Emotional abuse is one of the hardest forms of abuse to expose. People who have been victimized have said they wished their abuser would have actually hit them because then they would have evidence of the painful injuries they’ve endured. Emotional abuse is hard to see, and one who emotionally abuses is equally shadowy.
It is hard for friends, family, counselors, or pastors to spot emotional abuse. Often, the one being abused does not fully see it either. Often, it is not until distance from the abuser has been made that clarity begins to come. However, even then, others may not see the abuse and the victim can end up taking the blame for the relational challenges faced. This reality is a terrible tragedy and doubles the pain of the abused. It can keep them trapped in the cycle of abuse and sadly they too can become convinced they are to blame.
To be better helpers, we must be aware of the deceitful yet all-to-common characteristics of a person who is abusing someone emotionally. So what are some of the characteristic one should be aware of regarding emotional abusers.
You will like the abuser. They are winsome and engaging. They can carry a conversation well and are often willing to serve and listen to other people. They seem to share their life with others and want to be a part of the faith community and church life.
You have engaged an abuser and walked away from the conversation thinking what a great person they are. You have been fooled. This is not to say that every likable person is an abuser but very often, a person who emotionally abuses others will be likable to those they are not abusing.
When an abuser is exposed they are remorseful. They cannot always keep their likable persona on full display. When something happens that reveals a surprisingly attacking response, an outburst of viscous anger, or a hurtful interaction, the abuser will be initially remorseful. Exposure is a major threat to the abusers control and remorse is a means to gain back that control.
Christians are especially vulnerable to this response and will often give greater support to the abuser than the abused when this is seen. Accepting the abusers sorrow can actually ensure abuse will happen again. Instead we must hold the remorse with caution and allow time (a lot of time) to sow the true fruit of repentance.
This is where things get really tricky. An emotionally abusive person is believable. They have mastered the art of deception. The deception starts with themselves, and they have been deceiving themselves and others for a long time. They are convinced they are not the problem and they do an excellent job convincing others of this as well. Their deception has already done its work on the abused causing confused judgement of what are right and wrong behaviors. The abused quickly lose their voice and so rarely defend their stance against the abuser.
If you work with couples there is a chance you too have believed an abuser. It is not because you lack discernment, but because they are incredibly believable. However, this characteristic keeps abusers with full power over those they abuse and those who could help the abused. It is a dangerous trait.
What can you do?
Emotional abuse is one of the hardest forms of abuse to detect. It changes a person in ways that keep the cycle of abuse spinning smoothly. One of the most important things you can do is get educated. Learn about the signs and effects of emotional abuse. Resources such as Peaceworks University and the upcoming Church Cares curriculum are helpful. Read books about emotional abuse. Diane Langberg and Leslie Vernick have done extensive work on this topic. However, one way we can bring better understanding is to simply talk to those who have come out of emotional abusive relationships.
One of the most important things you can do is to listen. When you see the couple together listen for how they interact. If one dominates the conversations continually, take note. If one usually gets the blame for things that have gone wrong, be aware. If one has greater ability to articulate both their feelings and the feelings of their spouse, clue in.
The other thing you want to do is listen to the weaker partner. If the above characteristics are happening, separate the two in your counseling. Give plenty of space to the less articulate partner. Create a safe place to allow them to share how they have felt in situations that have come up. Explore the potential of emotional abuse, even if you are not completely sure. The abused will rarely know they are being abused until someone from the outside helps them to see it. Once someone points it out they begin to see and may say something. If they say something, believe them. Consider doing an assessment to explore emotional abuse. You can find one here.
Without understanding these things you can unknowingly help the abuser. You can be deceived yourself and cause life-long harm. The church needs to be a place that those who have been emotionally abused are believed. Sadly, because of the aforementioned characteristics, the church can end up being a tool the abuser uses to keep control of the relationship and fortify the idea of the abused as being the main source of the problems in the relationship. This has sadly kept many abused people in toxic situations causing damage to the deepest places of their lives, including their faith.
Let us be committed to being advocates for the vulnerable and give a voice to those who have been painfully shaped by emotional abuse.