Growing up, we learn how to look for signs of physical abuse and to reach out for help if we find ourselves experiencing it. But emotional abuse often goes undiscussed and ignored. More than half of college students, 57%, find it difficult to identify dating abuse. The issue of emotional abuse touches the lives of many people, especially women in the United States, and becomes exasperated by factors of male privilege and socioeconomic class status. This piece aims to foster awareness of how emotional abuse can manifest in a multitude of relationships. If you need help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a trusted friend or visit the counseling center at your school.
Read on to learn more about what constitutes emotional abuse.
What is emotional abuse?
Emotional abuse first appeared in scientific literature in 1984 when Dr. Pat Hoffman defined it as “behavior sufficiently threatening to the woman so that she believes that her capacity to work, to interact in the family or society or to enjoy good physical or mental health, has been or might be threatened.” Emotional abuse can take on many forms including manipulation, seizures of control and invalidating the victim’s feelings. “[Red flags that indicate emotional abuse can be] Jealousy, attempts to control, stonewalling, treating with contempt,” Psychologist Dr. Donna Davenport said. In heteronormative relationships, male privilege can factor into emotional abuse as well because men grow up in a society that teaches them that they have the right and the privilege to dominate and control women.
The patriarchy we live in fosters a system of male control over women. This becomes evident when looking at the work force, our government and in the incidences of gender violence. In the professional world, women’s median weekly earnings for full-time work were $770 in 2017 compared with $941 for men. This wage gap partially enables men to use finances as a method of control in relationships. Specifically, in politics, the United States lacks female representation, 23.7% of Congress is composed of women. This further shuts women out of positions of power. In regard to gender violence, rape occurs on college campuses in 19% of female students. In the United States, 1 in 5 women will be raped and 1 in 71 men will experience sexual assault at some point in their lives. “[Red flags that indicate emotional abuse are] Using economic abuse, using male privilege,” Licensed Professional Counselor Cynthia Trower said. Other stratifying factors include race and socioeconomic class, which can affect emotional abuse.
Is emotional abuse different in same-sex vs heterosexual relationships?
Only a small pool of research has compared how emotional abuse affects heterosexual vs same-sex relationships, but the published research available suggests that emotional abuse occurs at roughly the same extent in both relationships. Specifically, in a study of 701 relationships in the United Kingdom, more than three-quarters of the whole sample had experienced at least one form of emotional abuse at some time (77.8%), and half in the past 12 months (54.3%). The trends of emotional abuse stay the same for gay men and lesbians, although individuals identifying as bisexuals reported experiencing a greater number of emotionally abusive behaviors from same sex partners in the last 12 months. Thus, current research asserts that emotional abuse occurs in similar patterns in both same-sex and heterosexual relationships.
Are there distinct signs of emotional abuse in college relationships?
Emotional abuse follows similar established patterns in college age students and older couples. “Emotional abuse is similar at all ages: it consists of controlling whereabouts, gaslighting, withdrawal of affection and communication and separating victim from friends,” Clinical Social Worker Renee Johnson said. “There is no age for emotional abuse or unhealthy behaviors,” Licensed Mental Health Counselor Zory Guzman said. Emotional abuse can happen at any age in any relationship and the toxicity of it remains the same.
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting can take various forms but can include withholding, countering, trivializing, denial and blocking. Withholding occurs when the abusive partner refuses to listen or pretends not to understand. Countering happens when the abusive partner changes the subject and/or questions the victim’s thoughts. Trivializing occurs when the abusive partner makes the victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant or invalid. Denial is when the abusive partner pretends to have forgotten about what actually happened or denies promises or agreements made with the victim. Gaslighting does not suddenly happen. Rather, it occurs gradually. As time progresses and the abuse worsens this can make the victim feel confused and isolated, and it becomes more difficult for them to define their reality and trust themselves. It can damage the victim’s self-confidence and self-esteem.
Emotional abuse happens frequently in relationships regardless of age, sexuality, gender or socioeconomic status. The patriarchy augments male dominance and facilitates male privilege in the United States and women often suffer the consequences in their romantic relationships. Emotional abuse can exist in a multitude of ways including gaslighting, withdrawal of affection or communication and alienation. Resources do exist to support individuals experiencing emotional abuse. You can the National Abuse Hotline anytime or the National Relationship Abuse Hotline. If you need to, reach out to friends or family or a mental health professional. If someone comes to you about any kind of abuse they are experiencing it is critical to avoid victim blaming, listen, and offer support.