By Shivangi Bhatia
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
I’ve thought a lot about this specific phrase. It’s a childhood rhyme tossed around on the playground, but it meant more to me the older I got. I was taught to smile and be the bigger person when someone verbally bullied me, to not let it affect me. I was asked, “If no one physically hurt you, why are you crying?” and I was told that “Their opinion shouldn’t matter”. But as hard as I tried, their words still mattered. They still do.
Relationships are an essential aspect of a person’s life. We form relationships to share experiences and emotions with others. We trust these people with our secrets, our hopes, our dreams. We make them a big part of our lives. But relationships also have the power to hurt you and your self esteem. They have the ability to make you second guess yourself. While less readily discussed within our society as sexual violence, this emotional abuse can be just as harmful as physical abuse. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that approximately 48.4% of women and 48.8% of men living in the United States have experienced at least one psychologically aggressive behavior by an intimate partner1. It can happen to anyone and can happen anywhere.
Emotional abuse is a regular pattern of verbal offenses, threats, bullying, constant criticism, along with intimidation and manipulation in order to control a person. Survivors are often kept in a cycle where they are committed to staying in the relationship and minimize their own experiences, two valid reactions that typically stem from their feelings for the other person. A negative, unhealthy relationship can draw out a lot of emotions and insecurities. It can be draining and lead to self-blame for abusers’ actions. Individuals often develop anxiety, depression, and conflicting feelings on how to handle their relationship.
Identifying the signs of an emotionally abusive relationship is important. Knowledge of its intricacies empowers survivors to label their own experiences and allows friends of survivors to be good support systems. According to Live Bold & Bloom, a website dedicated to discussing healthy relationships, common signs of emotional abuse include:
- Humiliation or making fun of you in front of others
- Demeaning or disregarding your opinions, ideas and suggestions
- Using sarcasm or teasing you to make you feel bad about yourself
- Accusing you of being “too sensitive” in order to deflect their abusive remarks
- Controlling you as if you’re a child
- Making you feel like you’re always wrong and they’re always right
- Regularly pointing out your flaws, mistakes or shortcomings
- Making excuses for their behavior or having difficulty apologizing
- Repeatedly crossing your boundaries and ignoring your requests for them to stop
- Calling you names, unpleasant labels or making cutting remarks
- Using subtle threats or negative remarks with the intent to frighten you
- Keeping you emotionally distant from them
- Deflecting blame to you rather than taking personal responsibility
- Using neglect or abandonment to punish you
- Keeping you away from your friends and family
To those in emotionally abusive relationships: it is okay to not know what to do. Trusting another person and then having them take advantage of that trust is not right, but that doesn’t mean that we always know how to react. It took me over a year to figure out how to leave a toxic and unhealthy relationship. The constant criticism and invalidation affected me to the point that I didn’t feel like myself anymore. I was anxious all the time. I tried not to let the words get to me, but they felt almost impossible to ignore. There were moments I wanted to leave, but I loved the other person and took it upon myself to make the relationship healthy again.
All I can say is don’t be too hard on yourself. Everyone takes their time to come to terms with their experiences, to label them and to know how to proceed. Stay strong and trust your gut. When you are ready, you will know. Until then, surround yourself with positive people who can be a sounding board and show you the type of love you want. I can truly say my friends are the reason I am sitting here writing this, in a much better place with a much better mindset.
The next time you hear that childhood rhyme or someone tells you that emotional abuse isn’t as harmful as physical abuse, correct them. This type of mindset hurts survivors, friends of survivors and those still learning what a healthy relationship looks like. Be supportive of those around you and look out for the signs. Sticks and stones do break bones, but words can hurt to the core.
About the Author: Shivangi Bhatia was a 2016 Undergraduate Scholar and interned with Emily’s List. She is a rising senior at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, majoring in Political Science and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Upon graduation, Shivangi plans to launch a career in activism with women and girls living in communities of India.