Emotional Abuse Therapy

Emotional abuse is not the same thing as domestic violence. Emotional abuse combines two of the Four Horsemen (Contempt and Criticism) and related manipulative and controlling behaviors.

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:

  1. a pattern that never escalates to violence,
  2. a harbinger of physical violence to come or
  3. 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.

Withholding behaviors

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.

Sexual withholding

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.

Passive aggression

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.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

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

Dr. Kathy McMahon

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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  1. I would like to point out that being on the receiving end of emotional abuse can result in the behaviors you are describing as abusive. Withholding and emotional distance are learned, or a natural consequence, when your environment isn’t safe. I don’t know how many of you guys had the guts to tell your abusive husband about himself. I’m guessing not a lot. Why? Because he’s going to get pissed and it will all end up being your fault anyway, so you keep it in and pull yourself further and further away, even against his protests that you’ve changed, because otherwise you continue to get hurt. I feel like the way those paragraphs were written could be used against a victim. I hope to god my husband never reads this article.

    1. Twisting words and meaning, and blaming the victim are also a part of the emotionally abusive cycle. Very often what you are describing happens, and it is just another of the endless “misunderstandings” that are designed to maintain or gain power. Learning to test out whether any relationship can change is an important question, and does require some thought and planning. But perhaps more importantly, it requires knowing the difference between emotional abuse and just good boundaries. This is the goal of this article, is to spell those out. -Dr. K

  2. Thank you for this. I want to say this to the people searching for these articles because they think something is off in their marriage:

    After 25 years married (and 3 children) I am trying to get up the courage to finally leave. It's so hard. I have no visible scars, and he is so well-liked by the community. The only things I have to base the divorce upon? I have words. I have lies of omission and quite a few blatant lies. I have years of a sexless marriage (that when I brought up was told that it was "50 percent my fault too," or my favorite, "you need to come to bed earlier or get up earlier.") I have years of being made to feel like I wasn't contributing to the household because I stayed home with our children. I have years of watching him come home in a drunken stupor, his preferred way of handling the stress of his job. I have been accused of 'emotional affairs,' since I talked with other men–and yes, given the lack of respect and attention from him, I did like having a guy to talk to.

    He's told me I need medicated. That I must be going through menopause. That something is wrong with me. He went to my mom and my sister to convince them of my 'state.' Sadly, my sister bought into his manipulations (even though just a few years ago she was begging me to leave him) saying he's retired now and wants to try to make things better. I'm no longer speaking to her.

    I didn't even know what was happening other than my marriage always felt tenuous. (Always walking on eggshells). It was only after my eldest daughter heard guest speakers from the local domestic crises shelter speak to her health class did it come to light. After a fight between my spouse and me, I went to check on her (feeling awful she once again witnessed him berating me and me fighting back.) She tearfully looked at me and said, "You know what that is, don't you? That's emotional abuse! They talked about it in class today and it sounded just like you and dad." I started counseling (or the psychobabble that ruined our marriage, as he would say) not long after that and 'tah-dah.' Turns out I was right to feel hurt for the things he did. I wasn't overreacting or hysterical.

    And yet, here I site. To scared to once again tell him I want a divorce. (He refuses, won't leave the home–so I will have to go and take my daughters with me out of the only home they have known.)

    To those reading this article, please believe this: You CANNOT make yourself "good" enough for a person like this. They will never be satisfied. Nor should you try to be what they want you to be! You should be loved for yourself. Get counseling, and figure out how to do that. Then get out before it gets harder to leave. Peace.

  3. I personally feel that this "quiz" was a terrible assessment tool for anyone truly looking for clarification whether they've been a victim of emotional abuse. It focused only on a single kind of abuse that not all abusers utilize and wasn't inclusive enough to truly assess anything.

    I KNOW that my husband is emotionally abusive, he lies more than he tells the truth, he refuses ALL accountability for his actions and constantly dismisses my feelings and treats them as an affront to him if they inconvenience him in any way, he uses manipulation and passive aggression to control and get what he wants from me, he gaslights me, he literally STEALS from me without second thought, he stonewalls me as punishment anytime I don't meet his uncommunicated needs, he frequently disappears without telling me where he's going or when/if he's coming back, he uses coercion and guilt trips for sex, he's taken control of all finances so I am unable to access any money, etc, etc.

    It's unmistakable psychological abuse, my score on this assessment though? 29! I admittedly didn't come here looking for confirmation of abuse because I'm already aware, I was honestly just interested in what therapy for an abusive dynamic would look like. But since the quiz was there, I thought I'd just go ahead and take it just out of curiosity and I'm shocked how "normal" my marriage was assessed to be!

    I'd hate to think of someone where I was when I just began questioning my relationship taking this and being talked out of considering it any further. I was so reluctant to accept that my husband could be abusive at first, it wouldn't have taken much to convince me to abandon those suspicions. Just something to consider…

    1. Thank you so much for pointing this out. We’ve taken the quiz down, as it wasn’t loading correctly. There is no “healthy” level of abuse. Thanks again for pointing it out.

  4. 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.

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