Emotional abuse is the ultimate brainwashing technique. It hides in the form of feigned helpfulness, generosity, compassion, and love. The perpetrator knows how to appear kind and caring while intertwining abusive behavior, causing their victim to become powerless.
Emotional abuse is a method of controlling, manipulating, belittling, and invalidating a person over time. It is often hard to spot in the moment as it can be seen as benign or even “normal” to most observers. But as this behavior is repeated time and time again, the insidious compound effect of this form of covert abuse causes its victims to lose confidence in themselves, stop trusting in their own decisions, feel devalued and unimportant, and blame themselves for being the cause of, and sometimes even deserving, of the abusive behavior.
(after you read this article, be sure to tune into the Love and Abuse podcast for more on emotional abuse and manipulation in relationships)
The purpose of emotional abuse is to control and change the victim so that the abuser doesn’t have to change, work on, or improve themselves (please note that this article uses the terms “victim” and “abuser” for brevity and is not meant to label people as such). In fact, most abusers don’t even believe they have a problem. By keeping the victim busy trying to fix themselves, it keeps the focus off the abuser. If they don’t ever have to look at themselves, and they always get what they want from their victim, they will never change.
Since the perpetrator of abusive behavior is so good at keeping their victims focused on themselves, there is often no accountability for their behavior. The abuser doesn’t usually want to be vulnerable enough to look inward and do the personal growth work involved in healing. But as you’ll soon learn in this article, it is absolutely possible that an emotionally abusive person can heal and grow out of that bad behavior. But certain criteria needs to be in place in order for it to happen.
Emotional abuse is really an umbrella term for labels such psychological abuse, verbal abuse, narcissistic abuse and more. There are also offshoots like religious abuse and financial abuse as well. Regardless of the label, they all do a job on one’s emotional state. The victims often report that they feel like they’re going crazy.
That’s not surprising since emotional abuse usually exists in the form of drip fed emotional “poking” meant to make the victim believe that the small, individual pokes aren’t harmful. But when someone pokes you in the same spot for months or years, and you aren’t even sure they’re doing it, you will slowly go crazy.
And on the way to Crazy, you’ll unknowingly let go of your self-worth, self-esteem, confidence, and any beliefs you had in your intelligence or abilities. Who you are will slowly dissolve and you will become a slave to your own feelings of worthlessness, uselessness, and the consistent guilt that you can’t do anything right. Ultimately, you will actually start to believe what the abuser is saying about you.
Whatever form emotional abuse comes in, the outcome is almost always the same:
The victim loses their power and becomes a shell of their former self.
I received a message from a victim of emotional abuse who told me she was tired of being blamed by ignorant people for getting herself into those types of relationships. She said she’d heard enough speakers and “gurus” tell her, and other emotional abuse survivors, that they chose to be victims, whether it was because they let their abusers get away with the behavior, or simply because they “attracted” the emotionally abusive person into their life.
She was angry. And she had a right to be!
Seemingly supportive and thoughtful people who wanted the best for her thought they were empowering her. In actuality, they were invalidating her experience. She’s heard more than once that it was something she was doing wrong and that she was responsible for allowing the emotionally abusive behavior into her life. She felt like the gurus were trying to convince her that she was broken in some way.
I’m sure she’s had to address many comments from people who weren’t fully informed of the depth and complexity of emotionally abusive behavior. Imagine trying to explain to others how someone is hurting you, but the person you’re talking to doesn’t believe you because they can’t see the bad behavior, even when you point it out. Or if they do see it, they might say, “Yeah, but that’s not so bad.”
It can be a very isolating and frustrating experience. Not only are you a victim of hurtful behavior from one person, but the people that are supposed to be your support system can’t justify your experiences in their mind so they start to suspect you’re nuts.
I wrote back a lengthy, supportive reply to that very frustrated woman letting her know that I completely understand where she’s coming from. She hadn’t yet listened to my podcast, Love and Abuse, so she may have thought I was also one of those ignorant people blaming the victim for their abuse.
Ten years ago, she would have been right.
Many people in abusive relationships will have supportive friends and family that don’t see the bad behavior of the abusive person. They will be entranced by the abuser’s charm, generosity, kindness, and charisma. These are all the external faces of an abusive person. To the outside world, they look like a saint.
I know this to be true because I used to be an emotional abuser.
It’s not something I proudly admit. In fact, I feel really bad about my behavior during that time of my life. But I remember being the person that used to charm my partner’s friends and family while being emotionally harmful at home.
Quite frankly, all of my partner’s friends and family loved me. They never witnessed the person she described to them. They only saw my generous nature, my sense of humor, my acceptance and open-mindedness, and my willingness to help out wherever and whenever they needed me.
Looking back at who I was, it’s easy to see why her friends were ignorant of who I really was at home. They couldn’t see in me what my partner saw. Because of that, I could do no wrong in their eyes.
Even though I didn’t exhibit the entire spectrum of abusive patterns, the behaviors I did do in my relationships over the years were very harmful to each of my partners.
After many years of healing, and also working with couples and individuals going through emotional abuse themselves, learning just how much psychological damage takes place in this type of dynamic, I hope you’ll agree with me that emotional abuse has to stop.
The destruction that happens to a person being exposed to emotional abuse so often goes unseen and un-believed because the victims have no visible scars. But the clues are there if you know what to look for. They’re in a person’s words and behaviors. And noticing the differences in who they used to be and who they are now is often a good place to start.
The first clue that someone is experiencing emotional abuse is usually a comment the abuse victim makes about how their partner got upset at something they said or did. You may first write this off as nothing but a typical relationship issue.
However, upon closer inspection, if you sense a hint of guilt where none should be, or spot a glimmer of them taking the blame when there is no reason to do so, it may be a prompt for you to pay closer attention to any other signs that have been present such as:
- They used to feel good about themselves
- They spend a lot of time trying to make the other person happy
- They’re never sure where they stand in the relationship
- They analyze almost everything in the relationship
- They constantly look for approval from the other person
- They’ve lost their spark, or passion for life
- They talk about their relationship constantly
The list goes on. In fact, I list two hundred signs of emotionally abusive behavior in a healing resource I created called The M.E.A.N Workbook on manipulation and emotional abuse. It helps the victim and abuser learn which specific behaviors are causing the difficulties in their relationship.
An emotionally abused person often cannot pinpoint the exact causes their partner (or friend or family member – fill in the blank with the appropriate person) is upset with them, but they will they will feel like they need to do whatever they can to make up for it.
The victim is usually convinced that they must have done something wrong because the abuser will play the victim well. The perpetrator of emotional abuse will trick a compassionate person to feel sorry for them so that they (the compassionate person) believe they hurt the abuser in some way and not the other way around.
Over time, the perception the victim takes on that they are to blame becomes amplified. As the weeks and months go by, the victim starts to doubt their own decisions and begins to walk on eggshells wondering how to be a better person. They will soon lose trust in their own instincts and will need to rely on the abuser more and more as their sense of self starts to erode.
The water gets hotter and the victim can’t feel the boil because they become convinced that they are solely responsible for turning up the heat, so they continue to focus on themselves trying to figure out exactly what they need to do to prove their love to the abuser. The victim seeks validation, wanting to be seen as worthy and wonderful in their partner’s eyes.
What’s really happening though isn’t that the victim is doing anything wrong, it’s that they are being manipulated into thinking they are. The emotional abuser learns with precision how to manipulate and control their partner so that they can’t figure out which way is up. It doesn’t happen overnight though, it happens over time.
One single act of control or manipulation isn’t seen as such, it is seen as “something we all do.” At least, that’s how friends and family will put it. The victim of abuse will have one of those well-meaning friends say something like, “He got upset at you because you spent too much time with your mom? Aww, he sounds like he misses you! I could see me doing that to my partner too.”
A single moment such as this isn’t the problem. It is the repeated behaviors and patterns that compound over time, slowly disintegrating one’s self-worth and self-esteem, making the victim of such behavior have a hard time trying to figure out what’s happening, and making it very difficult to convince anyone else what’s going on in the relationship because they can’t figure it out themselves.
Emotional abuse is elusive and comes in many forms. But the worst, most insidious kind gets played out as tiny, seemingly innocent behaviors that, to the casual observer, appear to be “normal relationship issues”. The reality is that these behaviors are actually erosive psychological “stabs” cleverly crafted to look benign and make the victim feel as if they are doing it to themselves.
Emotional abusers persuade their victim (and everyone else outside the relationship) that the victim is the cause of all their own suffering and is also the reason the relationship is failing.
The abuser makes the victim look like the perpetrator of the problems.
The abuser will even go as far to act completely calm and rational while their partner gets upset, looking like the irrational one to outside observers (and to themselves). And as the victim wears down from repeated abusive behavior, so do their defenses and logic. This is why so many victims can’t tell if they’re actually in an abusive relationship. Once logic is broken down and eradicated, it’s difficult to make sense of what’s happening.
If you’re curious if you or someone you care about is experiencing emotional abuse, just watch for personality changes over time. If you’re not trained to see the red flags of abusive behavior already, at least be observant of behavior that you can see.
For example, when someone you know goes from confident and sure of themselves, to doubtful and hesitant about making decisions in just a few weeks or months, it’s possible someone in their life is manipulating or trying to control them.
If they are always sharing how terrible of a person they are to their partner or that they keep messing up in the relationship, it may not be them at all. It could be the person behind the scenes filling their brain with false information.
The hardest part about learning to spot emotional abuse is that, often, the abusers will appear to be kind, caring and generous. Because of that, it’s easy to be tricked by them. They show one face to the world and another at home. They seem authentic and genuine but become another person when they know no one is watching.
Like I said earlier, I used to be this way with my partners too. My bad behavior consisted of being highly judgmental about behaviors I didn’t agree with, withdrawing my emotions if I didn’t get what I wanted, and crafting my language in a way that made my partner feel guilty about herself (causing her to withdraw and feel like she didn’t matter).
And I did all of this in a way that made her believe that she was doing something wrong. She blamed herself for not being good enough instead of directing her anger or upset toward me. Unfortunately, I knew how to plant those deceptions in her head. It is behavior I regret, but I share this with you not only for complete transparency of my past, but to give you a unique perspective to help you understand the possible motives and behaviors of an emotionally abusive person.
I was controlling and manipulative with every woman in my life up until my divorce. The end of my marriage is when I finally woke up and realized I needed to start focusing on myself instead of other people.
When my wife wanted to split up, it hit me like a ton of bricks. It would hit most people that way of course, but this was especially painful because in that moment, I realized my entire life was a series of failed relationships that each ended with my partner leaving me. Every relationship I got into started off great, but over time my partners would become distant and eventually break up with me.
During the separation from my wife, I made the conscious choice to figure out what was causing my partners to leave me all the time. I decided to focus on me for the first time in my life, and accept that I was the common denominator for all my relationship failures.
I believed marriage was supposed to last “forever”, so when my wife wanted to leave the relationship, it made me realize if I didn’t reflect on how I kept causing this, I’d never have a successful relationship. I had to figure out what I was doing wrong.
My wife left but we stayed in touch with the idea that perhaps we needed a little break. This thought did ease the pain a bit, but I was still scared. I needed to resolve this issue so it never happened again in this relationship or any other.
While she was gone, I had all the alone time I needed to search for answers. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long to find them because I finally changed where I was looking. After so many years of pointing at other people as the cause of all my problems, I made the choice to search someplace I never had before…
Any other time of my life, I’d look at the people in my world and figure out what they were doing wrong and what they needed to do to change for me. I was convinced the cause of all my relationship challenges were in them, not me. I believed if they were upset at me about something I said or did, it was just their inability to see the flaws I saw in them. I “knew” I was right and that they needed to fix themselves.
It was so much easier looking outside myself for the answers to my relationship problems all those years. But when I decided to take responsibility and look inward instead, I discovered something I didn’t know was there: A lack of boundaries.
That may not seem like an obvious connection to my bad behavior. After all, what do personal boundaries have to do with being emotionally abusive toward someone else?
The answer is that I was living in a world where I was afraid to ask for what I wanted. I carried around the fear of expressing myself or letting people know what behavior was acceptable and what wasn’t. I hated confrontation and didn’t want to be truthful with others because of my fear of the consequences.
Again, it might seem odd to connect a lack of boundaries with acting badly toward those you claim to love, but when you don’t have boundaries, you may choose to instead manipulate those around you. That way, you don’t even have to have boundaries!
And that was exactly what I did. Without the need for boundaries, I manipulated the people I loved to satisfy my wants and needs.
To put this a simpler way, ask yourself what the point is of knowing and enforcing your boundaries if you can just manipulate people to do anything you want? When you succeed at manipulation, everyone’s behavior is acceptable because you made them behave the way you wanted.
I’m not saying that those who don’t know and enforce their boundaries will become manipulative, but they are more likely to because of a fear of the consequences of honoring themselves.
If you don’t have boundaries, you develop other ways to get your needs met. And you may meet those needs by being manipulative and controlling, the primary components that make up emotionally abusive behavior.
A lack of boundaries was my downfall and the cause of the demise of every relationship I’ve ever been in.
I remember the day I made the connection between personal boundaries and emotional abuse. I was sitting in my bedroom one day, a few days after my wife moved out, and I was wondering how I kept messing up all of my relationships.
Then a thought came to me that changed everything. It was a realization that made my current and past relationship mistakes crystal clear and started my journey of healing. That realization was this:
If I’m so upset by the way my partner behaves, then why don’t I just honor myself and leave?
That may not sound so profound when you read it here, but in that moment, it was a revelation.
I saw the light! In the split second after I had that thought, I realized that during my marriage, every time I judged my wife and made her feel bad, it was really just an excuse and a distraction for me to not have to do something for myself. I knew making the effort to change myself would be too much for me to handle.
In other words, I was committed to this relationship no matter what. Even if that meant I had to control her behavior.
I needed to control behavior I couldn’t accept because that was all I knew how to do. And since the primary goal for every relationship I’ve ever been in was to keep the relationship at any cost, I did everything in my power to make sure they didn’t leave me.
I did that through deception, manipulation and control. I wasn’t always awful of course. I had a lot of great qualities as a partner too. For instance, I was supportive, emotionally connected, liked to laugh, and encouraged my partners to follow their path in life. However, if they did something I didn’t want or accept for my life or the relationship, that’s when my alter ego showed its ugly face.
If she wanted to eat junk food or get a tattoo and I had a problem with those things (which I did back then), I would make her feel bad so that she would conform to the way I wanted her to be. That way, I didn’t have to leave the relationship. I still wanted to be with her, but I wanted to control her too.
Whatever she did that I didn’t like, I made it my responsibility, my duty, to change her so that she did the “right” thing. Her changing would serve me and only me. I knew if I could mold her into exactly what I wanted, I wouldn’t have to change myself. It was the epitome of selfish, narcissistic behavior.
Since I had no personal boundaries, I never asked for what I wanted nor did what I felt was right for me. I just manipulated and controlled my partners over the years so that I didn’t have to enforce boundaries that I never developed. It was the easy way out for me.
When I uttered those words, “If I’m so upset by my wife’s behavior, why don’t I just leave?“, my heart sank. I didn’t actually want to leave. I didn’t want to have to face the reality that I would have to end things, and that I would be alone.
I especially didn’t want to be the bad guy. I didn’t want to be the one responsible for ruining the relationship even though I was practically solely responsible for doing that very thing already. I wanted what I wanted regardless of her thoughts and feelings. But I chose to make her feel bad instead of being the bad guy. In hindsight, I can see how cowardice that was. I caused her to suffer so that I didn’t have to.
When I said, “…why don’t I just leave?“aloud to myself, I had to process those words. I never considered leaving anyone before. It just popped into my head. Those words were a challenge to my heart and mind because it meant that if I really want things to change, I’d have to change myself.
The words put me outside of my default behavior of manipulating to get what I want. It was the first time I chose to consider her emotional well-being.
I sat there pondering and reflecting on my marriage, trying to understand my behavior over the years. I thought, “Have I really never considered her well-being?” And beyond that, I came to an even bigger realization:
My bad behavior was actually hurting my wife.
I never got this before!
I never empathized with her or any of the people I’ve hurt over the years. I only acted selfishly. It didn’t matter to me what she wanted in those moments. When I was being manipulative and controlling, the only person’s thoughts, feelings and emotions that mattered to me were mine.
At other times, I’d be caring and loving. My empathy was fully active and I had a lot of great qualities that most people would want in a partner. But if I didn’t like something she was doing, I turned off my empathy and pulled out my emotional daggers.
I was finally starting to understand the pain I was causing her, and also realizing what I’d done to her and every partner before her as well. For the first time, I put myself in her shoes and “tried on” my own behavior against myself. I asked myself, “If she were judging me, giving me disapproving looks, commenting on what I ate or how much I exercised, or withdrawing love and attention from me, how would that make me feel?”
After a few minutes of visualizing what this would be like, I felt like throwing up. For the first time I accessed the pain that I was inflicting on her and all my partners throughout life. I felt awful.
‘Trying on’ being the victim of my own behavior, I felt unloved, unworthy, and unimportant to the one person who was supposed to love me the most and make me feel on top of the world. It was a horrible and lonely feeling and I finally understood how I made the people I was supposed to love feel.
When my divorce papers arrived making the dissolution of my marriage final, reality struck. Along with sadness, I felt like I would never meet anyone that loved me that much ever again. I believed she was my only chance at love and happiness. The end of my marriage felt like the end of the road for me.
But the end of the road always seems to have a side street of healing if you choose to take it. I had already started working on myself and understanding my behavior before that day, but I still had to a lot of healing left to do to make sure I never acted that way again, whether I got into another relationship or not.
It was vital I healed from the fears I held on to for so many years. I needed to address, process, and heal from my fear of being alone and being rejected or abandoned. I needed to work on my boundaries, figuring out what I will and won’t accept in life.
I also needed to learn that relying on another person as my sole provider of love and happiness was the fastest way to drain that person of their energy and cause the relationship to disintegrate.
And finally, and probably most importantly, I needed to learn and practice acceptance. If wanting to change someone comes from judgment, supporting who they are and how they show up, even if you disagree with who they are and how they show up, is acceptance.
In fact, that understanding helped shape my new definition of love:
Supporting another person’s path to happiness, even if it means they are on a different path than you.
In my current relationship, my girlfriend told one of our mutual friends that she has never heard me judge her once. When she said that, I couldn’t believe it because that was never me. I was floored by her comment because after I did so much healing around the judgments and fears I carried for many years, I didn’t even realize how noticeable not judging someone actually was.
I didn’t make that connection because it hadn’t occurred to me how normal judgmental and other hurtful behavior can be. My heart grew warm when she said those words not only because it was a sweet thing for her to say, but it reminded me how far I’ve come.
The emotionally abusive person doesn’t have to continue their bad behavior. They can change if they are willing to put in the work it takes to look inward instead of trying to find the fault in others. And it takes a lot of work because it isn’t only about stopping bad behavior, it’s about replacing bad behavior with healthy, supportive behavior that you actually want to do.
That’s why I made it imperative that I learned what boundaries were and how to enforce them. I wanted to make sure all of my decisions came from a place of honoring myself, not dishonoring someone else. I also worked on my fear of abandonment and fear of being alone. I traveled a long road of healing that I still travel today.
I’m a completely different person now than who I was, and I barely recognize that old me anymore. I am grateful for the lessons I’ve learned, but also aware that the old me may try to show up every now and then because of triggers I am unaware of.
The old me wants to judge and control the people I love. Fortunately, the new me prefers supporting other people’s happiness and allowing them to be whoever they want to be. This is the me I continually work on. Whenever “old me” thoughts pop into my head, they are a reminder that there is always work to do. And just because I haven’t yet eradicated all of that toxic thinking doesn’t mean I’m that person anymore.
In fact, when an unhealthy thought comes into my mind, the first thing I say to myself is, “Wait, what is this? Where did this come from?” Then I stop whatever I’m doing and work on it. I dig into the origin of the thought and try to determine why I’m still carrying it around.
There are some things in life we are always working on healing in ourselves. The goal is to continue on that path until the challenge is no longer present. In other words, when you no longer feel the need to do the old, unhealthy behavior, you can put more time and energy into other areas of your life.
When you work on yourself and you’ve done some healing, you become more aware of what still needs work. You will be triggered by different events throughout life and because of that, you may not even know you have these triggers until you are triggered!
In other words, twenty years could go by and you’ve done all the healing you can do, then suddenly something happens that never happened before and you end up repeating behavior that you thought was gone for good.
If this happens, be gentle on yourself.
You cannot possibly predict every scenario that will ever occur and you may never know what emotional triggers are still lingering inside you until the perfect stimulus comes along causing you to react. But until then, you can only do the best you can do.
The woman I mentioned at the beginning of this article conveyed a lot of anger in her message to me. She was tired of so-called smart people saying things to her that made her feel like she was to blame because they didn’t understand the breadth of emotional abuse. They didn’t get the insidious nature of the behavior and how it happens over a long period of time, which is why it’s so difficult to pinpoint any single incident as being “bad”.
She heard over and over again from friends, family members, and even professionals that perhaps she wasn’t seeing things clearly. They couldn’t see the abusive behavior behind the curtains so they simply chalked it up to her being too sensitive or blind to the kindness that everyone else saw in her partner.
She felt alone, misunderstood, and even blamed for something that was being done to her. You want to talk about crazymaking? This was a big component of it. She had nowhere to turn and very few people believed her.
This is why emotional abuse has to stop. The victims get blamed and the perpetrators walk away looking like they can do no wrong. If you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, it’s time to get very clear on the behaviors that are causing to you to feel bad. Start to learn the terms of emotional abuse such as gaslighting, triangulation, emotional and narcissistic abuse, isolation, manipulation, stonewalling, silent treatment, and more.
Get familiar with the helpful terms you may need as well like “no contact” and “gray rock”. If you’ve talked to the person doing the bad behavior and it doesn’t stop, you need to be prepared to take steps to get away from it.
If you are the perpetrator of emotional abuse and you’d like to stop doing this behavior, please know that none of this was meant to position you as an awful person. Good people can do awful behavior, just as good people can stop doing awful behavior. As I’ve said, I was there so I understand what you might be going through. Just remember that I was able to heal from this, and so can you.
Both the abuser and the victim need to heal from emotional abuse. My healing took a lot of work. But it was worth it. My life changed dramatically. I’m happy now and no longer in a constantly triggered state. Today I’m in the best relationship of my life. And it is the first time I have felt peaceful and calm in a relationship. Ever.
There is healing for both the victim and the abuser as long as both are willing to do whatever it takes to get there. It’s important to understand that you may not be able to get there together either. You may have to travel the healing path without the other person in your life.
It is very humbling and vulnerable to do it together, but it can be done. So if you want to work together on this, that’s great. Just remember that sometimes the abuse has created so much hurt and fear, and one’s defensive walls are so high, that there may be little healing until there’s been a break.
And sometimes, quite frankly, the victim may never want to return. If that’s the case, that is okay too. Remember that love is supporting the other person’s path to happiness, even if they are on a different path than you.
If someone’s path takes them away from you, it’s because they are honoring what’s right for them. Honoring someone honoring themselves is showing the deepest respect for that person. It is truly a loving thing to do.
Whether you are the victim or the abuser, remember your boundaries. The abuser needs to learn what their boundaries are so they focus on themselves, figuring out what they want and don’t want in their life, just as the victim needs to stand up for themselves and walk the road that’s best for them.
Not all relationships can be saved, but people can. People can elevate above emotional abuse on both sides. Both the victims and the perpetrators need to stand up and do what’s right for themselves. That means taking their focus off each other and learning what their boundaries are and how to honor them so that they can bring the best version of themselves into the world.
The victim can honor their boundaries by learning what emotionally abusive behavior is and how it works so that they can make informed decisions. The perpetrator can learn about and honor their boundaries by realizing the only person they can change is themselves.
Emotional abuse is futile behavior that only leads to hurt and sadness. Relationships never, ever improve because of emotional abuse, they only degrade and spiral into pain.
If you are the abuser, it’s time to let go of the fantasy that you can control or manipulate anyone into conforming to who you want them to be. People don’t like being controlled. They don’t like being made to feel bad. They love when others allow them to be exactly who they want to be. And they love those who support their happiness.
No matter which side of the fence you are on, you can get through this. There is healing and a path to freedom from abuse. And you deserve to be on that path. You are amazing.
If you’d like to learn more about how to identify toxic communication and poisonous behavior, and start to heal from emotional abuse, whether you are the abuser or perpetrator, tune into the Love and Abuse podcast.
*All information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only. Always seek the guidance of a medical or psychological professional before making any changes that could affect your physical or mental well-being.