Emotional abuse can often be confusing and hard to pinpoint in a relationship. Something can feel “off” or painful for a long time but, abuse? That word sounds just so dramatic, maybe even unfair, we think. After all, isn’t it normal for a loved one to disappoint us or hurt us from time to time with a careless comment or failing to follow through? We might think that we are just being overly sensitive to behavior or words that feel abusive. We tell ourselves maybe we just need to get a thicker skin and maybe our partner reinforces this idea that we are just too sensitive. They were just “joking” after all and we need to loosen up.
Emotional abuse, most basically, is treatment that erodes our sense of self and confidence in this world. Many of us know that name calling is certainly abuse but what about a pattern of jokes that go too far? These “jokes” can take a multitude of forms; jokes that mock your insecurities like your weight or ones about how high and mighty you must think you are now that you’ve accomplished something you worked so hard to obtain for example. Then, when you point it out, it will be thrown back at you – “Obviously, I was joking. C’mon you know I would never actually say something so mean seriously!” and they will move on without apology. Furthermore, and this is important, they will not censor themselves in the future should they want to say a similar “joke.” After all, it’s so funny! How can you deprive them of the joy in life of having fun at your expense?! A healthy person might say something hurtful, but they apologize and work to never say it again. An abusive person will deflect, refuse accountability and continue no matter how you protest.
“That joke isn’t funny anymore. It’s too close to home and it’s too near the bone.”
Once this behavior has begun and you have been told no, you are wrong for being hurt though it can become very confusing. A good way to gauge your interpretations is to tell a close friend about the joke that hurt you. Good friends will almost always recoil in shock if it’s truly offensive which can validate that it’s emotionally abusive language. It may be painful or uncomfortable to acknowledge this reality but it’s important.
It is important to validate yourself – you get to decide what language feels good and what doesn’t for yourself. For years, a quote from Adele has stood out to me, “I have insecurities, of course, but I don’t hang out with anyone who points them out to me.” This is an amazing bottom line for all our relationships.
Song for this reflection: “That Joke isn’t Funny Anymore” by The Smiths