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  • Writer's pictureIsabela Camargos

The psychology behind emotional abuse

People mostly refer to abusive relationships as myths, tales, situations that lie very far from their reality. This interpretation isn’t accurate, however: statistically speaking, one out of every four women and one out of every seven men experience at least one abusive relationship throughout their lives. Let us first remove the stigma: the presence of physical violence in a relationship is not a requirement for it to be damaging; emotional abuse can be just as harmful and frequently precedes domestic violence. Going through this level of trauma can be the cause for multiple psychological and physical negative effects in one’s life. Speaking in short-term, abusive relationships usually inflict feelings of confusion, fear, hopelessness and shame to the victims, and may also cause moodiness, difficulty in concentration, muscle tension and frequent nightmares. The long-term effects may ultimately contribute to low self-esteem, social withdrawal, depression and anxiety, alongside the remaining feeling of guilt. Physically, the victims are prone to suffer from chronic pains and insomnia.

After comprehending the extent to which abusive relationships can be hurtful, one might ask why they remain so common. The answer is more biological than rational: the high highs and low lows that characterize what may be identified as a “toxic” relationship basically result in the release and withdrawal of Oxytocin (the love hormone) and Dopamine (the happiness hormone). This hormonal roller-coaster is addictive to the body, and thus the brain eventually accepts it as regular and starts to expect it. Therefore, people who manage to get out of abusive associations will most likely miss the chemical reactions they cause, at least initially, and might change their minds as a result. If the cycle of abuse is not cut off at early stages, it becomes even more tricky to leave; eventually, there are factors such as money, friends and family to consider besides the psychology of it all. As well as any plague, disease or addiction, emotional abuse can and should be cut off from the beginning. This is why one should never, ever, shame a victim of abuse for returning to their abuser; it is key to consider that, because of the hormonal withdrawal they are under, most of these people don’t realize the context of their relationships is out of the ordinary until their bodies get used to hormonal stability.

The typical highs and lows that make the body chemically addicted are commonly caused by enduring a partner that lacks empathy, manipulates, lies, has a grandiose sense of self and diminishes others, and is overly critical and unpredictable. Of course, there is no such thing as an “abusive companion resumeé”, meaning all of these characteristics can vary and won’t always be signs of emotional abuse but certainly are red flags. If being with someone causes feelings of self-doubt, self-betrayal, exhaustion or the frequent necessity to always “walk on eggshells” near them, the relationship must be put under the magnifying glass for sure. Boundaries and limits must be set in any relationship, whether it’s romantic, platonic, in the workspace and so on. Always make note that in situations like these, the familiarity of pain feels like safety.

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