Emotional abuse takes on numerous forms, some subtle and some overt. This article will cover some types of emotional abuse and how it can manifest in a relationship.
Types of Emotional Abuse
Here are some common types of emotional abuse that can occur in relationships:
Imagine that a person has a tendency to make mean jokes or harsh comments to others. When that person speaks up and identifies the comment as hurtful, or inappropriate, the abuser may respond by calling the person “insensitive” or “can’t take a joke” or “negative.” As you can see, the feelings of the victim are made out to be invalid, therefore the abuser doesn’t have to admit fault or change behavior.
Emotional abuse can often take the form of regular, and unconstructive criticism. In this instance, the object behind the behavior is to put the person down, make them feel bad about themselves, or potentially make the abuser feel better about themselves or their own weaknesses. Sometimes it is merely used to vent unrelated frustrations on an innocent bystander.
Criticism is not delivered in a way that is meant to be informational, constructive, helpful, gentle, or considerate of others’ feelings. The abuser may say things like, “I am just trying to help you” or “I am a straightforward person.” The critical remarks may range from statements like “you’re so bad at____” or “that shirt doesn’t look good on you” or “you never do ____ enough.”
The abuser may follow up one criticism with a flood of other negative comments, leaving the listener feeling bulldozed and shocked. Once the flood has stopped, the abuser may switch over to a new lighthearted topic as if nothing happened, or simply end the conversation with no constructive resolution.
One of the common ways that emotional abuse can manifest is through limitation and manipulation of communication. The most obvious and blatant way to manipulate communication is to simply refuse to allow any. The silent treatment is often used by abusers to punish for perceived wrongs.Maybe the individual ignores phone calls and texts, or take extended periods of time to respond. Or maybe the silent treatment is even practiced while face to face, as the individual shuts down and refuses to answer questions or acknowledge another person’s presence in the room.
When someone uses communication as a way to control, punish or gain leverage over another person, it is abuse. The subtle message is, “don’t confront me, talk about those issues, or say those things, or else I will withhold contact to punish you.” The other party soon tiptoes around those topics or issues to avoid punishment.
Because many abusive people deal with toxic amounts of shame themselves, that unresolved and unmanaged shame is often redirected onto their victims. Shaming someone can take many forms including put-downs, sarcastic remarks, mean pet names, making fun of you in public, belittling your accomplishments to others, and treating you like a child.
Whatever the technique, the point is to make you feel less human, valuable, proud of yourself, or independent. An abusive person may feel very poorly about themselves and this trickles back down to the people around them.
In a relationship, an emotionally abusive partner will find ways to minimize their partner’s self-esteem in hopes that this will reduce the likelihood of rejection, confrontation, or abandonment of the relationship. The abuser may irrationally think, “the better my partner feels about themselves, the more likely they are to leave me for someone else. “
A subtle technique of emotional abuse is to find ways to make someone feel guilty about something from the past. When someone brings up a misdeed that has already been discussed or apologized for, the intent is often destructive not constructive.Mistakes and offenses do need to be resolved, but once that has happened, there is no productive reason to bring it up again, unless an individual wants to put someone down, remind them that they are not perfect, or to cover up or distract from something that the abuser may have just done.
Other times, an individual can focus on the nice things or favors that they have performed in the past, and bring them up in an attempt to induce guilt in the receiver. Sometimes, these favors are done to pile up potential leverage to use against their partner in the future.
They may say things like, “after all I have done for you” or “I have spent so much money on you” when in fact, their partner never asked for those favors nor asked to be lavished with gifts or nice dinners. The gestures were never about meeting their partner’s needs, they were about gaining control or creating an opportunity for manipulation down the road.
The guilt that the partner may end up feeling could be very confusing to them. On one hand, they recognize that their partner did them a favor. On the other hand, they don’t understand why it is being used as a weapon against them.
Because emotional abuse aims to hurt others and protect oneself, sometimes a fake apology can be a form of abuse. When an apology is genuine, the person feels remorse, acknowledges specific wrongs done, responsibility for them, and promises change or improvement. When an apology is designed to be a manipulation, it does the opposite of those things.
For instance, a fake apology will not identify any specific wrongdoing or responsibility for ill behavior. That is because the individual does not feel they have done anything wrong, but rather, that your feelings are the problem. So they might say something like “I’m sorry you’re so sensitive” or “I’m sorry you feel that way, but it wasn’t my intention.”
Another element of a fake apology is the inclusion of excuses and explanations for why the behavior in question is acceptable. The person may say things such as “I never meant it as offensive” or “I’m just straightforward, I don’t like to candy coat things” or “I don’t think of my tone as harsh, but I can see that you take it that way.”
This is, of course, designed to protect the offender from guilt or admission of fault, it is not actually meant to make the other person feel better or to build trust or reconciliation.
A basic example of a fake apology may go something like this; “I’m sorry you’re so offended. My intention was not for you to feel like you were put down, I was just discussing some things with you. I wouldn’t have said it if I knew you were this defensive. So, I apologize.”
The offended individual may be left feeling confused, as they hear the word “apologize” yet they can’t identify any behavior that the offender is apologizing for. In this confusion, they might ask for clarification, or point out a specific behavior, yet the abuser will most likely become angry and escalated.
They might say, “you just can’t let this go. I already apologized, there’s nothing more I can do. Either you drop or I’m leaving.” In the end, the issue is dropped, yet not resolved, and the victim is left feeling bad, while the abuser walks away with a smile on their face.
Christian Counseling for Emotional Abuse
In the end, emotional abuse takes on many forms; some subtle and some obvious. If you are experiencing emotional abuse, or even think you may be behaving in an abusive way toward others, consider talking with a counselor. It takes strength to ask for help and courage to admit that change is needed. With support and encouragement, healing does happen and unhealthy patterns can be broken.
“Don’t Give Up”, Courtesy of Dan Meyers, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Stories”, Courtesy of Sydney Sims, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Waiting by the Phone”, Courtesy of Anthony Tran, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Talk to the Hand”, Courtesy of Nadine Shaabana, Unsplash.com, CC0 License