Emotional Abuse and the Risk of Violence

The most harmful forms of abuse are interrelated.

Posted Apr 07, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

Emotional abuse involves deliberately making partners afraid or feel bad about themselves. It’s usually instrumental, to punish or coerce partners into doing something the abusers want or not doing something they don’t want.

In terms of power, physical abuse constitutes a failure of emotional abuse. Effective abusers don't have to be violent to exert power; the coercive and punishing force of emotional abuse is sufficient to get what they want.

In many ways, emotional abuse can be more harmful than physical violence. Early in my career, I conducted research in battered woman shelters. Most victims, who did not suffer permanent physical damage, said that they could tolerate the physical abuse better than the emotional. I should not have been surprised. My mother, a victim of severe domestic violence during my childhood, said the same thing.

There are a couple of reasons for this surprising fact. 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. Without genuine compassion, tension begins to build, leading eventually to another violent incident. The course of the cycle can be weeks, months, or years between violent incidents. The honeymoon stage eventually ends, as the victim begins to say, “Never mind the damn flowers, just keep your hands off me!” But the cycle continues: increasing tension leading to a violent incident, followed by a lull in abuse. Emotional abuse, on the other hand, tends to occur every day, through overt or implied devaluing behavior.

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 the assailant has a problem, at least one of impulse control. But if the abuse is subtle – saying or implying that you’re ugly, a bad parent, stupid, incompetent, crazy, not worth attention, or that no one could love you – you are more likely to think it’s your problem.

All violent relationships are emotionally abusive, but most emotionally abusive relationships never become violent. These factors that increase the risk of violence:

Chronic Blame. When something goes wrong, the automatic reflex of chronic abusers is to blame their partners. Any discomfort or misfortune is eventually blamed on family members. When they resist taking the blame, attempts at emotional abuse intensify, until violence becomes likely.

Isolation. Many abusers don’t want to go out or see friends. Any socializing in which they're likely to participate is centered on alcohol or drug use. (No alcohol or drugs, no socializing.) More often, they try to keep their partners isolated from friends, relatives, therapists, or anyone who might provide a reality check.

I once had the husband of a client insist that I stop counseling his wife, because she was “no longer afraid to stand up” to him. He sent an email to alert me that she would be reaching out for help. He warned me twice, at the beginning and at the end of the email, to “decline.” He was distressed because she stopped believing that she was “crazy.”

It’s a common tactic of abusers to verbally attack or threaten professionals who try to help their victims, knowing that when professional objectivity is compromised, the counselor cannot ethically advise the victim. When these desperate tactics are employed, violence looms likely.

Poor Sleep. Sleep deprivation does not cause violence, but it increases the likelihood of occurrence in those prone to violence.

Amphetamine or Alcohol Use. Abusers are not happy users. They get irritable or angry when not using and their bad moods sometimes end in violence. And, of course, alcohol disinhibits aggressive impulses, while amphetamines amplify them. 

Victim Identity. Most abusers suffer entrenched perceptions of being mistreated, which to them, explains all the misfortune, failures, and underachievement of their lives. Because they feel like victims, they consider themselves entitled to compensation or retaliation. The more they identify with being victims, the more likely they are to act out in violence.

Jealousy and Envy. Jealousy is the fear of losing something of value to someone else, like the affection or attention of a spouse. Envy is a feeling that you would be okay if you had something that someone else has and that you deserve it more than those who have it.

Because the self-value of abusers is low — their behavior makes it impossible for them to feel genuinely worthy of love — a certain amount of jealousy and envy are inevitable. They may begin in mild expression. As they become increasingly embittered, they raise the risk of violence. Extreme jealousy and envy are potentially homicidal emotions.

Perceived Humiliation. Disagreement and disappointment seem like humiliation to abusers. They are easily insulted and relive the insults over and over in their imagination, with each instance reinforcing revenge motives that will eventually be acted out in some form.

Paranoia. The same resentment that leads to emotional abuse makes abusers think the worst about other people’s intentions. This eventually leads to feelings of persecution and self-righteous acting out.

History of Violence. I call this the bite of the vampire. Once abusers cross the line into violence, they’re likely to continue. There’s a physiological component to this. Adrenaline is needed to overcome inhibition. To enact previously inhibited behavior, such as hitting a loved one, you need a spurt of adrenaline, which increases energy and confidence.

Adrenaline is subject to habituated tolerance; you need more and more of it to get the same level of energy and confidence. When self-value and energy are low, as they often are in abusers, their brains may look for excuses to be violent, just to get the shot of adrenaline for temporary energy and confidence.

Safety First

If you live with any of the above, reach out to friends and professionals. The worst thing to do is isolate. Isolation will impair your reality-testing; you become more likely to believe what the abuser tells you, even that you deserve violent punishment.

Focus on raising your core value, not on repairing the relationship. (There is a free core value course on compassionpower.com.) Despite any effort you make, the relationship cannot be safe until the abuser develops a moral compass and self-regulation skill.

By all means, develop a safety plan. There are many on the Internet to use as guides.