This is a subject we’ve wanted to address for some time. We see some irony in the work we do with couples or individuals when it comes to abuse. Often, though not always, people who are in a relationship with a truly abusive person do not realize it. On the other hand, couples who are in high conflict often label the other person as abusive when they are not really an abusive person, although they may relate to abusive tactics from time to time. So, the ‘abuse’ word gets abused sometimes. And other times, when it should be used, it’s not. So, we hope we can provide some clarity today by going through some of these emotionally abusive behaviors.
One distinction we want to make right off the bat is that probably all of us at some point in time have resorted to using one or more of the abusive tactics we are going to discuss in this episode. There’s a difference between bad behavior and a more fundamental problem of being an abusive person. The latter is a more characterological issue: it’s a way of seeing one’s intimate partner all the time as someone to be controlled, dominated, manipulated to serve you, as less than you. On the other hand, many of us in conflict may use some abusive tactics — that’s not acceptable either, but it’s nowhere near the scale of severity compared to a spouse who faces a characterologically abusive person every day. It may just be that your marriage is normal, there’s no cycle in that sense, but when you get into conflict, you might use unpredictability or blame. That’s bad too, but not problematic in the same way as abuse.
The key distinction between resorting to abusive behavior when in conflict and being in an abusive marriage is that the cycle of abuse is always happening in an abusive marriage. We talk extensively about being in an abusive marriage in episodes 123, 124, and 125.
Generally, abusive behavior can be verbal, emotional, and/or physical. Right now, we’re focusing on emotional abuse. Emotional abuse can include verbal assault, dominance, control, isolation, ridicule, or the use of intimate knowledge for degradation. This is the kind of abuse that targets the emotional and psychological well-being of the victim in order to gain power over them. It is often (though not always) a precursor to physical abuse.
Some types of physical behavior can be considered emotional abuse in that they involve acts of physical violence although the victim is never physically impacted. Examples include: throwing objects, kicking a wall, shaking a finger or fist at the victim (threateningly), driving recklessly while the victim is in the car, or threatening to destroy objects the victim values.
Emotionally Abusive Behavior
According to Paige Sweet, gaslighting is “a type of psychological abuse aimed at making victims seem or feel ‘crazy,’ creating a ‘surreal’ interpersonal environment (so bad it didn’t seem real) (p. 851). It’s more of a gendered phenomenon that occurs in power-laden intimate relationships where the wife is dependent, not the husband. The husband brings the social and economic capital to the relationship, and so has a degree of power that he can abuse. It promotes the idea that women are overly emotional, irrational and not in control of their emotions.
Signs of Gaslighting:
- Spouses who gaslight will often “flip the script.” That’s the basic tactic: whatever actually happened, they’ll say something else happened. You heard them say XYZ, they’ll deny saying it at all or tell you it was actually ZYX and you must be losing it for not remembering. When there’s not another witness and your spouse is doing this constantly, it erodes your sense of self-trust. There’s lots of lies: about what was said, what actually happened, and who did what. This is usually more subtle, rather than a blatant thing.
- Another tactic is to use your insecurities against you: you’re worried because he didn’t come home last night? He says that that’s your own foolish paranoia. Rather than being willing to be accountable, the emphasis is placed on what’s wrong with you and why you’re upset over this in order to remove the spotlight from themselves.
- Another example of gaslighting is a constant challenge of past events. Again, couples in conflict often disagree on details, but this is an extreme, constant rewriting of past history that leaves you bewildered and disorientated.
- Another example is if your belief that his behavior is wrong is turned around on you and you are being blamed for being too emotional, for having inappropriate thoughts yourself, for being hormonal, or just labeled crazy. One startling thing that studies have shown is that some women preferred physical to psychological abuse, and would sometimes provoke physical violence to avoid being called crazy.
In our experience, women coming out of this kind of contact are often very disoriented, it’s like their magnetic compass doesn’t work and just spins on the dial. They don’t know where true north is anymore, or what the facts are, or what’s real, or is it just me? They’re extremely bewildered because this has been such a steady thing.
Abusive people may seem to make situations chaotic for no other reason than to keep the other in check and hanging on to them to control what’s happening. The abuser feels like everything is stable for them, but they still cause chaos for their spouse so that they can remain in control of the situation. Other types of unpredictable behavior include:
- Putting on a drastic mood swing, such as going from being very affectionate to full of rage and breaking things. There may be emotional outbursts that they create that keep you dancing on edge and taking care of them.
- Starting arguments for seemingly no reason.
- Self-contradiction, such as making a statement that contradicts the one they just said and acting like there’s something wrong with you for not following.
- Acting two-faced, such as being charming in public but completely changing the minute they get home. This is an emotional tactic to keep you on edge and ungrounded so that the power and control remain with the person who is acting this way.
So, you can see that things that are this severe are not what most people are doing when they’re in conflict. This is a different level and a consistent cycle.
3. Isolation Tactics
Isolation tactics are forms of emotional abuse and include such behaviors as restricting a person’s contact with family and friends, or physically confining a person (such as blocking a doorway so that they can’t leave). Isolation aims to undermine the victim’s life and identity outside the relationship and foster a sense of dependency on them. Sometimes, this can happen geographically. But be very cautious about being whisked away in a long-distance relationship and taken to the other side of the country, or somehow compelled to abandon your education or a successful career, or taken away from family and friends. Geographic relocation is one tactic for isolating someone.
Sometimes these kinds of things happen in normal marriages, but if that’s happening and these other signs are going on, that’s when you want to be cautious. It doesn’t mean that every time a couple moves it’s because the husband is abusive, but this is a way that an emotionally abusive spouse can isolate their partner from their support network so that they can be controlled. In our organization, we’ve seen this happen to very professional, intelligent women.
4. Criticism and blaming
Isolation can also happen as an abusive tactic through turning a person against their support network. Watch for a romantic partner who villainizes your family and friends so that you end up feeling very alone.
If you’re trying to see if a relationship is abusive from the outside, remember that you’re looking for a number of signs of abuse. If, for example, you’re trying to determine if your daughter is in an abusive relationship and her spouse is using isolation tactics, or if she’s just cut contact with you, remember that you’re watching for a constellation of behavior, not just one particular sign of abuse. Furthermore, if you are a parent of someone in an abusive relationship, you also don’t want to take over control from the controller. You want to empower your daughter to make wise decisions that are in support of her own personhood.
5. Avoiding Responsibility for Unacceptable Behaviour
Extreme manipulators may recruit friends, law officers and court officials, even the victim’s own family to their side, while shifting blame to the victim. They deny the violence or abuse or rationalize it and tend to use such types of defenses:
- Total outright denial (It never happened. You are just imagining it. You want to hurt me),
- Alloplastic defense (It was your fault, your behavior provoked me into such reactions, if you didn’t do this, I wouldn’t be so mad). In other episodes, we talked about the fundamental attribution error where if I do something wrong, I’m just a victim of my circumstances, but if you do something wrong there’s something wrong with your character. That to an extreme is the alloplastic defense, which is a tactic for avoiding taking responsibility for your own unacceptable behavior.
- Altruistic defense (I did it for you, in your best interests! It was your fault).
- Transformative defense (What I did to you, it was common and accepted behavior). I did this for you in your best interest. I’m taking you away from your family and friends so that you’re going to be a better person, so I can help you. Or, what I did to you, that’s a common and accepted behavior. (E.g. in this part of Canada/America, everyone slaps their wife when they don’t do something, so why are you freaking out? What’s your problem?).
Perpetrators are often concerned with their reputation and image in the community – among neighbors, colleagues, co-workers, bosses, friends, extended family. They use specific forms of denial when they are in public which can include:
- Family honor stricture (We don’t air dirty laundry publicly, the family’s honor and repute must be preserved, what will the neighbors say?), and
- Family function stricture (If you snitch and inform the authorities, they will take me away, and the whole family will disintegrate).
How to Know if You Are Experiencing Abuse
We know that part of the crazy-making behavior of abuse can leave a person uncertain if they are really experiencing abuse or not. Perhaps you’ve been blamed for the behavior. Assessments are a good way of having an objective measure of what you’re experiencing. Today’s guide is an assessment of intimate partner abuse and if you think you may be in this situation, we encourage you to download this. Normally, these guides are only for paying patrons, but the assessment that goes with this episode is available on our Patreon page for free.
5. Deliberate Accidents
A spouse can abuse their power over you in some fashion, such as “forgetting” to mail your light bill so that your lights are turned off. (Of course, if you simply forget, that’s different, you’re not doing it to establish power and control.) Another example would be not catching something on the stove from burning so that you are made to feel inferior for burning supper.
There are a number of signs of control including:
- Making demands or orders and expecting them to be fulfilled.
- Making all the decisions, even canceling another’s plans without asking.
- Continually monitoring a spouse’s whereabouts.
- Insisting on regular calls, texts, or pictures detailing where the person is and even showing up to these places to make sure they are not lying.
- Requiring immediate responses from calls or texts.
- Exerting financial control over the other, such as by keeping accounts in their name or only giving them a limited allowance.
- Spying by going through the person’s phone, checking their internet history, or looking through their communications with others. Now, a lot of these do occur when there’s been a betrayal. But that’s a need to re-establish safety after a break in trust. And you want to take this along with the whole list of everything we’ve talked about today.
- Demanding a spouse’s passwords for their phone, social media accounts, and email at any time and really taking away their privacy and independence.
- Belittling a spouse by treating them as though they are a child, including telling them what to eat, what to wear, or where they can go.
- Yelling, which is frequently a scare tactic and can be a way for an abusive person to let the other know who is in control (like they’re intimidating you into a submissive position).
- Using the other person’s fears; abusive people will often manipulate a person’s fears to control them.
- Withholding affection; abusers may punish a person for “bad” behavior by withholding affection or making them feel they are undeserving of love.
- Giving excessive gifts with the implication that these gifts may disappear at any time, or as a reminder of what they would lose if they left the relationship.
Playing the victim: The abusive person may try to turn the tables on the other person by blaming them for the issues they have not dealt with. They may even accuse the other person (the actual victim) of being the abusive one in the relationship. So, they push you to the point that you are angry enough to have an outburst at them, and then say that you’re verbally and emotionally abusive towards them, therefore you need to modify your behavior. Now they’re back in control because they’ve pushed you out of control, and they blame you for doing that. We’ve worked with cases where the husband provoked the wife to screaming and raging, and then calmly pointed out her irrational and crazy behavior as proof she was the problem. This also goes along with the gaslighting point we started with.
There are a number of ways that an abusive partner can shame their spouse:
- Lectures: The abusive person may give lectures about the other person’s behavior in a way to make it clear that the other person is inferior.
- Outbursts: This involves aspects of control, as well. Not doing what an abusive person wants may result in an outburst of angry behavior from them. It is both a way to control the person and make them feel shame for “not listening,” paying attention, or attending to them properly.
- Lies: Abusive spouses may blatantly lie, telling the person false opinions from their friends about their “bad” behavior. For example, “even your mom can see that you’re not a good housewife and has made comments to me about that.” This is often done in a way that you can’t verify whether the accusation is true or not.
- Walkouts: Abusive spouses may leave a situation rather than resolve it. In a disagreement at home, for example, they may remark about how the other person is “crazy.” This can put all the blame on the other person and make them feel ashamed while also not solving the issue and then the other person just walks away. So, they’ll leave you, and then they just detach from everything.
- Trivializing: If the other person wishes to talk about their issues or problems, the abusive person may criticize them for even having the issue or tell them that they are making a big deal out of nothing.
An example of trivializing is if you had a concern about an abusive spouse’s behavior and you want to talk about that and they turn around and tell you how ridiculous it is that you would even bring this up and act like you are you always nitpicking on them, and now there’s something wrong with you because you’re making a big deal out of nothing. Thus, they are trivializing you into feeling shame for even having brought up concern about me.
So, if there’s no chance ever to discuss what your spouse is doing wrong as the abuser in the relationship, that’s a good sign that the behavior is abusive. If you can’t get anything to stick to your spouse, again along with some of the other behaviors, that’s a sign of genuine emotional abuse. It’s not necessarily the defensiveness, but more the fact that your spouse is dumping it all back on you and indicating that the fact that you even brought it up means that the problem is you. Even though we’re almost always defensive at times as couples, even in healthy marriages, this is referring to when a spouse is never taking responsibility.
This can take a number of forms including:
- Blatant name-calling: abusive partners may blatantly call the other stupid, “an idiot,” or other harmful names. If confronted, they may try to pass it off as sarcasm or emphasize the times you may have called them a name back.
- Joking or sarcasm: Although sarcasm can be a tool for comedic release if both people enjoy the joke, abusive people can also disguise their derogatory remarks as sarcasm. Sarcasm can be a tool for comedic relief if you both enjoy the joke, but often abusive people disguise their derogatory remarks as sarcasm. If the other person feels offended, the abusive spouse may make fun of them further for “lacking a sense of humor.”
- Harmful nicknames: nicknames or pet names may be normal in relationships. However, a name that hurts is unacceptable if it harms one’s spouse.
- Public displays: abusive people may openly pick fights in public, only to blame the other person if they become angry. They may also pick on the other person or openly make fun of them in a social setting.
- Patronizing: this may include talking down to another person for trying to learn something new, or making it obvious that the person is “not on their level.” Again, in a healthy relationship, you should be able to talk about things that the other person doesn’t know, but there should be give and take. There shouldn’t be a sense of “you’re stupid” because I’m having to tell you this and I know so much more, which can go along with lecturing, or there’s no point in even telling you because you won’t get it (in a demeaning way), which is withholding information, another power tactic.
- Insults on appearance: an abusive person may insult the other’s appearance around others. Comments may include remarks about weight, body shape, or postpartum changes in your body.
- Cheating: abusive people may cheat on their partners to hurt or humiliate them, or to imply that they are highly desirable and you’re not, therefore you’re stuck with them, you’re lucky to have them, and you should be trying to please them.
If you’re listening and thinking that a lot of this is happening (it doesn’t have to be all of it), you went through the assessment and it indicated that your spouse is abusive, what now? It’s important to realize that you can’t fix the abuser, but there is a point where knowledge is power. You want to study, understand, expand your awareness. Two books that we recommend are The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans and Why Does He do That by Lundy Bankcroft. If it’s not safe to have those physical books around, you can get the Kindle app on your phone and download it there or go read it at a local library and leave the book there. They’re commonly available books.
Sometimes hope comes from leaving an abusive relationship because you can’t change the other person. And research shows that abusive men are most motivated to change when their spouse has left and they want them back. As long as you’re there and you can be controlled, there’s no reason for him to face his own demons.
Regardless of what action you decide to take, you certainly want to educate yourself about abuse and what it looks like. In some cases, you can start to call these things out and set boundaries and insist that they stop. In this way, you can renormalize the power in your relationship. But if doing that puts you in more danger or makes it worse, then your right to safety, emotionally and physically, is a greater moral importance than staying in the marriage. We’re pretty strong in upholding marriages, but there are certain cases where the right to respect, health, etc. takes priority over that and so you might consider making an action plan in that case. A person’s right to life, respect, and dignity is of higher value than upholding a marriage. Again, listen to our content on abusive relationships. This episode and the following two episodes are about abusive relationships. We talk about when you need to leave, how to leave, and how to make a safety plan.
 Gunnur Karakurt and Kristin Silver, “Emotional Abuse in Intimate Relationships: The Role of Gender and Age,” Violence and Victims 28, no. 5 (2013): 804–21.
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 Paige Sweet, “The Sociology of Gaslighting,” American Sociological Review 84, no. 5 (2019): 851–75, https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122419874843.
 Susan M. Johnson, The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: Creating Connection, 2 edition (New York: Routledge, 2004).
 Karakurt and Silver, “Emotional Abuse in Intimate Relationships: The Role of Gender and Age.”
 Zlatka Rakovec-Felser, “Domestic Violence and Abuse in Intimate Relationship from Public Health Perspective,” Health Pyschol Res. 2, no. 3 (2014): 1821, https://doi.org/10.4081/hpr.2014.1821.
 Tamara Hill, “10 Common Behaviors of the Abuser,” 2019,
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