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What Is Emotional Abuse?
© 2014, Liz Prette, M.A., RCC
“What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.” - Henri Nouwen
For loving relationships to truly thrive they need an emotionally safe environment. Nothing is more destructive to a relationship than when negative power is substituted for love and safety. Although many forms of power misuse exist, emotional abuse is one that can often go unnamed or unrecognized. Numerous relationships suffer silently with emotional abuse and may be unaware. This dynamic is often difficult to name and difficult to address. If verbal or emotional interactions contain a pervasive pattern of control or power, we must name it as emotional abuse to deal with it appropriately.
The key to naming emotional abuse correctly is to recognize a recurring pattern that can include some of the following behaviours. Although any of us can be susceptible to occasionally using these forms of communication, it is the repeated pattern of these behaviours without ownership of responsibility that creates the deepest sense of unsafety.
Psychological abuse uses language that demeans another’s character. A public expression of abusive language may be flagged easily, but psychological abuse is often expressed privately and quietly through insults, name-calling, belittling, criticizing, attacking a person’s belief system, mocking or humiliating. It is made more powerful through the hidden nature of its expression.
Small demands can seem innocuous and even reasonable at first glance. To insist that dinner is on time or that the house appear “just so”, is a subtle, yet strong way of exerting unhealthy power. Hints of emotional abuse become visible when a partner demands obedience, won’t allow someone to make his or her own decisions, or treats another like a child.
Sometimes passed off as “protection” or “jealous love”, one can isolate his or her partner by limiting contact with friends, family and support systems. It can be confusing when someone is angry or jealous if the partner wants to be out with friends or gets home a little late. The dynamic powerfully conveys that it is not okay to be connected to others.
Direct threats can become a strategy for someone trying to gain control when a partner doesn’t comply. Threats to leave, take money, tell lies, hurt or even kill oneself are not uncommon forms of emotional manipulation.
Intimidation can also be used as a powerful tactic, and one of the strongest ways to intimidate someone is to destroy something that is important to him or her. There are other more subtle examples, such as trying to control what a person says, how they feel, or what they wear, or by attempting to make the person account for every minute of his or her day.
Common manipulation techniques can make one person vulnerable and the other powerful. We might see persuasion by pressuring a person to do something he or she doesn’t want; blame that accusses the other of being at fault, or being the selfish or hurtful one; guilt trips that say things like, “If you really cared for me, you would have had dinner ready”; and direct manipulation that communicates, “I need you and can’t live without you”.
Within an experience of emotional abuse, we might see a cycle of intermittent kindness, where someone is just nice enough at times to reinforce and give hope that the relationship is safe. Here, intermittent acts of kindness give a surge of hope, but they are all too often part of a larger cycle or pattern where control tactics inevitably return.
The Problem of Neutralization
Unfortunately, when emotionally abusive behaviours are present, people will often neutralize or deny the action. Most often, and clearly, the phenomenon of neutralization is maintained by the actual perpetrators of abuse. Nevertheless, minimization also occurs at a broader systemic level, sometimes by those who are concerned and want to help, and sometimes by society at large. The actual victims of emotional abuse can often even appear to minimize the power of abusive behaviours. For the victim, the use of minimization is a complex dynamic. To outside observers, it may be easy to assume that victims of abuse passively accept the negative power dynamics and lack the self-esteem to resist. Research shows, however, that most people in these relationships “do” a lot to oppose the abuse and show amazing strength, resilience, and creativity to cope and keep themselves safe.
Naming how denial occurs can help open our eyes to inappropriate denial, and each of these neutralizing techniques keeps the abuse from being spoken of truthfully. Six forms of denial are most common:
Denial of responsibility takes place when the vulnerable one becomes responsible by being blamed or by self-blaming for the abusive behaviours. Responsibility may be denied by claiming the abusive act was an accident, or by arguing that it was secondary to stress, alcohol, or just a bad day.
Denial of injury occurs when the mistreatment is dismissed since it didn’t cause significant pain or because it was in response to someone else’s action.
Denial of the vulnerable person’s rights occurs when the vulnerable one is told or believes he or she is deserving of this treatment.
A form of denial by limiting others happens when somebody outside of the situation tries to help and, as a consequence, the powerful person blames or attacks the potential intervener.
When the vulnerable one’s deep love and loyalty towards those he or she loves hinders movement toward healthy change, the abusive behavior is denied for a “higher” reason.
Lastly, the denial of abusive behaviours sometimes takes place because it is merely seen as a negative transaction on a ledger of behaviours. Here, someone may claim to have a sufficient “supply” of good behaviours to justify indulging in damaging behaviours.
My work as a therapist always involves helping people recognize that in the midst of a powerfully abusive situation they have actually used many strategies to resist and thus have the strength to make the abuse stop. Over and over again, I see people doing things to resist the abuse, whether by avoiding the situation, attempting to problem solve, using conflict resolution strategies, fighting back with strength, seeking help, protecting others in the situation, creating safe places, placating the powerful one to stop the pain, or by courageously leaving the situation.
All of these actions require thought, strength and courage and can help contribute to safety in the midst of the abuse. But mere protective actions on the part of the vulnerable one do not stop the abuse. Ultimately, to bring safety to the relationship, the powerful one must acknowledge his or her own misuse of power, take responsibility and seek help to change the way of being in relationship. All too often, the only truly viable action is for the vulnerable one to remove him or her temporarily or permanently from the environment where the abuse occurs. Health is really only possible this way, even though each of these steps is courageous and difficult. Either party can use his or her strength to move towards safety and equality and to engage the hard work of loving without the abuse of power.
If you recognize yourself or someone else in these situations, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.