Emotional abuse is so subtle

05 Feb 2019

“I didn’t realise that it was emotional abuse because it was just so subtle.” is something that a lot of emotional abuse survivors say.  Maybe you have said it yourself.  Some talk about how subtle their partner’s abuse was in the course of a relatively brief  – but damaging -relationship.  Others talk about a partner that they may have spent two decades with.  In this article, I want to explore whether emotional abuse is ever really that subtle, together with what makes this such an important issue.

When abusers are “not that good with words”

Some emotionally abusive partners are, definitely, less blatant than others.  “My” ex-husband – who like a lot of abusers professed to be “not much good with words” – had a rare gift for both subtle and blatant abuse.  In that, of course, he lied.  All abusers are extraordinarily good at using words to wound.

Needless to say, I never recognised the wasband’s abuse for what it was.   Nevertheless, on many, many  social  – and professional – occasions he came out with things that made me  wish that the earth would open up and swallow me.  (Notice, I always hoped that the earth would open up and swallow me.  Why not him?  What was that about?)

Often, I felt morbidly embarrassed by being around my ex.  I suffered massive embarrassment and shame by association.  Yet, it never struck me that I was not responsible for his rudeness. Above all, it never struck me that the degree of offensiveness he routinely exhibited was abusive and plain, old W-R-O-N-G.

After every such occasion, I would try to convey to him the rules of polite social  intercourse.  Of course, I failed.  Every single time.  Plus, it became another “reason” for him to turn his venom on me.

That was the unsubtle end of his emotionally abusive  shtick. From the dizzy heights of his authority as a physician, he would point out to lesser mortals that they were talking complete rubbish.  Not necessarily on a topic related to his sphere of expertise.  Any  topic, opinion or behaviour would do.

Level 1 Abuse

The subtler end of his abusive shtick comprised such things as the – allegedly – Endearing Put-Down.  He loved remarking on my “pan-handle ears”, and “peasant feet”.  This kind of put-down is  the stock-in-the trade of covert abuse.  The (now ex) husband of the most stunning woman I know, constantly called her a Cocker Spaniel.  The ex-husband of a client constantly called her his “little porker”.None of these terms would have been offensive if we, the people labelled, had not objected.   They are, simply, the seemingly “innocent” Level 1 abusive  comments that serve to prove that we are the problem.

None of these terms would have been offensive if we, the people labelled, had not objected.  These are, after all, merely Level 1 abusive comments. They are the seemingly “innocent” comments that prove that we are the problem.

But the point is, we did object.  As the – only – rightful arbiters of what is wounding to us, we exercised our unremarkable human right to object to what did not sit well with us.  So, our abuser attacked us for being “too sensitive” and “over-reacting”.

With that allegation that we are “over-reacting”, the abusive partner neatly escalates their abuse to Level 2.

Level 2 Abuse

The “too sensitive” label, abusers move seamlessly to a more wounding level of abuse.  They progress from your appearance to your mental health.

Level 2 comments cover all the things that you hold dear.  In addition to your mental health, these include your values, your sexual identity, your parenting, your skills and talents. I hear, not uncommonly, from high achieving women whose mediocre husbands undermine their professional skills. These mediocrities set themselves up as authorities over their wife’s sphere of expertise.  From where they stad, they  know more than you do about something that they actually know nothing about.  And you are expected to bow to their superior “knowledge”.

It is, likely, the Level 2 comments that get you thinking, leading you to  asking yourself, “How can he behave like that? How can he treat me like this?”

The good enough answer

For myself, I spent years looking for a good enough answer.  I ascribed the wasband’s (many) objectionable ways to his childhood trauma, and his horrendous family of origin  (as if my own background had been a picnic).

I entertained the possibility of his being a Narcissist. But  then I excluded Narcissism because he did not have all the possible characteristics. There was definitely one that he lacked. (He either didn’t have a secret life, or else kept it so secret that I never found out about it.)

Sadly, I did not read books about how to recognise a jerk or asshole in the context of a LONG relationship.  (But if I had, I would probably have still failed to identify him for one reason or another.)

Two important considerations

In all of this, just like my clients, I missed two really important considerations;

1) He treated me like that because he could.  Vile as he was to me, he would still come home to a clean house, a gourmet meal and a wife who would dance attention on him.

2) I stayed therefore at some level I was prepared to keep on tolerating it.  Therefore, ultimately, I allowed him to treat me like that.

Is emotional abuse really that subtle?

Looking back, I see that I tolerated an awful lot of things during my marriage that I did not like at all.  I made a lot of noise about them.  However, they kept happening and I kept on complaining and staying.

From where an abuser stands, for as long as you stay in their game, you are allowing it to continue.

I had been trained to have a high level of tolerance of what I did not like from as far back as I remember.  That is what happens when you grow up in a home where your feelings and your well-being  are disregarded.

Now, I am well aware that this was not just  my experience.  Rather, this is what happens to all of us that makes emotional abuse appear so subtle to us.  Even when it is so deeply wounding to us.

More of the same old same old

In reality, emotional abuse from an intimate partner is simply a continuation – and confirmation – of our prior experience.

Sure, most abusers talk a good relationship, at the start.  It is the very rare abuser who will tell you, right from the start that they are a jerk who will make your life a misery. Although I have, very occasionally, spoken with clients whose toxic partner who was, initially, so honest that they did not believe him.

In most cases, we buy into the dream of something better than we have had in the past.  The reality pans out to be differently awful.  But we accept it for far longer than we should have done. Mostly because we are not able to make too much sense of our own upbringing.

Even when we know that our family of origin left a lot to be desired, even when we recognise that they scored high on the abusive scale, we tend not to realise how profoundly that abuse has affected us.

Be careful what you tolerate

So, when a partner starts saying things that don’t sit well with us, we may tell them that we don’t like it – but we tolerate it. When a partner does something that we find hurtful, we explain to them how that is hurting us – but we tolerate it.

We have a very powerful, ingrained habit of tolerating what we do not like – and working to change it.  We attempt that either through earning enough credit by being a perfect, loving partner, or else by using the Water Dripping onto a Stone technique.  Surely, if we tell our partner the same thing often enough it will eventually sink in?

It might sink in if,

  1. a) the partner in question was listening – which he is not.
  2. b) he cared about your feelings – which he, manifestly, does not.

Someone with a different upbringing, in which they felt valued and their feelings were validated, would respond very differently.  Maybe they would just deliver a metaphorical rap over the knuckles for a “first offence”. But they would quickly recognise the abuser for the serial offender that he is and put themselves out of his misery.

Emotional abuse is not so subtle after all

The bottom line is that you have been trained to accept the pain of a thousand humiliations and rejections.  Both big and small. That became normal  for you, as it became normal for me.

We managed to keep functioning because we told ourselves that “it” was not important.  In other words, our feelings were not important.  We felt the hurt and we dismissed it as unimportant. We can walk away from the relationship without necessarily walking away from that old pattern of tolerating  what we do not like.  If that is where you are, still, and you need help to change things, get in touch.


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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