6 Emotionally Abusive Behaviors You Should Be Aware Of
“Escape is not a dirty word. None of us can face what’s happening head-on all of the time. It’s all right to pretend sometimes. The only danger lies in pretending that you are not pretending.” – Sheldon Kopp
Like I wrote in Part I, emotional abuse is serious and it’s time to quiet the silence. I know it’s easy to pretend, to rationalize, and to avoid.
Please stop pretending everything is okay. Please stop making excuses for people who hurt you. Please stop avoiding the subject.
Tell the truth.
About the pain, about what causes the pain, about the people who cause or caused the pain. And about how all of this, sadly, has deep roots in pain.
If you can’t quite put into words what is happening in your romantic relationship, yet you constantly feel off-balance, you might be in an emotionally abusive relationship. Being aware of and recognizing the behaviors as they happen is key towards rebuilding yourself and even your relationship.
Emotionally Abusive Behaviors
Take a minute right now and think about your life. If you get the sense that you’re living in a state of chaos, it is time to step back and reassess what is happening, both in your life and your relationship(s). The following 6 behaviors are emotionally abusive and manipulative. This is not an exhaustive list. All forms of emotional abuse make the victim feel restless, off-balance, undermined, insecure, “crazy,” and scared.
#1. REFUSAL TO BE PLEASED + CONSTANT CRITICISM
Vast differences and implications exist between realistic/healthy and unrealistic/destructive expectations of a partner. In a healthy relationship, each partner expresses their needs to their partner in a mature, calm, and appropriate way and believes, on a deeper level, that their partner hears them and will do everything they can to meet those needs. Each partner also gives their partner the chance and opportunity to meet those needs by fully expressing them, instead of expecting their partner to read their mind. The needs are expressed in a loving and vulnerable way with the intention of strengthening the relationship and connection with the partner.
An emotionally abusive behavior occurs when needs are expressed in a hostile, aggressive, or blaming way, or worse, during a lashing-out episode when the other partner hears about the need for the first time. Even when the intent isn’t necessarily to demean or undermine the other partner’s abilities or capacities, lashing-out or verbally-raging episodes do just that. Furthermore, this emotionally abusive tactic involves the destructive concept of “moving the goal posts.” This means that the emotionally abusive partner always finds a different variation of how their needs are to be met; so even if their partner meets a need or needs, the emotionally abusive partner will find something else that their partner isn’t doing or not doing “well enough.” This creates impossible standards to live up to and leaves the victim feeling unworthy, stressed, and insecure in the relationship. This tactic is used in order to make the victim feel off-balance and constantly questioning themselves. No one can function or flourish in an environment where they are constantly criticized.
The inability or refusal to communicate one’s needs to their partner is psychologically destructive for the partner. This happens when the emotionally abusive partner does not communicate, but rather expects their partner to “read their mind” and infer from thin air what they want. When their partner falls short of the mark, and they usually do unless they have telepathic capabilities, the emotionally abusive person punishes their partner by scolding and belittling them, questioning their love and their intentions, becoming verbally abusive, comparing them to others or to other relationships, evoking the silent treatment, etc. This is not healthy nor mature behavior. One partner’s expectation of their partner to “mind read” sets up their partner to always fail.
The following is an example of realistic expectations for your partner, yourself, and the relationship (this is the opposite of emotional abuse):
“I need to express this need to my partner. I trust that my partner will hear me and that my needs are important to them. I know they will do everything they can to meet my needs. I also realize that they will probably falter at times and not be able to do this one hundred percent perfectly forever. I expect that they will acknowledge this and/or I will express myself when I feel hurt or slighted and I expect that they will acknowledge my feelings and apologize. I will then accept their apology and let go of any negative feelings, knowing that harbored feelings turn into resentment, and resentment slowly eats away at my soul. I will accept my partner’s apology and reconnect with them. I will not keep score or keep a tally or unleash my fury towards my partner in a future lashing-out episode. I will calmly and maturely express all my feelings when we talk and then self-soothe the remaining negative feelings by tuning into the trust, love, compassion, and understanding that I have for my partner and for myself. My priority is our relationship.”
#2. EMOTIONAL BLACKMAIL
Emotional blackmail encompasses a variety of different behaviors that are all manipulative and psychologically devastating for the victim. Has your partner ever threatened to end the relationship if you don’t do what they want or if you don’t concede your own feelings about a particular topic or matter? Emotional blackmail is especially damaging because it leaves the victim living in almost-constant fear and insecurity. Rejection, the silent treatment, emotional withdrawal (withdrawing love and affection), and emotional raging are forms of emotional blackmail because they all evoke a sense of fear and insecurity within the victim, which can flood the victim’s thoughts and actions and affect their level of concentration, focus, and joy. Emotional blackmail subconsciously activates a person’s fear of abandonment. This is why the victim concedes, because if they haven’t worked through their childhood wounds, their fear of abandonment becomes overwhelming to the point that the victim begins to ignore their own needs and concerns, just to stop the pain the fear evokes. The scary part here is that both partners are usually aware of each other’s fears and insecurities and the emotionally abusive partner uses their partner’s fears and emotions against them to gain leverage and to reinstate their power and control. The victim concedes to avoid negative interactions and to ease their subconscious fears of abandonment. But although the victim concedes, the issue isn’t resolved; the victim’s concern has only been ignored and invalidated.
Essentially, an emotional blackmailer carries the attitude that their partner should do as he/she says or wants otherwise the victim will be punished and will suffer. The punishment is not physical in nature, rather it is designed to make you feel invalidated, rejected, unwanted, and emotionally and/or physically abandoned. This is why silence is so destructive to a relationship. It disconnects the partners further and does not allow for any resolution to the conflict. One person’s concerns and needs are perpetually unheard and unaddressed, leaving that person to retreat and internalize feelings of unworthiness, contempt, and neglect. Emotional blackmail is designed to keep the victim off-balance, in fear, and doubting their own needs and feelings, so that they shift towards what the perpetrator wants and demands, at the expense of their own valid concerns. Over time, this moves the victim further away from their true sense of self and continues to corrode their self-trust and self-concept.
A healthy and mature conversation involves both people being vulnerable and expressing their needs and feelings. This cannot take place when one person is sulking, pouting, unable to hear the other person, doesn’t care about the other person’s feelings or perspective, villainizes their partner, needs to be “right,” can’t be or refuses to be compassionate, understanding, and vulnerable, acts in a condescending or contemptuous manner, and withdraws love and affection.
This classic emotionally abusive tactic involves the perpetrator skewing the victim’s perception of reality. This is done in damaging and enraging ways that leave the victim confused and emotionally exhausted. Common gaslighting phrases the perpetrator uses include:
“You provoked me,”
“You’re too sensitive,”
“I never said that,”
“You’re taking things too seriously,”
“That didn’t happen,”
“You imagined it,”
“Are you crazy?”
Gaslighting is an encompassing term that speaks to a range of emotionally manipulative tactics that shift blame from the perpetrator onto the victim, thus skewing the victim’s perception of reality. This is done through blame-shifting, deflection, invalidating phrases, discounting and negating, trivializing, and stonewalling.
When done perpetually, this causes a victim to mistrust their own instincts, memory, judgment, and interpretations, thus contributing to further erosion of self. The victim finds him/herself anxious, frequently second-guessing themselves, and this impacts their ability to function independently and confidently. This is also used by the perpetrator to evoke confusion and denial in the victim about their perception of the emotional abuse and dysfunction of the relationship as a whole. Gaslighting is used in order to render the victim as dependent on the perpetrator as possible as a way to further control and dominate them.
We don’t always love everything we feel or think. But taking responsibility for our own emotions, thoughts, and feelings is part of being a self-aware and mature adult. Projection is not only an emotionally abusive behavior, it is also a marker of limited self-awareness and self-love. When a perpetrator “projects” onto their victim, they essentially place their emotions and feelings onto the other person. Why do they do this? Because it’s difficult to feel some things or to come to terms with one’s certain traits or behaviors. This classic defense mechanism deflects any and all discomfort from its owner.
So, the perpetrator displaces his/her undesirable qualities, behaviors, emotions, and traits onto the victim, thus avoiding any responsibility for any inappropriate behavior. Some emotions and traits can be very uncomfortable to feel or to bring into the perpetrator’s own awareness, she/he will do everything to get rid of them, including inaccurately assigning them to someone else.
For example, if a perpetrator feels shame about feeling anger and rage internally but does not know how to access these emotions appropriately and safely without verbal or physical aggression, they will accuse his/her partner of being angry and cause a fight about it. What ends up happening is that the partner that’s being accused of being angry actually becomes angry due to the accusation and this warrants the perpetrator to point out the exact “flaw” they just projected and assigned to the victim. This causes loads of miscommunication, resentment, confusion, and disconnection between the couple – the victim never feels heard or validated and the perpetrator continues to assign inaccurate emotions onto his/her partner and proceeds with punishing the victim for allegedly having these emotions, further re-engaging the psychologically destructive process of emotional blackmail (see #2).
Emotionally abusive people have a hard time accepting responsibility for their emotions and behavior. They don’t like to be reminded that they have fallen short of something or that they are not 100% perfect, so any attempt of their partner’s to discuss an issue or concern about their behavior ends up being shifted onto the victim. In turn, the partner that first raised an issue often finds him/herself explaining him/herself and apologizing for their behavior. All the while, the conversation initially began with the victim’s concern over their partner’s behavior.
However, an emotionally abusive person is a master at deflection, blame-shifting, and “playing the victim.” So what began as a concern over their behavior, the emotionally abusive partner will swiftly shift the conversation onto any of their partner’s shortcomings, thus evading the concern that was initially raised. This completely invalidates their partner and avoids any change-talk or acceptance of accountability. This is not healthy. An emotionally healthy, mature, self-aware individual recognizes that they are not perfect and can engage in a calm, rational, solution-oriented conversation about their behavioral shortcomings.
#6. UNPREDICTABILITY IN BEHAVIOR + SAYING ONE THING AND DENYING IT LATER
One particularly devastating abusive tactic is when the person says one thing during a conversation and it’s quite clear to both people what is said, but later claims he/she never said it or worse, that you misunderstood it. This is a specific flavor of gaslighting and one that feels like you’ve been blind-folded and placed in the middle of the ocean. The time spent trying to find your way back to shore is exhausting, humiliating, at times hopeless, and completely demoralizing. This tactic aligns with the perpetrator’s goal of distorting the victim’s sense of reality, thus keeping the victim in a tumultuous web of second-guessing him/herself and feeling completely off-balance.
This is heartbreaking because the perpetrator basically does and says as he/she pleases, which can include breaking promises, reframing a previously-agreed matter to fit their current argument, denying something previously said to his/her convenience, engaging in word salad, etc. Word salad are circular conversations that are meant to throw you off and distract you from the topic at hand. These conversations actually gaslight you into believing that you have done many horrible things that now have to be unveiled at this very moment in a verbally raging episode that leaves you feeling confused, blindsided, dumbfounded, helpless, and a horrible human being. This can make even the most sensible person feel absolutely crazy. The initial topic of conversation you brought has now completely been evaded and the thought of you bringing it up again at a different occasion just makes you sick to your stomach. You fear having to endure the same sort of exchange as above. So you don’t bring up your concerns, further pushing down your needs, wants, and concerns just to “keep the peace.”
An emotionally abusive person hates boundaries and engaging in word salad, senseless, mind-games conversations is one of the ways the perpetrator violates and disrespects the victim’s boundaries. The emotionally abusive person is a master at invalidating, avoiding, distorting, and dismissing the victim’s needs, wants, concerns, thoughts, feelings, and anything they find valuable.
Another part of this is unpredictable behavior when predictability, stability, and peace should easily be assumed. This can take the forms of sudden and unwarranted emotional outbursts, intense mood swings, reacting drastically differently at different times to the same behavior or things said, or frequently changing one’s mind. The victim lives walking on eggshells, always uncertain of what might happen next.
For an emotionally abusive person, living in constant chaos or drama-ridden interactions may feel normal and perfectly acceptable to them. Peace and calmness is probably unfamiliar to them and causes them anxiety, therefore they might create storms out of a little rain in order to recreate an environment where they feel most comfortable and most in control.
For the victim, however, this environment feels completely out of control and the constant chaos makes them feel on edge and always on the defense. Emotionally abusive people commonly grew up in very chaotic environments where their fight-or-flight system was frequently activated. Now as adults, they do not know how to function in calmness and peace as it may be tapping into emotions they have blocked or avoided for a long time. So they continue to avoid these emotions by creating scenarios and energy they’re used to functioning in. Despite the fact that their partner feels unfocused and restless. This is another way that the emotionally abusive person keeps the victim off-balance, stressed-out, and tense, and constantly operating from an adrenalized state. The perpetrator gains the upper hand, so to speak, while the victim is left feeling burdened, exhausted, insecure, unsure, and second-guessing themselves. This takes an emotional, mental, and physical toll on the victim as people are not designed to function in a chronically stressful and fearful state.
Thank you for reading. Come back often and make it a peaceful day.
If you are in a physically and/or emotionally abusive relationship and don’t know where to turn, seek support from the Domestic Violence Hotline at www.thehotline.org or 1-800-799-7233 . If you are physically safe, but find that you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, I encourage you to seek therapy to share your story and begin healing. Contact me today here or call me at 773-906-4186.