Has a friend or family member ever talked to you about the way their intimate partner treats them, and the stories shared made your skin crawl? Or, maybe you have heard a lot of “little” stories that add up to an overwhelming amount of harmful words and behaviors. Perhaps it’s your best friend who talks about how their significant other is always “making jokes” that are actually insults. Maybe a relative has complained to you countless times about how their partner is perpetually breaking promises.
Whether said in passing or a heart-to-heart, people who are emotionally abused by their partner will often open up and share their experience with a trusted friend or confidant. During these first conversations, victims may not yet understand what is happening to them and will not likely call it “abuse.” It’s never easy to listen to those kinds of stories or to know the best way to respond. You might not want to “rush to judgment” about your friend’s significant other. You might even be wondering what part your friend has played in the conflict. You want to do and say the right thing, but you aren’t sure what that is.
Although overt emotional abuse, in the form of verbal assaults or concrete manipulation, is relatively easy to identify, covert emotional abuse is both challenging to identify and difficult to confront. Isolated incidents might not sound like abuse to you. But when one partner consistently and repeatedly hurls insults, criticisms, and other covert tactics at the other partner to maintain power over them, it constitutes emotional abuse. If you hear about a few isolated incidents, you may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg. Don’t rush to judgment. Don’t assume emotional abuse is not taking place.
Covert emotional abuse significantly harms one’s perceptions, memories, thinking, and, ultimately, sanity. When someone in your life is experiencing covert emotional abuse tactics like lying, manipulating, gaslighting, deflecting, etc., they are going through a very confusing situation. Delicacy and knowledge are crucial in how you speak and interact with them.
Before you can handle these types of situations well, it is essential that you first understand what makes emotional abuse uniquely harmful. Unlike physical abuse or sexual violence, emotional abuse is difficult to pinpoint for both the victim and those in whom they confide. It involves manipulation tactics that confuse the heart and the mind, making the victim question their reality and experiences. Because it is such a complicated circumstance to be in, the victim may not have the words needed to describe what they are experiencing accurately. In these cases, they probably have not yet identified that they are emotionally abused.
The most important thing for you to do is be a good listener. The victim has probably been in an abusive environment for a significant period before they will come to you to talk about it. They will likely not tell you all the details the first time they speak to you, so you want to show them you are someone in whom they can safely confide. The full story will often come out over time as they learn to trust you with very personal details.
When listening to the victim share their story, avoid asking them pointed questions or criticizing their behavior. Part of being a good listener is giving the victim space to talk. Asking questions and interrupting can make them feel fragmented, unsafe, and unheard. Use silence to provide them with the invitation to keep going or give an encouraging nod or phrase like, “I’m sorry,” or “That must have been difficult.” Other helpful responses include, “You don’t deserve this,” “I’m here for you,” or “It’s not your fault.” If the victim is someone you don’t know very well, “How can I help you?” is always appropriate. Show compassion and empathy whenever they seem ready for a response.
It has taken so much courage for them to speak up. Keeping that in mind, do your best to avoid any comment or question that directs the blame to the victim. As they are trying to make sense of what is happening in their relationship, any fault placed on the victim will cause them to close up or push you away.
While it may be accurate, a firm declaration like, “Well, you are obviously married to an abuser,” is not what the victim needs to hear. Responding harshly or labeling the situation, at a time when the victim is still processing, may cause them to defend their abuser. This step backward is because the victim does not yet understand and is not ready to come to terms with the reality of their situation. One thing you can try, when you have built up enough trust, is to show them the list of covert emotional abuse topics listed HERE. By reading the list and their corresponding definitions, victims can begin to recognize the behaviors. This will allow them to put words to what they are experiencing and realize that abuse is what they are enduring.
Show you care and follow up with someone who has shared their story to see how they are doing. Revealing and processing their experience can be an emotionally taxing experience in and of itself for a victim. Ensure that the victim feels like they have a safe and open space if they ever want to talk with you again.
Emotional abuse is always challenging and it is varied. Please know that it is okay if you don’t have all the answers; in fact, having “all the answers” is not what they need from you at first. The most important thing you can do is to make sure the victim feels safe to speak about their experience and knows that they have a good listener. There may come a time when they are ready to seek additional help, but as a friend, your only responsibility is to be there and be present. If you need more help in approaching someone who is experiencing emotional abuse, The M3ND Project is here for you. Please send us an email or read through some examples on our website.