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The Recovery Expert
with Sharie Stines, Psy.D.

Emotional Abuse and the Impact of Absence

alone2So often we think of abuse as something that happens to us, but have you ever thought about what it means to a person who suffers from the abuse of omission?  Emotional abuse can be so deceptive, that most of the time, people who are victims have no idea they are being abused.  One way to analyze your situation to determine if you are being emotionally abused is to consider, rather than what the other person is doing, is what the effects are on you.  What may be hurting you may not be overt, but rather covert; you may not suffer from anything you can put your finger on because your abuser may be hurting you by what he’s not doing.

Here are some things to consider:  Do you find yourself being confused within this relationship?  Do you analyze yourself or an argument with this person to determine where you went wrong or what you could have done differently?  Do you find yourself blaming yourself for the things that go wrong in the relationship?  Do you find yourself accepting fewer and fewer “crumbs” from this person as time goes on, being grateful for any small comment or gesture that feels validating?  Do you feel like an emotional wreck?  Do you feel desperate or in despair?  Do you read lots of articles, blogs, and books looking for ways to improve your relationship?  Have you lost trust in your own perceptions?  Other symptoms of emotional or covert abuse include feelings of rage, low self-esteem,  anxiety, preoccupation with the relationship, obsessive need to fix it, feelings of guilt and shame, despair and loss of hope, increased addictions, loss of weight, or somatic symptoms.

Not only does emotional abuse, neglect, and covert abuse cause all of the above, it also costs other losses to your sense of identity as well.  According to Bonnie Badenoch, Ph.D., the deepest and most consistent pain people tend to experience comes from disconnection.  Neurobiology teaches us that our most basic quest is for attuned relationships.  When considering that our most basic human need is for meaningful relationships with others, consider the effects of emotional neglect, abuse, and absence.

When in a relationship with someone who has a personality disorder or is emotionally abusive, there are many things that are missing.  One direction to take in order to heal from such a relationship is to consider what you have lost because of being in this relationship.  Writing a list is very eye-opening.  Write about all the things you haven’t experienced because of this relationship.

Consider some basic qualities of healthy relationships that are blatantly lacking from yours.  Circle every one of these attributes of a healthy relationship that you do not experience with your loved one:

Kindness • Genuine concern for your well-being • Empathy • Mutuality • Compromise

Strategies to resolve conflicts • Validation • Reassurance • Patience • Compassion

Sense of security • Appreciation • Sense of being “teammates” • Encouragement • Caring

Sharing of basic household chores  • Listening  • Nurturing

When discussing the abuse of absence, it is important to realize that one of the biggest deficits in the relationship involves a lack of presence.  You don’t feel “seen and heard” by your partner because he cannot, will not, does not care to see or hear you.  This in turn leads to you not being truly known.  Without presence in your relationship you experience the sense of not really mattering that much, if at all.  You learn to numb your emotions and dissociate from your heart’s greatest needs.

Another loss from the abuse of absence is the loss of your dreams to have a relationship that is deep, meaningful, safe, fulfilling, and satisfying.  All of these qualities are absent from an emotionally abusive relationship.  When you start counting the costs to your well-being and quality of life you start to realize the effects, and in turn, start opening your eyes to the fact that yes, indeed, you are being abused.  As you start looking at the costs, you can start validating yourself and start the healing process.

If your abuser is your spouse, consider all that has been stolen from you – your biggest dreams for lifelong love, a stable family for your children, a close, intimate best friend to share all your hopes with, a soul mate, a refuge in times of trouble.  So much is lost when your spouse is your abuser.  You’ve had to live in denial, overlook hurts and offenses for years.  You’ve taught your children how to be desensitized to abuse and have most likely taught them poorly about intimate interpersonal relationships; mainly, because you’ve had to use so many compensatory coping strategies to survive yourself.

If your abuser is your parent, the loss is enormous as well, for this is the person responsible for your early emotional development and for setting your inner relational working models.  Your parents have been “imprinted” on your psyche and the way they raised you has left you with solid mental, relational, and physical memory “muscles” that are hard to tear down and rebuild.  If your earliest experiences are ones of emotional manipulation and deprivation, you really have no idea about what is real and healthy; you have been brainwashed.

Another thing to consider is the creation of implicit memories, which are the memories stored in our brains that do not contain time and place context.  As children, we have stored implicit memories, which without the explicit experience of context cause us, as adults, to just feel, in the moment, a memory, without any idea that the memory is a trigger from the past and is not really happening now.  This is another huge effect of emotional abuse in childhood – the creation of trauma memories which feel as if they are happening in the present.   This is the loss of inner security and the ability to create future healthy emotional bonds as an adult without great effort on our part.  Childhood neglect is one of the worst forms of abuse for these very reasons.

All emotional abusers tend to be brain washers.  One of the best ways to ensure a bond is through inconsistent reinforcement.  These abusers in our lives do not only and always do things that are underhanded or hurtful.  If that were the case our problems would be easier to identify.  Instead, they periodically show up as Mr. Wonderful or Mrs. Loving and Kind.  When this happens we temporarily relax, feel relieved, and “forget” all the mean things they have done or neglects they have perpetrated.  We are “reinforced” to stay bonded to the person because this reprieve feels overly important since it is so desired and unpredictable.  It is similar to the hostage takers who were given credit by their hostages for not killing them (Stockholm syndrome).  In the end, with emotional abusers, the victims are willing to accept the smallest of crumbs because they seem so precious.  It’s akin to a person dying of thirst.  When water is available its value is overlooked, but when a person is almost dying from thirst, the smallest amount is worth more than its weight in gold.  When people are in a covertly abusive relationship, with little emotional validation, the smallest amount of positive reinforcement feels like a huge gift.  This is because abusers have trained their victims to feel desperate.

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Emotional Abuse and the Impact of Absence

APA Reference
Stines, S. (2016). Emotional Abuse and the Impact of Absence. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 18, 2019, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/recovery-expert/2016/01/emotional-abuse-and-the-impact-of-absence/