Emotional abuse incorporates coercive or controlling behaviour, as well as economic abuse. The important thing to understand about emotional abuse is that it’s not a one-off incident; it’s a cumulation of incidents over a period of time and, quite often, you won’t know or recognise that it’s happening to you. As isolated incidents, they may seem, to you as well as the outside world, relatively minor, but when you stack all the incidents up together – that’s when you start to see the bigger picture of what’s really going on.

Emotionally abusive relationships adversely impact a person’s health and well-being and can be difficult to spot given toxicity is often wrapped up in flashes of romance and confusing behaviour. Some of the signs include:

  1. Walking on eggshells – Not being able to say what you really feel and worrying about your partner’s reaction before you speak. Heightened anxiety when your partner is around.
  2. Gaslighting – When situations or words are twisted or spun, selectively omitted to favour your partner, or false information is presented with the intent of making you doubt your own memory, perception, and sanity.
  3. Lies – When there is a history of lies or explanations that do not make sense to you. Distorting the truth beyond recognition and having a different version of the past than you do.
  4. Slow erosion of confidence and self-esteem – When your partner is belittling you, sowing seeds of doubt about your abilities and putting you down. I had a client whose partner used to call her ‘fatty bum-bum’, which was said in an endearing way but it’s unmistakably a put-down and eroded away at her self-esteem. He’d give her backhanded compliments like “It’s great you can wear that dress with your arms. That’s what I love about you – you just don’t care.”
  5. Lack of personal freedom – You need to run everything past your partner and are not allowed the freedom to make your own decisions. This could include controlling what friends you spend time with, how you dress and even where you go. We see this in The Tourist with Helen and Ethan. Every time she wants to go out, he makes it very difficult for her and makes it all about him; he’s on his own – he’s just not supportive of her or her job. We also see Ethan is very controlling – watching what she eats and, whilst he never really loses his temper, it’s all very passive aggressive insinuating that she’s letting herself down / you’re not strong enough – constant little put-downs designed to make her feel she is less than him.
  6. Increasing self-doubt – If you are starting not to trust your gut instinct and own ability to make good decisions. You lose your confidence and become a shell of your former self. You may even start to doubt your own sanity.
  7. Withdrawal from friends and family – Becoming more isolated from those close to you and your partner is setting things up so you are more dependent on them.
  8. Living a double life behind closed doors – The perception is that you are a happy, loving couple but the reality at home is very different
  9. Emotional, verbal and /or physical abuse – When your partner makes you feel less than and vulnerable, as well as being threatening and even violent towards you. This can also be sexual abuse – forcing you to have sex when you don’t feel like it or abstaining from sex to make you feel rejected.
  10. Financial control – If your partner controls the amount of money you have access to or what you spend it on, whilst they can spend as they please without mentioning it to you. You may not have access to family financial information and be kept in the dark about money.

In ‘The Tourist’ on BBC One, we see Ethan being emotionally abusive towards Helen, but he’s not physically aggressive. He comes across as needy and pathetic, and a ‘nice guy’, rather than a big villain. Is this typical in emotionally abusive relationships?

To the untrained eye, Ethan comes across as a nice guy. He is not outwardly aggressive and a lot of the things he says to Helen are backhanded compliments that make her believe he has her best interests at heart. He makes it out as though he’s trying to protect her from not being very good at her job, suggesting she shouldn’t put herself out there and she ‘knows’ she’s not very good at her job and that, if she loved him, she would stay home with him. He lays it on that he’s her partner and they have a wedding to plan. He’s very controlling of her behaviour; where she goes, who she sees, what she eats, how she works and how she feels about herself. This is all typically emotionally abusive behaviour – if the perpetrator was outwardly aggressive and rude, the chances are you’re not going to stay. Because Helen is highly empathetic and caring – she looks to herself and questions whether she could be doing better or trying harder. Empathy is a key trait emotionally abusive partners are drawn to because a more selfish person wouldn’t tolerate that behaviour or try to see things from their perspective and allow that to influence their behaviour. So, they are much more vulnerable to manipulation. The level of manipulation we’re seeing with Helen and Ethan is typical of the early stages; because they’re not married yet and she’s not tied in. But once there is a tie, perhaps you become pregnant or get married, then the abuse can escalate even more and it slowly becomes more overt and the backhanded compliments become hurtful insults. It’s a progression.

Just because someone isn’t physically aggressive and you don’t have visible marks, the emotional scars can be just as damaging. The important thing to know here, if you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, is that it’s not your fault, there are things you can do – you can turn it around and you can recover. You do have to be careful however and make sure you reach out for help from an emotional dedicated domestic abuse charity who offer vital and lifesaving guidance and support. You must ensure you get this expert help in place. Of course, if you are in any immediate danger, you must call the police.

Why is it important to show us that emotional abuse can be more insidious and can come from ‘nice guys?’

The portrayal represented in The Tourist is powerful because it destigmatize the belief, we have in society that domestic abuse means physical violence. In fact, the shift from the term ‘domestic violence’ to the more all-encompassing term ‘domestic abuse’ represents a shift in recognising this.

People often think ‘well, he’s never hit me so it can’t be abuse?’ As we see in The Tourist, the signs are incredibly difficult to spot and the early warning signs are so often missed. It starts out on an insidious level and then it slowly progresses – but the deeper you are in that relationship, the harder it is to leave because you feel isolated, you don’t have control over your finances, and your self-esteem and confidence is generally so shattered that you are emotionally dependent on the perpetrator.

Programmes such as The Tourist play a vital role in helping us identify these warning signs and it’s this early awareness that empowers people to get out before it escalates. It depicts seemingly nice, normal people in these situations, which defies the stereotypical portrayal of abuse, and this is relatable. So many people don’t even know they are in an emotionally abusive relationship – they don’t understand it for what it truly is. I have clients who have been in these relationships for years and think it’s normal – and that’s the human instinct; we normalise it as a way of coping. And that’s what allows the abuse to breed – because otherwise we’d have to make some big and uncomfortable decisions.

There is still very little awareness out there around emotional abuse; we’re not educated in schools about it as part of the curriculum and until December 2015, the law didn’t even recognise it. Thankfully, a landmark Domestic Abuse Bill received is now in place and marks the first time in history there will be a wide-ranging legal definition of domestic abuse which incorporates emotional, coercive or controlling behaviour, and economic abuse.  I work with The DASH Charity and they offer education for children – but it’s not a mainstream part of the curriculum.

Ethan regularly threatens to leave Helen if she doesn’t do what he says. How is this symptomatic of an emotionally abusive relationship?

The threats we see with Ethan are a type of bullying and control. ‘If you don’t do what I say then I’m going to leave you’ is a powerful way to command compliance from somebody out of fear. Fear of the repercussions or what life would be like without them. We see with Helen that she’s in the middle of planning a wedding, they live together – she’s already got a level of dependence on him. So, she compromises. Those compromises inevitably become sacrifices and that’s when it starts to become unhealthy and toxic. Threatening to leave someone is very symptomatic – it’s one of the biggest control mechanisms because that person leaving seems like the worst-case scenario. So,
Anything less than that seems bearable in comparison.

Helen is often seen with little confidence or faith in herself. How does an emotionally abusive partner impact their victim and their sense of self-worth?

Because a victim learns not to trust their instincts, because they are always criticised – and always told they are not good enough, that they’re stupid, they haven’t got that right or that they’ve ‘mis-remembered’ something – they learn to override their natural gut instinct and ignore it because they are subservient to the perpetrator’s belief. This undermines your confidence and ability to make decisions that are good for you. The confusion leads to you doubting yourself and you become even more reliant. This completely destroys your sense of self-worth and you have no boundaries left, so it’s very easy to take their word as gospel.

How important is it that we see accurate representations of emotional abuse on TV?

There is still very little awareness out there around emotional abuse; we’re not educated in schools about it as part of the curriculum and until only recently in April last year Coercive control became recognised Dec 2015 , the law didn’t even recognise it.

There is still not nearly enough education or awareness in schools or society. Even family law professionals have no compulsory training in domestic abuse, which is why it often goes misdiagnosed and misinterpreted and so often why victims in family courts are retraumatised by the system. Domestic abuse is also very hard to prove in a family court because, to the untrained eye, these isolated incidents are seemingly small events rationalised as the perpetrator
having a bad day or the victim being over sensitive. Stacking it up over time is the only way you start to build the true picture of grinding the victim down. So, showing these highly accurate representations on screen holds a mirror up for people and makes them question what’s going on in their own lives and the penny can start to drop. From there, people can reach out and get the help they need and make a plan to get out of their situations and begin to heal.

What else should I know about emotional abuse and its impact?

Emotional abuse is devastating and it can happen to anyone regardless of class, wealth or intelligence. The more awareness out there – the better and I applaud programmes such as The Tourist and also Dr Foster for raising vital awareness of such a difficult issue.

The most important thing to understand is that abuse is NOT normal and it is NOT your fault. There is a big difference between your partner having a bad day and your partner being abusive. Everyone has moments when they snap or say something unkind to those closest to them. However, abuse is not like this – it is ongoing, debilitating and damaging to your self-esteem, confidence and sanity. Do not gloss over your situation, excuse it or stick your head in the sand. Know that this is not your fault and it will not get better without taking action. But the good news is that you can get through this and come out the other side to be happy and confident. I know as I have worked with many of my clients that I have overcome seemingly impossible situations. The key is to focus on one day at a time and reduce the overwhelm by taking small steps. You will be surprised at how far you can come in a few weeks if you just take it one day at a time.

There are so many incredible charities such as the DASH charity who I work with – as well as coaches who specialise in this area. I run a Master Practitioner Coach Training programme which offers dual accreditation from myself as well as The DASH Charity, a UK domestic abuse registered charity, educating people on what emotional abuse is and also how to support people through it. There’s a huge need for this given domestic abuse cases are currently at an all-time high in what campaigners have billed ‘an epidemic beneath a pandemic’. The collateral damage of lockdown saw a record spike in calls and messages to domestic abuse helplines with Refuge reporting a 61% increase between April 2020 and February 2021, recording an average of 13,162 calls per month.
Please know you are not alone and there is help available.