BY: T. Franklin Murphy | May 18, 2021 (edited June 20, 2022)
Emotional abuse quietly sneaks in and disrupts lives, destroying key components of wellness. We can escape the abuse and enjoy an intimate lasting relationship.
Emotional abuse happens in diverse locations, crossing boundaries of race, age, and economic status. The abuse occurs at home, work, or school. Emotional abuse can be perpetrated in person or through various mediums. Emotional abuse is a bullying tactic with severe psychological and emotional costs. Before a victim can protect or escape, they must honestly identify the abuse. Identifying abuse seems obvious—it's not.
Abuse thrives when we deny its existence. Obvious events escape recognition because unconscious psychological processes protect us from the cognitive dissonance of accepting our partner is not loving but an abusive and narcissistic monster. Both the abuser and and abused define their particular flavor of abuse as something less noxious. They engage in ruthless psychological warfare but call it just sticking up for their rights; or worse pretend the horrid behavior is an expression of love.
Even when finally abuse is identified, the relationship is often so well entrenched, cultural norms and negative views of domestic violence push victims towards secrecy. Abusers are embolden by lack of protective or corrective reaction. They cowardly and pathetically take advantage, tightening the chokehold, increasing the fear, and heartlessly stealing the joy of living from another human being.
For men and women, psychological abuse is the most common form of abuse in romantic relationships (Beyarslan, S., & Uzer, T., 2020). Unfortunately, much of the abuse goes unnoticed by surrounding friends and family. Victims rationalize the hurt, taking personal responsibility for the meanness, and hope that time will mitigate the problem. It often doesn't.
Emotional Abuse is Not All or Nothing
We all give and receive subtle messages to partners that are self-serving—selfish in nature. Emotional abuse is more than an occasional self-serving maneuver. Abuse is a pattern of behaviors. We can resiliently absorb an occasional misspoken barb, repair the hurt, and continue forward with a healthy, loving relationship.
Emotional abuse must be measured on a continuum. Underlying relationship goals blend with relationships skills to create the overall nature of a relationship. When goals are more selfish in nature, behaviors become more manipulative. When other cultural norms fail to mitigate the selfishness, abusive and corrosive tactics of psychological warfare are implemented to achieve selfish goals.
I presume all of us could reflect and examine our relationship behaviors and discover a few nasties to replace with something healthier. I know I still need refining. Instead of looking at our relationships as a whole, wondering if we, or our partner, are engaged in psychological warfare, we should look at individual interactions within the relationship, examining emotions stirred, and hidden messages transmitted. Through mindful reflection, we may find flaws worthy of attention and improvement.
Emotional Abuse uses various psychological techniques to control another person. Emotional abuse is the continual thwarting of basic emotional needs. Typically, abusers follow a consistent pattern of criticizing, embarrassing, shaming, and blaming as a way to bully, wearing down the victim's self-esteem and undermining their mental health.
Subjectivity and Emotional Abuse
Here's the problem with psychological definitions—subjectivity. Somehow, we must take words from the flickering computer screens and insert them into our lives. This process is anything but clean. Our biases, preconceived ideas, expectations and labels muddy the evaluations and contaminate clear understanding.
Narcissist and serial abusers capitalize on the haziness caused by subjectivity. They love the confusion. The lack of exactness opens opportunity for them to spin their own convoluted web of self-serving meanings. The unsuspecting victim then doubts their own interpretations because the bully in their life speaks with such confidence that their craziness causes self doubt.
We must continually examine our beliefs and those of our partner against the moving context of subjectivity. A person that projects an "all-knowing" attitude must be suspiciously guarded against.
See Gaslighting for more on this topic
"Women who think abuse comes only in the form of a physical assault may miss warning signs of other kinds of abuse. Abuse can be verbal, emotional, spiritual, financial, physical, or sexual..."
Sandra L. Brown
Narcissists and Emotional Abuse
A person with narcissistic traits doesn't necessarily have a narcissistic personality disorder. A person can have some narcissistic behaviors and still enjoy healthy relationships. Even if we don't particularly enjoy a partner's narcissistic leanings, we still can develop an intimate loving bond.
Extreme narcissism, however, is strongly associated with emotional abuse. Perpetrators of emotional abuse share key characteristics with the narcissist.
Jefferey Kluger, a senior editor and writer at Time, wrote in his book The Narcissist Next Door that abusers with the narcissist personality traits of exploitativeness, lack of empathy and entitlement—"the three of the crown jewels of the narcissistic personality" (2015, location 1665).
Author Victoria Summit describes narcissists with a little more flare. She writes, "narcissists cannot love, not like the rest of us do. They are arrested in some sort of infantile development loop and act like screaming toddlers with a temper tantrum when angry and run around like promiscuous teenagers when bored, which they always are since they have no sense of passion or follow through" (2013, location 294).
"Learn the facts about psychological manipulation. Learn the warning signs and red flags that tell you that you might have a manipulator on your hands. Learn how the human mind works, and how that makes us vulnerable to predators. And learn how a predator's mind works too."
Motivating Force Behind Emotional Abuse
Pamela Kole identifies need for control over a relationship as the motivating force. She explains, "to an abuser, emotional manipulation serves one goal and one goal only. It’s the determination to win and possess the most power in a relationship" (2017, page 8).
Most new relationships go through a negotiation process, determining where power lies in the varies domains. Each area typically has different balances of power. In extreme abusive relationships, the abuser slowly (or forcefully) commandeers all power.
"The silent treatment is a common way of displaying contempt for another individual while avoiding confrontation about that contempt or without giving the target of the contempt an opportunity to resolve the issue or dispute."
This imbalance destroys the underlying purpose of relationships. Relationships derive their strength and purpose from partners combining emotional, financial and other resources for the betterment of everyone involved. The relationships serves each member's needs. Healthy relationships lift. Co-dependent relationships limit. Emotionally abusive relationships exalt one partner at the emotional and psychological expense of the other.
Imbalances of power are created by weakening one side and strengthening the other. We will see in the following list how these goals are obtained.
Destroying Resource Supply Lines
Resources give us power. A key to dominating a person is to limit their resources. In war, enemy troops are isolated from supply lines. In abusive relationships, victims are isolated from outside others, finances, and inner strengths.
Emotional abuse flourishes when abusive behaviors are unchallenged. Bullies have limited influence on others outside of their domain of control so they restrict access of their target victim from the strength of supporting others.
A primary tactic of an abuser is to isolate. This is accomplished in a number of ways:
Perpetrators of abuse prefer to manage the finances, even when they are unemployed. The inequality of this arrangement, when objectively examined, is evident. The abuser is angered over a victim's expensive trip to the grocery store but ignores their own extravagant expenditures.
They spend on their indulgences and treat their victims with the small crumbs that remain. Some of the tactics commonly used are:
The damage to a partner's self-image is paramount for successful domination. Self-confidence and self-respect leads to boundaries, and repeated violation of boundaries set by self confident and self-respecting partners lead to abandonment.
The victim of emotional abuse finds their autonomy under constant attack. Abusers where down resistance, engaging in a constant attack on the victim's self-image.
Game Playing and Confusion
One of the most stunning and damaging tactics of perpetrators of emotional abuse is creating instability. Human wellness demands stability. The child curiously explores, routinely returning to their mother for assurance and security.
Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, wrote that "much of narcissists’ behavior in relationships is 'game playing.' They are deceptive and dishonest; they will signal commitment at one time and then pull away the next; they will play people off against one another; and they will avoid real commitment" (2010, location 3537).
Our minds need escape from arousal. Rejuvenating rest is only available in predictable and secure environments. When home is unpredictable and unsafe, recovery is stymied and we get bashed by the ever-present anxiety of the unknown.
Many abusers are not beholden to facts. Truth is, at least to the noxious narcissistic mind, controlled by them—their words, their thoughts, their opinions. And to confuse even more, their truth changes with immediate needs.
"But you said last week..." has no argument value in their distorted world. Just like a crazy uncle that continually changes the rules of chess so he can beat his ten year old nephew, the emotional abuser changes truths, confusing normal negotiations, learning, and the ability to adapt.
The abusers hold the cards, defining right and wrong, and shifting them as they see fit. Gaslighting is a primary tool in this arsenal of confusion.
Author Victoria Summit describes gaslighting as when "someone manipulates reality to suit his or her own personal needs and convinces the other person that the gaslighter’s version of events is true when the gaslightee often knows it isn’t but wants to please the gaslighter and before long, the sense of true reality and trust of “self” become eroded" (2013. Location 211).
Emotional blackmail is another dangerous tactic. Emotions become tools for manipulation not intimacy. Words are used to hurt. Emotions used to force compliance.
They take note of hot buttons, using them at opportune times. They poke sensitivities and glory in their control. Emotional abusers are masters of inconsistent rewards, keeping victims craving for acceptance, providing glimpses of what should be then cruelly pulling it away.
Kluger explains "the narcissist’s need to maintain a positive self-image at all costs also means that a partner’s behavior must be carefully regulated so that the necessary submission and admiration keep coming" (2015, location 1670).
The abuser uses normal bonding techniques to their advantage. They apologize and express love when these behaviors continue confusion, strengthening their control. Often the inconsistent positive affirmations are tainted with the toxicity, spoiling the meager helpings of compassion. The niceness can't exist without the abuser adding a few demeaning and confidence-destroying remarks.
"I'm sorry for getting angry. I shouldn't have acted that way. I just can't control my emotions when people lie through their teeth." The apology shifts guilt, establishes their superiority, and leaves a nasty flavor to the normal repairing practice of apologizes.
The person with the least interest in the relationship often has the most control. Twenge calls this concept "the principle of least interest." She explains this has "real benefits for the narcissistic spouse, boyfriend, or employee; it can give them power over others (2015, location 3737).
The underlying message is "if you don't give me what I want, I'll leave." They creatively expend effort to create this illusion. They want you to feel flawed and unworthy of love, while they, on the other hand, have plenty of alternative options. Flaunting affairs and sexual infidelity in front of victims plays into their poisonous deception.
Most of us were raised to believe we can communicate our way out of problems. Relationships improve through openly discussing hurts, differences, and options. For most relationships, this is true. Honest communication leads to compromise, understanding, and resolutions.
See Compromise in Relationships for more on this topic
However in abusive relationships, openness and vulnerability only provides emotional ammunition for future assaults.
Pamela Kole writes, "the worst part is that you can never express these negative feelings of displeasure because they’ll just bring up your own shortcomings and condition you to avoid confrontation and allowing you to express yourself. Your on-going issues never get resolved" (2017, page 15).
The message is clear, "your feelings don't matter, your emotions are your own fault because you are weak." Honest expressions of hurt are quickly turned around, segueing into venomous attacks on your character.
Twenge adds to this that these expressions invoke violent responses. "It is not surprising that narcissists’ partners feel so damaged. What’s worse is that they often cannot safely express those feelings to their partner, who responds to criticism with denial, abuse, and even violence. Any criticism of the narcissist can provoke a hostile reaction" (2015, location 3559).
Boundaries and Emotional Abuse
Boundaries are necessary for relationships to smoothly function. They protect autonomy, set standards for interaction, and alleviate confusion. Boundaries also warn of dangerous partners.
As relationships progress, earlier than later, clear boundaries should be set. Violations must be quickly addressed as unacceptable. When boundaries are vague, violations dismissed, and acceptable limits constantly moved to accommodate the other, problems will soon arise.
Just like a restraining order doesn't protect, neither do boundaries. Boundaries only define expected behaviors to show respect. Abusers could care less about restraining orders and boundaries, they just want to know how serious the victim is about them. If their target doesn't enforce violations, then all is fair game. Their disrespect signals danger.
Adelyn Birch, a blogger and expert on psychopaths and love, warns "if you are currently involved with a manipulator/abuser who purposefully harms you in any way, setting and enforcing boundaries won't help, and will most likely make things worse. The only answer for dealing with these toxic people is to leave the relationship" (2016, location 388).
Visit Adelyn Birch's website Psychopaths and Love.
For extreme pathological narcissists, they have no boundaries. If they find a partner unwilling to enforce a boundary, they keep testing new extremes, pushing the line further and further, until their partner no longer exists as an autonomous being, just a piece of property to be used and discarded as the abuser sees fit.
Psychological Damage of Emotional Abuse
Kluger sadly reminds that "even when narcissistic abuse never rises to the level of the physical, this kind of demanding, suffocating, all-about-me totalitarianism becomes a sort of proxy battering, and any partner worn down by years of such treatment will confess to feeling awfully beaten up by the time it’s all over" (2015, location 1670).
Emotional abuse strikes at the heart of our being, damaging wellness, beating down confidence, and fracturing normal abilities to function.
Abusive relationships impact our ability to have healthy relationships. Early relationships are extremely important. "Adolescents who have negative experiences in romantic relationships have much less confidence in their ability to form qualified relationships" (Beyarslan, S., & Uzer, T., 2020).
Heather Dye suggests that emotional abuse may be the most damaging form of maltreatment to children because it interferes with the child's developing brain (2019, page 400). Research suggests that childhood emotional abuse not only impacts self-esteem but damages the nervous system. "Emotional abuse cause changes in the brain, specifically in regions associated with understanding and controlling emotions and recognizing and responding to feelings of others" (page 400).
As adults, we are more resilient, but certainly not immune. Emotional abuse taxes are emotional resources, often leading to depression and anxiety.
Recognition and Appropriate Response
Recognizing abusive behaviors is not equivalent to appropriate reaction to the behaviors. Sometimes calling out a partner for their bullying tactics may usher in productive conversation and , hopefully, change. Sometimes, as mentioned earlier, the psychopathic illness is resistant to change, discussions invite insults, counter attacks, and violence. Outside help is often necessary to break hurtful patterns or in many cases, facilitate a safe escape.
The injuries of extended emotional abuse are deep, but healing is possible. With patience and support, love can return, heal, and lift.
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