I knew that the things he was doing were hurtful, and I knew I didn’t like them, and I wished he wouldn’t do them, but I would not have used the word abusive.

— Samantha

I tried different things, lots of trial and error, and failed attempts in spite of my best efforts. It wasn’t until after leaving the situation that I would have used the word abuse.

 — Abigail

Like Samantha and Abigail, most emotionally abused partners don’t know they are being abused.

  • What they do know is that they’ve been trying everything they can think of to make their relationship better. 
  • They know too that they experience a great deal of frustration as their efforts consistently fail to create the closeness and mutual understanding they strive for. 
  • They know they are often confused by their partner’s behavior and what is going on in the relationship. 
  • They know they repeatedly feel hurt without fully understanding why. 
  • They know they feel baffled or stunned when their partner, once again, openly says or does something hurtful with seemingly little or no provocation. 
  • They know they feel hopeful and reassured when their partner intermittently shows a loving, caring side, or things simply seem to be back on an even keel. 
  • They know they frequently have a walking-on-eggshells feeling because they are never quite sure when or why the switch from loving to hurtful will happen. 
  • They know they often feel lonely even though they are in an intimate relationship.
  • And because of all of the above, they regularly wonder what is wrong with them.  

If you recognize yourself in the above description, this is the book for you. 

Most emotionally abused people think they are just dealing with the kinds of relationship issues all couples face. They usually feel shock, disbelief, and shame when they realize the relationship difficulties they have struggled with are actually due to the fact that their trusted life partner is emotionally abusive. They wonder how it is possible they didn’t know this—and why they tolerated the mistreatment as long as they did. 

I have three goals in mind with this book. One is to help people tell the difference between emotional abuse and the hard work of relationship; the next is to validate the abused partner’s experience and minimize or eliminate the shame and judgment they often feel by explaining why emotional abuse is so hard to recognize; and the third is to help people discover ways to claim, or reclaim, a sense of strength and empowerment that was so badly eroded by the abuse.  

Chapter 1, “Definition: ‘I Didn’t Think of It as Abuse,’” takes a detailed look at what emotional abuse is. By combining the work of widely recognized experts in the field and the voices of emotionally abused partners, I discuss the definition of emotional abuse and how it manifests in the lives of those who have experienced it. Building upon the work of John Gottman, a specialist in marriage therapy, I contrast a list of abusive tactics with how healthy couples treat each other. Finally, I explain why the Cycle of Violence Wheel is not a reliable indicator of emotional abuse. 

Chapter 2, “The Unspoken Contract: ‘I’m Doing What I’m Supposed to Do. Why Isn’t It Working?,’” examines how common wisdom about relationships plays a part in forming an unspoken, unconscious, and unequal relationship contract that works against abused partners and makes it difficult to recognize the abuse. It explains how the very behaviors that support a healthy relationship are harmful to the partner in an abusive one. 

Chapter 3, “Trust and the Ever-Changing Contract: ‘Why Is This So Hard?,’” explores the fundamental human need for trust in intimate relationships and how abusers violate that trust. It also describes how the abuser’s unpredictable shifts from loving to hurtful behaviors are part of the abuse process and can lead to traumatic bonding. 

Chapter 4, “Family of Origin: ‘I Thought It Was Just Part of Being Married,’” looks at what children from abusive families learn about relationships. It addresses how those experiences affect both abusive and abused partners and how they influence the interactions between couples in abusive partnerships.

Subtlety is such a pervasive aspect of emotional abuse that it takes two chapters to discuss it. Chapter 5, “Subtlety Part I: ‘But It’s Not That Bad,’’’ shows how emotional abuse blends with everyday interactions in such a way that abused partners are not even sure it is happening.  Chapter 6, “Subtlety Part II: ‘But Others Have It So Much Worse,’’’ discusses how more egregious abuses such as abusive anger, financial abuse, isolation, abandonment, and sexual abuse can be practiced in subtle ways, leaving the abused partner unsure if they are really abusive.  Both chapters help people discern subtle emotional abuse and explain why emotionally abused partners often don’t know they are being abused. 

Chapter 7, “Denial: ‘Am I Going Crazy?,’” validates abused people by showing how denial obscures the reality of the abuse. It explores how gaslighting and passive-aggressive behaviors undermine and confuse abused partners, depleting their confidence in their own perceptions, good judgment, and self-concept. It also addresses the partner’s denial. 

Chapter 8, “Telling the Difference: ‘Could This Be Emotional Abuse?,’” reviews many abusive behaviors described in previous chapters and contrasts them with the ways people in healthy relationships treat each other. It provides clear markers to help people distinguish between emotional abuse and the hard work of relationship. 

Chapter 9, “Normalizing: ‘How Could I Have Let This Happen?,’” takes an in-depth look at how judgment from self and others adds to the impact of emotional abuse. It discusses how family of origin dynamics can predispose people to accept abuse, dispels myths about what causes abuse, and validates abused partners by pointing out that people in abusive relationships share similar experiences and react in similar ways. 

Chapter 10, “The Path to Empowerment: ‘I Am Honoring Me Today,’” outlines various steps people can take to reclaim their power— whether they leave the relationship or feel the need to stay. It includes sections on acknowledging the abuse, detaching from the abuser, setting boundaries, and taking action steps toward greater self-reliance and self-respect. 

“A Note to Heterosexual Men” uses firsthand accounts to describe ways in which emotionally abusive heterosexual women use traditional male roles and stereotypes to abuse their male partners.

There are activity questions throughout the book. Answering those questions can help you discern if your relationship is abusive and strengthen your resolve and conviction as you move toward greater empowerment. Chapter 10 asks you to refer to the answers to these questions as part of the recovery process. 

It can also be helpful to journal or just make brief notes about memories and reactions that come up for you while you are reading. If you feel a paper journal may be invaded by an abusive partner, consider keeping a digital journal behind a password via your phone, email, or some other way.

This book may be difficult to read for anyone still living with emotional abuse. For those who have left an abusive relationship, it may trigger acute reactions. It is important to respect your process and take as many breaks as necessary to keep your equilibrium. Reading the book in conjunction with therapy or support meetings can be helpful

You don’t need to read the chapters in order. You may choose to look at the Table of Contents and begin by reading the sections that seem most relevant to you. Or you may look at the summaries here to guide you as to where to jump in. You may also skim through and focus on the quotes from other abused partners. All the people whose stories are in here have taken steps toward healing, and many have gone on to form healthy relationships. You may find encouragement in what they share. 

It is my hope that this book will help you tell the difference between emotional abuse and the hard work of relationship, understand yourself more, judge yourself less, increase your confidence in deciding whether to go or stay, empower yourself, and be better able to recognize signs of an abuser in a new relationship. You deserve kindness and respect. Always. Let’s begin.