Campus Life
That’s not love: signs of emotional abuse
by Gabby Dumonceaux | February 12, 2020

Not all scars are visible.

February is the season of love.

Between Family Day, Black History Month and Valentine’s Day, feelings of appreciation for your background and your boo are everywhere. And, that’s great! It’s wonderful to express your gratitude for the people you care about.

Two cartoon women smile while wrapped in a tight embrace.

As your Instagram timeline becomes littered with photos of picture-perfect couples, we need to take a step back and remind ourselves what love should look like. Or rather, what it shouldn’t look like. Specifically, if your partner acts in a way that threatens or oppresses you, you could be a victim of emotional abuse.

The Canadian Department of Justice says emotional abuse is, “…when a person uses words or actions to control, frighten or isolate someone or take away their self-respect.”

Essentially, it’s a relationship power imbalance where one person dominates and exploits the other, threatening their emotional and psychological health. It’s also insidious in that it’s notoriously hard to recognize, especially from the inside. Victims may feel like their partner is just, “intense,” or, “going through a hard time,” however, these are excuses that ultimately enable mistreatment.

close-up of a man's face with his eyes covered illuminated with blue and purple lights.

The best way to prevent this type of abuse is to increase awareness about it, giving people the tools to recognize and address behaviours that aren’t okay. So, whether you’re still in the honeymoon stage or you’ve been with your honey for many moons, here are some red flags to watch out for:

Manipulation

This is an umbrella term for a number of habits that could escalate into something worse. But, basically, manipulation is anything your partner does that sneakily and unfairly influences you.

Emotional blackmail falls under this category. It involves a situation where your partner threatens to hurt you or themselves unless you obey their wishes. Some examples might be, “Cook dinner for me or I’ll delete all your pictures of us,” or, “Come over Friday night or I’ll cheat on you.”

Speaking of cheating, micro-cheating is another way in which abusers might gain power over their victims. Micro-cheating is any behaviour that walks the line between loyalty and infidelity. Your partner might have a “work spouse” with whom they consistently flirt or get uncomfortably friendly with strangers on the bus. While neither of these technically count as cheating, there’s a good chance they make you feel uneasy. If you bring these concerns up to your partner and they dismiss them as crazy or unjustified, it’s a major sign something is wrong.

SIlhouette reflection of two people holding hands.

Other forms of manipulation include stonewalling and emotional withholding. The first is your partner refusing to communicate or co-operate with you when you call attention to a legitimate concern — the silent treatment. The second is when your partner denies you affection as a punishment. It’s different than them just not being in the mood to cuddle; it’s deliberate rejection designed to suffocate you.

Long story short, your relationship should never make you feel like you’re being controlled.

Gaslighting

This form of manipulation is incredibly vicious — so much so that it deserves its own category. Gaslighting is when your partner dismisses facts and undermines your feelings to the point where you question your own sanity. Someone who is gaslighting you will blame you for things they did wrong or that are out of your control, for example, “If you were a better partner I wouldn’t have to yell at you.” They’ll also deny your concerns, telling you they’re unwarranted or deranged.

Chronic gaslighting can be internalized, causing victims to pity their abusers and excuse their behaviour. It can lead people to apologize for things their partner did, like saying, “I’m sorry I made you cheat on me by being busy.”

Gaslighting should never be ignored. As soon as you notice it, bring it up to your partner or to someone you trust.

red traffic lights illuminate a dark cobblestone street.

Isolation

Connection is an abuser’s worst nightmare. Although it can be endearing when your partner is a little protective of you, there’s a fine line between healthy and unhealthy jealousy. Someone trying to isolate you will deliberately keep you from your friends and family, creating an us vs. them mentality. They’ll insult your loved ones behind closed doors, tell you you’re better off without them or, more dangerously, convince you they are the only one who truly loves you.

Isolation tactics go beyond separating you from your loved ones. They can also prevent you from doing things for yourself, like enjoying a favourite hobby or practicing your religion. An abuser’s goal is to eliminate your individuality, so your identity revolves entirely around your relationship with them. That way, they have complete control.

A small cabin sits alone in a desolate valley.

It’s okay to get a little defensive now and then. But, if your partner becomes upset with you for having a life of your own, that’s not love.

Control

Abusers want power, and they’ll try to achieve it by asserting authority over everything you do. They might try to micro-manage your habits, telling you to wash the dishes a certain way, criticizing your diet, or dictating what music you listen to.

You may feel like your partner is just finicky, but if you find yourself afraid of how they’ll react if you do something “wrong,” they’re not particular; they’re poisonous.

front view of a colour-coded bookshelf

Controlling behaviour can easily turn sinister if left unaddressed. For one, it can escalate to include financial abuse, where the perpetrator has authority over how the victim spends their money. In extreme cases, it can intensify to the level of stalking, which signals a serious threat and is considered a criminal offence.

Victims of controlling partners are often scared to leave the relationship, as they fear letting go of someone who has such significant influence over them will leave them totally deserted.

In reality, if you’re scared to leave, it means you need to.

Insults

When playful teasing turns hurtful and your partner refuses to stop, it’s a form of emotional abuse. They might use humour as a scapegoat and claim you don’t know how to take a joke, but this is a clear sign they don’t respect your boundaries.

Partners who constantly put you down, belittle your accomplishments or insult your friends are toxic, plain and simple.

a danger sign featuring a skull and crossbones posted on a green wall

Recklessness

Abusive partners are prone to erratic, intimidating behaviour. This includes extreme mood swings — such as irrational anger followed immediately by intense affection. It can also mean unpredictable, emotional outbursts over trivial events.

When upset, abusers might try to punish you by stealing or destroying your belongings, publicly humiliating you (in person or online) or delivering ultimatums that make you fear for your safety. It’s also quite common for them to threaten to harm you, themselves or someone you love if you leave the relationship.

If you feel like you’re walking on eggshells around your partner because you’re unsure of what they might do, you need to free yourself and let them go.

a red and green hot air balloon floats into a clear blue sky.

Emotional abuse is complicated. Every relationship is different, and personal boundaries vary greatly from person to person. Still, some things are universally unacceptable and need to be addressed before they can get any worse.

If you recognize these warning signs in your relationship, bring them up to your partner first. If they don’t listen or if doing so feels unsafe, look elsewhere. There are so many resources at your disposal that can help you tackle these issues in an effective, efficient and confidential way.

The provincial government and Women’s College Hospital both have domestic violence treatment centres, which also provide support to victims of emotional abuse. If you prefer total anonymity, call or text Good2Talk: a government-funded helpline specifically for post-secondary students. And, as always, the Student Wellness and Accessibility Centre (SWAC) provides free counseling to all Humber and UofGH students.

Entrance area to the Humber Student Wellness & Accessibility Centre.

Real love doesn’t hurt. Real love doesn’t intimidate.

And you deserve real love.


For problems you’re unsure how to solve on your own, get in touch with IGNITE’s Dispute Resolution Clinic.

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