Emotional abuse is not the same thing as domestic violence. Emotional abuse can be fleas (slowly driving us crazy) or grisly bears (that attempt to tear us limb from limb.) The common themes are that both manipulate and control rather than work in a loving and transparent way.

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 being with this person allows us to feel good about ourselves.

More than verbal abuse

When most people think of emotional abuse, they usually think of one or both partners 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 the withholding behavior as it can be 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. They may do things for you only to hold it over your head and create a sense of indebtedness.

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 openly. 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?") responds 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 the deprived spouse brings it up, they are met by irritation or anger that is at or right below the surface. They may reply:

"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 as if it is an affront to them. They might minimize your feelings or distort what they agreed to. They claim to "forget" what you've asked them to do, but never take steps to improve their "forgetfulness."

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. They can be told so often that they are falling short, or held accountable for things that have nothing to do with them, that they believe it. They may feel unworthy of love, kindness or respect. They may feel unattractive because they've consistently received that message.

Take This Emotional Abuse Test

How Do You Assess for Emotional Abuse?

There is extensive research on this type of abuse. Below is a 27-question survey. It's a clinical assessment of a pattern of emotional abuse. See how you score.

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.

Recognize that confident, secure people don’t need to push others around. This might make sense intellectually but not emotionally. Whether the abuser is loud and outwardly abusers or passive-aggressive sulkers, the truth is that they are immature, frightened child-like adults. It doesn't make their actions right in any way, but it can put their power into context.

Recognize that change is hard. "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know." Giving up the familiar, even if it is destructive can be threatening and depressing.

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. You may have stayed longer than you should have, and now feel frightened to change. Acknowledge the risk. Anyone would feel anxious if they are making a major change in their lives.

Expect pushback. You have been blamed, implicitly or explicitly for the outcome of the relationship. Expect scary messages when you threaten to leave if nothing changes. "You'll be lonely." "You're kids will blame you." "You don't know how good you have it." Either acknowledge that it won't be easy but you plan to do it anyway, or say nothing.

Don't go it alone. Find a group with others going through the same thing. You will quickly learn that you are not alone when you begin to hear stories similar to your own. Look for resources online or in your spiritual community. Make sure, however, that the goal is healing and moving on, and not sharing "war stories."

Identify fears of abandonment. You may have been pushed around because of a deep fear of being left by your partner. Face into that fury and conquer that fear.

Know your boundaries.  No one can outline them for you. Susan Forward starts you the process by giving you a checklist:  

"__________ assumes/expects/demands that I will... 

  • drop everything to help them
  • come running when they call
  • take care of them physically/emotionally/financially
  • listen to their problems no matter how I'm feeling...
  • always bail them out of trouble...."

Once you write the list, put before each expectation "WHERE IS IT WRITTEN..." As in "WHERE IS IT WRITTEN that everyone else's needs are more important than my own?"

Communicate 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. Those are grisly bear moves and quite obvious. The fleas are harder to spot but are no less impactful. In these relationships, you feel anxious and on edge. They send mixed messages and you doubt yourself rather than doubt them. They lie without hesitation when it serves them and you are left wondering what is true. These boundaries are harder to establish, but are no less important. Check into your gut to learn when something feels like a boundary crossing or get individual therapy to learn what's normal to expect.

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 or reject the premise of the argument. No one deserves to be verbally assaulted. No one deserves to be lied to or manipulated.

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. 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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