BEWARE! Emotional Terrorists Prey on Co-Dependent Partners

By Rhoberta Shaler, PhD.

Emotional terrorism sounds as scary as it is and is as scary as it sounds. Recognizing it is a must.

If you have co-dependent tendencies and traits, you are easier prey for emotional terrorists. Sad and true. Recognizing their wily ways can help keep yourself safer. 

Emotional terrorism is psychological abuse that involves deliberate and calculated manipulation and intimidation to control someone else. It can include verbal, emotional, sexual, financial, spiritual, and sometimes physical abuse. What’s worse is that it can often be hard to detect from the outside, as perpetrators use tactics such as guilt and shame to manipulate the victim into feeling like they deserve this treatment. Believing this, partners of emotional terrorists are much less likely to seek help. That’s just what the predator wants. 

Learn to spot the signs readily, reach out for help, and protect yourself from it before it does more damage.

Generally, terrorism is defined as ‘using of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce’.  So, from an emotional standpoint, how does that translate into relationships? Let’s break it down:

1. They ask so many questions it feels like an interrogation.

This is a wear-down tactic. Incessant and invasive continuous questions. 

Where were you?
Who were you with?
What did you do?
Why was so-and-so there?
Who did you see when you were out?
What have you been doing all day?
Why do you need to do that?
Why do you have that friend I don’t like?
What makes you need to do that?
What are you up to?

It’s one question after another, even when you’ve fully answered each. It never stops! Demanding questions asked with the intent to make you second-guess yourself are frequent. You cannot answer fast enough, or right enough, or fully enough… ever. 

2. They need to know your whereabouts every second. 

Emotional terrorists install cameras. They put tracking devices on your phone, or GPS devices on your car. Not all Hijackals do this, of course, but many of them do. 

Not sure if you’re being traced wherever you go? Turn off “locations” on your phone for a couple hours and see what kind of questions get thrown at you. You’ll know right away if they are monitoring your movements.

3. They look for ways to catch you off guard and/or make you wrong.

One of the reasons they watch you is not about you. It’s about their paranoia. They have to be on top of every pile, so their fear has them looking for things to accuse you of, make you wrong, or blame you for somehow threatening them or your relationship. It has little to do with what you’re doing, and everything to do with what they are fearing (or doing themselves!)

Have you ever been accused of not going where you said you would, or not being where they think you are? They do that. Or, “Why are you five minutes late?” They make up things and accuse you of them to see if you’ll confess. Or they’ll try to entrap you through triangulation through a mutual friend. They carry on in ways that test the security of the relationship all the time and do their best to trip you up. They are sure you are hiding something, sometime, somewhere, somehow. Why? Because that’s what they do!!!

4. They have very strange relationships with money. They want to use and take yours, and preferably not share theirs. 

It is not at all uncommon that Hijackals will have investments they tell you nothing about. They’ll have accounts where they’re squirreling away money, where they may even be taking your money or your shared money. Sneaky. 

Having used your money, they’ll plead poverty and ask you for more. Meanwhile, they’re sitting on $300,000 in some account that you don’t know anything about. 

p.s. It’s a good idea to have your own personal account for emergency purposes. What if something happened to them and you couldn’t access funds when you needed help? 

5. They want to be in control by being the “keeper of the keys.”

Hijackals, like all emotional terrorists, want to know every detail and have their fingers in every pie. They’ll insist on keeping all the family documents in a safe place. That is invariable with them, right? 

They have no problem insisting that you share your passwords, keys, calendar, email, receipts, and social media. But do they share with you? Not nearly as likely. 

Control is their primary need. Everything is supply to them, there for their use…and misuse. Unfortunately, you are also supply to them. That’s why they need to know where you are at all times.

6. They are always pushing boundaries and testing limits to see what more they can control.

Testing, testing, testing. When will you say “no?”
What can they get away with?
Can they push you to accept a little more control or limitation?

It’s exhausting. Emotional terrorists want to keep you on the edge: uncertain, chaotic, confused. They’ll push too hard to find out where those edges are. If you don’t push back, they see it as a green light to proceed and take more territory. 

Hijackals also like to poke and probe at your fears and vulnerabilities. If they can upset you, they are happy. If they can upset you enough to get angry, they’ll go so far as to tell you you’re the abusive one. (That’s called reactive abuse.) 

Pushing it? Yes! They may try leaving for a couple of days to see how angry you get or whether you’re thrilled that they came home. They do this so they can deepen the trauma bond. Ever been left—abandoned somewhere? Maybe, they take you shopping to an unfamiliar mall and then just walk away while you think you’re happily enjoying time together. They might start putting down your sister or your best friend, to see who you’ll support – them or the friend. All to create uncertainty in you and hopefully make you more dependent on them for emotional support. (BTW, that’s unavailable from a Hijackal.)

7. They are so insecure that they resort to intimidation & violence.

This one comes out when Hijackals start to feel like they are losing control. Or if THEY have been threatened in some way. It’s important to be VERY careful and conscientious about your choices at this point, because your (or even your kids’) personal safety is at risk. 

Emotional terrorists are volatile and on edge much of the time. They can start getting antsy, more overtly paranoid, and start watching you even more. They might try to pick fights with you: try to get you angry, or to engage in reactive abuse* (that’s when you start treating them the way they treat you) so they can play victim. They may threaten to hurt you, a pet, a family member, or themselves. They may demonstrate their might by punching a hole in a wall or destroying something important to you. In an effort to exert control, they will threaten you or the children. This is the time to call the police. 

Emotional terrorism is a real issue. It can be subtle, underhanded, and manipulative, as well as overt and in-your-face. But it’s always a powerful form of psychological abuse that can entirely undermine your self-worth, self-confidence, and health. 

Emotional terrorists are often lazy and they look for the easiest prey. People who are co-dependent are just what they’re looking for. See it now. Get help to understand the dynamics and begin to reclaim your life. Learn to say “No” and really mean it. 

Host of the Save Your Sanity podcast, Dr. Rhoberta Shaler helps clients worldwide to recognize, release, and recover from toxic relationships and emotional abuse. She is the author of Escaping the Hijackal Trap and Kaizen for Couples. Learn more about her work and join in her community here:

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