The Emotional Abuser

A look at what the abuser does and why it works

Posted Sep 09, 2018

Why do some people emotionally abuse others?  What makes a person become an emotional abuser?  Well, sometimes the emotional abuser has been abused himself.  Sometimes it is because he has learned that emotional abuse works to give him a sense of control over others, or to salvage his ego from shame

But a larger question is what works for the emotional abuser and why does it work?  Constant criticism of a partner or child teaches the partner or child to hold a psychological position of shame, smallness, “less than.”  From this position, it is very difficult to confront, or realize the reality that one is being abused.  Most importantly, it is very difficult to leave. 

Shaming and blaming have the same effect.  The object of the game is to confound the abused, so that she doesn’t know that the problem isn’t really her.  She’s always trying to figure out what she can do differently so as to not be at fault.  She’s always trying to figure out how to fix it, how to stop feeling so guilty and responsible for his unhappiness. 

Name calling, also known as verbal abuse, is an aspect of emotional abuse that is not only extremely hurtful, but works to destroy the self-esteem of the abused.  These wounding words define the recipient as less-than, as something unworthy, low and unable to move beyond that definition.  This keeps the abused from having the strength of soul to speak up, to defy that definition or, again, most importantly, to leave. 

Withholding affection as punishment teaches the abused that he is only lovable if he performs according to the wishes of the abuser.  He begins to believe that if he can just get it right, be kind, giving and forgiving enough, then he will finally be loved.  Of course, this works best on children, and works really well on adults who did not receive affection as children; but it does work.  It works because it puts the abused in a position of having to sing for his supper—he now has to bargain for affection.  He’s now so busy bargaining for affection that he does not stop to consider the possibility that he is being abused.

Refusal to accept responsibility for his part works very well, because when this happens over and over again, the abused begins to feel that she must be to blame.  This refusal often is very deceptive because if the abused ever tries to convince the abuser that he has some responsibility, he deflects blame back onto her.  He may use tactics such as “smoke and mirrors” in which he blows smoke over his own deeds, thus clouding the issue for her, and then holds up a mirrors so that all she can see are her own deeds.  Or, he may try gaslighting, in which he actually tries to accuse her of being “crazy” for thinking he’s somehow responsible.  “See, you are always doing that!  You’re just paranoid!” 

The “silent treatment” is a tactic often used by emotional abusers.  It’s very cold and cruel in its indifference.  Abusers can go for a whole week not speaking to their children or partners, because this enables them to maintain control over the abused.  It works because it tells the abused to walk on eggshells to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.  Then he’s so busy walking on eggshells, trying to hard to make sure that the abuser doesn’t get mad, that he doesn’t have time or energy to consider that he’s being abused. 

Isolating her from friends and family means that she has no one to whom she might turn who would inform her that she is being abused.  Now she belongs completely to him and he can treat her anyway he wants.  She feels that he is the only person in her life and feels that she must dedicate herself to making sure that he’s not mad or stops talking to her or stops showing affection.  Again, she is far to busy with the psychology of all of that to consider that she is being abused, or to think of leaving.

What the emotional abuser does works because he is very skilled at it.  In fact, he has come to believe over time and practice that abusing others is a kind of survival technique.  He believes that he must do these things or people will leave him, and he could not live with that.  He believes that he must do these things or people will shame and blame him and he could not live with that.  So, if he is ever accused of emotionally abusing he will just do the same thing he always does, dodge, deflect and blame the other guy. 

What then is the abused to do?  Well, therapy might help point out the patterns, but ultimately if the abuser will not stop abusing, leaving might be the only option left.