10 Signs You Maybe In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship  

By Ange Fonce

How To Deal With It!

This model for recovery from relationship abuse assumes that "the problem" is primarily inside the abused person. 

Makes sense. 

This assumption underlies most therapeutic strategies for recovery from abuse and suppose you started with the assumption that "the problem" is not primarily inside anybody and rather between people?

Suppose the problem was most fundamentally a relationship problem?

This model begins with observing that all relationships exist on a continuum from respectful to shaming and along this axis there is a clear moral imperative that you should move from shaming relationships toward respectful relationships. 

In addition all relationships also exist on a continuum of intensity from hot to cool... there is no general moral imperative about this axis. 

We all need some relationships that are hot and respectful and there is nothing wrong with having other relationships that are cool and respectful.

These two qualities of relationship lead to four general categories of relationships as shown in the figure below.

Just a few comments about each of these kinds of relationships.


Relationships that are "hot" and shaming are actively abusive relationships

If the shame is manifested in domestic violence for example... this is the kind of relationship where you see bruises... broken bones... trips to the emergency room etc. 

It is "hot" meaning in your face... up close... intense. 

And it is intensely shaming.


It is also possible for a very shaming relationship to be a cool relationship

Rather than up close there is some distance in this relationship... it is not a healthy relationship and the level of intensity has gone down. 

A relationship of this kind may be characterized by emotional or verbal abuse rather than physical abuse. 

The shame is still there and there are fewer broken bones.


Calm means respectful yet not intense. 

I have a calm relationship with the accountant who prepares my taxes each year. 

It is a respectful relationship and neither of us feel any urgency for it to me more than calm

All of us need relationships of this kind in our lives.


An intimate relationship is one characterized by both intensity and respect

Note that this is not really the opposite of an actively abusive relationship... they actually have one thing in common that both are intense. 

If it is the opposite of something it is the opposite of quietly abusive relationships.

All of us need relationships of this kind in our lives.

Now suppose you are in a relationship that best fits in the category...


Let us use the example of domestic violence... you are being hurt... the shame is everywhere and things are intense. 

What do people in such relationships want? 

Generalizations here are dangerous and my experience has been that a great many people in relationships of that kind want an intimate relationship instead of an actively abusive one. 

Nothing is more common after an incident of domestic violence than for the victim to urgently... passionately... desperately long for the relationship to be an intimate one

Perhaps the abuser has apologized. 

Promised that it will never happen again. 

Wept over their failure and pleaded for forgiveness. 

It might seem like intimacy is finally possible and it might actually give some meaning to your current suffering if you could think of it as a kind of turning point that finally made possible the transformation of your relationship.

This is how people who have been physically abused in intimate relationships often feel... they are hoping that it is possible to move from an actively abusive relationship directly to an intimate one

The desired transition is as shown in the next illustration.

However it takes time and a lot of effort and change for this transition to actively work and if these steps are not taken then odds of this being successful are very... very low. 

Sooner or later it will become apparent that the one step transition to intimacy has left out some important steps in the healing process and there will eventually be a return to the old dynamics

It may take some time for the cycle of abuse to come back around to the active abuse side of things and it is quite predictable that this will happen... if Important steps in the healing process have been ignored and the outcome is unfortunately quite predictable... a return to abuse.

So what are the steps that are being ignored and if the one step to intimacy path just does not work... what kind of pathway is available?

As shown in the next illustration... the path to intimacy can be understood has having three parts  which I will call “saying no”... “saying maybe” and “saying yes.”

A few words about each of these steps in the healing process.


Healing begins by saying “no” to abuse. 

The “no” needs to be substantive... the time must come when you say... 

“I will not be part of this any more.” 

There are predictable consequences to saying “no.” 

Other people will not be happy and you will probably not be happy either. 

Saying “no” typically leads quickly to a sense of loss and confusion... who am I now that things are not so intense? 

There is often a desperation to return to connection with the abusive person... the suffering we know often seems more survivable than the unknown suffering through which the healing process is leading us. 

Spiritual issues are also a prominent feature of this stage of the process... I know people who have returned to physically abusive relationships because they were convinced that God an even bigger and more powerful bully... was just around the corner waiting to punish them for saying “no.”

This view of God may seem terribly distorted to you and it is... yet it is common among people who have been abused. 

Another dynamic common  in this “saying no” stage is self blame and self abuse.

If only I had done something different. 

If only I had been more patient. 

If only... 

The sense that I am at fault can become obsessional and lead people to retreat from the healing path back into active abuse... it is important to emphasize that saying “no” does not suddenly turn an abusive relationship into a healthy one. 

The best you can work towards at this stage is  for a “quietly abusive” one... the shame is still there and it is probably still coming from the abusive person and there are still huge reserves of shame that have been internalized from earlier episodes of abuse. 

Yet “quietly abusive” is a step forward in the right direction. 

If you can get that far... you can then begin to explore the possibility of saying “maybe.”


The “saying maybe” stage of recovery is also challenging. 

Saying “maybe” is the kind of thing you do when you are aware of danger... maybe you can spend time with this person without increasing your shame maybe you cannot. 

The saying “maybe” stage is full of protective strategies. 

It has two main psychological manifestations... dissociation and hyper vigilance.

Dissociation is kind of like having a "bunker." 

Part of you is going to stay safe in the bunker... you may come out to spend time with others and your not putting everything at risk... some of you will be safely hidden away... dissociation is not a bad thing... it is an important skill which can save your life in dangerous situations... it can of course also really mess up relationships if you use this tool when things are not actually dangerous.

Hyper vigilance is also a common defensive strategy you use when you are saying “maybe.” 

If dissociation is like having a bunker... hyper vigilance is like having an early warning radar system... you scan the horizon looking for signs of danger so that you can retreat before the danger becomes acute... hyper vigilance is not a bad thing... it is an important skill that can save your life in dangerous situations and like dissociation it can also make a mess of relationships when the situation is not really dangerous.

The important thing to remember is that you are trying to move from relationships characterized by shame to relationships characterized by respect. 

You are not trying to make the relationship more intense... that will have to wait for later... you are only trying to find out if it is safe... is it possible to spend some time with this person without being abused... without increasing our shame?

If the answer is “yes” and it may never be... then you may be able to move on to the saying “yes” stage of the healing process.


In earlier stages of the healing process people look forward to this stage and think it should be the easy part. 

This should be when you see some pay off for all the hard work you have done and as a result people are often blind sided by the difficulties of this stage of healing. 

The most common problem is that during this stage of healing you are moving from a calm relationship to an intense one and the last time you were in an intense relationship things were very dangerous... so even though you have said “maybe” for quite a while to test the waters... this saying “yes” stage can feel dangerous. 

One way of talking about this is the notion of “triggers.” 

Things will happen that remind you of how things used to be and it is not reasonable to expect your response to these “triggers” to be rational or well proportioned... even if you know better you may feel like things are the way things used to be.

Sometimes it does not take much for this to happen... a phrase... a smell... a situation can suddenly drag you back to the angry... hurt... lonely feelings that you lived with for so long. 

Part of the work of the saying “yes” phase of healing is to come to terms with these triggers... with experience you learn that even though it feels like you have been drug back to square one... that is not really what has happened... it is a powerful reminder of what is real about your history and that is an important contribution which experiences of this kind can make to your life. 

Yet you are not starting over... all the work you have done in the saying “no” stage and in the saying “maybe” stage helps you to move much more quickly through the stages... over time you find it easier to make your way back to present realities.

This way of thinking about the recovery process makes the most sense when applied to abuse in intimate relationships

I have for that reason consistently focused on domestic abuse as an example and it can also apply to other kinds of abuse.

Have you any thoughts or comments you would like to share with me on what I have written?

I would love to hear from you.

Thank you and may you enjoy a Prosperous and Dynamic day!

Yours Sincerely

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