Leaving an abusive relationship is never easy, and it takes considerable emotional strength to get out. Abuse takes many forms and isn't always physical.
What are some of the subtler, but still damaging, ways we are abused in relationships?
Avery Neal: This is a great question because subtle abuse not only occurs within overtly abusive relationships, but it can also occur in less dramatic circumstances.
This can make the abuse difficult to name, but some examples of subtle abuse are dismissing and belittling behavior (often presented as humor), continual criticism, asserting dominance by making it difficult for you to make decisions or punishing you when you do, gaslighting, smothering behavior that attempts to control or keep tabs on you, and attempting to isolate you by driving a wedge between you and your support system. These are are all abusive tactics.
If you'll notice, the above examples don't include name-calling or physical or sexual force, although those are certainly forms of abuse. So how do you know you're not being "too sensitive" when your partner makes fun of you or puts you down in front of friends? It's confusing, and we are often quick to make excuses or blame ourselves for our feelings of discomfort.
Subtle abuse is prevalent in all types of abusive situations, but since it is the most difficult component to identify, it's also the hardest to recover from, even after the relationship has ended. If we've endured this type of mistreatment in childhood, it wounds us to the core and plays a significant role in how we view ourselves. Psychological abuse can be direct or indirect as it degrades us by attacking our values and personality. This type of abuse is insidious and its damage is far-reaching, so it's critical that we understand what it is and recognize it when it happens.
Also, the word "subtle" doesn't mean that these tactics aren't that bad. It's these less obvious, subtle tactics that cause us to question ourselves, our reality, and our worth. As we become more worn down over time and isolated from our support system, we are left dependent on the abuser, which makes it less likely that we will leave.
There are a variety of reasons why a woman or man stays in an unhealthy dynamic. While each person's particular reason to stay may vary, there are some common experiences that are often at play.
First, abuse is gradual and cyclical. It isn't obvious at first, but it escalates over time. The more committed they are in a relationship--through shared finances, blended family and friends, marriage, children, etc.--the harder it is to break things off because they are increasingly invested in the relationship's outcome.