NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Relationships: Why Emotional Abuse Might Feel "Normal" to You

People who were emotional abused as a children are more likely to experience emotional abused in an adult relationship as "normal" (see my article:  Overcoming the Effects of Childhood Trauma).

Relationships: Why Emotional Abuse Might Feel "Normal" to You

As compared with people who were emotionally abused as children, people who weren't emotionally are less likely to tolerate abuse in an adult relationship.  Generally speaking, they tend to end emotionally abusive relationships faster than people who experienced abuse as children.

People who have a history of emotional abuse as children will often come to therapy with an intellectual understanding that the abuse they're experiencing in their relationship is a problem, but often they don't feel it emotionally.  

It's not unusual for there to be a disconnect between what they know intellectually and what they feel emotionally because abusive behavior was the norm when they were children.

Rather than "alarm bells" going off in their head when they're being abused in a relationship, they're either too emotionally numb to recognize the abuse or it's just so familiar to them that it seems "normal."

Often, they don't come to therapy until a close friend or relative tells them that they're in an unhealthy relationship (see my article:  Do Your Friends See Things About Your Lover That You Don't Want to See?).

When they begin therapy, they might feel confused about the disconnect between what they know intellectually and what they feel emotionally.

Initially, they might minimize the abuse by telling themselves and their therapist that "It's not that bad."

Once they begin to realize the toll that the emotional abuse has taken on them, they're more likely to see and feel the depth of the emotional damage that the abuse has caused and then become motivated to overcome this problem in treatment (see my article: Overcoming Childhood Trauma So You Can Have Healthier Adult Relationships).

At that point, not only are they recognizing the damage of current abuse, but they also recognize the damage of the childhood abuse and how their history of abuse affects them as adults.

When these clients begin to process the trauma, it's important that their therapist recognizes how daunting this can be, especially for people who have been in denial for years about the childhood abuse.

The Need For Therapist's Empathic Attunement
The therapist needs to be not only empathetic and emotionally attuned to the client, she also needs to prepare the client to do the trauma work in a way that feels emotionally safe (see my article:  The Therapist's Empathic Attunement Can Be Emotionally Reparative For the Client).

If a client doesn't feel emotionally safe, s/he is more likely to abort treatment before the treatment is completed.

The therapist needs to do a thorough assessment of each client to determine how much preparatory work needs to be done before the trauma processing begins.

In a prior article,  I talked about this type of preparatory work, which is usually called resourcing in trauma therapy (see my article:  How EMDR Works).

Even after the trauma work has begun in therapy, the therapist needs to continuously monitor how the client is doing and encourage the client to talk to the therapist about how s/he is responding to the treatment.

Let's talk a look at an example of the dynamic that I've been discussing in this article.  As always, the example is a composite vignette of many different cases to protect confidentiality.

Nina came to therapy at the urging of her best friend after her friend witnessed, once again, how emotionally abusive Ed was towards her.

Relationships: Why Emotional Abuse Might Feel "Normal" to You

During her first session, Nina talked about how Ed would call her names (like "stupid") when they were around other people and also when they were at home.  This had been going on during the entire time of their four year relationship, and she recognized that other people seemed much more upset about it than she was.

When I asked her how she felt, she seemed unsure.  This lead her realization that most of the time she's out of touch with her emotions, and she has felt this way since she was a child.

When she was a child, she tried to avoid her father, who was highly critical of everyone in the family, including Nina's mother, who was passive.  She remembered closing the door in her room and turning on her radio so she wouldn't hear them argue.

Other times, she would spend hours by herself in her room daydreaming about having different parents who were kind and loving.

There were times when she couldn't avoid her father.  Dinner time was especially fraught because he would berate her for minor issues and call her names.  She would try to eat as quickly as possible to get away from him.

As we continued to explore her earlier experiences of emotional abuse with her father, Nina realized that she was numbing herself with her boyfriend, Ed, in the same way that she did with her father.

We worked on the earlier emotional abuse with EMDR and, as we did, Nina began to gradually feel her feelings.

Over time, she worked through the trauma of that earlier abuse, and she mourned for the family she wished that she had.

As she was working through her family trauma and she was more aware of her feelings, she realized that she deserved to be with someone who would treat her well and she became less tolerant of Ed's emotional abuse.

Relationships: Why Emotional Abuse Might Feel "Normal"

Eventually, Nina left Ed and she met another man.   They cared about each other deeply and he treated her well.

When an adult has a history of childhood emotional abuse, s/he is more likely to repeat this pattern in adult relationships by unconsciously choosing partners who are emotionally abusive.

Often this pattern goes unrecognized because the process is unconscious and also because children who were emotionally abused learn to protect themselves emotionally by numbing themselves.

Emotional numbing often continues into adulthood, which creates blind spots for people who are in abusive relationships.

Even if someone knows that a partner is being abusive, s/he usually has more of an intellectual understanding than an emotional understanding due to the emotional numbing.

Many people who are in emotionally abusive relationships never come to therapy.  Either they're not consciously aware of the abuse.  Or, if they're aware of it, they're too afraid of confronting this problem because they think they will be overwhelmed if they attempt to deal with it.

The therapist's empathic attunement helps the client to prepare to do the work and can make all the difference in being able to work through these problems.

Many people, who have sought help in therapy, have been able to work through these types of issues and, having worked through them, have found life to be a lot more fulfilling.

Getting Help in Therapy
You deserve to be with someone who treats you well.

If you're in an emotionally abusive relationship, seek help from a licensed mental health professional who has expertise in this area.

Rather than continuing to numb yourself emotionally to both painful feelings as well as good feelings, you could be leading a fuller and happier life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.