Many people start out in relationships that seem “too good to be true.” And sometimes, they are. Unlike physical or sexual abuse, there’s often a subtlety to emotional abuse that’s confusing to victims as it’s typically couched in behaviors that can initially be perceived as “caring.” That “kindness” is designed to win over the trust and confidence of an unsuspecting victim. Unfortunately, once that has been achieved, the trusting partner becomes vulnerable to subsequent abuse. Here are a few behaviors that can be misinterpreted as “loving,” but when the intention is ultimately to belittle and control, therapists need to re-frame them as red flags indicative of an emotionally abusive partner.
Insisting on spending more and more time alone, so it can be “just the two of us.’" Initially, this can be seen as a statement about how “special” the relationship is and how much your client’s partner enjoys being with them. In actuality, limiting where they go and who they spend time with is often an attempt to isolate and alienate them from their network of support. When your client is disconnected from others no one is present to witness maltreatment and your client can’t reach out for guidance or the resources they might need to eventually leave the relationship.
Acting overly attentive, “concerned,” and involved in every aspect of your client’s life. What can seem like genuine love and interest in their wellbeing actually has undercurrents of toxic jealousy and possessiveness. They may keep tabs on your clients’ schedules and whereabouts through excessive texting or phone calls, continually offer unsolicited advice about what’s in their “best interests,” or ask them to “run everything by them” before making any decisions. These are meant to increase dependency on the emotional abuser and cause the victim to question their own abilities and judgment. The ultimate goal of an emotionally abusive partner is to be in total control and to compromise the victim’s self-esteem to the point where it’s psychologically difficult to leave.
Continually offering unsolicited “feedback” to help your client “improve.” Initial compliments about appearance, personality, and successes are manipulative and designed to win over your client while building trust. Fairly quickly those comments turn into criticism that will be offered under the guise of wanting your client to “keep improving.” They will put down your clients’ feelings or ideas, how they dress, or what they have achieved. Harsh judgment can be verbal or communicated by looks of disgust, disinterest, or ridicule. The real intention is to shame and systematically chip away at confidence and a positive sense of self-worth. The more your clients question their fundamental worth the more it will resonate to stay in an abusive relationship.
Encouraging the combining of all finances and bank accounts. This can be presented as a sign of “commitment” or “true partnership," but in reality, it is designed to eliminate financial independence, reduce your client’s access to separate funds, and make it extremely difficult for them to leave the relationship. It’s also a way for an emotionally abusive partner to freeload off of your client’s hard- earned money and not contribute to equally covering the costs of daily living. In cases where an abusive partner has a high paying job, it’s likely that they have separate accounts or credit cards and are keeping monies from the victim, or spending money on things that don’t include your client.
It can be challenging to help clients see the painful reality of emotional abuse. Therapists should be prepared for pushback, rationalizations, minimizations, and even full denial about the toxicity of the relationship. Help clients to let go of any shame associated with being “conned,” and focus on ego-strengthening so it no longer resonates to be controlled or mistreated. In addition, build up external resources for support — including attendance at CODA meetings and other support groups, and opening up a separate bank account. Therapists should also connect their clients’ adult relationship choices to family-of-origin experiences, possible past trauma, and the modeling given to them by parents. Understanding and resolving those past experiences can help clients begin to extricate themselves from an emotionally abusive relationship.