Not All Emotional Abusers Are Narcissists
Some abusers do so intentionally; others are blind to the harm they're causing.
Posted September 21, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- There isn't just one type of emotional abuser.
- Some emotional abusers intentionally harm their victims; others do it unintentionally.
- Unintentional abusers are often unconsciously repeating what was done to them, or may suffer from borderline personality disorder.
- Some narcissists are unaware of the damage they are doing to their partners, while others are very aware and in fact do so deliberately.
I wrote my first book about emotional abuse, The Emotionally Abused Woman, back in 1992. But it is only in the last few years that emotional abuse has been widely discussed.
The good news, then, is that emotional abuse is finally getting the attention it deserves. The bad news is that most people are still not getting it right.
Nowadays, many people who write about emotional abuse consider all abusers to be narcissists. But this simply is not true. While some abusers can be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder or have narcissistic tendencies, many have another personality disorder entirely. And many have no personality disorder at all and are simply repeating what was done to them in childhood or mimicking their parents’ behavior toward one another without even realizing they are being abusive. In this series of posts, I will give a detailed outline of who emotional abusers are and what tends to motivate them.
I divide emotional abusers into two major categories: unintentional and intentional abusers. Unintentional abusers consist of the following: those who are unconsciously repeating their parents’ behavior; those who suffer from borderline personality disorder; and those with narcissistic traits who are oblivious to the effect they have on others. Malignant narcissists are the only type of abuser who intentionally and maliciously set out to undermine and even destroy their partner.
Type 1: The Abuser Repeating What Was Done to Him
In many situations, those who emotionally abuse do not realize they are being abusive. This does not excuse their behavior, but it certainly opposes the current idea that all emotional abusers are horrible narcissistic monsters, bent on destroying and undermining their partner.
A child who grew up with domestic violence and/or emotional abuse in the home often learns to view emotional and physical violence as valid ways to vent anger and deal with their own self-perception issues and internal fears. Abusive behavior is normalized in the family, as is protecting oneself and avoiding what is painful by focusing on one’s partner as the cause of one’s unhappiness.
Being abused or witnessing abuse can also damage a child’s ability to trust others and can weaken his or her ability to control feelings. This can produce dependent, hostile, and emotionally insecure people with a deeply weakened ability to build and maintain healthy relationships. In addition, low self-esteem, uncontrolled jealousy, and feelings of fake superiority can fuel abusive behavior.
When someone with such a history comes to realize he or she has been abusing their partner, many are shocked. They didn’t realize that their behavior was so damaging to their partner because they assumed that this was just the way people treat each other. They often feel remorseful and horribly ashamed. They vow to change and, while it is not an easy task, many do just that, especially if they receive therapy.
The Connection Between Emotional Abuse and Substance Abuse
There is also a strong correlation between emotional abuse in intimate relationships and alcohol and substance abuse. For example, IPV (interpersonal violence) against women is two to four times more likely when they are with men who drink alcohol. And the American Society of Addiction Medicine states, “victims and abusers are 11 times more likely to be involved in domestic violence incidents on days of heavy substance abuse.”
It is possible for a normally understanding and loving partner to become abusive whenever he or she becomes high or intoxicated. Technically, this type of emotional abuse can go under the category of “unintentional” abuse since the abuser is not necessarily trying to control or shame his or her partner, at least not consciously.
What he or she can be doing, albeit on an unconscious level, is dissipating his or her anger. This is where the connection between previous childhood trauma and emotional abuse can come in. There is a strong association between childhood abuse and neglect and later substance abuse in adulthood.
In particular, men with child sexual abuse histories are found to be at greater risk of substance abuse problems. The higher rates of substance abuse problems among adult survivors of child abuse and neglect may, in part, be due to victims using substances to self-medicate from trauma symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and intrusive memories caused by an abusive history.
If your partner has such a history of childhood abuse and/or neglect or witnessed emotional abuse growing up, or if you suspect that he or she does, there may be hope for your relationship if—and I stress if—he or she is willing to seek therapy for their childhood trauma and/or seek help for substance abuse.
Type 2: The Borderline Abuser
Another type of abuser who often doesn't realize they are harming their partner is the individual who suffers from borderline personality disorder (BPD). Not only does this type of individual not realize they are being emotionally abusive but those involved with a partner who has (BPD) often do not realize they are being emotionally abused.
They may know they are unhappy in their relationship but they may blame themselves or be confused as to what is causing the continual disruption in their relationship. They are often blamed for the relationship problems or made to feel that if they would only be more loving, more understanding, more sexual, or more exciting, their relationship would improve. The irony is that a partner of a borderline may be overly dependent, causing him or her to be extremely patient and willing to put up with intolerable behavior.
Partly because they are constantly being blamed for things they did not do, those involved with borderline individuals often come to doubt their own perceptions or their sanity. Often accused of behaving, thinking, or feeling in ways that upset their partner, they tend to adopt a careful style of living that authors Paul Mason and Randi Kreger call "walking on eggshells"—the title of their book. Many come to believe that they are not only the cause of their relationship problems but the cause of their partner’s emotional problems as well.
Those who suffer from BPD or have strong borderline tendencies often experienced some form of abuse or abandonment when they were an infant or child. This abandonment may have been physical (e.g. the hospitalization of a parent, the death of a parent, being put up for adoption, being left in a crib for hours at a time) or emotional (e.g. having a mother who was unable to bond with her child, being an unwanted child whose mother neglected her, having a detached and unloving father, etc.).
This physical or emotional abandonment causes the borderline individual to be either extremely afraid of being rejected or abandoned in an intimate relationship and having to feel the original wounding all over again, or to be distant and detached as a way of defending herself from the potential pain of intimacy. In many cases, the borderline individual actually vacillates from one extreme to the other. This is commonly referred to as experiencing the “twin fears of abandonment and engulfment.”
For example, at one point in time, a borderline individual may herself be emotionally smothering—desperately clinging to her partner, demanding a great deal of attention, or begging her partner to never leave her. At another point, however, perhaps only hours or days later, the same person can be overwhelmed with the fear of being engulfed. She may become distant and withdrawn for no apparent reason or she may push her partner away by accusing him of not loving her, of being unfaithful, or of no longer finding her attractive. She may even accuse him of being too needy.
In my next blog entitled, “Is Your Partner a Borderline Abuser?” I will explore this topic further.
Engel, Beverly. (2020) Escaping Emotional Abuse: Healing the Shame You Don't Deserve. New York, NY: Citadel Press.
Mason, Paul and Kreger, Randy. (2020). Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.