The most obvious scenario for emotional bullying (also known as emotional abuse) is in an intimate relationship in which a man is the abuser and the woman is the victim. However, a variety of studies show that men and women abuse each other at equal rates*
What Is Emotional Bullying?
Emotional bullying is any kind of abuse that is emotional rather than physical in nature and it’s used to control or dominate another person. It can include anything from verbal abuse and constant criticism to more subtle tactics, such as intimidation, manipulation, and refusal to ever be pleased.
Emotional abuse, is a form of brain washing that tends to slowly erode the victim's sense of self-worth, security, and trust in themselves and others. In many ways, it is more detrimental than physical abuse because it slowly disintegrates your confidence and self-esteem. The effects of long-term emotional bullying can have a serious long term impact on the victim; often leading to anxiety and depression, and in some cases post-traumatic stress disorder.
Unlike physical abuse which tends to rear its ugly head in dramatic outbursts, emotional abuse can be much more or difficult to recognise. In some cases, neither the bully nor the victim are fully aware it's happening.
An emotionally abusive person often acts as if they are never wrong, therefore making compromise impossible. They may not be verbally abusive, but their obstinate, inflexible demeanour often forces their partners into submission. Other bullies may be highly critical of their partner’s thoughts, ideas or opinions, leaving them feeling stupid or insignificant
How Do I know I am Being Emotionally Bullied?
Emotional abuse is confusing and the victim often doesn't recognise their mistreatment as abusive and learn to develop coping mechanisms of denial or minimisation in order to deal with the stress that it brings.
Sometimes, victims question whether ‘abuse’ is the ‘right’ term to describe what is happening in their any relationship They may feel like their partner shouts at them a lot or makes them feel bad, but think ‘abuse’ would be too ‘dramatic’ a word to use.
However, whether behaviour is classed as abusive or not is dependent on how it makes you feel. If your partner’s behaviour makes you feel small, controlled or as if you’re unable to talk about what’s wrong, it’s abusive. If you feel like your partner is stopping you from being able to express yourself, it’s abusive. If you feel you have to change your actions to accommodate your partner’s behaviour, it’s abusive.
There are a variety of ways in which emotional bullies behave. Some might shout you down, by yelling louder than you means they win. Some might become distraught and cry if they don’t get their own way, resulting in you feeling ‘bad’ and confused because they have manipulated you into feeling guilty about asserting yourself so you give in to their distress.
Emotional bullies can be controlling - perhaps monitoring your texts or Facebook messages, creating rules about what you can or can’t wear, dictating how you should spend your time and who with, or controlling your finances. You end up feeling like you need permission to make decisions or to go out somewhere.
They humiliate you, put you down, or make fun of you in front of other people and when challenged tell you that you are oversensitive and they were “only joking”.
They belittle your accomplishments or your hopes and dreams. Or give you disapproving or contemptuous looks or body language.
They regularly point out your flaws, mistakes, or shortcomings or accuse or blame you of things you know aren't true. They don't show you empathy or compassion.
They have an inability to laugh at themselves and can't tolerate others laughing at them. They play the victim and try to blame you rather than taking responsibility for themselves.
The repeatedly cross your boundaries and ignore your requests and blame you for their problems, difficulties, or unhappiness.
They call you names, give you unpleasant labels, or make cutting remarks under their breath.
They may be emotionally distant or emotionally unavailable most of the time or resort to pouting or withdrawal to get attention or what they want. They often disengage or use the threat of abandonment to punish or frighten you. Or perhaps share personal information about you with others. When confronted, they might tend to invalidate or deny their emotionally abusive behaviour.
Why do people stay with an emotional bully?
It’s common for people who have never experienced emotional abuse to question why a person wouldn’t just leave an abusive relationship; often judging people in such situations as ‘weak’ or ‘stupid’. This is rarely the case. Because emotional abuse tends to develop gradually over time and is often interspersed with kind, loving behaviour, the victim becomes confused. The confidence of the victim is gradually chipped away so they question that they are right to feel as they do. The ongoing manipulation leads them to start believing they are always in the wrong. Therefore breaking up can be much more difficult than it seems.
Some people try and convince themselves that they are keeping the peace by being passive to a bully. They believe that the path of least resistance is the only solution available so they discourage any form of rebellion. Perhaps they grew up in a toxic environment in which they felt the only answer was to ‘hide’ or ‘mediate’ peace in the family.
It can also be down to having little self-worth. Some people fail to confront a bully because they fear that they have too little to offer the relationship. These individuals often have low self-esteem and believe that no one else would want them, this belief is often reinforced by the abuser.
Some individuals fear that they cannot financially support themselves; concerned that without their partners, they may not be able to survive, so they choose to stay quiet
Due to the loss of confidence some victims feel that they cannot live alone. Even if they could afford to financially, they would not want to try and attempt it. Often they have moved straight from their families to cohabitation or marriage.
Others victims feel a need to replicate abuse. While this is usually unconscious, many people seem to find bullies and or tolerate them because that is what they grew up experiencing. In this sense, to live with a bully is familiar.
If you think you’re in an abusive relationship, you may find it difficult to talk about. It is common to feel ashamed about what has happened, and you might be scared of your partner’s reaction if they find out you have told anyone. Unfortunately, it is also very natural for those in abusive relationships to convince themselves that their partner’s behaviour is acceptable or that they are in the wrong, which isn’t true. You don’t deserve to be abused: everybody has the right to be treated with love, care and respect.
What can you do to help yourself?
Accept that you cannot ‘fix’ a bully - As much as you might have tried to compromise, understand, help or explain. Nobody can make someone change unless they take responsibility for themselves and really want to change their destructive behaviour
Think about your needs - Try to stop worrying about pleasing or protecting the abuser. It will never be enough because the goal posts will keep moving if they don’t want to take personal responsibility. All you can do is take care of yourself and your needs. Think about why you are unhappy and what you can do to change it.
Set firm boundaries. As difficult as it might be, if you really want to change things - tell your abuser he or she may no longer shout at you, call you names, put you down etc. If they continue behaving badly, demonstrate that you will not tolerate by leaving the room or get in the car and drive to a friend's house.
Take back control. If the abuser tries to pick a fight or win an argument, don't engage with anger. Don’t explain or justify yourself. Don’t apologise or try to sooth him/her. Just keep quiet and walk away.
You are not to blame. If you've been embedded in an abusive relationship for a while, you can begin to feel like you are going crazy. You might start to think something must be wrong with you since this other person treats you so poorly. Begin to acknowledge to yourself that it is NOT you. This is the first step toward rebuilding your self-esteem.
Seek support. Talk to trusted friends or seek the help of a counsellor. Get away from the abusive person as often as possible, and spend time with those who love and support you. This support system will help you feel less alone and isolated while you still contend with the abuser.
Develop an exit plan. You can't remain in an emotionally abusive relationship forever. If finances or children or some other valid reason prevents you from leaving now, develop a plan for leaving as soon as possible. Begin saving money, looking for a place to live, or planning for divorce if necessary so you can feel more in control and empowered.
Most of us don’t like confrontation and will avoid it where possible. However, it’s a fact of life that we can’t run away from it forever. There are times we have to assert ourselves, our boundaries and our needs and others will want to do the same with us.
There are a vast number of unpleasant ways in which we can express anger and frustration, but it’s guaranteed that they will almost, always be unproductive and ineffective. The unhealthy negative emotion of anger is also exhausting. We might think we feel good during a 60 second rant at another person, but one things for sure, once we have calmed down, we always end up feeling bad about ourselves.
Greater Emotional Intelligence Gets You The Results You Actually Want.
Anger - both direct or passive- is meant to communicate something we deem important. However, it tends to have the opposite effect by driving people away. So when what you really want is to connect and be heard, the end result is often the opposite and you can end up destroying your relationships. Any form of aggression is the biggest obstacle to emotionally intelligent communication.
People often think passive-aggressive communication is somehow better or “nicer” - it’s not. In fact, it might actually be worse. The French have an expression for passive aggression: sous-entendu - which means “what is understood underneath.” In other words, you’re saying one thing (that on the surface sounds quite innocent) but you actually mean something quite different (which can be quite vicious). Unfortunately, passive aggression is what many people resort to.
Research shows that a hostile communication style will drive people away: whether you’re aggressive or passive aggressive, people will react negatively to you. They will feel uncomfortable, they won’t understand what is going on and they’ll want to get away from you.
Here’s what to do instead
Take responsibility for how you respond to situations and any feelings they make evoke in you. When we feel angry, it’s all we can think about. If you are feeling angry, take a breath and think things through. Although you might feel desperate to deliver the reasons behind your frustration, your message will not be delivered effectively. When another person is on the receiving end of an angry outburst, all they hear is anger, not what that person is actually saying.
Understand your negative emotions. Are you really angry? Or are you perhaps hurt or jealous instead and lashing out? Sometimes, we think we’re frustrated with a person or a situation, but the truth is, we’re actually feeling pain or the threat of rejection. It takes courage and honesty to take responsibility for the real reasons behind your negative frustrations.
Are you basing your anger on fact or interpretation? It’s easy to jump to conclusions based on feeling surrounding what we believe something to be rather than what is actually is. There’s a useful saying ‘just because we feel bad doesn’t necessarily mean it is bad’. Take the time to find out if your interpretation of a situation that frustrates you is factually true. Or has someone unwittingly fallen short of your expectations/moral code and you're misplacing blame? Remember, they are your expectations only and it’s too easy to blame somebody else for how we feel.
Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Focusing on why you’re angry or frustrated keeps you focused on yourself. Research shows that negative emotions make us self-centred, which means there is no room for another person’s perspective, because you’re so locked in your own view of things. Putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes enables you to think through why the other person might be saying a certain thing or acting a certain way. Instead instantly confronting them, just ask them with why they said what they said or did what they did, so you know their exact intentions. The vast majority of people don’t go out of their way to purposefully anger or hurt someone. Sometimes it happens accidentally, but more often than not, the reasons behind someone else’s actions, are about them only, and not about anyone else. By taking the time to understand, without immediately attributing blame, goes a long way in easing any negative emotions you might be experiencing.
Demonstrate compassion. When you take the time to understand another person’s point of view instead of immediately assuming the worst, you are actually inviting effective communication. You are showing respect and consideration for another person’s right to think, feel and act in a certain way. This is important in any communication with other people, but it is especially important in our romantic relationships, because it will develop a deeper relationship based on understanding, respect, compassion and empathy. If you approach someone with aggression; they will feel defensive and angry in return. On the other hand, if you approach the other person with respect and are prepared to listen to their perspective, then they will be more prepared to hear yours in return.
Communicate Skilfully. Share your perspective by using the word "I" and talking about how you feel. Try never to start a conversation with ‘you make me feel’ because in general that come across as a criticism of the other person. However, don’t just talk about your perspective, ask the other person to share their perspective and engage with it sincerely. Show interest in their view and where there are difference and explore together how you can come to a compromise going forward.
No one enjoys feeling jealous or insecure, even though jealousy is an emotion that almost all of us will experience at one point or another. The problem with jealousy isn’t that it comes up from time to time, it’s when we don’t get hold of it. It can be frightening to experience what happens when we allow our jealousy to overpower us or to shape the way we feel about ourselves and the world around us. That is why understanding where our insecure/jealous feelings actually come from and learning how to deal with them, in a healthy way, is key to happiness in so many areas of our lives.
So, why are we jealous?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of studies have shown that increased jealousy tends to correlate with low a self-esteem driven by our critical inner voice. This inner voice is a well-integrated pattern of destructive thoughts toward ourselves and others and is at the root of much of our self-destructive and maladaptive behaviour. The critical inner voice is not an actual voice that speaks to us, it’s best described as self-limiting thoughts and beliefs that exists in all of us and stop us from achieving our goals. Many of us are unaware that we have a critical inner voice because it comes so natural to have self-critical thoughts about ourselves.
This isn’t about blame, it’s about our inner voice fuelling our feelings of jealousy by filling our heads with critical or suspicious commentary. In fact, the reality is; what our critical inner voice tells us about our situation is often more difficult to deal with than the situation itself. A rejection or betrayal from our romantic partner is painful, but what often hurts us even more are all the terrible things our critical inner voice tells us about ourselves after the event. “You’re such an idiot. Did you really think you could really love you? You are going to end up all alone. You should never trust anyone again.”
It’s a basic reality that relationships go smoother when people don’t get overly jealous. Concern over ones relationship is healthy whereas jealousy is destructive and unhealthy. The more we get a hold of our feelings of jealousy and make sense of them, separate from our partner, the better off we will be. Remember, our jealousy often comes from our own insecurity - a feeling like we are doomed to be deceived, hurt or rejected. Unless we deal with this feeling in ourselves, we are likely to fall victim to feelings of jealousy, distrust or insecurity in any relationship, no matter what the circumstances.
These negative feelings about ourselves often stem from our early childhood experiences. We often take on the feelings our parents or caregivers had toward us or toward themselves. We then, unconsciously, replay, recreate or react to old, familiar dynamics in our current relationships. For example, if we felt cast aside as children, we may easily perceive our partner as ignoring us, or we may choose a partner who’s more elusive, or even engage in behaviours that would push them away.
The extent to which we took on self-critical attitudes as children often shapes how much our critical inner voice will affect us in our adult lives, especially in our relationships. Yet, no matter what our unique experiences may be, we all possess this inner critic to a certain extent. Most of us can relate to carrying around a feeling that we didn’t want to have. Often, lurking behind any jealous/paranoid feelings towards our partners, or a perceived third-party threat, are critical thoughts toward ourselves. Thoughts such as, ‘What does he see in her?’ can quickly turn into ‘She is so much prettier/thinner/more successful than me!’ Even when our worst fears become a reality and we learn of a partner’s affair, we often react by directing anger at ourselves for being “foolish or unlovable”
Our critical inner voice then tells us not to trust or be too vulnerable. It reminds us we are unlovable and unsuitable for a romantic relationship. It’s that nagging voice that plants the seed of doubt, suspicion and uncertainty. “Why is she working so late?” “Why is she choosing her friends over me all the time?” “What is he even doing when I’m away?” “Why is he paying so much attention to what she’s saying?”
For those of us who are familiar with how jealousy works, knows that, all too often, these thoughts slowly start to sprout and blossom into much larger, more engrained attacks on ourselves and/or our partner. “She doesn’t want to be around you. There must be someone else.” “He’s losing interest. He wants to get away from you.” “Who would want to listen to you anyway? You’re so boring.”
These jealous feeling can arise at any point in a relationship and in an attempt to protect ourselves, we may listen to our inner critic and pull back from being close to our partner. Yet its catch twenty two because we tend to feel more jealous and insecure if we know on some level we’re not making our relationship a priority or actively going after our goal of being loving or close. That is why it’s even more essential not to blindly act on jealous feelings by pushing our partner further away.
What Can We Do About Jealousy?
There are of course times when a gut feeling/suspicions about our partner might be founded. However, it is important to ensure you try and work with evidence as opposed to running away with jealous feelings. Relationship counselling can help you understand your thought process when jealousy strikes and then subsequent unhelpful behaviour that follows. It will also allow you the time and space to discuss your concerns in an open, calm and honest way. The process will enable them to really listen to and take on board your perspective, because it won’t get lost amongst an angry, critical, accusing outburst.
A question I am often asked is - “What Counts as Cheating in a Relationship?”
My summary reply is - “When you do, say or write something that you wouldn’t want your partner to see, hear or read then you know you are being unfaithful”
Cheating or unfaithfulness is difficult to define because people often differ in what they deem appropriate contact or interaction for a partner to have with someone else.And to make matters more problematic, many people don't like to define what counts as cheating because by keeping the rules vague and ambiguous, it makes it easier to cheat. If you don't know what the rules are, you really can't break them perhaps?
There may not be an approved checklist for what qualifies as cheating, but here are some questions that might help clarify the issue for you:
1) Even if you’re not sure if you are cheating, would your partner perhaps say that you are?
Do you know what your partner’s expectations are? Do they know yours? Are those expectations acceptable to you both? If not, then it would be wise to have a conversation to discuss what you consider appropriate and inappropriate behaviour – This way, you are both clear and there are no grey areas.
2) Are you secretive about seemingly harmless things?
Sometimes we hide things, such as website, e-mail or social media passwords or innocent interactions with attractive colleagues or friends. There is always a reason for this. We might convince ourselves that we are not doing anything questionable, but if we’re really honest, are we doing this just in case we want to do something questionable in the future? If this sounds familiar, you might not be being unfaithful at the moment, but don’t fool yourself, by doing this you’re open to the opportunity - which is not a good sign.
2) Are you anticipating the next step?
Even if anyone observing your actions would agree you’re not breaking rules, are you secretly eager to see how the third party responds and what might develop? Every time you interact, are there subtle shifts in how that relationship feels? Is it progressing toward something that is not entirely platonic in nature, and do you find yourself looking forward to each progressive step before it occurs?
3) Would you be uncomfortable if your partner acted in the same way you do?
A helpful reality check is to turn the situation around and determine if you would get upset if your partner behaved in the same way. If you have a friendship with an opposite-sex that’s gotten a little too cosy, ask yourself if you’d want your partner to have that kind of relationship? If you’re checking up on an old boyfriend or girlfriend on Facebook, ask yourself if you’d want your current partner doing the same?
4) What’s the intent behind the interaction?
More often than not – the question of cheating can be boiled down to one single word: motive. Why do you banter with the man/woman at the gym? Why are you sending text messages to your ex? Why are you meeting that person for coffee? Be warned - even the most self-aware individuals sometimes deceive themselves about their true motivations. Be honest with yourself in order to be honest with your partner.
If in doubt - take a big step back and think to yourself - Are you crossing the line between trustworthy and untrustworthy behaviour? If so, ask yourself why? If you answer that honestly and discover it’s actually problem within your relationship, then it’s this which needs dealing with - before you go looking elsewhere.
Mindfulness has been scientifically proven to improve our mental and physical health. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t just enhance our individual well-being. In fact, it’s now being shown to have a positive impact on interpersonal relationships.
Mindfulness is a skill we can learn; which we can integrate into our everyday lives. This allows us an easy, always available, method to calm ourselves down when we feel distressed. Mindfulness increases our awareness of what we are experiencing and allows us the space to decide how we want to act in our daily lives. Therefore, it stands to reason that by enhancing this ability that we have within us would lead to better outcomes in our relationships.
Begin by imagining you are having a disagreement with your partner. Picture yourself in that moment - everything feels overwhelmingly wrong, anger is bubbling up inside you and you feel intense upset or hurt. Now imagine being able to feel your thoughts and emotions without reacting to them in that moment. Imagine observing the emotions and thoughts that are arising without getting caught up in them — being able to keep your emotional balance. This allows you to think about how you would like to respond in the situation versus how you would instinctively react. Mindfulness is a means by which we can get to know our thoughts and stay connected to our feelings without falling victim to inappropriate, intense reactions based, commonly based on unresolved issues from our past.
When it comes to leftover emotional pain from our earliest relationships, no one will trigger these feelings of hurt like our romantic partner. How many times have you found yourself saying something in a moment of anger that you later deeply regret? Why is it we find ourselves lashing out at the person we love the most? Ironically, our closest relationships tend to present us with the biggest challenges in our lives. Relationships test us in many ways, redefining how we see ourselves and the world around us. In addition to bringing us joy, finding love can cause us a great deal of anxiety and sadness.
In our romantic relationships, we make ourselves vulnerable to our partner. Our fears of being hurt in this vulnerable state can make us more reactive and we run the risk of self-sabotaging, not acting in our best interest in relation to the ones we love.
Mindfulness is a valuable tool for facing the daily challenges of staying close to our partner. It allows us to become more centered and calm, so we can talk things out instead of spiralling into a screaming match. When we on the defensive with our partner, overreacting to every word they say, we fail to really hear what’s going on with them. We fail to listen to what they are saying, what has triggered their upset and what are they really saying or asking of us.
A typical conversation between a couple may involve one partner remarking, “You used to be up for anything when we first met” This comment may spark a defensive response in the other: “What? You’re saying that I’m not spontaneous anymore and you think I’m boring?! What about you? You never get off the sofa!” This type of angry and accusatory response tends to have a snowball effect. “I never said you were boring! But now you are saying I’m lazy?! How dare you! I work day and night to make you happy. You’re so ungrateful!”
Things then escalate and both partners end up ‘flipping out’ with any resentments toward each other starting to spill out. At this point, the higher functions of their brain are offline and the emotional centers are firing out of control. Strong, exaggerated, hostile statements fly back and forth. However, if either person could be more mindful in the interaction, they would pause before responding. They could notice that they are triggered and angry and then choose to do something else, take a break or do something that will help them calm down. This may mean taking a few deep breaths or a long walk. This will allow them to gain some control, come back and react in a more constructive manner. It’s important to take time to reflect and to notice the feelings but to consciously choose how we deal with them. This time allows us space to not cause our partner any unnecessary hurt. Once we have centered ourselves and calmed down, we are able to communicate more clearly.
Mindfulness isn’t about denying or burying our emotions. It’s simply about cultivating a different relationship to our feelings and experiences, whereby we are in the driver’s seat. We can see our feelings and thoughts like a train roaring through a station; however we alone can choose if we want to get on board.
When we find someone we care for, someone we want to be with no matter what they bring to the table and the relationship is worth working on, then half the battle is won. Mindfulness enables enable you go after what you want, not only in your relationship, but also you own person goals. It’s an ongoing practice that can help you to become the person you want to be every day for the rest of your life.