It is the investment in power, control and domination that is the chief feature of emotional abuse. Intimidation and psychological abuse comes in many forms.
Emotional abuse can intersect with domestic violence. According to Dr. Gottman, extreme emotional abuse can be either:
- a pattern that never escalates to violence,
- a harbinger of physical violence to come or
- a strategic substitute for a previous pattern of domestic violence that has attracted the attention of law enforcement.
Healthy relationships allow every family member to be free of physical abuse and feel good about themselves.
More than verbal abuse
When most people think of emotional abuse, they usually think of swearing at, criticizing, or belittling the other. But emotional abuse includes much more than verbal abuse.
Emotional abuse can be defined as much by withholding behavior as could by shaking a fist to your face. Your partner may refuse to share their thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams with you while remaining aloof or superficially friendly.
They may refuse to be loving and sexually present or attentive.
Sometimes emotional abuse can be subtle. For example, your spouse might say "go ahead, I'm listening..." while watching television or otherwise engaged.
Emotional distance is a form of emotional abuse.
A central tenet of a healthy relationship is a willingness to share yourself. It also requires supporting your partner in an empathetic way. Sometimes this means managing conflict.
The abusive partner may be mislabeled as "shy," "quiet," or as having "hang-ups." You might assume that you can't expect more from your partner. You may tell yourself that your partner wants to share more but can't.
The abuser may say things like, "There's nothing to talk about." or "I do talk to you." They may blame you, "You never let me talk," or "You never listen to me when I do talk."
A healthy relationship is proactively seeking intimacy:
"Would you mind giving me your thinking on this?"
responding to one another:
"So what you're saying is..."
...and is willing to engage in an argument when you disagree.
Good emotional abuse therapy frames the partner's refusal to engage with you in an authentic way as damaging to the relationship.
Spouses may find sex lacking intimacy or affection. However, when they bring it up, they are met by irritation or anger that is right below the surface.
"You keep saying that. What do you want me to do about it?"
They may persistently deny, deflect, lie, or blame you for the lack of sexual passion. There is a lack of genuine empathy for the sexless marriage. They will feign indignation or refuse to accept your premise that sex is important in a relationship.
They typically feel shame that they refuse you sexually but experience no guilt.
Psychological aggression may be deflecting, denying, lying, or blaming. The conversation may change from their faults to yours.
"I couldn't do it because you didn't do this..."
Instead of apologizing for disappointing you, they'll focus on your anger or disappointment. They might minimize your disappointment or distort what they agreed to. Or they claim to "forget" but never take steps to improve their memory.
Approaches to emotional abuse therapy
A good couples therapist will assess your relationship carefully. The goal is to learn what patterns of abuse exist.
It's also helpful to decide whether or not working with both of you at the same time is a good idea.
Like many maladaptive behaviors, emotional abuse occurs on a continuum.
There are marriages where a partner occasionally falls into a pattern of emotionally abusive behavior, and there are marriages where emotional abuse is the norm. The more it is the norm, the less likely couples therapy is appropriate.
Individual therapy with a mental health professional may be needed. This might happen before or after couples therapy. On the lower end of the continuum, it might be possible to tackle emotional abuse in the context of science-based couples therapy.
Emotional Abuse may not be obvious.
If you're on the receiving end of emotional abuse, you might not even know it. Victims of emotional abuse often blame themselves. Gottman talks about how some partners acquire a sense of deep betrayal, an "inconsolability" that they never seem to shake. Some of these partners are purveyors of emotional abuse.
Recover from emotional abuse
If you are in an emotionally abusive relationship and your partner is not invested in changing, self-care is your best move. Healing from emotional abuse means leaving or managing.
Put your own needs first. Stop worrying about placating or pleasing your abusive partner. Take care of yourself first. Resist their attempts to bully or guilt-trip you.
Establish loud and clear boundaries. Tell your abusive spouse that (s)he will not influence you by insults, screaming, name-calling, etc. If the verbal abuse persists, let them know in clear and definite terms that it is a deal-breaker for you. Leave the room immediately, and drive to a friend’s house or a hotel.
Prepare for the silent treatment. Abusive partners can try to punish you by sulking, withdrawing, giving you the silent treatment, or by withholding affection, sex or money. They may cancel an important event you had planned or refuse to spend time with you.This, by itself, is another form of abuse.
Withdraw. If your emotionally abusive spouse launches a verbal assault don’t engage, withdraw instead. Fawning or placating should be avoided. Stay silent and withdraw from the interaction as soon as possible.
Stop trying to persuade them to be different. Forget appeals to logic, reason, or their sense of fair play. You will only exhaust yourself. Your abusive partner has to have a sense that their emotionally abusive behaviors will no longer work.
It's not unusual to find ourselves emotionally entangled by people who don't deserve to know us.
All of us deserve dignity and a joyful spirit.
If dignity was taken from you, take it back.
If you gave it away, learn why and never do it again. You deserve to be admired, desired, spoken to with love. If you aren't now, learn what you can do to change your situation.