The simplest definition of emotionally abusive behavior is anything that intentionally hurts the feelings of another person. Since almost everyone in intimate relationships does that at some time or other in the heat of an argument, emotionally abusive behavior must be distinguished from an emotionally abusive relationship, which is more than the sum of emotionally abusive behaviors.
In an emotionally abusive relationship, one party systematically seeks to control the other by:
- Undermining his or her confidence, worthiness, growth, or trust.
- "Gaslighting," or making him/her feel crazy or unstable.
- Manipulating him/her with fear or shame.
Here are examples:
- "You shouldn't spend so much on clothes; you don't look good anyway."
- "Don't complain about how bad you have it; no one else could love you."
- "Working and taking courses is too much for you; you can't handle what you need to do now."
- "Your friends and family just want something from you."
- "I have to drink to be able to stand you."
- "One of these days you'll wake up, and I'll be gone."
- "You don't know the first thing about raising kids."
It's important to note that most emotional abuse is not as direct and verbal as these examples. All the above can be implied with sarcasm, irony, or mumblings and can be communicated with body language, rolling eyes, sighs, grimaces, tone of voice, disgusted looks, cold shoulders, slamming doors, banging dishes, stonewalling, cold shoulders, etc. There are myriad ways to be emotionally abusive.
In more than 20 years of working with abusive relationships, I have noticed a consistent gender distinction in the kind of abuse perpetrated. An emotionally abusive man controls his partner by manipulating her fear of harm, isolation, and deprivation; he threatens or implies that he might hurt her, leave her, or keep her apart from the things she loves. An emotionally abusive woman controls her partner by manipulating his dread of failure as a provider, protector, lover, or parent: "I could have married a man who made more money." "I had more orgasms with my last boyfriend.' "You're not a real man. "You don't know the first thing about raising kids."
This difference in vulnerability to fear and shame is why the gender symmetry present in emotionally abusive behaviors vanishes in emotionally abusive relationships. In other words, women engage in as much emotionally abusive behavior as men, but the systematic use of emotional abuse to control another person is usually the domain of men, simply because it is easier to control someone with fear than shame.
A typical defense against shame is to tune out the person provoking it. Although we never forget humiliation, it is relatively easy not to think about things that cause shame. (The root of the word "shame" means to cover or hide. That's one reason we tend to make the same mistakes over and over, by the way.) The cliché of the numb husband ignoring the nagging or strident wife isn't far from the truth. The abuse, though inexcusable, is not as painful for him. He is more likely to describe himself as adaptively following the path of least resistance than as a victim living under the thumb of someone more powerful. In my experience, emotionally abused men do not live in fear, even though they are ill-treated and far from happy.
In contrast, fear is an alarm system whose threshold of activation is designed to adapt to a dangerous environment. In other words, the more you experience fear, the more sensitized to possible danger you become. (That's why you might be unnerved by a moving shadow after seeing a horror movie.) The usual reaction to fear is hypervigilence. Thus women notice more of what the abusive partner is doing and are more likely to have their thoughts, feelings, and behavior controlled by the abusive partner. Indeed, it is almost impossible not to think about things that make you afraid when they are in proximity: Just try to ignore the sleeping sabertooth tiger in the next room.
In many ways, emotional abuse is more psychologically harmful than physical abuse. There are a couple of reasons for this: Even in the most violent families, incidents tend to be cyclical. Early in the abuse cycle, a violent outburst is followed by a honeymoon period of remorse, attention, affection, and generosity — but not genuine compassion. (The honeymoon stage eventually ends, as the victim begins to say, "Never mind the damn flowers, just stop hitting me!") Emotional abuse, on the other hand, tends to happen every day. The effects are more harmful because they're so frequent.
The other factor that makes emotional abuse so devastating is the greater likelihood that victims will blame themselves. If someone hits you, it's easier to see that he or she is the problem, but if the abuse is subtle — saying or implying that you're ugly, a bad parent, stupid, incompetent, not worth attention, or that no one could love you — you are more likely to think it's your problem. Emotional abuse seems more personal than physical abuse, more about you as a person, more about your spirit. It makes love hurt.
If you suspect that you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, take the Walking on Eggshells quiz. If your score indicates that you are walking on eggshells, the site will lead you to information on what to do next.
Eliminate Abuse by Increasing Compassion
Although occasional instances of abusive behavior do not constitute an abusive relationship, they certainly raise the risk of ruining health and happiness. Unconstrained by compassion, they can lead quickly to chronic resentment and, eventually, contempt. That's because we tend to form emotional bonds with an expectation that those we love will care about how we feel. When loved ones fail to care that we are hurt, let alone inflict hurt upon us, it feels like betrayal. Failure of compassion in a love relationship feels like abuse.
Merely refraining from abusive behaviors will do nothing to improve a relationship, though it may slow its rate of deterioration. To repair the harm done, there must be a corresponding increase in compassion.
That means both parties have to return to caring about how the other feels, even when they disagree about the ideas or interpretations of the facts that go with the feelings. The inability to distinguish objections to a loved one's behavior from value for the loved one is at the heart of emotional abuse. You can and must negotiate about the behavior you don't like — you can even condemn it — without devaluing the person you love.
Developing self-compassion is the key to increasing compassion for loved ones. Self-compassion is the ability to recognize when you are hurt, with a motivation to heal or improve. Of course, the latter is complicated with people you love. With them, you must recognize that when you are angry, you feel devalued or unlovable -- you perceive your loved one to have said or done something to devalue you. With self-compassion, you have two alternatives to anger and retaliation. Since the real problem is that you feel devalued or unlovable, you will move toward a real solution, i.e., doing something that will make you feel more valuable and lovable. In the history of humankind, no one has ever felt more valuable and lovable by hurting loved ones.
The other alternative to angry retaliation that comes with self-compassion is an understanding that your loved one, like you, feels devalued and unlovable beneath his/her angry, resentful, or irritable behavior. Hurting or devaluing him or her further can only make it worse.
Neither anger nor compassion solves problems in love relationships. But compassion puts you in a position where you are more likely to solve the problem to everyone's satisfaction. At the very least, you will never be emotionally abusive with compassion.
Think of times when you have been angry at someone you love and compare those times to when you have felt compassion for those you love. In which emotional state were you more likely to get the most favorable outcome?
Which do you prefer?
Which feels like the real you?