Emotional abuse is often thought of as a lesser kind of abuse. An article about domestic violence from insurance provider Prudential, for example, states that "When a partner wants to leave the home and you stand in the doorway to prevent it, that is domestic violence. When people fear for their safety even though there has been no concrete incident, that indicates that at least emotional abuse is taking place." Physical abuse is often cited as next worst, followed by sexual abuse, which is often regarded as the worst possible kind of abuse that anyone could experience.
Yet, beyond the inadvisability of ranking abuse experiences like that, and the various forms it leaves out, abuse is also not so easy to separate. Sexual abuse always occurs on either a physical or emotional level or both; physical abuse causes deep emotional wounds; and I am not sure it is even possible for sexual or physical abuse to occur in a relationship without emotional abuse first paving the way for it. Lawyer Andrew Vachss, who specializes in litigation against child abuse of all kinds, stated in an article for Parade magazine that "of all the many forms of child abuse, emotional abuse may be the cruelest and longest-lasting of all" because it is "the systematic diminishment of another."
One of the worst aspects of emotional abuse is its invisibility. Even with physical forms of abuse, it is hard for many people to accept that anything but the clearest and most extreme examples are abuse. They often simply have too much invested in believing that anything less is not abusive, maybe not even harmful. With emotional abuse, there are no physical scars left: there is nothing visibly damaging enough for some people to accept. It is much easier to minimize it, because the moment that the words are out of the abuser's mouth, they are gone. We can begin immediately to tell ourselves that we deserved it, they didn't mean it, it didn't bother us, they are right, or simply to distract ourselves from what is happening.
The concept of freedom of speech, for all its importance to society, can also confuse us. We can understand that someone's right to move their fist ends where our skin begins, but it is harder to draw that line when the weapon is psychological. Here, then, is a series of examples of emotional abuse, which may also be called psychological or verbal abuse. This is not intended as a comprehensive list: it is only meant to help people understand what emotional abuse looks like. Like art, we may not be able to explain what it is, but we can at least come to know it when we see it.
In Stop, You're Driving Me Crazy, Dr. George R. Bach posits four rights that everyone has in relationships which are violated by emotionally abusive behavior:
The right to know. This is a tricky one because it goes both ways. Denying information or deliberately confusing it, in certain ways, is abuse, but so is insisting that you have the right to know everything about another person's ideas, feelings, or actions.
In a healthy relationship, all parties know where their boundaries are around sharing information. They can explore those boundaries together as they develop mutual trust. If something that one person does not wish to share with another brings up feelings of rage, abandonment, shame, fear, or other issues in either person, they can go to their support system and use healthy tools to distinguish their feelings from the reality of the situation. In an emotionally abusive situation, this situation often instead degenerates into shaming, blaming, accusing, guilt-tripping, and other emotionally abusive responses to those feelings.
Some emotionally abusive ways to deny "the right to know" include hiding letters, bills, or emails that contain information the other person needs to have; refusing to answer questions even with an "I don't know" or an explanation of the reasons for not answering; talking around an issue or providing a welter of unrelated information so that the other person does not even realize until later that they still do not have an answer to their question; lying or providing misleading information; or changing stories repeatedly, especially when insisting that "this is exactly what I said!"
The right to feel. In a healthy relationship, each person is able to recognize what they are feeling at any given moment and feel it safely. They can talk about it with other trustworthy people. They are able to anticipate and fulfill their own needs. They are able to notice when their needs are not being met, or when old unresolved issues are being triggered for them, and take responsibility for dealing with these matters.
In an emotionally abusive relationship, people expect others to anticipate and fulfill their needs - and if their needs are not fulfilled, things become quite unpleasant. One person may know that they lash out at others when their blood sugar is low, yet routinely ignore hunger signals and mealtimes and take it out on those around them. They may have many triggers from past abuse and react to others unwittingly triggering them as if the others are their abusers; or they may know about the buttons and triggers that other people have, and push them intentionally. They may not even realize what emotions or issues are coming up for them, and simply react by projecting their fears and resentments onto those around them: snapping at them, yelling at them, judging them, picking fights with them, or responding to them with cold anger.
The right to feel is also violated by simply being told how we are feeling, how we are going to feel, or how we should or should not feel. For example: "This is why I didn't want to tell you! I knew you'd just get mad about it!" "You don't really hate me." "Well, don't get so upset about it!"
In an emotionally abusive relationship, nobody's emotions are safe. Both partners usually have unresolved emotional issues, or there would be no relationship: the person who was being abused would simply set boundaries, discover that they were not being respected, and walk away.
The right to impact. That is, the right to have agency, to have power in our own lives, to make a difference in the world. In a healthy relationship, there is no question: people know who they are, what they want to do, and how they are appreciated by others. They have more than one community of support, and many individual friendships and other positive relationships outside of their romantic lives.
In an emotionally abusive relationship, people often do not feel appreciated. The abusive partner may ridicule, criticize, and insult them. They may criticize presents they give or help they offer, their appearance, or simply everything about them. Most insidiously, they may present this criticism as "jokes" at their partner's expense, which allows them to claim that it was "just a joke" while involving everyone who laughs in the abuse. They are often drawn into a cycle of trying ever harder to prove that the abuser loves them, while their partner becomes increasingly abusive. The harder they try, the more enmeshed they become, and the less they are able to tell what is and is not abusive.
The members of the relationship often become isolated. One partner may try consciously to cut the other off from their base of support by criticizing their friends or attacking their friends directly, by making greater and greater demands on their personal time, or by simply asking or telling them, gradually or all at once, to stop hanging out with those people. They may do any of these things without consciously intending to isolate their partner; that does not make the relationship less abusive. They may even unconsciously isolate together, as they become increasingly enmeshed in their unhealthy relationship. It's like a cult of one... or, in polyamorous relationships, just a cult.
Their impact on the world, therefore, becomes lessened. The greater the percentage of one person's life is that another person takes up, the more that person can abuse them without consequence. When one person becomes fifty, eighty-five, a hundred percent of your world, there is less room for all the healthy and delightful things that might otherwise highlight anything unhealthy that is going on with that person.
As the relationship becomes more enmeshed, as that percentage grows, the emotional abuse against our right to impact can be increasingly blatant. Abuses against our right to feel can make it very clear that our needs are not important, that we are not important, which creates a sense of invisibility. A lack of impact. One openly hostile variation on this is to pretend that someone does not exist: "Did you hear something? I could have sworn there was someone talking to me, but there's nobody here!" A less obvious method is to use avoidance tactics in conversation: to misinterpret or pick away at small details in an argument, refusing to hear what the other person is actually communicating; to turn an accusation around on the other person; or to bring up something unrelated that they have done wrong. To complete the takeover of power in the relationship, some people "pull rank", emphasizing that they are the breadwinner, the husband, the wife, the boss of the relationship, the cook, et cetera. Some even go so far as to refer to themselves as "Mommy" or "Daddy" when ordering their adult partner around - "Daddy wants you to come home right now!" "Mommy is very angry with you!" Pulling rank is also called "role-playing," and is similar in some ways to that practiced in the emotionally abusive Gorean lifestyle.
The right to space. In a healthy relationship, each person knows where their boundaries are around their emotional, mental, and physical space and their time. They have a sturdy sense of perspective and are able to set and communicate their priorities in respectful and loving ways. They take care of their own space, and respect others'. They can be happy when another person sets clear boundaries, because they know that when that person takes care of their needs they will be more emotionally available for the relationship. They feel safe hearing other people set clear boundaries, because they know that that means their own boundaries will be respected too. And they are able and willing to notice when things aren't perfect and when they need to address their problems, and address them directly and honestly.
In an emotionally abusive relationship, boundaries are perceived as a threat or an attack. Every kind of space is perceived as a zero-sum game: there is not enough time for everyone to have their needs met and do what they want to do. There is not enough space for everyone's personal space and personal objects to be respected. If one person is upset, it means that the other person will never get to express their feelings. There is no room allowed for compromise or balance. Everything the abuser does is a right, and everything anyone else does is a violation of those rights. And the more space they take up, the less space others have to maintain their grip on reality. The abusive relationship slowly swallows up their entire world.
The right to space implies the right to have our own interests, our own skills and talents, our own desires, our own relationships, our own lives. In an emotionally abusive relationship, all of that eventually falls away. Often, people who have a pattern of emotionally abusive relationships have already given those things up, believing that this is the only way to get the love they deserve.
Emotional incest is another violation of the right to space. It occurs most often in adult-child relationships, when a parent or other adult confides inappropriately in a child, asks the child to make decisions about their romantic or business life for them, shares deep emotional information - in short, when they relate to a child in a way that is only appropriate in a relationship with another adult. In "Silently Seduced: When Adults Make Their Children Partners - Understanding Emotional Incest," psychologist Kenneth Adams identifies the problem: "Did you have a parent whose love for you felt more confining than freeing, more demanding than giving, more instrusive than nurturing? Did you feel trapped in a 'psychological marriage' with this parent? If so, you may be a victim of covert incest. Identification of this kind of incest is difficult, since covert incest victims often feel idealized and privileged, not violated and abused."
A recent New York Times article demonstrated how this sense of privilege and power can mask the abuse which is truly occuring. In "Mommy and Daddy's Little Life Coach," journalist Stephanie Rosenbloom profiles parents who rely on their eleven-year-olds to make the purchasing decisions for their real-estate businesses, choose their own schools, and handle the remodeling process on their own houses while their parents are at work. One mother, who runs a website for single parents, relies on her teenage son for dating advice.
Quotes from several of the parents are telling: the website maven bemoans how hard it is "when your own child is more sophisticated or intuitive or sensitive or funny than the men that are out there," and a single mother urologist says of her pre-teen daughter, "It's just the two of us. That makes her more like a partner in some ways than a child.” Yet despite quoting the author of “Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood,” Rosenbloom does not seem to understand that this kind of relationship is emotional incest, nor that emotional incest is harmful. She repeatedly throws in positive - and unrelated - choices like "inviting children to help choose which board game to play or which DVD to rent." She repeatedly casts these experiences of emotional incest in a positive light, quoting the children as saying that they enjoy not being looked down on by their parents. And to end the article, she quotes a professor of child psychology who observes that children used to have many more responsibilities at earlier ages, apparently with no awareness that it is not the responsibility itself that is the question, but how age-appropriate the particular responsibility is.
This is the biggest threat of emotional abuse: its invisibility, and people's resulting ignorance about it.
One hallmark of abusive relationships is that the abuse escalates over time. As resentments grow, and as the fact that you cannot completely control another human being becomes increasingly evident, the abuser must resort to increasingly emotionally violent tactics. If they did not start out using physical, sexual, financial, or other forms of abuse, they may begin incorporating them. If the relationship did not start out as mutually abusive it may become so with time, as one partner, unable to see other options, begins lashing out at their abuser.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, they say that alcoholism is a progressive disease: with time, the alcoholic engages more and more in their addictive behavior and the addiction gets worse and worse. The same applies to abuse. Abuse and addiction are deeply linked. Abuse is an attempt to control other people and situations, which stems from codependency, which is an addiction and which is caused by a history of abuse. Abuse is an addiction, and it is part of a vicious cycle in which it causes other addictions and leads to more abuse.
By the same token, many people who have been abused have never known anything else. They can't imagine what it would be like to put themselves first, to love themselves so much that they do not need the validation of others, to set boundaries fearlessly and to have relationships where they are automatically respected. They may be able to imagine better than what they have, but the reality of how much better it can be never seems real to them. They see no other option than to throw their own boundaries, needs, even selves away, thinking that that will protect themselves from future abuse. The first step in healing from emotional abuse is to get out of the relationship, but the key to healing is to stop the emotional abuse that is coming from within.