In 30 years of writing about emotional abuse, I’ve been asked the following countless times in interviews.
The first question is almost always, “What constitutes emotional abuse?”
Emotional abuse is deliberately making others feel afraid or bad about themselves so they will meet the abuser’s expectations. All abuse is a fundamental misuse of power. Power and responsibility are morally inseparable – the more power we have, the more responsibility we must assume.
In the context of family relationships, we have enormous power over the sense of self of loved ones, due to the nature of emotional bonds. Behaviors that would not be abusive in other contexts are abusive in emotionally bonded relationships. In familial relationships, it is typically a gradual erosion of the sense of self.
Most abusers employ toddler-brain splitting as a coping mechanism. That means when they feel good, as in the beginning of the relationship, they can put you on a pedestal. But when they feel bad, you become unworthy of compassion, kindness, and affection.
Emotional abuse depends on the power differential of the players. It’s bad behavior when toddlers call their parents names, but it’s not abusive, in contrast to parents calling children names.
The second set of questions is about the relationship of physical and emotional abuse.
Unless physical abuse does permanent damage, such as scarring, maiming, or disfigurement, it generally does less psychological harm than emotional abuse. Physical abuse tends to be occasional and cyclical; emotional abuse is daily. Violence is more likely to be perceived as the offender’s failings, at least in terms of impulse-control, whereas emotional abuse is more likely to be internalized by victims as personal failings.
The third set of questions is about the effects of emotional abuse.
In severe cases, recipients of abuse lose cohesiveness to their sense of self, along with diminished identity, confidence, emotion regulation skill, and efficacy (belief that one’s behavior can improve one’s life). A relatively recent but insidious effect is victim-identity, with focus on perceived damage and suffering rather than strengths, resilience, and desire to heal, grow, and improve. Chronic resentment and hidden self-contempt supplant interest, value, meaning, purpose, and enjoyment as predominant emotional states. Victim-identity seals the footprints of abuse on the soul.
Abuse is a degenerative condition that almost never gets better on its own. Abusers become emotionally addicted to the adrenaline required to abuse, which gives them the temporary energy and confidence they typically lack when not abusive. The body builds a tolerance to adrenaline, which means they need more and more of it to get an acceptable level of energy and confidence. That is, they need to become more abusive. If they are attached to their victims, as most are, they experience at least an unconscious guilt and shame for harming them, no matter how much they try to rationalize, minimize, and justify it. The guilt and shame inevitably turns into self-loathing, which drains energy and confidence, thereby intensifying the need for adrenaline.
The fourth set of questions concerns what the recipient of abuse can do to stop it.
Abuse results from the abuser’s self-regulatory deficits. It is not a function of the relationship dynamic, where the behavior of one partner invokes predictable behavior from the other. This is important, because everyone makes mistakes in relationship dynamics and that can give victims the false sense that, if they just behaved a little differently, the abuse would cease. What victims do wrong in a relationship is tantamount to putting the furniture in the wrong place on the deck of the Titanic. Abuse gouges the hole that sinks the ship.
Emotional abuse distorts reality-testing, filling recipients with self-doubt. Support from a network of friends and relatives or from professionals is necessary for reality-checks.
It is often difficult for recipients of abuse to leave their relationships because they love their abusers, who, in general, have some good qualities. They must realize that tolerating abuse contributes to the self-loathing of the abuser. (It’s impossible to genuinely like yourself when you mistreat loved ones, due to the deep-seated guilt and shame inherent in the violation of attachment bonds.) The most compassionate thing to do for an abuser who does not seek immediate help to transform the habit of blame, denial, and avoidance that lead to abuse, is to end the relationship.