A Working Definition of Emotional Abuse

Revised 12/26/19

Emotional abuse therapy is not the same thing as domestic violence therapy. I think of emotional abuse as a combination of two of the Four Horsemen (Contempt and Criticism) standing upon an aggressive foundation of chronically manipulative and controlling behaviors. It is the investment in control and domination that is the chief feature of emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse has a complex relationship with domestic violence. According to Dr. Gottman, extreme emotional abuse can be either a pattern that never escalates to violence, a harbinger of domestic violence to come or a strategic substitute for a previous pattern of domestic violence that has attracted the attention of law enforcement. Emotional abuse, unlike most domestic violence, may respond to science-based couples therapy.

The goal remains “control” of the partner, but the methods of intimidation are not physical, they’re psychological. Control is achieved by varying degrees of perpetual put-downs, chronic complaining, bullying, insults, and social ostracism. Mental intimidation is substituted for physical intimidation.

Who are the Perpetrators?

emotionally abusive relationship

Sometimes emotional abuse can be subtle. And like many maladaptive behaviors, emotional abuse occurs on a continuum.

Good emotional abuse therapy will carefully unpack what patterns of emotional abuse are in your relationship.

On the lower end of the continuum, it might be possible to do emotional abuse therapy in the context of science-based couples therapy.

This is threading a clinical needle. A good couples therapist will assess your relationship carefully and decide whether or not working with both of you at the same time is a good idea.

Emotional abuse therapy could be individual therapy for each of you. This might co-occur with couples therapy, but not necessarily.

Here’s why. There are marriages where a partner occasionally falls into a pattern of emotionally abusive behavior, and there are marriages where a high order of emotional abuse is the norm. The more it is the norm, the less likely that couples therapy is appropriate.

Some Therapists Miss It Entirely

Missing a pattern of emotional abuse is a real pitfall for those not training in science-based couples therapy. If you don’t know the research, you run the risk of being limited, as usual, by blinders of cultural expectations and beliefs.

For example, when you think of emotional abuse in a marriage what do you imagine? Chances are you are thinking about a husband who bullies and controls his wife. Here is yet another example of what you expect is not always the case.

Research, (and I mean many studies, not just one or two), tells us that most of the emotional abuse in marriages is just not inflicted by men. Men and women are equal in this arena. Women are responsible overall for just as much emotional abuse in marriages as men. Emotional abuse therapy works with both genders.

emotional abuse

Personality Disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder are highly correlated with the infliction of emotional abuse. In other words, partners who were maltreated in their families of origin repeat maladaptive behaviors in their adult relationships. We learn how to either bond well or badly from the caretakers in our family of origin.

Why Do Some Therapists Fail at Emotional Abuse Therapy?

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.

But clinicians can’t be effective at emotional abuse therapy if they don’t believe it exists!

I once worked with a husband who was regrettably unable to get to his wife’s hospital bed because he was traveling on business. She became unexpectedly ill, and he returned home as quickly as possible.

But twenty years later, she was still in a sputtering rage, belittling and insulting him for his failure to be by her side.

She insisted that his love for her was a fraud. She regularly compared him unfavorably to her high school sweetheart (“My deepest regret in life was marrying you instead of Harold.”)

She had also over the years, insulted and alienated his family. For example, she demanded that he not attend his sister’s funeral (“why should you be there for her when you were never there for me?”).

Their previous therapist had made their already faltering marriage much worse. The therapist legitimized the wife’s baseline inconsolability as a profound attachment injury and a “lingering trauma.” What nonsense.

Unfortunately, this amateur therapist failed to perceive that the husband had endured emotional and verbal abuse for two decades. Over four years of “therapy,” his wife gallingly took him to task for his “insensitivity.”

I’m not saying this wife did not feel some degree of an attachment injury. In working with her, I am confident that she did. But science-based therapy would have clarified the importance of childhood attachment injuries early on. It might have saved them both years of pain and disconnection.

I encouraged her to connect the dots to her unresolved family of origin attachment injuries. Offending from the victim position is a client stance which some therapist neglect to identify, engage with, and clinically confront. Competent emotional abuse therapy recognizes that traumatized spouses with less power still have the potential to behave in emotionally abusive ways.

Take This Emotional Abuse Test

How Do You Assess for Emotional Abuse?

Dr. John Gottman and his mentor, Dr. Neil Jacobsen, conducted extensive research into Emotional Abuse and Domestic Violence. They created a 27 question survey that provides a clinical assessment for a pattern of emotional abuse.

This is one of the great benefits of scientific instruments such as those found in our Big Big Book.

If a therapist doesn’t have sufficient training to assess what is going on clinically, they can make an already tense situation much worse.

How to Score this Test for Emotional Abuse

There are four possible answers to each of the following questions;

  • Never – 1 point
  • Rarely- 2 points
  • Occasionally – 3 points
  • Very often – 4 points

The Gottman/Jacobsen Emotional Abuse Questionnaire

emotional abuse

My Partner:

  1. Tries to catch me with inconsistencies to show that I am lying.
  2. Tries to convince other people that I am crazy.
  3. Tells other people there is something wrong with me.
  4. Says things that hurt me out of spite.
  5. Has told me that I am sexually unattractive.
  6. Tells me that I am sexually inadequate.
  7. Insults my religious background and beliefs.
  8. Insults my ethnic background.
  9. Insults my family.
  10. Talks me into doing things that make me feel bad afterward.
  11. Tells me no one else would ever want me.
  12. Humiliates me in front of others.
  13. Makes me do degrading things.
  14. Questions my sanity.
  15. Tells other people personal information or secrets about me.
  16. Verbally attacks my personality
  17. Has insulted me by telling me that I am incompetent or stupid.
  18. Ridicules me.
  19. Forces me to do things against my will.
  20. Questions whether my love is true.
  21. Compares me unfavorably to other partners.
  22. Intentionally does things to scare me.
  23. Threatens me physically during arguments.
  24. Warns me if I do something, violence will follow.
  25. Our arguments escalate out of control.
  26. I’m worried most when my partner is quiet.
  27. Drives too recklessly or too fast when s(he) is angry.

Total your points for your score.

  • 95+ points. This score indicates extreme emotional abuse. This is a higher degree of emotional abuse than the average victim of Domestic Violence.
  • 73-94 points   You are a victim of emotional abuse.
  • 54-72 points   Emotional abuse is an emerging pattern. Seek couples therapy as soon as you can.

Clinical Treatment Goals for Perpetrators

As I mentioned previously, emotional abuse occurs on a continuum. At the lower end of the scale, perpetrators who are motivated to change their abusive behavior can respond well to science-based couples therapy.

Sometimes individual emotional abuse therapy is a necessary adjunct to help turn things around. But Gottman’s research indicated that the most severe cases of emotional and verbal abuse are profoundly resistant to change.

Treatment Goals include:

  • Perpetrators of emotional abuse must accept responsibility.
  • They must learn to deliberately slow down and recognizing their pattern of thoughts, feelings, and controlling behaviors that lead to inflicting emotional abuse.
  • Perpetrators must restore the “emotional bank account” in the relationship by replacing aggressive controlling behaviors with kind and thoughtful behaviors.
  • Perpetrators must master the art of taking “time-outs” and learning how to self-soothe.
  • They must assume a different stance toward their partner when they are in conflict.
  • Perpetrators must avoid becoming smug about how quickly they are changing. Changing the habits of inflicting verbal abuse on your partner takes more time than most perpetrators think.
  • Perpetrators must also take full responsibility for any backsliding. Full responsibility is the over-arching theme in their recovery.

What if Your Partner is Not Invested in Changing?

If your partner is emotionally abusive in your marriage and isn’t invested in changing, self-care is your best move.

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.

Withdraw. If your emotionally abusive spouse launches a verbal assault don’t engage, withdraw instead. Don’t attempt to fawn or placate. Stay silent and withdraw from the interaction asap.

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 felt sense that their emotionally abusive behaviors will no longer work.

They must come to understand why they habitually engage in chronic verbal abuse. A long dark night of the soul is in order. And you won’t help the situation by striving to redeem them. They first have to take a good hard look at themselves.

As a rule, emotional abusers don’t play nice in couples therapy or dyadic emotional abuse therapy. This is not good news for many long-suffering spouses…but it is the truth. If you’re subject to relentless emotional abuse, couples therapy will probably not help you.

But Hopeful Spouse counseling with a trained science-based couples therapist can help you unpack these experiences. Emotional abuse therapy will keep your sanity, and work toward establishing more firm, healthy boundaries…whether you stay married to your abuser or not.

Do You Need Hopeful Spouse Counseling To Recover from Emotional Abuse?

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

  1. How would you say something like ADHD can influence these dynamics? If ADHD causes trouble seeing cause and effect, limited insight, etc., then is it possible that a perpetrator with ADHD can truly believe that they do not bear responsibility because they are unable to see the cause and effect of their actions (and then they see the victim in a dehumanized way so they do not take the feedback from the victim seriously)? What adjustments should be made to account for this or other impairments in higher order thinking where it appears the perpetrator believes their own sense of victimhood?

    1. I simply refuse to go down that line of thinking. If someone has an impairment that prevents them from acting in an abusive manner, their responsibility is to seek help and STOP THAT BEHAVIOR. We can use this same argument for those which chronic illness, depression, etc. The issue is that the perpetrator often suffers from high anxiety, depression, ADHD, childhood trauma, or other related mental health issues. But still, no one should “adjust” to abuse. They are creating new victims by their behavior and need to stop it by whatever methods they see fit. But they need it to stop immediately.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}