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Mental abuse, a combination of verbal abuse and emotional abuse, is one of many tactics abusers use to exert power and control over a partner. Through brainwashing, blame and shame, degrading insults and gaslighting, victims begin to become a shell of themselves. They’re confused as to how the person they perhaps once loved and trusted became their biggest critic. Victims can often try to counteract this abuse by trying to “behave better,” not make any mistakes or become subservient, passive, almost invisible.
It's a type of abuse that doesn’t leave behind bruises or visible scars. It’s hard for people both in and outside the relationship to recognize. Sometimes, it’s hard for a victim’s friends and family to even believe abuse is happening. Below, we break down some examples of mental abuse and how this can present. If you think you might be experiencing mental abuse or suspect someone you know, this information can help you understand what mental abuse really looks like from real-life examples.
What Survivors Have Told Us
For survivor Lorel, mental abuse looked like her husband attempting to brainwash their young son.
“We don’t have to listen to mommy. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” he’d say to the boy. Then he’d ask, “Who do you love more—mommy or daddy?”
They were mind games, said Lorel, and they worked. She felt ashamed, responsible and guilty for even thinking about leaving, even after her husband’s abuse became physical.
Survivor Amy tells DomesticShelters.org that her abusive boyfriend called her “white trash” and convinced her no one would love her.
“He made me feel like I was nothing.”
For 47 years, survivor Alex says her abusive husband blamed her for everything that went wrong, from losing the remote control to running out of toilet paper. Her life revolved around trying not to make any mistakes and feel the wrath of her husband.
“You start to question yourself,” she says. “It’s personal and it’s abuse. You become dysfunctional by developing skills to cope.”
The Cycle of Mental Abuse
Mental abuse is sometimes interchanged with psychological or emotional abuse, but mental abuse typically involves tactics that affect a survivor’s way of thinking. Mental abuse can change a survivor’s perception of reality and what they believe about themselves, while emotional abuse is more so focused on manipulating a survivor’s emotions in order to keep them trapped.
Regardless, what all three of these types of abuse have in common is that the abuser uses them to destroy a victim’s self-worth and confidence, often making them dependent on their abusive partner to build them back up again. It’s these sometimes few-and-far-between scraps of positive validation that keep the survivor trapped in the relationship. Every so often, it’s possible the abusive partner shows a softer, kinder side. However disingenuous this may be, the survivor can feel a glimmer of hope that things are improving. The survivor might minimize past abusive incidents. But as soon as they feel comfortable, another incident will likely occur. And often, these incidents will escalate in severity over time, from degrading comments to verbal tirades to, eventually, physical assaults.
Four Common Tactics of Mental Abuse
Here are four common ways an abuser might use mental abuse to control a partner.
If an abuser regularly insults you, humiliates you or makes you feel bad about yourself, this is belittling. It’s a form of mental abuse that relies on an abuser tearing down your self-esteem in order to create a sense of dependence on the partner for your self-worth.
You may have accomplished something great at school or your job and your abusive partner completely ignored it. Or they might reply flippantly, So what? Anyone could do that.
It might look like a partner who brings up your past mistakes just to make you feel bad about yourself.
It also looks like a partner who blames you for their abusive choices and says things like, If you just didn’t make me so mad, I wouldn't act like this.
If an abuser is making you doubt your reality, this could be gaslighting. Let’s say an abuser verbally berates you in front of your friends at a party. Later on, when you bring it up, the abuser says, That didn’t happen. Everyone knew it was a joke. You even laughed. You thought it was hilarious. But your gut feeling is that this isn’t right. If an abuser repeatedly makes you doubt your sense of reality and your own memories, they are likely gaslighting you
If an abuser is attempting to manipulate how you think, this could be brainwashing. It looks like blocking you from making decisions, or making decisions for you. Telling you what the truth is (You don’t want to go out with your friends anymore. You don’t want to take that job. You’re not a very smart person.) It can also include exhausting you physically through forced labor or sleep deprivation, which impairs your decision-making ability.
4. The Silent Treatment
If an abusive partner has a habit of shutting you out for an extended period of time after an argument, or for no reason at all, this is a tactic called the silent treatment. It can leave a survivor feeling despondent and desperate for a partner to acknowledge them. It can feel threatening, as though you’re walking on eggshells, unsure if your abusive partner will explode in anger at any second. It can take away any feeling of joy or safety within a relationship.
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How to Respond to Mental Abuse
Mental abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse, even without the broken bones and bruises. Over time, it can lead to things like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, thoughts of self-harm, and a skewed perception of healthy relationships.It’s also important to note that the effects of children being exposed to mental abuse are plenty and the effects can be long-term, leading to negative mental and physical health issues for the rest of their lives.
Like all other tactics of nonphysical abuse, abusers will often escalate from mental abuse to physical abuse over time. It’s important to recognize the red flags denoting abusive tactics early on and consider ending that relationship before it becomes more complicated to get out (such as after marriage or having children).
If you’re doubting whether or not what you’re experiencing is abuse, reach out to a domestic violence advocate near you for validation. You don’t need to be seeking shelter to call one—advocates are typically answering phones 24/7 as a lifeline for survivors. You may want to consider creating a safety plan as leaving can typically result in abusers ramping up their tactics of control.
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