Being in a committed relationship is one of the hardest jobs in the world. Click To Tweet Simply because in our culture we are brought up to believe the fairytale. No-one mentioned in the job description, the consistent discipline of compromise, patience, loyalty or the hard – won empathy required from both people to make it work. Yet any of you in a long term relationship probably know, love is a choice and one you make every day if you choose to share your life with someone.

You are also most likely aware that even though you fight, it is about learning how to fight fairly and forgive that is important to keep your bond strong.  Most couples bumble along and get better at this skill with practise.

Yet some couples go from an extraordinarily blissful honeymoon phase to fights that slowly but surely become corrosive, cruel and abusive. This can happen subtly, and it can almost creep up on a person, but suddenly you find you are second guessing yourself and losing confidence in your opinions and decisions.

Recently I was interviewed by Sarah Morrissey from Little Rockers Radio to discuss what is emotional abuse? We talked about how to recognise it, how someone who is experiencing it would potentially feel in the relationship, and the early warning signs to look out for if your new partner has the potential to become abusive. Most importantly, we discussed ways of finding the escape hatch to get out of the relationship.

Listen here:


Transcript of “Are you in an emotionally abusive relationship?”

I:    You’re listening to the Rocking Motherhood Show on Little Rockers Radio. Thanks for joining us. Now something that has come up in a few conversations I’ve had recently is the question around emotional abuse and it’s such a grey area that I wanted to explore it a little bit further. So today I’m talking to Marg Ryan from Real Relationships. Marg has a host of qualifications – a Diploma of Education, a Masters of Organisational Psychology and she also earned a Clinical Diploma in Somatic Psychotherapy. Hi Marg, how are you?

M:         I’m good. Thanks, Sarah.

I:          That’s good. Now, I really just wanted to, I guess, start off this interview by asking you the basic question and that is, what is emotional abuse?

M:         You’re right when you say it’s a grey area, and look really, it is quite a tricky one because committed relationships are the hardest job in the world, so I just want to start by clarifying that, you know, we all have difficulties in relationships and it’s not easy to be with someone for a long time and negotiate – taking out the rubbish, keeping the bedroom window open, you know, really. These basic things can be quite difficult, but we are not talking about that when we’re talking about emotional abuse. What we are talking about is behaviour or language in a relationship that really is designed instead to degrade or humiliate someone, sort of really by attacking their sense of who they really are at their core, their personality.

I:          And one of the things that I was actually really mindful of in doing this interview was that I didn’t want to make it, I guess, a partner-bashing exercise, you know, having a go at your partner for not doing the dishes or not taking the bins out, or whatever it may be because it is so much deeper than that. How do we know if we are in an emotionally-abusive relationship?

M:         Ok, that’s a great question. I think, really, to elaborate a bit more, the person that is feeling abused will be walking on egg shells, they won’t feel safe, they might feel anxious, fatigued, depressed, you know. I’ve seen it many times in my consulting room. You know, the person will feel really separated from their own life like they don’t know who they are anymore, and the sort of things that they’ll be describing to me that is happening at home is that there’s lots of yelling, blaming, you know, name calling. And you know, they might be saying stuff like they really feel isolated or intimidated, and one of the keywords that always rings alarm bells for me is when a couple … you know, one person in the couple or an individual person sitting in front of me says, “It feels like cruelty,” you know, that “They are being cruel to me”. It really is much deeper just say than your normal fight and argument, and that’s why it becomes such a problem in a relationship.

I:          And what … going back I guess to early in a relationship, I guess these things can be going on for a long, long time before people even try to seek any help, but I guess going from the other end, what are some of the early warning signs that people can look out for?

M: Yeah, I think that’s important and I think if you know them, then you can pick up on that, and it’s a good time to make an assessment if you really want to continue in the relationship. So if you are dating someone and you notice that what they tend to do over time is blame you or their friends or their parents or anyone else for the problems that come up and they never are able to take responsibility that they might have made a mistake or that they had an issue at work then being a blamer is a classic early warning sign.

I:          Right.

M: The other one is someone that is very resentful. You know, they tend to be the sort of person that goes on and on about injustice or they might say, “It’s really not fair that you’re going away this weekend, never spending time with me,” and they sort of are constantly going on about what the other person is doing wrong in a really resentful, sort of powerless way, but not kind of giving the person any space at all.

And another one that’s a classic is that the person will be very entitled. What I’m talking about here, for example, is that could kind of mean that they actually feel entitled to have a go at the waitress. You know, the service is really slow but ithey have a go about it in a very demeaning way, or at the pub, if their beer is not cold, you know, you’ll hear them make a remark and it’s very cruel and adverse and you know, a woman is capable of behaving in this entitled way also. She can say things to her partner like … even early on in the relationship – you’re not much of a man at all, you know, you’re not half the man my father is – both sexes are very capable of being very entitled about the way they carry on.

I:          And so it’s also important to point out that it can happen for both sexes.

And if we ask someone who’s out there or someone who’s listening that does find themself in this situation, what can they do? Where can they seek help?

M:          Yeah, so finding the escape hatch is really what they need to do and this is quite complicated because often the people in these situations, their confidence is shattered, and it can be quite addictive being in a relationship where there’s romantic love mixed with fear, so the breaking up part, you know, even though you might know that this relationship is not good for you can be quite hard because of the shattered confidence. So this is where I think going into counseling and using that as a process to help you through that separation is a way that you can garner your confidence and get back your self esteem, and start to understand what you’re doing in that relationship and what the best way is for you to exit that relationship. So that’s something that could change things – seeking support whether it be counseling or whether it even be friends and family, reaching out to other people and saying, “Look, I’m feeling really powerless. I’m feeling that this situation has got to the point where I feel anxious and frightened and depressed and hopefully someone that loves them will realize seeking help is critical.”

The other thing I’d do is if I have couples in front of me ( often I do relationship counseling with couples.) So once I see one of the partners abuse the other, I stop working on the relationship and I move to focusing on the abuser. So what I notice is that men and women are often quite shocked to realise that they are being emotionally abusive. They don’t actually realise how cruel it is the things they’re saying and doing. And in those situations, what I find is that they often come from families where it’s been the norm for some people. In couple’s therapy, once they realise and they’re held to account and they take that responsibility back, they can learn to change within the relationship. I would just urge anyone in that situation out there to really look for support within their support networks, to get some counseling or psychotherapy because they really need to learn how to put themselves first and how to choose partners that are going to be kind and considerate, where they can work through their differences calmly. It’s so, so important.

I:          The strong message that comes through there is, gaining that support and gaining the external support, and in most cases, from an expert, and reading an article in a magazine or something is not necessarily going to help.

M:          I think so because the thing is that often people in that situation are so beaten down by it that friends and family can sympathize with them or say just leave.

I:          Yes.

M: It often is so much more complex garnering the confidence and finding an approach where they can do that, so it’s a process. So that’s where a professional can help someone, you know, one step forward, two steps back, but get to the place where they can use that escape hatch and get themselves into a safe situation and find a relationship that’s secure and happy in the future.

I:          That’s great. Thank you so much for joining us today, Marg. It’s a very interesting topic that as we started off at the very beginning saying it’s such a grey area. So if anyone is listening, they can go to your website initially for some more information which is at, and I will also have the links on our website at

But thank you so much for joining us today.

M:          Thanks very much, Sarah. It was a pleasure.

I:          That was Marg Ryan from Real Relationships on Little Rockers Radio. Thanks for listening.