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What Drives Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abusers want to gain and retain power over you.

Key points

  • Emotional abusers use words and behaviors to frighten someone or cause emotional pain or distress without physically assaulting them.
  • Emotional abuse can show up as verbal abuse, passive aggression, gas lighting, or social isolation.
  • Emotional abusers tilt the power balance in the relationship, entering into a position of "authority."
  • While some abusers may derive pleasure from your suffering, they may also use abuse to obtain something they can't otherwise get.
Rodney Productions/Pexels
Source: Rodney Productions/Pexels

In her memoir An Abbreviated Life, Ariel Leve tells the story of her relationship with her emotionally abusive mother. Her mother had an excessive need for affirmation and would go to great lengths to obtain it from her daughter.

On top of that, her moods were utterly unpredictable. One moment she would tell Ariel how much she loved her and the next how much she hated her. Verbal abuse was commonplace. When Ariel was only six, her mother told her: When I’m dead, you will be all alone because your father doesn’t want you. You know that, right?

Ouch.

Emotional abuse doesn't just show up in parent-child relationships but can occur in all sorts of relationships—relationships between intimate partners, friends, siblings, ex-spouses, coworkers, neighbors, elders and their caregivers, etc.

Virtually no one is immune to emotional abuse. Even a control freak may encounter someone who is more power-hungry or better at using sneaky abuse tactics to their advantage.

The first step to learn how to spot emotional abuse is to familiarize yourself with: (i) what emotional abuse looks like and (i) what makes the abuser tick.

What Emotional Abuse Looks Like

Although some emotional abusers also engage in physical assault, emotional abuse by itself isn't physical assault. Rather, emotional abusers use words and behaviors to frighten you or cause emotional pain or distress.

Over time, you may develop a siege mentality that makes it difficult for you to trust others and form close relationships.

So, what does emotional abuse look like? Here are four ways it can manifest itself.

1. Verbal Abuse. Emotional abuse may take the form of verbal abuse. Verbal abusers use words or other vocalizations to frighten you or hurt you emotionally. Types of verbal abuse include yelling, name calling, intimidating, and threatening, among many others.

Example 1: Just after visiting your mom, you learn that a close contact has tested positive for Covid-19. When you call your mom to let her know, she starts yelling, accusing you, and calling you names.

Example 2: When you tell your spouse that you want a divorce, they threaten to sue for full custody of the kids.

 Marcus Aurelius/Pexels
Source: Marcus Aurelius/Pexels

2. Passive Aggression. Emotional abuse may also take the form of passive aggression. Those who engage in passive-aggressive behavior use indirect ways to communicate their negative attitudes toward the target.

Example 1: You are late for a get-together with your friend Zola. You apologize, and she tells you not to worry about it. But then she is being kind of grumpy or quite all evening.

Example 2: Your partner suddenly won't hold your hand or touch you, or they start sleeping with their back to you to indirectly convey their anger.

3. Social Isolation. A third type of emotional abuse is social isolation. This type of abuse is designed to prevent you from socializing with others, thus potentially making you feel lonely and depressed.

Example 1: Whenever you have plans to see friends or family, your partner feigns illness or begs you to stay.

Example 2: Your partner tells your friends and family members that you are unstable and that it's best if they don't contact you for a while.

4. Gaslighting. A fourth type of emotional abuse is gaslighting. Gaslighting is a covert form of abuse that denies what you feel you know with certainty, thus making you question your senses, judgments, and sanity.

Example 1: Your spouse throws away a book they knew you were reading and then insists that they never saw it.

Example 2: Your partner cracks your phone screen when you aren't looking and then insists they saw you drop it on the floor.

How Abusers Retain Power: The Power-Respect Duo

Emotional abusers use abuse tactics to frighten you or make you mentally distressed—thereby tilting the power balance in the relationship to their advantage.

By varying the amount of abuse depending on how you behave, abusers train you to treat them with deference respect, which means that you behave as if they were in a position of authority relative to you. To respect their "authority," you must follow their orders and requests or meet their desires and needs.

In the short term, you may benefit from adopting an attitude of apprehensive respect toward your abuser. This is the kind of respect we are advised to have for the ocean, because it's powerful, unpredictable, and may endanger us. Likewise, to avoid setting off your abuser, keeping a watchful attitudes can help you survive mentally until you can deal more effectively with your situation.

What's in It for the Abuser?

What makes abusers tick? Let's review some motives:

Your Abuser "Gets Off" on Controlling You or Seeing You Suffer. The feeling of being powerful and in control gives some abusers immense pleasure. Abusers may also derive pleasure from seeing you suffer.

Narcissists, psychopaths, and sadists may be drawn to emotional abuse because of the pleasure they take in having power over others or seeing them suffer (Brogaard, 2020).

Pavel Danilyuk/Pexels
Source: Pavel Danilyuk/Pexels

Your Abuser Stands to Gain from Incapacitating You. Your abuser may also engage in emotional abuse, because of what they stand to gain from incapacitating you.

Frequent emotional abuse leads to mental distress and may impair your ability to function. You may lack the energy, drive, or clarity of mind to fulfill your normal duties—or even agree with your abuser that it's in your best interest to get admitted to a mental hospital.

By incapacitating you, your abuser may succeed in getting child custody or gaining access to your money.

Your Abuser Wants Attention or Sympathy. Some abusers use emotional abuse to solicit attention, affirmation, or sympathy.

This is what makes a "martyr" tick. People playing the martyr engage in self-sacrifice to solicit sympathy and affirmation and evoke guilt in their targets.

Example: You are visiting your sister and offer to help her clean after a party she hosted. She declines and does everything herself in an act of self-sacrifice. Afterward, she expects you to feel sorry for her. When you don't, she starts guilt-tripping you.

Your Abuser Wants Revenge. Even if you haven't hurt your abuser in the past, they may feel you have. In that case, they may use verbal abuse to avenge the actual or imagined harm.

Unlike sadists, abusers seeking revenge may not take pleasure in seeing others suffer per se. Their pleasure lies in their retribution.

Yan Krukov/Pexels
Source: Yan Krukov/Pexels

Your Abuser Wants to Rise in the Ranks. Emotional abuse in the workplace—or workplace bullying—may be designed to tilt the power balance between coworkers, because they are envious of your success or want a promotion you're likely to get.

If the bully succeeds in gaining power over you by inducing fear or distress, they can then exploit that power to make themselves look successful and you look like a failure.

References

Biçer, C. (2019). Fight Fire with Fire? Workplace Aggression and How to Reduce Its Negative Effects. Karamanoglu Mehmetbey University Journal of Social and Economic Research, 21(37), pp. 37-46.

Brogaard, B. (2020). Hatred: Understanding Our Most Dangerous Emotion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Knapp, D. R. Fanning the Flames: Gaslighting as a Tactic of Psychological Abuse and Criminal Prosecution. 83 Alb. L. Rev. 313 (2019-2020).

Leve, A. (2016). An Abbreviated Life. New York: HarperCollins.

Rees, C. A. (2010). Understanding Emotional Abuse. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 95(1), http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/adc.2008.143156

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