Emotional Abuse


Anyone tackling the subject of emotional abuse has their job cut out for them. It is a subject that has as many facets as a 50 carat diamond and its victims range from children to adults. It is also one of the most difficult forms of abuse to identify and can be one of the hardest to escape from; it can feel like emotional blackmail or is so shocking it paralyzes the will. 

If a person encounters physical abuse, the signs are usually much easier to see. However emotional abuse is a punch to the inner man, and often takes time to manifest in signs of insecurity, uncertainty, heartache, low self esteem and withdrawal. It is a slow, wearing down of healthy boundaries, emotional resources, trust in personal perceptions and self concept. Abuse originates within the motive of the abuser which is often very hard to prove or detect, so victims resort to blaming themselves, judging themselves as weak or unable to cope. This type of wounding is deep and takes far longer to heal.

A simple definition of a common type of emotional abuse is: “Emotionally wounding another person and then demeaning them for feeling that pain.” With children this can look like a parent calling their child ‘stupid’, or cursing at them and then calling them a baby when they cry. Other examples can be consistently invalidating the child’s feelings by telling them they have no reason to, or shouldn’t feel the way they feel, i.e. the child has lost a meaningful possession and the parent says, “it’s just a toy, you’re just being too sensitive.”

In adults, this kind of invalidation can take the form of insults which come in the guise of “teasing”. When the recipient of this kind of teasing is wounded by it, the most common retort might be, “I was just teasing… can’t you take a joke?” In this situation, the perpetrator has disguised a hurtful remark with humor and it may look very innocent to outsiders. If the victim is able to say they have been hurt, their feelings should be acknowledged. Remarking that the person can’t take a joke relieves the perpetrator of responsibility for their actions and transfers responsibility to the wounded one, questioning their emotional strength, mental health and personal discernment as to what has transpired. The more healthy response would be to apologize and ask for forgiveness. 

Another form, which can be far more insidious, is when the perpetrator insults, threatens or demeans the victim and then denies their actions. In this form of abuse, the strategy can be direct or implied and is most effective when there is dependency in the relationship, either real or perceived. One common misconception about these forms of abuse is they take the form of yelling, criticizing or other stereotypical perceptions of negative communication between people. However, other forms of emotional abuse can be just as damaging, and far less overt. They can include patterns of being disrespectful, discourteous, rude, condescending, patronizing, critical, judgmental, lying, repeatedly “forgetting” promises and agreements, betrayal of trust, “setting you up”, unreasonable expectations and “revising” history. As described before, this form of behavior is often paired with a denial of the behavior which can sound like, “Why are you reacting like that, I was just trying to be honest?” or “I thought you were mature enough to hear what I had to say” or even “you just don’t have the experience to understand what I’m trying to tell you.”

As I have counseled victims of abuse and done research on the subject, I came across a victim’s testimonial which summed up the experience of emotional abuse quite well in the following statement: “One of the most difficult things about identifying someone who is a psychological and emotional abuser is that the REALLY successful abusers are highly intelligent and hide their abuse incredibly well. They may have shelves filled with psychology books; many are well-read and very well spoken. They know how to twist and manipulate language and people. They present an exterior of calm, rational self-control, when in reality, they have no internal control of their own pain, so they try to control others, and drive them to LOSE control. If an abuser can cause their victim to lose control, it proves how healthy THEY are, so they can say, explicitly, or implicitly (it''s amazing how sighs, and rolling of the eyes can accomplish as much as words), “There you go again, losing it, crying and yelling. I''m not the one who needs therapy, you are.” Unfortunately, if an outsider sees the abuse at all, all they see is an outburst from the victim, NOT the abuse that triggered it. It may make the victim feel as if they have had all their lifelines withdrawn, as if they are going crazy, because nobody believes that this charming, “nice”, helpful, successful person could be so incredibly psychologically cruel and deliberately hurtful.”

Although all emotional abusers do not have libraries filled with psychology books or are well read, the common denominator with emotional abusers is the ability to twist and manipulate language. If the abuser can convince the victim that their response to the abuse is somehow a personal weakness or deficiency, the abuser retains control. This usually works best with children or victims who have not been able to develop a solid identity. Adults whose personal value is dependent on external evaluators, such as how well they performed a project, other’s opinions or even their own comparisons to an unattainable standard of perfection can be most susceptible to emotional abuse. Some of the worst scenarios take place with elderly, dependent adults who often have little control over their circumstances because of age or health issues. It should be noted here that emotional abuse differs from hurting others by mistake when it becomes a pattern.

The reasons for inability to remove oneself from emotional abuse can be unique to each victim; however it usually has to do with the two things; 1) the victim’s need for love and acceptance and 2) the victim’s susceptibility to addictive processes. The need for love is basic to the human condition and it has been proven that we are unable to live without it. When basic human needs such as love are given and taken away, over time it becomes torturous to the victim, breaking down their defenses and strength of will. Ask any prisoner of war. However, that pattern of giving and taking plays on one of the strongest addictive patterns known; incremental gain at variable times. This can be seen best in the addiction to gambling. Slot machines, lotteries, card games etc., pay off in amounts that are sometimes large and sometimes small, being paired with the pay off coming at different times. Using slot machines as an example, a person may get many quarters on their first payoff, and then 30 seconds later a few more quarters drop down. 90 seconds later a few more quarters drop but after a few more minutes there is a much larger payoff. This pattern will keep the person sitting there for a long time with the thought that the next big payoff is just around the corner.

Emotional abuse is very similar. Love is the payoff and in the beginning stages of the relationship, whether its marriage or friendship, the amount of love and/or acceptance and approval comes in large quantities. When the abuse starts to happen, it may be a large dose and then there are two or three weeks or more of relatively good relationship before the next event happens. Perhaps after that one large dose of abuse, all it takes is a few smaller insults, or devaluing episodes for the abuser to regain control. Then a larger episode happens again. In this type of scenario, the victim is living for the payoff of love and often, the payoff comes in smaller and smaller increments over the lifetime of the relationship. By that time, the victim has become worn down, has fewer personal resources to counter the abuse and finds themselves caught in the never ending cycle, believing the next big payoff is just at hand and then everything will be alright, like it was in the beginning.

Emotional abuse almost always boils down to a lack of honor and respect for others; where one person perceives that another’s autonomy will encroach on their well being. As Christians, our goal is to be constantly transformed into the image of Jesus. Jesus gave honor and respect to those he related to regardless of age, so therefore it is our goal to submit to whatever healing we need in order to become more like Him. Each time someone is emotionally victimized, the perpetrator has made a choice to continue in their unhealed state rather than pursuing the lie in their heart that generates their desire to control others. In Gethsemane, Jesus personally identified with the hurts and wounds of mankind. To the degree perpetrators cannot identify with the pain of their victims is the degree that wounding in their lives has eroded their ability to be connected to their own heart and emotions. This is a place of healing that must be addressed in the lives of abusers.

Working with victims is a journey to find those core beliefs that have limited the person’s ability to believe they are worthy, valuable and deserving of respect. It is a journey to re-establish their God given identity. A victim is severely limited in their ability to deal with the abuse in their lives while laboring without these vital ingredients. Confronting the addictive pattern directly often causes severe distress since the victim has so few resources to successfully negotiate that path. As counselors and friends, we can bring truth, pray for healing of the wounds of worthlessness and ask the Lord to build a capacity within the heart to say no to the abuse, either by words or deeds. Once a victim understands how much the Lord loves them and is strengthened in their identity as a unique and valuable human being they will seldom stay in an abusive relationship.