Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Emotional Abuse

It Hurts When You Love

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, emotionally abusive behavior must be distinguished from an emotionally abusive relationship, which is more than the sum of emotionally abusive behaviors.

In emotionally abusive relationships, one party systematically controls the other by undermining his or her confidence, worthiness, growth, trust, or emotional stability, or by provoking fear or shame to manipulate or exploit.

It's important to note emotional abuse is about the effects of behavior, not the words used. You can say the most loving words with sarcasm and silently communicate contempt through body language, rolling eyes, sighs, grimaces, tone of voice, disgusted looks, cold shoulders, banging dishes, stonewalling, cold shoulders, etc. There are dozens of ways to be emotionally abusive.

In some respects, emotional abuse is more devastating than physical violence, due 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 you’re the 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 test will lead you to information on what to do about it.

Although occasional instances of abusive behavior do not constitute an abusive relationship, they certainly raise the risk of ruining health and happiness. Unmitigated by readily available compassion, abusive behaviors lead quickly to chronic resentment and, eventually, to 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 on the part of the abuser. Abusers do not change by receiving compassion; they change by learning to give it. Emotional abuse does not result from storms of anger; it emerges during droughts of compassion.

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 most deeply like the real you?

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today