It is clear that there are a lot of people out there who don't understand what abuse is. Therefore, I've made this essay to define it. See also my companion essay on Relationship Do's.
Emotional and Physical Abuse
To define emotional abuse we are going to look at a few different excerpts from various psychology articles and help guides.
One psychology article on emotional abuse says:
Unlike physical or sexual abuse, where a single incident constitutes abuse, emotional abuse is made up of a series of incidents, or a pattern of behavior that occurs over time.
Emotional abuse is more than just verbal insults, the most common definition of emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is a series of repeated incidents – whether intentional or not – that insults, threatens, isolates, degrades, humiliates, and/or controls another person.
It may include a pattern of one or more of the following abuses: insults, criticisms, aggressive demands or expectations, threats, rejection, neglect, blame, emotional manipulation and control, isolation, punishment, terrorizing, ignoring, or teasing.
Harassment, physical and sexual abuse, and witnessing abuse of others are also forms of emotional abuse.
Emotional abuse is not only under-reported, but it's effects are minimized. The famous childhood verse, “Sticks and stones my break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is simply not true. In fact, many physical and sexual abuse survivors have said that the emotional abuse was often more devastating and had longer-term effects.
Emotional abuse cuts to the core of a person, attacking their very being. Emotional abuse, if frequently enough, is usually internalized by the victim, and leaves them feeling fearful, insignificant, unworthy, untrusting, emotionally needy, undeserving and unloveable, and as if they were bad, deserving of punishment, and to blame.
Survivors of emotional abuse often have a hard time understanding my they feel so bad. The abuse may not sound like much, and often people around them will minimize the experience, telling them it's not so bad. But a climate of disregard for a person's feelings, where one is subjected to constant or frequent criticisms, being yelled at, or being ignored – has a deep and profound effect, attacking the very self-image and confidence of a person.
A help guide to domestic violence and abuse says:
There are many signs of an abusive relationship. The most telling sign is fear of your partner. If you feel like you have to walk on eggshells around your partner—constantly watching what you say and do in order to avoid a blow-up—chances are your relationship is unhealthy and abusive. Other signs that you may be in an abusive relationship include a partner who belittles you or tries to control you, and feelings of self-loathing, helplessness, and desperation.
When people think of domestic abuse, they often picture battered women who have been physically assaulted. But not all abusive relationships involve violence. Just because you’re not battered and bruised doesn’t mean you’re not being abused. Many men and women suffer from emotional abuse, which is no less destructive. Unfortunately, emotional abuse is often minimized or overlooked—even by the person being abused.
Understanding Emotional Abuse:
The aim of emotional abuse is to chip away at your feelings of self-worth and independence. If you’re the victim of emotional abuse, you may feel that there is no way out of the relationship or that without your abusive partner you have nothing.
Emotional abuse includes verbal abuse such as yelling, name-calling, blaming, and shaming. Isolation, intimidation, and controlling behavior also fall under emotional abuse. Additionally, abusers who use emotional or psychological abuse often throw in threats of physical violence or other repercussions if you don’t do what they want.
You may think that physical abuse is far worse than emotional abuse, since physical violence can send you to the hospital and leave you with scars. But, the scars of emotional abuse are very real, and they run deep. In fact, emotional abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse— sometimes even more so.
Another psychology article about emotional abuse says:
Emotional abuse is elusive. Unlike physical abuse, the people doing it and receiving it may not even know it’s happening.
It can be more harmful than physical abuse because it can undermine what we think about ourselves. It can cripple all we are meant to be as we allow something untrue to define us. Emotional abuse can happen between parent and child, husband and wife, among relatives and between friends.
The abuser projects their words, attitudes or actions onto an unsuspecting victim usually because they themselves have not dealt with childhood wounds that are now causing them to harm others.
In the following areas, ask these questions to see if you are abusing or being abused:
- Humiliation, degradation, discounting, negating, judging, criticizing:
- Does anyone make fun of you or put you down in front of others?
- Do they tease you, use sarcasm as a way to put you down or degrade you?
- When you complain do they say that “it was just a joke” and that you are too sensitive?
- Do they tell you that your opinion or feelings are “wrong?”
- Does anyone regularly ridicule, dismiss, disregard your opinions, thoughts, suggestions, and feelings?
- Domination, control, and shame:
- Do you feel that the person treats you like a child?
- Do they constantly correct or chastise you because your behavior is “inappropriate?”
- Do you feel you must “get permission” before going somewhere or before making even small decisions?
- Do they control your spending?
- Do they treat you as though you are inferior to them?
- Do they make you feel as though they are always right?
- Do they remind you of your shortcomings?
- Do they belittle your accomplishments, your aspirations, your plans or even who you are?
- Do they give disapproving, dismissive, contemptuous, or condescending looks, comments, and behavior?
- Accusing and blaming, trivial and unreasonable demands or expectations, denies own shortcomings:
- Do they accuse you of something contrived in their own minds when you know it isn’t true?
- Are they unable to laugh at themselves?
- Are they extremely sensitive when it comes to others making fun of them or making any kind of comment that seems to show a lack of respect?
- Do they have trouble apologizing?
- Do they make excuses for their behavior or tend to blame others or circumstances for their mistakes?
- Do they call you names or label you?
- Do they blame you for their problems or unhappiness?
- Do they continually have “boundary violations” and disrespect your valid requests?
- Emotional distancing and the “silent treatment,” isolation, emotional abandonment or neglect:
- Do they use pouting, withdrawal or withholding attention or affection?
- Do they not want to meet the basic needs or use neglect or abandonment as punishment?
- Do they play the victim to deflect blame onto you instead of taking responsibility for their actions and attitudes?
- Do they not notice or care how you feel?
- Do they not show empathy or ask questions to gather information?
- Codependence and enmeshment:
- Does anyone treat you not as a separate person but instead as an extension of themselves?
- Do they not protect your personal boundaries and share information that you have not approved?
- Do they disrespect your requests and do what they think is best for you?
- Do they require continual contact and haven’t developed a healthy support network among their own peers?
Emotional abuse, while not leaving a physical mark, is devastating. Like the articles mentioned, it is commonly dismissed – and that is a major concern, considering the amount of damage it causes. While an abusive relationship might not be physically or sexually abusive, it is always emotionally abusive.
The definition of physical abuse is much more well known and straightforward. Wikipedia describes it as “an act of another party involving contact intended to cause feelings of physical pain, injury, or other physical suffering or bodily harm.” loveisrespect.org describes it as “any intentional and unwanted contact with you or something close to your body.” Both sources go on to list various examples of physical abuse. However, since most of these examples are well known to most people, I will not be going over them here.
Respect is Vital
Respect. A must in any healthy relationship. First, let's go over the definition, and then see what psychology says. According to the dictionary, it means “an attitude of deference, admiration, or esteem; regard.” Some synonyms are: appreciation, esteem, awe, consideration, honor, recognition, deference, dignity, and regard. Respect is a very positive and uplifting thing.
A psychology article on romantic relationships says:
Mutual Respect. If you don't have this - well, it's going to be a tough road. This doesn't mean you agree with everything your partner says or does. It does mean that you have admiration for each other, and steady undercurrent of love and trust throughout your relationship. You also have each other's back.
John Gottman, a pioneer in studying couples and marriage, could tell within minutes whether a couple was in it for the long haul or if they weren't going to make it - with startling accuracy. How could he tell? If there were any signs of contempt in the couple's interaction with each other, the relationship usually didn't make it.
Abuse, whether it is physical, verbal, or emotional, defies mutual respect in every way, shape and form. You have to have mutual respect to have a healthy relationship.
Another psychology article on romantic relationships says:
Respect, respect, respect. Inside and outside the relationship, act in ways so that your partner always maintains respect for you. Mutual respect is essential to a good relationship.
A third one, titled “In Relationships, Respect May Be Even More Crucial Than Love,” says:
It is useful, I think, to compare and contrast parent-child relationships with husband-wife relationships. In both of these, respect is absolutely essential for the relationship to work. Love without respect is dangerous; it can crush the other person, sometimes literally. To respect is to understand that the other person is not you, not an extension of you, not a reflection of you, not your toy, not your pet, not your product. In a relationship of respect, your task is to understand the other person as a unique individual and learn how to mesh your needs with his or hers and help that person achieve what he or she wants to achieve. Your task is not to control the other person or try to change him or her in a direction that you desire but he or she does not. I think this applies as much to parent-child relationships as to husband-wife relationships.
Love brings bliss to both types of relationships, but only if tempered by respect. Love adds joy and provides the emotional bonds that help carry the relationship through hard times. The attachment aspect of love is even more valuable in our relationship with our spouse than in that with our children, because marriage, at least in principle, is forever.
My children have moved on, and I had to be prepared for that right from their beginning; but my wife and I will be together until death do us part. It is not unseemly to speak of my wife as my “better half,” but it would be unseemly to speak of my child in such terms. Our children do not and should not see themselves as part of us; their job is to move on, beyond us, into a future that we will never know. And if we see them as part of us, we will be torn apart when they leave.
Love is not all you need, nor all your wife or husband needs, and certainly not all your children need. We all need respect, especially from those who are closest and most intimately connected with us.
And the fourth one says:
“At the heart of my program,” writes Gottman, a University of Washington psychology professor, “is the simple truth that happy marriages are based on deep friendship. By this I mean a mutual respect for each other's company,” plus an intimate knowledge of each other's quirks, likes and dislikes.
This is all proof that respect is essential in any relationship. Now, just so everything is clear, I want to give the definition for disrespect. So, according to the dictionary, disrespect means “contempt; rudeness.” Let's continue.
Fighting vs Arguing
We know that conflicts are inevitable, and that you can have conflict and still be in a healthy relationship. I want to look at the actual types of conflict. One is healthy, one is not.
One article says:
But is there a difference between "arguing" and "fighting?" Actually, there is. And the difference can mean creating either understanding and harmony, or confusion and bitterness.
So what’s the difference between arguing and fighting and what is it that most of us do? A lot of families simply engage in trading insults, taking nasty swipes or expressing mean sentiments. That’s not arguing. That’s much more indicative of fighting and it’s very destructive. Arguing, on the other hand, is a lot more productive than that. It’s usually characterized by the effective expression of opposing ideas and feelings and usually evolves from an atmosphere of caring, understanding and of feeling safe. And arguing is much more likely to result in coming to a happy and mutual resolution than fighting is.
Another psychologist says:
I've never seen a healthy couple that doesn't argue. They never fight, however - they argue. If a couple comes into my office and tells me they've never argued, something isn't quite right. You can argue without fighting. Arguing is non-combative - you and your partner state your points of view without name-calling or raising your voice. Sometimes you agree to disagree - and that's okay.
And (from the same psychologist):
Healthy couples don't fight - they argue. There's a big difference.
Bringing up the past
Focused on one issue
This is pretty self-explanatory. Fighting is extremely destructive and unhealthy; it tears down a relationship. Arguing, on the other hand, is productive and healthy; it helps build a relationship and make it stronger.
Assertiveness vs Aggressiveness
The definition for aggression is “hostile or destructive behavior or actions.” Obviously, it is extremely unhealthy. The healthy alternative is assertiveness. Psychology Today says this about assertiveness:
Behaviorally, assertiveness is all about asking for what you want in a manner that respects others. Assertive people don't shy away from defending their points of view or goals, or from trying to influence others. In terms of affect, assertiveness means reacting to positive and negative emotions without aggression or resorting to passivity.
It's crucial to note the first sentence. It is all about respect. Yes, we have circled back to that. I cannot stress how important it is. The rest is pretty self-explanatory.
One psychologist says:
Passive aggression, [cut], is a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger.
Couched in backhanded compliments, insulting gifts, hostile sticky notes, and behind angry smiles, passive aggression involves a variety of behaviors (hence, the overuse of the term) designed to get back at another person without the passive aggressor having to own up to or articulate their true feelings. Passive aggression is motivated by a person's fear of expressing anger directly.
Passive aggressive people take genuine pleasure in frustrating others. They are masters at getting others to act out their angry feelings--to explode and appear crazy--while the passive aggressive person sits back and watches the emotional outburst with satisfaction, total control, and always with their own poise intact.
Another psychologist says:
Passive aggressive behavior takes many forms but can generally be described as a non-verbal aggression that manifests in negative behavior. It is where you are angry with someone but do not or cannot tell them. Instead of communicating honestly when you feel upset, annoyed, irritated or disappointed you may instead bottle the feelings up, shut off verbally, give angry looks, make obvious changes in behavior, be obstructive, sulky or put up a stone wall. It may also involve indirectly resisting requests from others by evading or creating confusion around the issue. Not going along with things. It can either be covert (concealed and hidden) or overt (blatant and obvious).
Passive aggression is a destructive pattern of behavior that can be seen as a form of emotional abuse in relationships that bites away at trust between people. It is a creation of negative energy in the ether which is clear to those involved and can create immense hurt and pain to all parties.
Pretty much self-explanatory. Passive aggressiveness is a lot harder to spot than pure aggressiveness.
Manipulation and Control
Manipulate means “to negotiate, control, or influence (something or someone) cleverly, skilfully, or deviously.” Control means “to exercise authoritative or dominating influence over.” Both are fundamental parts of abuse. You will have noticed that both words have popped up multiple times above, and they will continue to do so.
Now, giving and taking is part of any healthy relationship. I am not talking about if you nicely interfere and say to your sibling/best friend, 'let it go' or 'it's not worth it.' That familiarity comes with any close relationship.
That is also very different from controlling anyone. See the definition above? We're going add to it. Dominate means “to exert a supreme, guiding influence on or over.” So control means someone is trying decide and dictate everything another person should think or do (either overall or just in that moment). It is not a suggestion, but an order.
The Four Horsemen
Otherwise known as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Originally from the bible, renowned marriage psychologist John Gottman uses the term to describe the four behaviors that are extremely destructive for any relationship. We will be using the same two articles (here and here) for all four definitions:
The First Horseman shows itself by attacking and blaming your spouse’s personality or character. For instance: “You are just lazy! You never take out the trash!” Criticism seems to be close to complaining, but it is different. It is an attack on the very nature of the person in question. Complaining is about expressing anger, displeasure, distress or disagreement about your spouse behavior or an event.
You can tell the difference by the way it is said: Criticism begins by saying “YOU are…. (fill in the blanks)” while a complaint starts the sentence with “I...(need, don’t like, etc.)”
Criticizing your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint! The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an ad hominem attack: it is an attack on your partner at the core. In effect, you are dismantling his or her whole being when you criticize.
- Complaint: "I was scared when you were running late and didn't call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other."
- Criticism: "You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don't believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish! You never think of others! You never think of me!”
The Second Horseman. Here the intention is to insult and psychologically abuse your partner. Here are some examples of this:
Insults and name-calling.
Hostile Humor - using contemptuous jokes or stories.
Mockery - the subtle put-down.
Negative Body Language such as sneering and rolling your eyes.
The second horseman is contempt. When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean - treating others with disrespect, mocking them with sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.
"You’re ‘tired?' Cry me a river. I've been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic computer games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid - try to be more pathetic…"
In his research, Dr. Gottman found that couples that are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, the flu, etc.) than others, as their immune systems weaken! Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner - which come to a head in the perpetrator attacking the accused from a position of relative superiority. Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce according to Dr. Gottman’s work. It must be eliminated!
I am adding in a third article for contempt, because of how important this horseman is:
If you find yourself in the second situation, you're likely displaying contempt for your partner, and it could be putting your relationship in jeopardy.
Contempt, a virulent mix of anger and disgust, is far more toxic than simple frustration or negativity. It involves seeing your partner as beneath you, rather than as an equal.
“Contempt,” says Gottman, “is the kiss of death.”Defensiveness
The Third Horseman is evident when our automatic response to thinking we are being attacked is to react defensively. This may have been a lifesaver when we were running from wild creatures in pre-historic times. But when it occurs in arguments, it only escalates the conflict.
Here are some behaviors to look for, in yourself and others:
Denying Responsibility - “I’m not to blame.”
Making Excuses, - “I couldn’t help it. There were forces beyond my control…." "The dog ate my homework!”
Disagreeing with Negative Mind-Reading - Mind-reading shows up when one person says they know what you’re thinking. If you start to argue about what they think you’re thinking, the whole thing spirals out of control. “You think I’m lying. Well… I’m not.” They may not be thinking that at all.
The Rubber Man/Rubber Woman Game - This is reminiscent of the childish saying “I’m rubber; you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you!”
We’ve all been defensive. This horseman is nearly omnipresent when relationships are on the rocks. When we feel accused unjustly, we fish for excuses so that our partner will back off. Unfortunately, this strategy is almost never successful. Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take them seriously, trying to get them to buy something that they don’t believe, that we are blowing them off.
She: "Did you call Betty and Ralph to let them know that we’re not coming tonight as you promised this morning?"
He: "I was just too darn busy today. As a matter of fact you know just how busy my schedule was. Why didn't you just do it?"
He not only responds defensively, but turns the table and makes it her fault. A non-defensive response would have been:
"Oops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. Let me call them right now."
Although it is perfectly understandable for the male to defend himself in the example given above, this approach doesn’t have the desired effect. The attacking spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner.
This happens when one spouse shuts down and erects a brick wall to end the argument. It turns out men do this more than women, probably because men are more easily physiologically overwhelmed than women. What looks like a neutral position is actually the ultimate powerful act of aggression.
Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction. In other words, stonewalling is when one person shuts down and closes himself/herself off from the other. It is a lack of responsiveness to your partner and the interaction between the two of you. Rather than confronting the issues (which tend to accumulate!) with our partner, we make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors. It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable "out," but when it does, it frequently becomes a habit.
Lots for you to take in, and lots of crucial points. Let's continue. We'll talk about how they all connect in a minute.
The Three Different Marriage Styles
I will be using the same article written by John Gottman for all three styles:
Marriages like Bert and Betty's, though, which emphasize communication and compromise, have long been held up as the ideal. Even when discussing a hot topic, they display a lot of ease and calm, and have a keen ability to listen to and understand each other's emotions.
That's why I call such couples "validators": In the midst of disagreement they still let their partners know that they consider his or her emotions valid, even if they don't agree with them. This expression of mutual respect tends to limit the number of arguments couples need to have.
How can people who seem to thrive on skirmishes live happily together? The truth is that not every couple who fights this frequently has a stable marriage. But we call those who do "volatile." Such couples fight on a grand scale and have an even grander time making up.
More than the other types, volatile couples see themselves as equals. They are independent sorts who believe that marriage should emphasize and strengthen their individuality. Indeed, they are very open with each other about their feelings--both positive and negative. These marriages tend to be passionate and exciting, as if the marital punch has been spiked with danger.
Moving from a volatile to an avoidant style of marriage, like Joe and Sheila's, is like leaving the tumult of a hurricane for the placid waters of a summer lake. Not much seems to happen in this type of marriage. A more accurate name for them is "conflict minimizers," because they make light of their differences rather than resolving them. This type of successful coupling flies in the face of conventional wisdom that links marital stability to skillful "talking things out."
The 5:1 Ratio
The 5:1 Ratio is another term from John Gottman. We will continue using the same article as above:
What really separates contented couples from those in deep marital misery is a healthy balance between their positive and negative feelings and actions toward each other.
Volatile couples, for example, stick together by balancing their frequent arguments with a lot of love and passion. But by balance I do not mean a 50-50 equilibrium. As part of my research I carefully charted the amount of time couples spent fighting versus interacting positively-- touching, smiling, paying compliments, laughing, etc. Across the board I found there was a very specific ratio that exists between the amount of positivity and negativity in a stable marriage, whether it is marked by validation, volatility, or conflict avoidance.
That magic ratio is 5 to 1. As long as there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there is negative, the marriage was likely to be stable over time. In contrast, those couples who were heading for divorce were doing far too little on the positive side to compensate for the growing negativity between them.
Continuing on that thread, from his official couples retreat website says:
During conflict discussions, the ratio of positive to negative interactions in relationships headed for divorce is 0.8:1, not 5:1, as it is in stable and happy couples.
From another psychology article:
In the mathematics of marriage, certain expressions of emotion carry a disproportionate amount of emotional weight. Expressions of contempt, Gottman has found, register at -4. Displays of disgust each count for three points in the negative column. Whining comes in at –1. On the other hand, a display of affection—a smile of sympathy, a touch—registers 4 on the plus side.
What does all of this mean? The 5:1 ratio makes it clear that even volatile couples have a lot more positive than negative interactions.
Let's now put all of these definitions and ideas together. Hopefully you have seen some obvious parallels already. These are the points I want to emphasize:
- Emotional abuse is a pattern; an isolated incident, or fight, does not count. These things need to happen over and over. It is also an umbrella – many of the specific things we talked about fall under it:
- The Four Horsemen count as emotional abuse.
- Fighting falls under emotional abuse.
- Aggressiveness and passive aggressiveness are destructive and disrespectful, as well as hostile, so they count as emotional abuse.
- Aggressiveness and passive aggressiveness are actions of criticism or contempt.
- Manipulation and control both count as emotional abuse.
- Contempt is the most destructive horseman, as well as the definition for disrespect.
You see that last point? Contempt, the most damaging and destructive horseman, is the definition for disrespect. Contempt is never respectful. Aggressiveness is also never respectful.
I cannot be any more clear: Nothing is more important than respect. Therefore, nothing is more damaging than disrespect.