When we think of relationship abuse, phrases like "domestic violence" and "date rape" come to mind. However, not all forms of abuse are accompanied by visible wounds, screaming matches or physical violence.
A portrait of abuse
Los Angeles-based interdisciplinary artist Tieraney Carter was in a long-distance relationship for about a year, an era marked by mixed messages and fuzzy boundaries. The experience culminated in Carter realizing the person they were dating was perpetrating mental and emotional abuse against them.
That discovery was the result of a long process of self-investigation, therapy and research. For Carter and others who face this insidious type of relationship abuse, it takes time for troublesome behaviors to surface and intensify to the point of identification.
Carter's first inkling something was wrong occurred when they attempted to directly communicate about their relationship status.
"I felt very insecure within the relationship because there weren't clear boundaries around what we were," Carter said. "We weren't partners, but we were intimate. There were a lot of mixed messages and obstacles when it came to talking directly. I tried to have conversations about what was happening with us, and I would either be dismissed or the person would say, 'It's weird you're asking me this,' and I would feel embarrassed for bringing it up."
Behavior such as anger and blaming others for their feelings are warning signs of mental and emotional abuse, according to psychotherapist and relationship strategist Isabell Springer, L.M.F.T., of Los Angeles.
Behavior such as anger and blaming others for their feelings are warning signs of mental and emotional abuse.
"Mental and emotional abuse can look like intimidation or scare tactics, such as threatening to harm you if you should not obey the perpetrator," she said. "Or it could look like belittling and humiliating you, dismissing your thoughts and ideas and laughing at your expense. When a partner says things like, 'You would never make it without me' or 'No one would want to be with someone like you' or tells you, 'You should be lucky to have me' to insinuate you are not worthy of love, that's abuse."
When Carter sent a gift to the person they were dating and the person acted dismissively in response, they resolved to take a month to step back and assess. During this break, the actions of the past few months began to fit together in their mind like a puzzle being assembled.
"There are love drugs and weird attachments that can happen when you're getting really hot and cold messages from somebody," Carter said. "I was lost in that for a while. Within that month that I took some space, things started to come together. I recognized boundary violations. I started getting angry."
It's time to set boundaries
For people facing potentially abusive behavior in relationships, Springer advised having an exit strategy in place and sharing what's concerning you with others.
"Confide in a trusted person about what's happening in your relationship, even if you're not ready to leave," she explained. "Others must know the truth about your circumstances. Research attorneys, agencies and victim advocate groups so you're aware of your options."
Carter said the word "abusive" didn't cross their mind until they shared experiences from their relationship with a friend seven or eight months in. The conversation was a starting point for their investigation into the true nature of the relationship.
"I was in this weird hypnosis and didn't fully understand what was happening," they said. "My friend was like, 'That sounds abusive.' It took another person saying, 'This doesn't sound right' to put abuse on my radar."
When abuse is identified in a relationship, Springer recommends communicating directly with your partner to express concerns about past behavior and to identify boundaries for the future, including outlining behaviors that are nonnegotiable.
"Let your partner know that you're not OK with the way they are treating you," Springer said. "If you want to explore the possibility of staying in the relationship, let them know they must get help, like therapy, anger management training or personal growth workshops, or you will not be staying. Reflect on your experiences so they are clear about what will not be tolerated. If you fear them on any level, don't have any big conversations with them alone. Agree to meet with a counselor or a trusted third party to communicate the seriousness of the situation."
After Carter took the month break, the pair agreed to a Zoom meeting to reflect on all they had realized during the time apart. Unfortunately, the person they were dating was not open to Carter's feelings and didn't feel they needed any personal growth or behavioral changes.
"They had this look in their eye that felt condescending and smug, like I was beneath them," Carter recalled. "I was trying to express, 'Here are these things you did that hurt me.' They were like, 'I hurt you. So what? I'm a difficult person.' There were even subtle threats in this conversation. That was the time when the mask fell. I like to use the example of a psychological thriller, where you're wondering why a character did something and then later you're like, 'Oh, that's why.' That's how the reveal of the year was."
Why does this happen?
Springer said the impulse to perpetrate mental and emotional abuse typically stems from childhood trauma. A child may grow up feeling overpowered and without the control to change their circumstances, which may translate to rage and other abusive behavior.
"Their unexpressed childhood rage slowly builds over the years and will forever be looking for a place to land in the form of a human, and sometimes animals or personal property," Springer said. "There is a ferocious desire to release the pain of years of suffering they experienced as a child. There is something emotionally satisfying in letting off steam by abusing another."
She said the result of an individual's childhood trauma is a desire—conscious for some but not all people—to control and restrict the life of their partner, either due to an inflated sense of importance for their own needs or enjoyment in exerting such power over another person.
"They aren't consciously thinking anything in the moment of the abusive act," Springer continued. "Their behavior is a manifestation of deep-seated issues from childhood that are playing out. The abuser is fulfilled in knowing they have exerted power over another as if to say to their inner child, 'No one will ever hurt me again. Today, I have the ability to overpower them.' They seek out those partners who they know are emotionally weak, have low self-esteem or have no boundaries."
The healing process
After Carter ended their abusive romantic relationship, they conducted a thorough self-investigation into their past relationships to identify patterns. In the process, they began to see their relationship with their mother in a new light.
"After my experience with intimate relationship abuse—which was sadistic—I tracked my experiences back to dynamics that existed within my relationship with my mom," Carter said. "That didn't feel sadistic. It felt like a parent who didn't have the support they needed and who had difficulties with impulses. Her behavior looked very different from the intimate relationship experience I had, but it still was a form of abuse."
Next, Carter looked inward to identify the qualities and behaviors they possessed that might contribute to abuse in their relationships. They don't view this type of self-work as victim-blaming; rather, gathering this self-knowledge empowered them to develop healthier relationships in the future.
"I did a lot of intense self-investigation into my behaviors that are harmful to myself or other people, as well as attachment issues that create fertile ground for someone to behave that way with me," Carter explained. "It's important for me to take accountability and own the psychological devices that work within me and that make me susceptible to abuse."
'Because of the gaslighting and lying that happened, finding ways to get clear in my experience, despite what anyone else was saying, felt good.'
Carter recommended a technique called shadow work, a practice they said involves "focusing on the parts of myself that I want to resist in some way."
"That might mean emotions or physical sensations I have difficulty with or psychological or behavioral patterns," they said. "It's a self-acceptance practice where I identify which of those may need to be changed and which needs to be supported. We live in a society that encourages us to disassociate, bulldoze over our own needs and distance ourselves from anything that is socially discouraged, marginalized or demonized. Some of those things are actually harmful to other people and ourselves, and some of those things aren't."
Other techniques that aided Carter in processing the trauma from their abuse included somatic therapy, research into the psychological framework behind abusive behavior and creating art. In 2019, they released the album "Dig A Pit," a batch of six songs that examine the different stages of recovery from this type of abuse.
"Because of the gaslighting and lying that happened, finding ways to get clear in my experience, despite what anyone else was saying, felt good," Carter said. "If someone is harming you and you can't rely on their perspective, getting clear about yours is an important next step."
Reconciliation is possible
Just because mental and emotional abuse has been identified in a relationship doesn't mean the relationship has to end. Springer explained that shifts toward healthy behavior are possible, but only if the person perpetrating abuse commits to receiving professional help and doing their homework.
"They must heal the part that was wounded, abused, overpowered, humiliated, shamed, sexually assaulted, physically abused or emotionally neglected," she said. "I believe that a great percentage of people who have experienced horrific childhoods can completely heal and lead empowered, happy lives. But it takes work. It takes working with an informed therapist and working toward immediate change, creating a zero-tolerance policy for abusive behavior. Change can only be trusted if it's consistent over a long period of time. Trust must be rebuilt."
Carter noted that though their romantic relationship couldn't evolve into a healthy partnership, the experience helped identify the abuse that occurred in their relationship with their mother, a process which eventually led her mother to therapy. Today, the two of them share a healthy relationship marked by stability and open communication.
"For a while, my mom wasn't ready to have those conversations, so we stopped talking for three years," Carter said. "Then she went to therapy, and now our relationship is completely different. I totally think people can be available and willing to do the work to reconcile and make amends."
For people whose partners or family members are unwilling to do the self-work necessary to reconcile, Carter offers a hope that depends on no one but yourself.
"Part of the addictive quality of attachment is there can be this kind of hope for change in the relationship even though there's no change in the actual behavioral patterns," Carter explained. "Instead, the hope could be: I will take care of myself and I will figure out how to make myself safe or stable. That can be full of grief, mourning and uncertainty, but if nothing else, it's a starting place."