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Emotional Abuse

Subtle Signs of Emotional Abuse

If these occur, there’s still time to change, but the window is closing.

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A lot has been written about obvious signs of emotional abuse, most of which indicate entrenched behaviors more likely to worsen than ameliorate without intensive, specialized, professional intervention. Below are less obvious and more correctible signs that a relationship is abusive or on the path to becoming so.

1. At least one of the partners makes judgments about the other's perspective without trying to understand it. This stems from intolerance of differences, which tends to grow more rigid in relationships, leading to more overtly dismissive and devaluing behavior.

2. At least one of the partners prefers to blame rather than focus on improvement. Blame gives a dose of adrenaline, which temporarily increases energy and confidence. Once blaming becomes a habit, the brain will do it automatically whenever it wants adrenaline. Due to the tolerance effect of adrenaline—it takes more and more of it to get the same level of energy and confidence—blame will certainly get worse and lead eventually to devaluing and demeaning behavior.

3. At least one of the partners tells the other how to think and feel, in an attempt “to be helpful.” This shows a lack of value for the other’s individuality, which will worsen to the extent that the integrity of one is sacrificed for the ego of the other.

4. At least one of the partners shows remorse for hurtful remarks or behavior, but not compassion. Remorse comes after hurtful behavior and focuses on how bad he/she feels. Compassion prevents hurtful behavior by focusing on how the injured party feels and what it will take to repair. Compassion is self-enhancing, while remorse is self-devaluing. The devalued self is more likely to abuse than the valued self.

5. At least one of the partners withdraws affection and connection in the face of disagreement. This makes the connection contingent on agreement, which will systematically weaken it. The implication is that a partner isn’t worth loving in the face of disagreement. That tacit judgment will be communicated in various ways with more frequency and intensity.

6. At least one of the partners claims the other is "too sensitive." Implies that there’s something wrong with the other for being hurt by hurtful remarks or behavior and tacitly justifies repetition of hurtful behavior.

7. At least one of the partners implies (without actually stating) that the other is not competent, smart, or resourceful enough. This attitude will eventually justify controlling and domineering behavior.

8. At least one of the partners regards the other as inferior or disordered in some way. This will be expressed in increasingly devaluing and demeaning ways.

9. At least one of the partners uses sarcasm. Sarcasm is a method of expressing hostility in socially acceptable ways. If one partner defends it by attacking the sense of humor of the other, abuse will almost certainly become more overt and more virulent.

10. At least one of the partners walks on eggshells to avoid a disappointed look in the other. If one or both partners are second-guessing and self-editing to avoid unpleasant exchanges, subtle abusive behavior has already been internalized. Eventually, it will become more overt.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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