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What Makes Someone Stay in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship?

Emotional abuse is often subtle and insidious, leaving the victim unaware of the real cause of their misery.

Updated
Mind It
6 min read
What makes it difficult for a person to not walk out on an abusive relationship and instead choose to end their life?
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Snapshot

“I do not speak as I think, I do not think as I should, and so it all goes on in helpless darkness”, one is reminded of this quote by Franz Kafka every time the news of the suicide of a seemingly happy person surfaces.

Earlier this week, the news of a suicide in Delhi of a 32-year-old woman made headlines across the country. She was a Lufthansa employee and had been married for two years.

A superficial glance reveals that she was educated, had a good career, financial independence and familial support. Yet, the tragic unfolding of events shows that the reality was far from well.

What Makes Someone Stay in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship?

  1. 1. Could the Abuser be Unaware of Abuse?

    What makes it difficult for a person to not walk out on an abusive relationship and instead choose to end their life?
    What makes it difficult for a person to not walk out on an abusive relationship and instead choose to end their life?
    (Photo: iStockphoto)

    Though nothing is certain in the case at this point, there are reports of physical and emotional abuse meted out to her. While the former is an explicit, overt form of abuse, the latter is often not even realised by both the abuser as well as the abused.

    Dr Sameer Malhotra, a psychiatrist at New Delhi’s Max hospital comments on this and adds:

    Many a times the perpetrator may not even be aware of the likely consequences on the mental health of the victim/sufferer. Even the victim remains unaware of the consequences on one’s mental health and tends to suffer silently from low self-esteem, lack of assertion, anxiety, avoidance behaviour and even nightmares.  

    However what makes it difficult for a person to not walk out of an abusive relationship and instead choose to end their life? What is behind such extreme levels of isolation that makes the abused feel there’s no help to reach out for?

    Too caught up to read? Listen to the story here:

    Expand
  2. 2. Understanding Emotional Abuse

    Though not confined to, emotional abuse is common in hetero-normative relationships, where power dynamics are especially at play. It comes from a desire to exert power, often originating from a sense of insecurity.

    Emotional abuse is often an attempt to control the other person. At times it stems from the perpetrator’s inner sense of insecurity that reflects in accusations, external blame or constant checking on the victim. At times the perpetrator’s tendency to repeatedly criticise the other person or make fun of the other person, can negatively affect the self-esteem of the victim.
    Dr Sameer Malhotra

    After the assertion, the abuser would attempt to secure their power. One way of achieving it is by isolating the victim from all possible sources of help. It often involves making them question their own reality, version of truth and in more extreme cases, even their sanity.

    Dr Aruna Broota, a Delhi-based psychologist, reiterates that emotional abuse is common in hierarchical relationships, like that of a traditional husband and wife equation. However, it can happen in a same-sex partnership as well.

    The husband might be breaking her confidence and she will go on taking it because the culture tells her to. She may be financially dependent on him and he would go on bulldozing her emotional strength. Though men are more likely to behave in this manner with their female partners, women are just as capable of it.
    Dr Aruna Broota

    As opposed to physical, emotional abuse is insidious and coercive. It employs no overt tools, thereby making it even harder for the two parties to realise it.

    “Emotional abuse is an attempt to control, in just the same way that physical abuse is an attempt to control another person. The only difference is that the emotional abuser does not use physical hitting, kicking, pinching, grabbing, pushing, or other physical forms of harm. Rather the perpetrator of emotional abuse uses emotion as his/her weapon of choice”, says therapist and author Andrea Mathews.
    Expand
  3. 3. Approach to this Case- A Big Cliche?

    In the context of this specific case, if it is indeed a suicide, Dr Broota says that the general interpretation of it is a “cliche”.

    When it comes to suicide, it’s important to look at the emotional sustainability of the person in question as well. The reason she did not walk out and instead chose to end her life shows an extreme case of self-harm which in itself is a mental health issue.
    Dr Broota

    Psychology of suicide is “very less understood all over the world”, adds the doctor. Cognitive interpretation of a situation is very important.

    Cognitive interpretation of a situation is very important, especially for someone who is already predisposed to self harm.
    Cognitive interpretation of a situation is very important, especially for someone who is already predisposed to self harm.
    (Photo: iStock/Altered by The Quint)
    “It must have not been a single event that led her to do this. There must have been several ways in which she was made to feel inadequate, in which her integrity was bulldozed”, says Dr Broota.
    Expand
  4. 4. Signs of Emotional Abuse

    Aggression: So what if there’s no physical harm done to the victim? Aggression is not uncommon to this form of abuse. If throwing things, slamming doors and punching walls is a common recurrence in a relationship during fights, all is not well. It doesn’t have to always involve physical contact between the abused and the abuser.

    Mental aggression devastates the abused, says Dr Broota.

    Verbal Abuse: Experts point out that letting off steam sometimes is a good, cathartic idea for your emotional health. However regular shouting matches which always leave one person feeling hopeless and like a waste of space is a bright red flag. Verbal abuse can take a huge toll on someone’s emotional well-being. It is not alright to be insulted and sworn at, irrespective of the circumstances.

    What makes it difficult for a person to not walk out on an abusive relationship and instead choose to end their life?
    What makes it difficult for a person to not walk out on an abusive relationship and instead choose to end their life?
    (Photo: iStockphoto)

    Silence: Dr Broota sees silence as another form of aggression. It’s common in a situation of emotional abuse for the abuser to shut down on their partner. To not speak, refuse to engage in any form of conversation and dismiss any requests to resolve a conflict are some other signs. This often leads to the abused questioning their own decisions and accepting their fault (even when it might not be so) simply to resolve the conflict. If this becomes a pattern in a relationship, it’s another warning sign.

    Isolation: The abuse victim would invariably end up feeling isolated and find themselves in a space where they feel no one can reach them. Additionally, the abuser would make the victim feel they do not deserve better. All of this leads to isolation and makes the victim dependent on the abuser in a twisted equation of emotional dynamics.

    Expand
  5. 5. The Other Side of the Argument

    While emotional abuse is a subtle tool employed against the victim, it’s important to note that not all unpleasant, emotional experiences are to be confused with abuse. Abuse involves repetition of the same behavioural pattern over a period of time in a manner which always leaves the same partner feeling unpleasant and worthless.

    This is why simply an argument between two equal parties is not emotional abuse.

    According to Relate, a UK-based organisation, emotional abuse has several stages which almost invariably starts with aggressive intimidation and threatening without physically harming the person. This is followed by criticism and undermining of opinions, invoking guilt, controlling access to financial resources and finally asserting complete control on the partner and questioning all their activities and decisions.

    What makes it difficult for a person to not walk out on an abusive relationship and instead choose to end their life?
    What makes it difficult for a person to not walk out on an abusive relationship and instead choose to end their life?
    (Photo: iStockphoto)
    Expand
  6. 6. Addressing Abuse

    The first step to break out of the circle of abuse is to reach out to friends, family or any other trusted confidants. Talking about it is essential for addressing it. Medical and professional help is also imperative, affirms Dr Broota.

    Young couples should seek counselling before marriage and during it as well. The roles change so much in a marriage, their entire personalities go for a toss.
    Dr Broota

    She further adds that it’s important to remove the stigma of reaching out to a therapist. People should not hesitate from reaching out for help, especially in the case of those who are predisposed to self-harm.

    (If you have suicidal thoughts, or if you know someone who needs help, please refer to this state-wise list of credible mental health professionals.)

    (Subscribe to FIT on Telegram)

    Expand

Could the Abuser be Unaware of Abuse?

What makes it difficult for a person to not walk out on an abusive relationship and instead choose to end their life?
What makes it difficult for a person to not walk out on an abusive relationship and instead choose to end their life?
(Photo: iStockphoto)

Though nothing is certain in the case at this point, there are reports of physical and emotional abuse meted out to her. While the former is an explicit, overt form of abuse, the latter is often not even realised by both the abuser as well as the abused.

Dr Sameer Malhotra, a psychiatrist at New Delhi’s Max hospital comments on this and adds:

Many a times the perpetrator may not even be aware of the likely consequences on the mental health of the victim/sufferer. Even the victim remains unaware of the consequences on one’s mental health and tends to suffer silently from low self-esteem, lack of assertion, anxiety, avoidance behaviour and even nightmares.  

However what makes it difficult for a person to not walk out of an abusive relationship and instead choose to end their life? What is behind such extreme levels of isolation that makes the abused feel there’s no help to reach out for?

Too caught up to read? Listen to the story here:

ADVERTISEMENT

Understanding Emotional Abuse

Though not confined to, emotional abuse is common in hetero-normative relationships, where power dynamics are especially at play. It comes from a desire to exert power, often originating from a sense of insecurity.

Emotional abuse is often an attempt to control the other person. At times it stems from the perpetrator’s inner sense of insecurity that reflects in accusations, external blame or constant checking on the victim. At times the perpetrator’s tendency to repeatedly criticise the other person or make fun of the other person, can negatively affect the self-esteem of the victim.
Dr Sameer Malhotra

After the assertion, the abuser would attempt to secure their power. One way of achieving it is by isolating the victim from all possible sources of help. It often involves making them question their own reality, version of truth and in more extreme cases, even their sanity.

Dr Aruna Broota, a Delhi-based psychologist, reiterates that emotional abuse is common in hierarchical relationships, like that of a traditional husband and wife equation. However, it can happen in a same-sex partnership as well.

The husband might be breaking her confidence and she will go on taking it because the culture tells her to. She may be financially dependent on him and he would go on bulldozing her emotional strength. Though men are more likely to behave in this manner with their female partners, women are just as capable of it.
Dr Aruna Broota

As opposed to physical, emotional abuse is insidious and coercive. It employs no overt tools, thereby making it even harder for the two parties to realise it.

“Emotional abuse is an attempt to control, in just the same way that physical abuse is an attempt to control another person. The only difference is that the emotional abuser does not use physical hitting, kicking, pinching, grabbing, pushing, or other physical forms of harm. Rather the perpetrator of emotional abuse uses emotion as his/her weapon of choice”, says therapist and author Andrea Mathews.

Approach to this Case- A Big Cliche?

In the context of this specific case, if it is indeed a suicide, Dr Broota says that the general interpretation of it is a “cliche”.

When it comes to suicide, it’s important to look at the emotional sustainability of the person in question as well. The reason she did not walk out and instead chose to end her life shows an extreme case of self-harm which in itself is a mental health issue.
Dr Broota

Psychology of suicide is “very less understood all over the world”, adds the doctor. Cognitive interpretation of a situation is very important.

Cognitive interpretation of a situation is very important, especially for someone who is already predisposed to self harm.
Cognitive interpretation of a situation is very important, especially for someone who is already predisposed to self harm.
(Photo: iStock/Altered by The Quint)
“It must have not been a single event that led her to do this. There must have been several ways in which she was made to feel inadequate, in which her integrity was bulldozed”, says Dr Broota.
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Signs of Emotional Abuse

Aggression: So what if there’s no physical harm done to the victim? Aggression is not uncommon to this form of abuse. If throwing things, slamming doors and punching walls is a common recurrence in a relationship during fights, all is not well. It doesn’t have to always involve physical contact between the abused and the abuser.

Mental aggression devastates the abused, says Dr Broota.

Verbal Abuse: Experts point out that letting off steam sometimes is a good, cathartic idea for your emotional health. However regular shouting matches which always leave one person feeling hopeless and like a waste of space is a bright red flag. Verbal abuse can take a huge toll on someone’s emotional well-being. It is not alright to be insulted and sworn at, irrespective of the circumstances.

What makes it difficult for a person to not walk out on an abusive relationship and instead choose to end their life?
What makes it difficult for a person to not walk out on an abusive relationship and instead choose to end their life?
(Photo: iStockphoto)

Silence: Dr Broota sees silence as another form of aggression. It’s common in a situation of emotional abuse for the abuser to shut down on their partner. To not speak, refuse to engage in any form of conversation and dismiss any requests to resolve a conflict are some other signs. This often leads to the abused questioning their own decisions and accepting their fault (even when it might not be so) simply to resolve the conflict. If this becomes a pattern in a relationship, it’s another warning sign.

Isolation: The abuse victim would invariably end up feeling isolated and find themselves in a space where they feel no one can reach them. Additionally, the abuser would make the victim feel they do not deserve better. All of this leads to isolation and makes the victim dependent on the abuser in a twisted equation of emotional dynamics.

The Other Side of the Argument

While emotional abuse is a subtle tool employed against the victim, it’s important to note that not all unpleasant, emotional experiences are to be confused with abuse. Abuse involves repetition of the same behavioural pattern over a period of time in a manner which always leaves the same partner feeling unpleasant and worthless.

This is why simply an argument between two equal parties is not emotional abuse.

According to Relate, a UK-based organisation, emotional abuse has several stages which almost invariably starts with aggressive intimidation and threatening without physically harming the person. This is followed by criticism and undermining of opinions, invoking guilt, controlling access to financial resources and finally asserting complete control on the partner and questioning all their activities and decisions.

What makes it difficult for a person to not walk out on an abusive relationship and instead choose to end their life?
What makes it difficult for a person to not walk out on an abusive relationship and instead choose to end their life?
(Photo: iStockphoto)
ADVERTISEMENT

Addressing Abuse

The first step to break out of the circle of abuse is to reach out to friends, family or any other trusted confidants. Talking about it is essential for addressing it. Medical and professional help is also imperative, affirms Dr Broota.

Young couples should seek counselling before marriage and during it as well. The roles change so much in a marriage, their entire personalities go for a toss.
Dr Broota

She further adds that it’s important to remove the stigma of reaching out to a therapist. People should not hesitate from reaching out for help, especially in the case of those who are predisposed to self-harm.

(If you have suicidal thoughts, or if you know someone who needs help, please refer to this state-wise list of credible mental health professionals.)

(Subscribe to FIT on Telegram)

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