Living In The Grip Of Emotional Abuse

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Living In The Grip Of Emotional Abuse

Emotional Abuse — Society hears a great deal through news media and television screenplays on the topic of abuse in domestic relationships, and in spite of media coverage, few people can accurately define emotional abuse – fewer people know as to whether or not they should accept it as a true form of abuse. Our family court transcripts often reflect terms such as physical abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, and while the term emotional abuse creeps in amongst those other terms, there remains in the mindset of many a true understanding of what emotional abuse is.

Historical and modern literature provides us with several definitions as well as a variety of names which have been historically used to identify emotional abuse. Terms used in place of emotional abuse may include psychological maltreatment, nonphysical abuse, psychological abuse, psychological aggression and indirect abuse. While a completely separate form of abuse in itself, verbal abuse often exists within the realm of emotionally abusive behaviours and is often used as a means of indirectly communicating a sense of worthlessness into the psyche of the emotional abuse victim. Any relationship, be it romantic, plutonic, or professional in nature, wherein one party in the relationship seeks out ways to control or overpower another person physically or mentally must be considered maladaptive, or at the least highly dysfunctional. Emotional abuse is a means of establishing power and control over a targeted victim, while enabling the abuser to maintain a repetitive system of psychologically abusive behaviours that reinforce their power and control over their victim during an extended period of time.

Emotional abuse includes verbal attacks; harassment; threats; emotional blackmail; belittling; excessive possessiveness; making a partner earn the right to have sex through the insistence of performing sexual favors; social and emotional isolation of partner; as well as the deprivation of physical and economic resources.

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88 percent of all physical abuse victims, male or female, report some form of emotional abuse from their abuser clearly showing there is a close correlation between emotional abuse and physical abuse – most often, emotional abuse is a precursor to physical abuse. In a physically abusive relationship, emotional abuse erodes the victim’s sense of who he or she is, self-worth, and personal integrity. Studies have shown that there are three types of emotional abuse which appear most often in physically abusive relationships, and these have become red flag markers for many clinical counsellors. These types of emotional abuse include the use of threats to varying degrees, restriction of the victim in his or her ability to live their own life as an individual inside the relationship, and damage to the victim’s personal property.

In the United States, 55% of divorces are due to psychological abuse; 27% of dating relationships report psychological abuse; 89% – 97% of engaged couples in counselling report that emotional abuse has taken place in some form during the twelve months leading up to counselling.

Emotional abuse is a very real form of abuse. Emotional abuse, which encompasses many form of behaviors, contains many of the same behaviours found listed in documents by an international human rights organization’s description of torture: “isolation, induced debility (sleep and food deprivation), monopolization of perception, verbal degradation (denial of powers, humiliation), drugs, threats to kill and occasional indulgences (positives, verbal or material).” (Tolman, 1992)

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Emotional Abuse – An Example

While most people think of abuse victims as being women, in reality, the number of women and men who experience abuse in relationships is almost equal with 7% of women claiming abuse in relationships, to 6 % of men claiming abuse in relationships.  The media has often protrayed examples of women in abusive scenarios, so for this example, we are using a man’s real story.  This example may be graphic to some, but for those in abuse situations, the extreme swing in style and nature of behaviours on the part of the abuser is common.

A friend sat down and began to tell their story of how, while his wife had made promises to change, any change she made was always temporary, bare minimal, and she always seemed to come up with new ways to sneak in a means of deliberately or subversively attacking him.

As if reading my mind, the man looked into his coffee cup and quietly said “but she doesn’t hit me.” This man had grown up in a home governed by an abusive father, so his concept of what abuse looked like was extreme in definition, and this became the measure of behavior by which he justified his own reason to stay in an abusive relationship.

While she didn’t hit him, she did go out of her way to sabotage their relationship by continually blaming the children for things she did, or blaming her continual absence from family events on the lousy vehicle he had bought for her. She craved and wanted sex all the time, making inappropriate comments in front of the children and his friends, even to the point of exposing her genitalia to him in front of his friends only to say, “If you weren’t so hopeless, I wouldn’t have to go down the hall to look after this myself.” When that failed to get a reaction, in his presence, and the presence of her children, she’d give her partner’s male friends a wink and nod, asking them if they’d like something to eat while holding the front of her skirt slightly raised in a revealing manner. On Sundays, while at church, she would sing in the choir, function on women’s committees, acting as if she was a saint, wanting everyone to see how holy and righteous she was. This roller coaster of behaviour in his partner left him continually confused, walking through life with a crushed spirit, torn by his religious duty to stay in his marriage “till death do us part”. At night he’d come home to a partner who would give him the continual cold shoulder, only agreeing to sex if he did the dishes for a week, or took her turn with the children on Saturday. Even then, during sexual relations she would only complain, be emotionally distant, and insist that he hurry up and get it over with.

What my friend failed to realize, while clouded by a religious upbringing, was that he had already died inside his spirit while in the marriage. He had already come to, and passed the point of “till death do us part.”

Emotionally abusive relationships leave behind years of psychological scars and damage — the negative impact on one gender over the other does not differ.

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General Categories of Emotional Abuse

Brainwashing or Perceptual Control — The abusing partner insists that the vulnerable partner also believe the same things that the abuser believes. He or she is not entitled to have his or her own beliefs, opinions or ideas.

Social or Monetary Isolation — economic abuse (or restriction in access to monetary resources); and monopolization of partner’s personal time so they are always together have been listed as some of the psychological abuse strategies used by emotional abusers.

Criticism Bombardment — Constant unrelenting patterns of criticism, demeaning behaviours, open or subversive threats, use of public humiliation are also strategies used by emotional abusers.

Demanded Secrecy – The emotional abuser is a control freak and will divert huge energies to manipulating his or her public reputation as a non-abusive party.

Covert Behavioural Strategies – An emotional abuser tries relentlessly to dominate the space outside the consciousness of the abused party. These abusive and often passive aggressive behaviours can include withholding affection/relational intimacy, denial of wrong doing, projection of the fault onto the abused victim, subtle conveyances of the lack of importance of the victim especially in public where only the victim will know to what the emotional abuser is referring to.

Gas-Lighting – Gas-lighting is a form of emotional or mental abuse wherein information is twisted or spun, or selectively omitted to meet the needs of the abuser, or false information is presented with the sole intention of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity. This practise is also known as carzy-making.

Financial Abuse or Monetary Resource Isolation – Is a form of emotional abuse when it is done to isolate the abused victim preventing them from becoming or living life with some form of independence which could open the door to the victim looking for social supports. In extreme cases this type of abuse can manifest itself in forms of behaviour such as quietly checking the gas gauge on the car or the mileage to see how much gas was used or miles driven and demanding receipts whenever the abused party asks for pocket money

Spiritual AbuseThis type of abuse is characterized by the belittling, putting down or making fun of one’s religious beliefs or forbidding the victim from exercising or practicing their spiritual beliefs.

Sexual Domination — Excessive sexual demands, refusal to participate in the relationship sexually, and/or sexual put-downs are often characteristic of emotionally abusive relationships.

Ritualistic Abuse – This form of emotional abuse takes on a form of behaviour more easily defined as psychological torture. It can entail the abuser making concerted attacks on the victim’s sense of self and in extreme cases can involve re-enactments of some ritual wherein the victim is identified in some way as being evil for which punishment is required. This type of abuse is repetitious and dissolves the victim’s trust in his or her own senses. This for of emotional abuse is considered to be a direct assault on the victim’s identity. Holding a gun to the head of the victim or a cigarette close to the eyes or skin while denouncing her value are extreme examples of this style of emotional abuse.

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Identifying Patterns of Emotional Abuse

The Victim is Continually Required To Adjust Themselves — An abused party is constantly having to adjust his or her behaviour and responses in order to meet the needs or demands of his or her abuser. An abuser will do this to keep a victim off-centre.

The Constantly At Fault Double Bind — No matter what the victim does, he or she can’t get it right in the eyes of his or her partner as the demands are continually changing making it impossible for the victim to get things right.

Direct Verbal Abuse/Attacks – Verbal abuse becomes an ongoing often escalating way of relating to the victim.

The Silent Treatment and/or Withdrawal of Verbal or Sexual Intimacy — The abuser creates passive aggressive strategies in an attempt to force an outcome by forcing ever changing “rules” as to what and when things can occur or be challenged. This would include withdrawal of sex until the victim performs certain tasks to earn the right to have sex.

Lack of Emotional Support or Connection — Shared emotional fields of a supportive nature are lacking due to the controlling dominant behaviour of the abuser.


Features of a Prototypic Pattern of Psychological Maltreatment (Termed Psychological Coercion)

  • Early onset of verbal and/or physical dominance over the victim;
  • Isolation, social removal, and even imprisonment to various degrees;
  • Repetitive guilt induction to the point where the victim begins to believe this form of psychological coercion to the point where the victim takes over in a practice of self-blame;
  • Hope-instilling behaviours through contingent expressions of love (i.e. “You know I love you, and I will get better. I just need a little bit more time.”);
  • Fear arousal, maintaining a constant state of terror for the victim, and escalation as to the style of terror;
  • Promotion of a sense that the victim is powerless and helpless;
  • Pathological or psychopathic expression of jealousy usually accusing the partner of infidelity when no such thing has occurred, and there is no evidence to support such a claim beyond the accusation;
  • Required secrecy for fear the abuser will be discovered publicly;
  • Enforced loyalty and self-denunciation on the part of the victim towards the abuser.


If the emotionally abused victim attempts to leave the relationship, the emotional abuser may respond with:

  • Sounding off with some form of mocking or cocky disbelief;
  • Begin a pattern of mental and perhaps physical searching;
  • A process of bargaining with the victim for them to stay;
  • When bargaining fails, pleading with false promises of making positive changes takes over;
  • Threatening direct or indirect damage physically, reputationally, vocationally, financially, socially;
  • Begin the process of seeking out some form of revenge.


Further Examples of Emotional Abuse Behaviours:

  • The abuser may begin to complain about one item but them begin to flow into a profuse pattern of constant criticism and name calling before the victim even senses that there is a problem;
  • embarrass him or her, or the children in public;
  • constantly accuse him or her of having lovers;
  • begin watching his or her every move and subversively letting the victim know they are being watched;
  • stalk him or her when the victim tries to meets with a friend;
  • ignore him or her when the victim tries to talk to the abuser;
  • denigrate his or her family and friends;
  • forbid him or her to make decisions, telling them to shut up and not offer an opinion;
  • escalate abusive behaviours if she talks back;
  • threaten to take her children and states she will never see them again;
  • destroy his or her most valued possessions, or use them to publicly humiliate the victim;
  • tell him or her the details of extra-marital affairs with other partners.


Emotional abuse is just as real, and as serious a form of abuse as any other form of legally recognized abuse.

Author — James C. Tanner

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