“Emotional abuse is subtle..”

25 Nov 2014

“How can you even be sure it is emotional abuse?” asked the voice on the other end of the line, doubtfully.  “It’s so subtle.”

Now, there are many things I would accuse an emotionally abusive husband of, but subtlety is not one of them.  Crazy-making, manipulation, terminal judgmentalism, low cunning, and naked spite are just a few.  But subtlety, I don’t think so.

It’s all about what you focus on.

Human beings are funny creatures, right enough.  But funny-peculiar though we may be, in a lot of ways we are rather less strange than we think we are.  We all have a habit on focusing on what we want.  This includes focusing on what we want to hear, and what we want to happen.

Does an emotionally abusive partner know this?  You bet he does – never underestimate the canniness of an emotionally abusive partner.  Still, you struggle to believe it.

You believe in your version of the relationship; and you believe that your emotionally abusive partner must believe in it, too.  That being the case, you create a context within which you interpret what he says and does:

“Oh, my emotionally abusive partner was really mean to me.  How could he….?  Doesn’t he know….?  Why doesn’t he show more respect for me, and the relationship?”

Back in the day, the wasband used to tell me that he wasn’t as good at communication as I was.  He’d argue that he was just a poor scientist whereas I was a linguist; therefore he couldn’t be expected to express himself sensitively.

Was that true?

And, more to the point, did he even believe that when he said it?


Any emotional abuser will use language (and silence) like a firearm.  You be the judge of whether they use it like a starter pistol, a shotgun, a .44 Magnum, or a Kalashnikov.  They’re well aware that it’s not a toy pistol but a grown up boy’s toy that can cause real damage.  They just happen to like firing the damn thing, and seeing what happens.

Is this subtle?

I don’t think so.

So, what leads you to label it as ‘subtle’?

There are two main factors. First, you’ve already heard the kind of toxic rubbish he comes out with before.  Most likely from a family member and, quite possibly, a previous partner, also.  Second, because you have your eye fixed on a different kind of relationship, you interpret what he comes out with from that standpoint.  So, when he says something unkind and unfair about your appearance, say, and he tells you you’re overreacting, you end up believing – or, at the very least, wondering if – your reactions are undermining the relationship.

A while back, my lovely partner and I sat down to dinner with a relative and his long-serving wife.  Half-way through the evening, my partner pulled me aside and asked:

Is he always that rude to her?”

Without stopping to think, I replied: “Pretty much.  That’s the way the relationship works.  He’s always been like.  Compared with his father, he’s quite restrained.”

Interesting, huh?

I hadn’t really registered just how horrible this behaviour was because it was so familiar to me.  But my partner had registered it right away.

You see, it wasn’t terribly subtle, after all.  It’s simply the case that you won’t register what you take for granted.  I tend not to expect very much better from my relatives.  I accept that is the way they interact with each other – although I will not tolerate them behaving that way towards me.  My partner who saw the situation with ‘new eyes’ was simply appalled.

Emotional abuse is NOT subtle.

The problem lies in your – unconscious – habit of accepting it.

That’s NOT to blame or criticize you in any way.  It’s simply about raising your awareness.  Awareness is the first step along the journey.  Finding better ways of responding to the situation, and not getting hooked into it, are vital learning stages on that journey.

The bottom line, as I see it, is that emotional abuse is NOT subtle at all.  If in doubt, it’s Important to ask yourself how you feel in response to what someone says.  If you feel emotionally diminished, there is a reason for that: you have been emotionally diminished.  In saying what they said, that person showed no care or respect for your feelings, and your sensitivity.

In the context of a partner or family member, that’s abusive.  In the case of someone less closely connected, that may well be abusive, also.  It’s worth noting; and then deciding what kind of access you allow them to have to your delicate emotional world in the future.

Emotional abuse is not subtle.  It’s nasty.  When you whitewash it because you would love the relationship to be other than it is you do yourself no end of harm.

Time to take on board a new notion: emotional abuse is not subtle.  Hurtful words and behaviours ar the signature of the jerk.  At the end of their life nobody’s going to say: “Gee! I wish I’d spent more time trying to transform a jerk.”

It’s as unsubtle as that.

End of…



Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.

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