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July 11, 2023

Jonah Hill, Keke Palmer headlines shine light on emotional abuse — here's how to spot the signs

Experts say it's more common than people think and can lead to long-term problems like depression, anxiety and PTSD

Over the past week, two celebrity stories have sparked ongoing conversations about unhealthy relationship dynamics and emotional abuse.

On Saturday, "Don't Look Up" actor Jonah Hill's ex-girlfriend Sarah Brady posted a series of screenshots of their texts to her Instagram Story showing a pattern of what she called "emotionally abusive" behavior. "This is a warning to all girls," she wrote over the screenshots. "If your partner is talking to you like this, make an exit plan." In the texts, Hill repeatedly told Brady to delete photos of herself in a bathing suit from her Instagram, often sending her specific pictures to remove. Hill also told Brady, a surfer, that her "surfing with men," "boundaryless (sic) inappropriate friendships with men" and "friendships with women who are in unstable places" were violations of his own "boundaries."

The story seemed to echo another troubling glimpse of a celebrity relationship from days earlier. Last Wednesday, "Nope" actress Keke Palmer's boyfriend Darius Daulton caused an uproar online when he quote-tweeted a clip of Usher serenading Palmer during a Las Vegas residency show. Expressing disapproval of Palmer's sheer dress and black bodysuit, Daulton wrote, "It's the outfit tho.. you a mom." The couple shares a four-month-old son.

Hours after the initial tweet, which was widely criticized, Daulton tweeted again: "We live in a generation where a man of the family doesn’t want the wife & mother to his kids to showcase booty cheeks to please others & he gets told how much of a hater he is. This is my family & my representation. I have standards & morals to what I believe." 

Palmer and Daulton are not married and have reportedly unfollowed each other on social media.

Both of the stories have inspired TikToks, tweets and thinkpieces on emotional abuse, a form of abuse that is psychological and often more difficult to recognize than physical abuse. But it can be just as destructive, experts say.

"It can have a really lasting effect," said Noel Hopson, director of clinical programs at Courdea, a Philadelphia therapy program that aims to stop intimate partner violence. "And that's what I think is so complicated about emotional harm, because we don't see the scars, but it does have a very significant impact on someone's self-esteem, someone's ability to make decisions for themselves."

Emotional abuse is more common than people realize, experts say, and often coexists with other forms of abuse. The National Domestic Violence Hotline reported that 95% of its callers said they were experiencing emotional abuse in 2020. It often creeps into relationships and repeats in cycles, according to Katie Young-Wildes, a senior communications specialist at Women Against Abuse

"So, typically you start out at the honeymoon stage where everything seems really great and promising," she says. "And then the tension starts to build, and then whatever form of abuse occurs, and then the cycle starts again. Maybe the abusive partner apologizes, maybe they promise it won't happen again. Maybe they make some type of amends or maybe they deny it even happened, or try to just completely shift the blame to the survivor. However that reconciliation looks, whether amends are made or whether they're not made after the abuse, there's a period similar to the honeymoon stage, like a reconciliation stage, and then that cycle just starts all over again with the tension building until the abuse occurs. 

"That cyclical nature of intimate partner violence makes it really difficult to break out of and can make it really difficult for someone inside the relationship to even recognize what's happening."

At the heart of emotional abuse is an impulse to maintain power and control over one's partner. Some examples include:

• Insulting and name-calling
• Constant blaming
• Snooping or surveilling
• Gaslighting
• Extreme jealousy
• Isolating the victim from family, friends and support networks
• Guilting the victim for wanting to have outside relationships
• Shaming or humiliating
• Stalking

Even behavior that can seem small, like criticizing an outfit or making demeaning jokes, can be a sign of emotional abuse. Over time, this type of harm can chip away at victims' confidence and self-worth and even make them question their reality. Long-term emotional abuse can also lead to PTSD, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and chronic pain.

Every relationship and person is different, experts caution, so there is no universal advice for how to leave an emotionally abusive relationship or how to protect yourself if you think you might be in one. But Hopson recommends maintaining outside support — from loved ones, a therapist or both — as much as possible. 

"That can help you do some reality testing and figure out how to create and maintain boundaries in the relationship, and then also gather information to figure out if the relationship is a relationship that you want to continue to be in," she said. "Is the person that is harming you, are they open to acknowledging that the harm is happening and are they going to seek counseling or support to figure out how to be a healthier partner?"

No matter what someone in an emotionally abusive relationship decides to do, experts want them to know one thing: it's not their fault.

"You don't deserve this," Young-Wildes said. "You haven't done anything to deserve this. This is not your fault. I think that's a really important statement because of the emotional abuse. The survivor might feel like they're causing this in some way, we see a lot of victim blaming. So I think the first step is to reassure the survivor that this is not their fault, and there's life after this."

If you believe you are committing emotional abuse and want to stop, contact Courdea for evaluation and individual and group therapy. If you believe you are experiencing emotional abuse, call the Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-866-723-3014 for free, confidential counseling, safety planning, resources and referrals 24 hours a day.

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