A young woman sat in my office with tears in her eyes. "My friends tell me my boyfriend is mean to me. I don't really think he is. It's more that he's just sad. He has lots of problems at home."
"Does he hurt your feelings?" I asked. "Does he say unkind things?"
"Yes," she replied. "But he never hits me. So I think it's okay."
"Well, it isn't," I replied."Not at all."
Few things concern me more than a young woman who walks into my office, clearly unhappy, using all of her energy to explain away her boyfriend's cruelty.
There is no excuse for abuse. It is not necessary for a depressed person to insult you. It's not acceptable for a person with a bad temper to scream at you because "that's the way he is." And just because your boyfriend doesn't push, shove or hit doesn't mean he's good guy. It means somewhere along the way he learned not to hit a girl. But he didn't learn how to treat her. He is still capable of something called emotional abuse. Emotional abuse in many ways is scarier than physical because it's less obvious. It can easily be swept under the carpet with a host of excuses:
"He was just having a bad day."
"I could tell he was sorry."
"I think he didn't feel well."
And here's the one that really disturbs me: "Most of the time he's really nice."
He should be nice all of the time. Sure, he might be in a bad mood one day and say something insensitive. He's human. But that's about it.
Sometimes it's hard to tell what's abusive and what's not because you want so much to think things are okay. It's just a bad patch, you tell yourself. So let's take a look at a few examples of emotional abuse you might not recognize as such.
o You start to take a bite out of his burger after finishing yours and he says, "I think you're going to have to buy larger jeans." You might think, he's right. I should watch what I eat. But he's not right. It's a cruel remark. What was a bite out of his burger going to do? Turn you into a mountain? And even if it was, it's not for him to point that out.
o You go to a party and right in front of you he flirts with another girl. He nuzzles her neck and you get upset. He tells you, "Don't be so sensitive. You're too needy. I'm just playing around." You think, he's right. He's just having fun. But he's not just having fun. He's hurting your feelings. You feel devoted to him and he's acting like you don't matter at all.
o You tell him you have to study for a test so you can't see him. He tells you that he doesn't believe you and that if you love him you'll come over to his house. Otherwise the two of you are breaking up. So you put away your work and go thinking he's must really be lonely tonight. But, even if he is lonely, you've just been threatened and bullied! You've been told if you don't do what he wants, it's over. You've just been controlled.
Emotional abuse is very painful and confusing. Lots of young women don't recognize it because, amongst other reasons, they question their own worthiness of love, desperately want a boyfriend, don't like to get people angry, hear emotional abuse at home and thus it doesn't seem so bad, or don't trust their own instincts.
So here's a simple guide to help you decide if you are being emotionally abused: Do you feel hurt? If the answer is yes, tell him so. If he blames it on you, then chances are you have an abusive boyfriend.
If he apologizes and tells you he's sorry and won't do it again, and he doesn't, then chances are you have a nice boyfriend who made a mistake.