Emotional Abuse and Marital Conflict

A Working Definition of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is not the same thing as Domestic Violence. I think of emotional abuse as a combination of two of the Four Horsemen (Contempt and Criticism) standing upon an aggressive foundation of chronically manipulative and controlling behaviors. It is the investment in control and domination that is the chief feature of emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse is Domestic Violence lite. Extreme emotional abuse can be either the harbinger of Domestic Violence to come, or a strategic substitute for a previous pattern of Domestic Violence which has attracted the attention of law enforcement.

The goal remains “control” of the partner, but the methods of intimidation are not physical, they’re psychological. Control is achieved by varying degrees of perpetual put-downs, chronic complaining, bullying, insults, and social ostracism. Mental intimidation is substituted for physical intimidation.

Who are the Perpetrators of Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse can be subtle. And like many maladaptive behaviors, emotional abuse occurs on a continuum. There are marriages where a partner occasionally falls into a pattern of emotionally abusive behavior, and there are marriages where a high order of emotional abuse is the norm. Missing a pattern of emotional abuse is a real pitfall for an All-Purpose Couples Therapist. If you don’t know the research, you run the risk of being limited, as usual, by the blinders of cultural expectations and beliefs.

For example, when you think of emotional abuse in a marriage what do you imagine? Chances are you are thinking about a husband who bullies and controls his wife. Here is yet another example of what you expect is not always the case.

Research, (and I mean many studies, not just one or two), tells us that most of the emotional abuse in marriages is not inflicted by men. Men and women are equal in this arena. Women are responsible overall for just as much emotional abuse in marriages as men.

Personality Disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder are highly correlated with the infliction of emotional abuse. In other words, partners who were maltreated in their families of origin repeat maladaptive behaviors in their adult relationships. We learn how to either bond well or badly from the caretakers in our family of origin.

emotional abuse

Why Do Some Therapists Miss Emotional Abuse?

If you’re on the receiving end of emotional abuse, you might not even know it. Victims of emotional abuse often blame themselves. Gottman talks about how some partners acquire a sense of deep betrayal, an “inconsolability” that they never seem to shake. Some of these partners are purveyors of emotional abuse.

I once worked with a husband who was regrettably unable to get to his wife’s hospital bed because he was traveling on business. She became unexpectedly ill, and he returned home as quickly as possible.

But twenty years later, she was still in a sputtering rage, belittling and insulting him for his failure to be by her side. She insisted his love for her was a fraud. She regularly compared him unfavorably to her high school sweetheart (“My deepest regret in life was marrying you instead of Julian.”) She had also over the years, insulted and alienated his family. For example, she demanded that he not attend his sister’s funeral (“why should you be there for her when you were never there for me?”).

EMOTIONAL ABUSE

Their previous All-Purpose Couples Therapist had made their already faltering marriage much worse. The therapist legitimized the wife’s  baseline inconsolability as a profound attachment injury and a “lingering trauma.” What nonsense.

Unfortunately, the amateur couples therapist failed to perceive that the husband had endured emotional and verbal abuse for two decades. Over four years of “therapy,'” she gallingly took the husband to task for his “insensitivity.”

I’m not saying this wife did not feel some degree of an attachment injury. In working with her, I am confident that she did. But science-based therapy would have clarified the importance of childhood attachment injuries early on. It might have saved them both years of pain and disconnection.

I encouraged her to connect the dots to her unresolved family of origin attachment injuries. Offending from the victim position is a client stance which some therapist neglect to identify, engage with, and clinically confront.

emotional abuse

How Do You Assess for Emotional Abuse?

Dr. John Gottman and his mentor, Dr. Neil Jacobsen, conducted extensive research into Emotional Abuse and Domestic Violence. They created a 27 question survey that provides a clinical assessment for a pattern of emotional abuse. This is one of the great benefits of scientific instruments such as those found in our Big Big Book. If an All-Purpose Couples Therapist doesn’t have sufficient training to assess what is going on clinically, they can make an already tense situation much worse.

How to Score this Test for Emotional Abuse

There are four possible answers to each of the following questions;

  • Never – 1 point
  • Rarely- 2 points
  • Occasionally – 3 points
  • Very often – 4 points

The Gottman/Jacobsen Emotional Abuse Questionnaire

My Partner:

  1. Tries to catch me with inconsistencies to show that I am lying.
  2. Tries to convince other people that I am crazy.
  3. Tells other people there is something wrong with me.
  4. Says things that hurt me out of spite.
  5. Has told me that I am sexually unattractive.
  6. Tells me that I am sexually inadequate.
  7. Insults my religious background and beliefs.
  8. Insults my ethnic background.
  9. Insults my family.
  10. Talks me into doing things that make me feel bad afterward.
  11. Tells me no one else would ever want me.
  12. Humiliates me in front of others.
  13. Makes me do degrading things.
  14. Questions my sanity.
  15. Tells other people personal information or secrets about me.
  16. Verbally attacks my personality
  17. Has insulted me by telling me that I am incompetent or stupid.
  18. Ridicules me.
  19. Forces me to do things against my will.
  20. Questions whether my love is true.
  21. Compares me unfavorably to other partners.
  22. Intentionally does things to scare me.
  23. Threatens me physically during arguments.
  24. Warns me if I do something, violence will follow.
  25. Our arguments escalate out of control.
  26. I’m worried most when my partner is quiet.
  27. Drives too recklessly or too fast when s(he) is angry.

Total your points for your score.

  • 95+ points.   Indicates extreme emotional abuse. This is a higher degree of emotional abuse than the average victim of Domestic Violence.
  • 73-94 points   You are a victim of emotional abuse.
  • 54-72 points   Emotional abuse is an emerging pattern. Seek couples therapy as soon as you can.

Clinical treatment Goals for Perpetrators of Emotional Abuse

As I mentioned previously, emotional abuse occurs on a continuum. At the lower end of the scale, perpetrators who are motivated to change their abusive behavior can respond well to science-based couples therapy. Sometimes individual counseling is a necessary adjunct to help turn things around. But Gottman’s research indicated that the most severe cases of emotional and verbal abuse are profoundly resistant to change.

Treatment Goals include:

  • Perpetrators of emotional abuse must accept responsibility.
  • They must learn to deliberately slow down and recognizing their pattern of thoughts, feelings, and controlling behaviors that lead to inflicting emotional abuse.
  • Perpetrators must restore the “emotional bank account” in the relationship by replacing aggressive controlling behaviors with kind and thoughtful behaviors.
  • Perpetrators must master the art of taking “time-outs” and learning how to self-soothe.
  • They must assume a different stance toward their partner when they are in conflict.
  • Perpetrators must avoid becoming smug about how quickly they are changing. Changing the habits of inflicting verbal abuse on your partner takes more time than most perpetrators think.
  • Perpetrators must also take full responsibility for any backsliding. Full responsibility is the over-arching theme in their recovery.

What if Your Partner is Not Invested in Changing?

If your partner is emotionally abusive in your marriage and isn’t invested in changing, self-care is your best move.

Put Your Own Needs First. Stop worrying about placating or pleasing your abusive partner. Take care of yourself first. Resist their attempts to bully or guilt-trip you.

Establish Loud and Clear Boundaries. Tell your abusive spouse that (s)he will not influence you by insults, screaming, name-calling, etc. If the verbal abuse persists, let them know in clear and definite terms that is is a deal breaker for you. Leave the room immediately, and drive to a friend’s house or a hotel.

emotional abuse

Withdraw. If your emotionally abusive spouse launches a verbal assault don’t engage, withdraw instead. Don’t attempt to fawn or placate. Stay silent and withdraw from the interaction asap.

Stop Trying to Persuade Them to be Different.  Forget appeals to logic, reason, or their sense of fair play. You will only exhaust yourself. Your abusive partner has to have a felt sense that their emotionally abusive behaviors will no longer work.

They must come to understand why they habitually engage in chronic verbal abuse. A long dark night of the soul is in order. And you won’t help the situation by striving to redeem them. They first have to take a good hard look at themselves.

About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.

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