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Responding to Emotional Abuse

Over the years, I’ve treated many individuals (mostly women) in emotionally abusive relationships, a major cause of food abuse, and have identified three stages of abusee response. Emotional abuse is everything from constantly or intermittently being humiliated, threatened, yelled or cursed at, ignored, shamed, put down or invalidated. Specific behaviors include the abuser making fun of you, eye-rolling when you speak, walking away when you’re talking, telling you that what you think or feel is stupid or untrue, belittling you, or trying to control you through words, tone, or body language.

In Stage One, abused individuals are hopeful, wishful and walk on eggshells. They try to please the abuser and truly believe that if they don’t upset him or her, all will be well, misunderstanding that the problem of abuse resides in the other person, not themselves. They fear standing up to the abuser, so they remain passive, ignoring bad behavior and trying to fly under their partner’s radar. Abusees function in this relational state for years or decades, sometimes for a lifetime.

In Stage Two, abusees fight back. They recognize that they are walking patsies and believe that if they stand up for themselves, the abuse will end. The abusee feels empowered and expects that holding firm or arguing back will bring relational power into balance. Occasionally, but rarely, it does. Or the abusee drags a partner into counseling and the abuser recognizes the error of his or her ways, and works on changing them. Sometimes fighting back works, but frequently it worsens abuse: the abuser feels threatened and attacks harder. The abusee doesn’t understand that fighting back is not the answer and, once more, may continue in this type of relational dynamic for decades.

In Stage Three, the abusee finally recognizes that neither passivity nor assertiveness will change the abuser’s behavior and that the only way out is through the door. It’s very hard to give up the fighting and the belief that the abuser will change, to leave a long-term relationship and be alone, but this is what must happen. Too often, abusees don’t realize that there is another stage beyond constantly battling and defending themselves. They have no idea that true empowerment means getting out of the abusive situation.

If you’re being emotionally abused, take a moment to assess in which stage you’re in and what you need to do to progress to the next stage—talk to a friend or family member, find a therapist, or speak with a lawyer. Then take steps to move forward. Remember, to give up disregulated eating, sometimes the abuse needs to end first.