Demystifying emotional abuse

Tuesday November 19 2019

Emotional abusers rarely turn violent, and that is something they rely on as proof of their goodness. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

For the last eight months, 30-year-old Phyllis* has been a shadow of herself. On the outside, she is perfectly fine, posting selfies and talking about how her man loves her. She never tags him though –his instructions.

And she never argues with him, because in her relationship, no disagreement is minor; everything becomes a major fight involving issues that had not been mentioned before, or issues that had already been talked about. Invariably, she ends up apologising, the issues she raised ignored and forgotten.

“It is walking on egg shells. He is my fiancé by name, but any wrong move from me and it becomes war. I no longer feel free to act or speak as I truly want to.

Maybe that is a small sacrifice to pay for the sake of peace,” she said. “The relationship has changed. I don’t know how I became this person who is like a doormat, because that was never me. But I am used to it now. I can’t go through this again with another person. Better the devil you know.”


Like Phyllis, the idea of abuse, for most of us, involves violence. Many people who feel unhappy with their partners and want to leave are repeatedly asked if they have been hit or physically threatened.


If the answer is in the negative, they are told to pray about the issue and work it out.

Emotional abuse is any non-physical behaviour which may include verbal aggression, intimidation, manipulation, and humiliation. It happens over time in an attempt to establish authority and dominance over a partner.

Its effects such as erosion of confidence, paranoia, insomnia, anxiety attacks and social withdrawal sometimes last longer than physical damage and need professional help to get through. 

Emotional abusers rarely turn violent, and that is something they rely on as proof of their goodness. ‘I do not hit you, therefore I am not abusive.’ One of the most common signs of emotional abuse is withholding affection.

It is normal for partners to feel disconnected before or after an argument. Abusive partners use emotional blackmail as a tool for manipulation.

Partners are forced to do what they would not agree to do in an ideal situation. Emotional blackmail sounds like ‘If you don’t wash my clothes then what kind of wife are you going to be?’


Deflection is another tactic. If you are unhappy with something they have done and sit your partner down to talk it over, they switch it up on you. It becomes about things you did and they said nothing.

They did not communicate at the time you did these things, but since you are unhappy about something they did, they have to make sure they show you they are unhappier.

They do not acknowledge that they are wrong. They instead attack you and act aggrieved until you set aside your own issues and apologize just for the sake of peace and quiet.

Using gifts to guilt a partner is also common. Gifts are accompanied by statements like “So many people wish they were you” and “Where will you find someone who gives you as many things like I do?”

The day you get into an argument because of something your partner has done, they will claim that they love you because they bought you gifts.

Then they will use this ‘generosity’ as a threat to make you stay, saying how you will never have what they can provide elsewhere, that if you want to continue living a good life, you should go back to them.


Perhaps the most subtle indication of emotional abuse is alienation. Your partner will want to isolate you from your circle of friends, no matter how harmless those friendships are.

They will want to control your calls, your social media and your conversations. You will hardly have the freedom to express yourself or interact with anyone without your partner’s approval.

Your partner will make you believe that no one cares about you but them. It will be too late by the time you realise you do not have any friend to tell you if you are making a mistake.

Your most supportive relationships with family and friends will be lost. It is a subtle way of controlling because when your partner starts making demands that you stop communicating with certain people, you will agree thinking no friendship is more important than your relationship.

And while that might be true, you need to be conscious about how much you are being alienated and why. Always have people around you who can be your voice of reason.

Emotional abusers also resort to exploiting their partner’s weaknesses. During fights, or even general conversation, you will be reminded of your insecurities, skin tone, level of education and even financial status. You will be reminded that there are so many people who don’t have your insecurities, and you will be made that you are being ‘loved’ as a favour. What this does over time is make you believe no one else will accept you as you are except your partner. Your esteem will be broken and you will endure abuse and disrespect thinking this is the only chance you will ever have to be with someone.

Lastly, gas lighting is a key indicator of emotional abuse. In 1944, a movie titled Gas Lightshowed a man manipulating his wife in order to believe she was crazy. Gaslighting is persistent manipulation and brainwashing that causes the victim to doubt themselves, and ultimately lose their sense of perception, identity, and self-worth. It comes in simple forms like a partner rubbishing your achievements, or using harsh language unprovoked and when you complain, you are told to stop being sensitive. If you are told something over and over, it becomes the truth you believe. Your partner tells you blatant lies, and if you remind them in future, they deny they ever said it.

Gaslighters will also use things you love against you. If you love singing, they will ask why you are singing instead of talking to them. If you have a job, they will ask why you can’t drop everything and rush back home to massage their back because they are tired. They will make everything a choice between your present circumstances and them. They will make comparisons like ‘My friend said if they were you, they would make sure they come immediately when I call.”

Eventually, you will start doubting your sense of right and wrong. If you make a decision you think is right, your partner will call you crazy. You will no longer have confidence in yourself and gradually, you will fully depend on your partner’s word and approval because everything you do or say seems wrong.

There is much that needs to be talked about emotional abuse. Just like physical abuse, it is most times a gender based abuse aimed at establishing dominance over a partner. It leaves people with little appreciation for themselves and for relationships. People need to learn how to spot the red flags because sometimes, even the perpetrators do not realize that they are being abusive.

We need to manage our behaviours and have respect both for ourselves and our partners and hopefully, we will have healthier relationships.