The Emotionally Abusive Relationship

By on April 5, 2013
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By SUZANNE B. RUSSELL, LPC

Many women assume that if they are not being physically abused by their partners, then they are not being abused. That is not necessarily true. You may be in a relationship or marriage that is draining something from you. You might not even realize that your partner has been chipping away—word by word—your self-esteem, your happiness, and your identity.

Abuse is any behavior that is designed to control and dominate another person through the use of fear, humiliation, verbal, or physical assault. Emotional abuse is any abuse that is not physical in nature. It can be anything from verbal abuse to constant criticism to more subtle methods such as intimidation, manipulation, and being impossible to please. Regardless of the tactic, the goal of emotional abuse is to control the other partner.

In the book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans; Ms. Evans describes “two kinds of power: one kills the spirit and one nourishes the spirit.” The first is Power Over. The second is Personal Power. All emotional abusers have a strong desire for Power Over. Control and dominance give the abuser a sense of power, security, and identity. If you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, your partner does not see you as an equal because to do so, he would experience your equality as his own inferiority. He would have to ask for what he wanted and be open to rejection. In order for these things to happen, he would have to give up control and dominance. Women, as well as men, can be the emotional abuser.

Emotional abuse is a form of brainwashing that gradually, but systematically wears away the victim’s self-confidence, sense of self-worth, trust in her own perceptions, and self-concept. Whether it is done by constant criticism, belittling, intimidation, or under the guise of “teaching” or “guiding”, the results are all the same. Eventually, the victim loses all sense of self; he/she becomes enmeshed in a very unhealthy, co-dependent relationship. Her/his total focus becomes what can I say or do to avoid his/her anger, the silent treatment, or rage. Soon, he/she is walking on eggshells trying to keep the peace. But that walk comes at a very steep price—constant worry, anxiety, depression, fear, and loss of joy and spontaneity. Many victims experience physical problems related to chronic stress such as rheumatoid arthritis, frequent migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, and binge eating. Emotional abuse cuts to the very core of a person, creating scars that may be far deeper and longer lasting than physical ones.

Take a moment to consider these questions. Your partner may have acted as though these things were okay, but they are NOT OKAY!

  • Does your partner frequently criticize you, humiliate you, or undermine your self-esteem?
  • Does your partner isolate you from friends, family, or groups?
  • Does your partner limit access to work, money, or material resources?
  • Does your partner spend money extravagantly and expect you to handle the bills?
  • Do you feel like you can’t discuss with your partner what is bothering you?
  • Are you afraid of your partner at times?

If you answered YES to many of these, you may be experiencing either blatant or subtle abuse or a combination of both.

Subtle abuse includes:

  • Frequent criticisms of your appearance, what you say, how you say it, how you do things
  • Jokes that diminish you, comments that are extremely sarcastic, inferences that are derogatory, or frequent put downs
  • Ignoring you for hours or refusing to answer questions that you ask
  • Refusing to discuss any feelings; except anger
  • Using the silent treatment if one does not get their way or is inconvenienced (this can last for days, even weeks)
  • Showing no excitement or interest when you have good news such as a salary raise, promotion; says, “that’s nice” in a flat tone and abruptly changes the subject
  • Makes condescending remarks about your opinions, beliefs, choices, decisions, goals, dreams, or accomplishments

Blatant abuse includes:

  • Loud, angry rages over the most insignificant thing: you forgot to go to the cleaners, the way you are slicing a potato, the kids are having an argument
  • Cursing, screaming, throwing things
  • Not letting you leave the room while he rants for hours
  • Harassment if you go anywhere other than work without them; calling every 15 minutes with “where are you, what are you doing, when will you be home?”
  • Controlling all the money, credit cards, checking account, and refusing to include you in any financial decisions
  • Threatening to harm you, your family, or your pets
  • Blaming you for everything—mood, drinking, never saying I’m sorry, or taking any ownership of any mistakes.

I called a former client (who is now enjoying a very healthy and fulfilling life) and asked her to share some of her experiences in our work together. This was our conversation:

Suzanne: What prompted you to seek the help of a therapist?
Client: My husband asked for a divorce; I wanted marital counseling, but he refused, so I wanted help for myself.
Suzanne: Did you know that you were in an emotionally abusive marriage before you came to therapy?
Client: No, I was in complete denial. I was able to rationalize everything so that I did not have to face the truth.
Suzanne: Had you read much about rebuilding marriages before therapy?
Client: Yes, I had read books on co-dependency, books on boundaries, and books on Christian marriages.
Suzanne: At what point did you realize you were in an emotionally abusive marriage?Client: When you asked me to read The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. I realized that my husband had always been emotionally abusive throughout our marriage.
Suzanne: What happened over time in our work together?
Client: You kept redirecting me away from trying to figure out what he was thinking or feeling, analyzing his every word and act by forcing me to bring my focus back to me. You would ask me “how did that (some abusive behavior of the husband) make you feel? Eventually, I began to screen his words and actions towards me—was what he just said healthy or not healthy? How did what he said make me feel? I continued to read everything I could find on emotional abuse, took an assertiveness class online, and we worked on assertiveness in therapy. I kept coming to therapy twice a month, until I was no longer a victim. I became a survivor and now I am a “thriver.” Yes, I am truly blessed to be able to enjoy my life, my friends, and my family with no more emotional abuse!

This client eventually divorced her husband, because he had no interest in changing and would not admit he was doing anything wrong. However, I have had other clients who have worked through their problems in their marriage by learning how to respond to emotional abuse assertively, how to stop rewarding hurtful behavior, and how to regain their strength and self-esteem by demanding respect.

I always remind clients of Christ’s answer when asked by the Pharisees, “What is the greatest commandment?” The answer was “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor AS THYSELF,” (Matthew 22:37-39). Far too many people have overlooked those last two words. If we have been commanded to love ourselves, then it would seem that He never intended that marriage or a relationship be a place of abuse—physical or emotional. If you are experiencing emotional abuse, follow His commandment and learn to love and respect yourself with the help of an experienced therapist. You are worth being treated well!

Are YOU in an Emotionally Abusive relationship? Visit www.srusselltherapy.com for more details of a new group that begins on June 3, 2013.

Suzanne B. Russell, LPC; PLLC, specializes in treating children and teens with ADHD, depression, and anxiety. For more information, visit her website at www.srusselltherapy.com or call 601-707-7355.