As a society we’ve established clear rules for how to act at work and at home. We’ve established the concepts of ‘workplace harassment’ and ‘domestic abuse’ and made clear they are unacceptable practices to engage in. However, there’s a conspicuous absence of information or discussion around emotionally abusive platonic relationships. There is no authority or established support system to go to when your friends are cruel, manipulative or abusive. At best, there are ad-hoc mentions of ‘toxic friendships’ in teen magazines. However, the huge effect this behaviour has on the social life and mental health of victims demands more attention.
The primary goals of emotional abuse are generally about accruing and exercising power at the expense of the target, and separating them from anyone who might be able to help. Emotional abuse can take many forms, but is often divided into three broad categories. ‘Aggressing’ involves more obvious tactics such as outright verbal abuse and threats, but also behaviour that might appear on the surface to be helpful. ‘Analysing’ or ‘criticising’ someone can often be helpful, but it can also be used to belittle or demean.
‘Denying’ and ‘minimising’ behaviours are less direct and thus harder to pin down. These behaviours include calculated refusals to accept that certain situations occurred at all, or trivialising a victim’s objection to a situation. These behaviours can make the victim question their perception of what’s going on, and start to believe the scenario that’s being presented to them by the abuser as what actually happened. It’s called ‘gas-lighting’ after Patrick Hamilton’s play Gas Light, in which a husband tries to convince his wife and those around her that she’s insane. These kinds of practices demonstrate that emotional abuse can be calculated to isolate as well as simply hurt.
There is no legal definition for interpersonal emotional abuse in NSW, and so victims are forced to rely on legislation concerning tangentially related crimes like intimidation. Outside the workplace, marriage, school, or other similar institutions, there’s little legal ability to deal with emotional abuse (the legal scope within marriage is better but still not ideal: for example, only Tasmanian legislation both concretely defines what constitutes emotional abuse of a spouse and considers that practice to be a criminal act).
A general understanding of what to look for isn’t always enough, because abuse in platonic relationships is often perpetrated under the guise of a conflict of some sort. People often don’t always realise they’re actually abusing another person, with well-meaning mutual friends inadvertently propping up internal justifications. Comments like they’re “just going through a difficult time,” or are “acting really out of character” can give an abuser the impression their actions are acceptable.
Emotional abuse can have a heavy toll on mental health, and this kind of bullying can profoundly affect a victim’s ability to fully participate in social situations.
It’s time we recognise that graduating high school doesn’t herald the end of abusive behaviour among friends.