How Partners Use Emotional Abuse to Exert Control

Abusers need to put you down or punish you to feel on top of the world.

Posted Sep 04, 2019

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior used to achieve and maintain power or regain control over another person by systematically punishing them, damaging their self-confidence, or making them lose trust in their own perceptions. Emotional abusers diminish their partners in an attempt to establish or reaffirm their perceived power. Their dark personalities allow them to remain blissfully ignorant of their own character.

The destructive stranglehold emotional abuse has on its victims reduces their well-being to rubble, leaving them feeling so worthless or wicked that they may believe they deserve the abuse. Others may become conditioned to believe that they are crazy because the abuser continues to deny the abuse or uses secret methods to make their victim feel crazy. This is also known as gaslighting.

One kind of emotional abuse that often escapes detection is passive aggression, a pattern of indirect hostility that can take the form of subtle insults, sullen behavior, stubbornness, or a deliberate failure to accomplish promised tasks. Because passive-aggressive behavior is so subtle, it can be hard to distinguish from normal forgetfulness, distraction, work stress, or ephemeral dysphoria. But the victim may suffer serious psychological consequences nonetheless.

Hatred and contempt tend to give rise to different patterns of abuse. Because contempt involves disrespect for its target, abusers motivated by contempt think they have complete power over their partner and intend it to stay that way. They often engage in abuse that further cripples the victim’s self-esteem or reminds them of their worthlessness and lowly status.

Condescension is a form of contempt-based emotional abuse. It wears away at the victim’s sense of self-worth by trivializing their accomplishments or diminishing their competence, intelligence, youthfulness or physical appearance. When verbalized, it may sound like this:

  • Yeah sure, your blog post is fine. I just don’t see why you needed to spend all Sunday writing it.
  • See, that’s why I have to be the one to handle the money.
  • You can't understand what I am talking about.
  • Hurry up, or I’m leaving you in the parking lot!
  • Did you remember to brush your teeth?
  • Look at how fat you've gotten.

Contempt-based emotional abuse can also take the grisly form of public shaming. To punish his 13-year-old daughter, Izabel, Jeff Laxamana, a resident of Tacoma, Washington, cut off her long hair. Afterward, he uploaded a 15-second video to YouTube. The video opens with a shot of a short-haired girl in a black tee staring at the camera. Jeff's voice can be heard in the background: 

“The consequences of getting messed up, man, you lost all that beautiful hair.” The camera pans down to long strands of black hair scattered on the floor. “Was it worth it?” 

“No,” she replies obediently. 

“How many times did I warn you?” The father asks. 

“A lot,” she replies softly. 

Days after the event, Izabel died by suicide after jumping off a highway overpass.

Cutting off women’s hair has historically served as a way of publicly shaming them. When World War II ended in 1945, civilians in France, Belgium, Italy, Denmark, Norway, and Holland rounded up women who were thought to have had liaisons with German soldiers and shaved their heads. (Sometimes the only evidence was that the woman had had an abortion.) Following the public humiliation of head-shaving, the “traitors” were sometimes paraded through town, while onlookers spat and urinated on them, or beat or kicked them to death. 

Hateful abusers often fear that their partner will leave them, tell on them, or call the police. They want complete power but have a lingering fear that they haven’t yet achieved it. Their abuse is aimed at pre-empting the feared scenarios to ultimately obtain complete control.

Hate-based emotional abuse can take the form of retaliation, anger outbursts, threatening, ordering, name calling, sarcasm, rude interruptions, or sweeping generalizations intended to define the other person’s inner reality. When verbalized, hate-based abuse may sound like this:

  • If you file for divorce, I'm taking the kids.
  • You can’t go out until you’ve cleaned the dishes.
  • I said no, b*tch.
  • I don’t give a damn about your feelings.
  • It is none of your goddamn business.
  • Just shut up, will you?
  • You always say you feel victimized.

Not all relationship abuse ends (or begins) with emotional abuse. Some abusers are so consumed by hatred that they batter, stalk, sexually assault, torture, or even murder partners or family.

In September 2001, Michelle Mosure had endured a decade of abuse from Rocky, her husband and the father of her two children, when she finally went to the authorities to get a restraining order against him. That day she recounted the physical abuse she underwent in the hands of her husband. He had been beating her in front of the children, and threatened to kill the kids to coerce her into obedience. Yet only days after Rocky was served the restraining order, Michelle recanted her testimony out of fear of retaliation, and the prosecutors dropped the case. Two months later, Rocky shot and killed Michelle and their two children before turning the gun on himself.

It may seem counterintuitive that a person who wants complete power over a partner would willfully kill them. We say that killers “overpower” victims, but once a victim is dead, they can no longer obtain power over them. So, unless the killer is hallucinating, why does the desire for complete power over the other so often culminate in murder?

One possible explanation is that domestic killers have become so bothered by the victim’s residual power that if they cannot force it away from her while she is alive. Murdering her is the only way they can deprive her of it.

For Rocky, killing Michelle didn’t do the trick, however. His own reason to live died with her death.