.”
If they continue, you can either repeat the same phrase or use one of the other scripts to let them know that you are serious e.g., “Stop now or I’m ending this discussion and leaving the room”. If they don’t stop, carry out your threat & leave the room. When things have cooled a bit or the abuser comes after you, state your terms for continuing the discussion e.g., “I’ll be glad to resume the discussion in a mutually respectful manner and work to resolve what you’re angry about.”
Be Prepared For The Reaction
Anticipate how your abuser will react, because they WILL!
What are the ‘go to‘ strategies that they have used in the past when you’ve tried to stand up & confront her?
- Deny that their behaviour is abusive
- Try to justify or rationalise her behaviour “I do x only because you do y. If you stopped doing y, I wouldn’t have to do x” or “This is the only way I can get you to listen to me”.
- Deflect your comments & play victim “I do x but you do y which is so much worse. In fact, you’re the one who should apologise to me”
You may see an escalation in abusive behaviour but ignore completely whatever they say in their attempt to derail you & restore the status quo. Responding to their specific derailment attempt takes the spotlight off their bad behaviour … and they win.
Firmly repeat what you said & start implementing the negative consequences.
Stay Committed & Don’t Be Discouraged
Progress may be rapid, with a positive response being seen in the abuser quickly. However, in many cases it can be slow & painful. Even though you may see no apparent change, keep at it, without deviating. The message will get through eventually. Firmly repeating what you said & implementing the negative consequences will begin to take effect.
Use your support to help you see change & encourage you on your journey as you execute your plan. Don’t expect the habits of a lifetime to change overnight. But if they do change & this type of strategy is maintained when any future situations arise there is evidence that the relationship can stay abuse-free permanently.
Breaking-free from the cycle of emotional abuse & manipulation is not easy, but it is worth the effort in the long haul. It can set both the victim & the abuser free to enjoy life more fully.
However, reconciliation is not always possible. There is absolutely nothing wrong with putting yourself & your needs first. If your attempts at resolution & reconciliation have failed, even after specific counselling (where the abuser may use their skills to persuade the counsellor/therapist of their side of the story), then finishing the abusive relationship may be the only option & what is best for you. It is not something to be taken lightly & will almost certainly affect you emotionally. But with the right support & encouragement, you will be able to rebuild your life & be a much stronger & wiser person for it.
Although we love stories with happy endings, this is not always possible where an abuser is involved.
If you are concerned that you may be in an abusive relationship it is always good to confidentially talk to someone outside of that relationship such as your doctor. Being able to share your concerns is the first step towards breaking free. The UK has a great resource in Relate a relationship counselling service.
I would like to thank the following for their help with consolidating my thoughts for this article:
In the final part of this series I will look at how to remain abuse-free.
Until then, take care …