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Treating Two Major Types of Emotional Abusers

Conflating the types leads to treatment failure and more pain for families.

Key points

  • Emotional abuse is deliberately making partners or children feel frightened or bad about themselves.
  • When abusers feel vulnerable or uncomfortable, they automatically blame partners or children.
  • The less-common Type 2 abusers don’t care that they’re abusive; they may even brag about it.

Let’s start with a definition: Emotional abuse is deliberately making partners or children feel frightened or bad about themselves. Though admittedly a broad definition, it eliminates pointless debates about which behaviors in which contexts are abusive. It keeps the focus where it should be, on the hurt of family members, not the intentions of abusers or any presumed "objective" standard of abuse. No objective label matters, relative to the fact that the behavior hurts.

Bad Coping Habits

When abusers feel disappointed, sad, guilty, ashamed, anxious, unlovable, or any kind of discomfort, they automatically blame partners or children. Automatic blame makes it impossible to understand their own emotions or to see other perspectives. It thrusts them into chronic resentment, in which they make superficial judgments about the emotional world of family members and assume the worst about their intentions. They are likely to develop victim-identity, which, in their minds, justifies retaliation. When they do something wrong (even a trivial mistake), they automatically deny that it happened or try to cover it up.

Type One Abusers

Type One abusers are far more common. They regard themselves as reactive to unfair or disrespectful treatment by family members and quite honestly can’t see that they’re abusive. They’re not lying or deceitful; they’re intolerably insensitive and unaware of the full effects of their behavior on loved ones.

In general, Type Ones are abusive only to family members. Work and social contacts detect no abusive tendencies or anger problems. They tend to speak well of loved ones with few complaints about them. Some treat family members exceptionally well in public.

They’re bewildered and sometimes offended when family members are afraid of them, since they’ve never been violent and, in their minds, never would be. They have no sense of the effects of their facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice on loved ones.

General Treatment Principles

People do not change by counselors confronting them with superior values. Successful counselors make clear that their purpose is to help clients behave according to their own deepest values: to protect and care for loved ones.

Treatment focused on insight into abusive behavior will fail to stop abuse. Insight does not change habits. Coping habits bypass the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that processes insight. Mr. Hyde simply will not remember what Dr. Jekyll learned in treatment. In treatment, Mr. Hyde must develop new coping habits to convert vulnerability (guilt, shame, anxiety, sadness, discomfort) into compassion — that is, new habits of improving, appreciating, connecting, or protecting that can override older habits of blame, denial, and avoidance.

Treatment of Type One Abusers

Due to the volume of sometimes tedious practice it takes to acquire new habits and learn new skills, treatment must instill motivation to become better people, partners, and parents. It must help clients recognize that the last thing they want is for loved ones to be afraid, feel bad about themselves, or think badly of them. It must show that they like themselves better when compassionate to loved ones than resentful of them.

Type Two Abusers

Type Two abusers don’t care that they’re abusive. They may even brag about it. They want family members to be afraid to challenge their will and to openly express negative feelings about them.

If attempts at emotional abuse fail, Type Twos may use violence to impose their will or punish non-compliance. The use of violence constitutes a failure of emotional abuse to get what the abuser wants. Most Type Twos never have to be violent, but the possibility is always there.

Characteristics of Type Twos

  • Manipulative
  • Dishonest
  • Immoral
  • Hypocritical
  • Inflated ego
  • Sense of entitlement.

    They may use ideology or distorted interpretations of religion to justify abuse. They’re likely to display bigoted, deceitful, and abusive behavior outside the family.

    Treatment of Type Two Abusers

    The only possibility of successful treatment is to tie the acquisition of new coping habits to their best interests — for example, they will be more successful at work with less stress at home. The motivation to practice needs to be something like preventing the financial loss of divorce or legal intervention, or to some gain in social status.

    Most books on emotional abuse describe all abusers as Type 2. That mistake renders them equally unsuccessful in treating both types of abusers. The result is more pain for family members.

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