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What Is Social Abuse? Recognizing the Signs

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Mary is passionate about helping people stuck in abusive relationships.

Social abuse is an emotionally scarring experience, and it's important to learn how to identify the signs.

Social abuse is an emotionally scarring experience, and it's important to learn how to identify the signs.

Abuse is like a thief in the night seeking to destroy, plunder, and devastate its victims. It causes intense emotional, mental, and physical damage. Some abuse happens behind closed doors, while other forms are carried out in public. Social abuse is just one form of abuse that is effective only when an audience is present.

What Is Social Abuse?

Like most other forms of abuse, social abuse includes cruel treatment such as public humiliation, threats, intimidation, and gossip. It may also include joking at your expense, constant heckling or teasing in public to provoke your anger, and tickling, touching, kissing, or other forms of physical acts that you have asked your partner to refrain from in public. It may also include any behavior designed to upset you in front of others.

Signs of Social Abuse

You might be in a socially abusive relationship if your partner:

  • Encourages friends who are abusive
  • Gossips or spread rumors about you
  • Monitors your social activities
  • Treats you disrespectfully in front of others
  • Tells secrets or embarrassing stories about you
  • Refuses to socialize with your family or friends
  • Refuses to let you work outside the home
  • Demands that you account for all your time with social contacts
  • Controls who you can visit and when
  • Alienates you from your family and friends
  • Demands you move away from friends and a supportive environment

Take careful note of all of these signs of social abuse. If you find that several of these indicators are consistently practiced by your partner, then you are likely in a socially abusive relationship. However, if one of these problems occurs as an isolated incident, then that moment does not indicate abuse.

Abuse Is Hard to Identify

Social abuse is one of the most nebulous forms of abuse. It is difficult to define and is easy to excuse or brush aside. You must consider each instance of abuse not in isolation, but rather as part of a bigger picture.

If your partner controls who you can keep in contact with and prevents you from seeing you family and friends, you may be in a socially abusive relationship.

If your partner controls who you can keep in contact with and prevents you from seeing you family and friends, you may be in a socially abusive relationship.

"Joking" Can Be Abuse, Too

Kate described an evening with her partner as an exercise in personal misery. He delighted in telling cruel and humiliating stories concerning their sex life and her inadequate parenting skills. As if that was not enough, he regaled the party with tales of burnt dinners and dishes in the sink. The abuser sometimes ended his tirade with the words, "I was just kidding," or he elicited the sympathies and aid of the older women present.

Kate now smirks that after her abuser spun his crazy tales, the older women would seek a private audience with her to counsel her on "taking care of her husband's needs." She was told that she should allow him to rest in the evenings and spare him from doing her work. The older women meant well and how no idea how they were being used.

Abusers Control Your Relationships With Other People

Char related her partner's penchant for setting her up in public with women she dubbed "proxy abusers." Her abuser insisted that she dress in rather outdated clothes and denied her access to stylish hair care. He would then plant her in the company of women all too eager to humiliate her and reinforce her abuser's taunts that she is undesirable and a public embarrassment. Char wanted to develop a social life away from her proxy abusers, but her abuser deftly manipulated her limited social life and largely denied her access to positive relationships.

Abuse Can Even Happen When You're Not Around

The disclosure of confidential information or embarrassing events to co-workers and friends is also socially abusive behavior. Gossiping, spreading rumors, and playing mind games are effective means of controlling others.

Maggie described her abuser's brilliant tactics when it came to spreading gossip and embarrassing innuendos through their social circle. He was a master at tearing up and looking ever-so-sincere before disclosing embarrassing tidbits about her in the form of "sharing concerns" and "prayer requests." By the time she finally left her abuser, her church was concerned for her nonexistent diabetes, menopause, and numerous affairs. She did not bother defending herself. She knew it was time to make her life on her own terms and not waste time outwitting her abuser.

Leaving Abuse Is Difficult, But It's Worth It

Socially abusive behavior is often difficult to detect. It can be quite subtle, and the abuser often denies their behavior. He or she may spread their web of destruction masterfully, leaving the victim without recourse—unless he or she wants to enter the fray of gossip. When they finally leave their abuser, they must make a fresh start to find new friends who aren't under the abuser's control. Only then can they be accepted for who they are and be free from the image their abuser has created of them.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.