with Emotional Abuse
By Pamela Brewer MSW, Ph.D., LCSW-C
|Are you never "good
Are you anxious and worried about what will happen when you and your significant
other are together? Apart?
Are you the subject of name-calling?
Are you the subject of yelling?
Are you the subject of screaming?
Are you the subject of threats?
these are not all the examples of emotional
abuse - they are intended to provide you with
a start-off point from which to consider your
own circumstance. If you determine that you
have/are in an abusive relationship - you may
assistance in trying to consider what you should
do now. Emotionally abusive relationships can
often result in a difficulty with self-advocacy.
You have learned at the hands of your abuser
to question your self and your value. As you
move to make decisions and observations about
yourself, you are likely to seek out validation
for much of what you think and do.
This is an option you have. You do not have to
do this - but you can choose to do this. The
most important thing is that you allow yourself
the gift and the right to only be in environments
that are respectful of you.
One of the most difficult things about emotional
abuse is what it "looks" like. Unlike
physical abuse - there are no visible scars.
Unlike sexual assault - it can be difficult
to describe or explain. Unlike verbal abuse
can sometimes be difficult to know what is
happening. But just like all abuse - it hurts.
a lot - it can hurt a long time - and it can
cause a great deal of damage to the self-esteem.
Emotional abuse can almost seem like the mystery
hurt - once in it - you can become so much
consumed with it and subsumed by it - that
you do not
even know what is happening. You can certainly
have a hard time naming the experience. Naming
the behavior is the first critical step to
escaping the behavior - and the trap of low
Just what is emotional abuse? It is the ongoing
emotional environment created by your abuser
for the purposes of control. It's sort of like
a search and destroy mission. In this war,
the abuser experiences your self-esteem, your
self, your energy, your ability to feel and
question and want and need and be.... as the
ability to be separate from your partner -
an alive and thinking human being - is what
abuser most fears. At least, that's what it
feels like to your abuser. Unable to tolerate
you are - your abuser sets out to create an
artificial self that he/she is then able to
mold. The undertow
in this dynamic is the abuser’s low regard
for him/her self. The unspoken - intolerable
fear that she/he is not "good enough." You
are taught to feel and believe all those things
the abuser was taught to feel about him/herself.
You become the walking, talking embodiment of
fear, anxiety and remorse that she/he has struggled
with for much of her/his life.
Here are just a few of the "lessons" an
emotionally abusive person can teach:
You are always wrong.
Everything is your fault.
You are of no value in the relationship.
You are intrusive when you ask how your partner's
You are "suspicious" when you question
why you have not heard from him/her in the
way you usually communicate.
You are so stupid you cannot even _________________
(fill in the blanks).
You are fat, you are stupid, you are ugly,
no one wants you, no one likes you.
You cannot handle life without your partner.
You cannot try anything new.
You would not be anyone if you did not have
You are nagging or stupid if you disagree.
The affair he/she is having is your fault.
All types of abuse leave you frightened.
The fear may not be limited to a fear for
safety. The fear can more amorphous. You
know you do not feel strong. You do not feel
you can take risks. You do not even believe
it is acceptable to try.
The abuse can start slowly, and perhaps not
even feel like abuse - just a simple "it's all
your fault" here and there. Be warned
that emotional abuse is often the precursor
Consider this example "I've been married
for 26 years…. At first, it wasn't really
anything but as the years progress ... everything
is my fault ... conversation is 0. If I can figure
out what kind of answer he is looking for ...
he has become increasingly physical ... pinning
my arms … to the point of bruises ...
pulling my hair ... making me do things that
to cry... it only seems to increase his excitement
... sometimes I am really scared because
I am afraid that he will break my neck one
This writer tells, unfortunately, a classic
tale of emotional abuse, then physical abuse
sexual abuse. And typically the cycle is
that the abuser, at some point, apologizes
abuse. Then comes the honeymoon period during
which things are relatively fine - and then
the abuse starts all over again.
People who have grown up in abusive homes
can easily duplicate those experiences in
lives. If you grew up in an abusive family,
you know how frightening and hurtful the
was. Do all you can to protect yourself and
your children in the way that your family
or could not when you were a child. If you
were the victim of abuse as a child - you
too well how much that hurt - you do not
have to reenact your childhood pain in your
life. You do not have to treat others as
you were treated.
Typically abuse, once begun, only escalates.
Unless the abuser accepts responsibility
for his/her behavior and seeks professional
- it is quite likely the abuse will continue
However, if the abused person demands that
the abuser participate in counseling or else
if the abuser agrees to the counseling, it
is likely to be short lived. The abuser will
able to benefit from counseling when the
abuser believes and acknowledges that counseling
critical to recovery. Why? Until the abuser
owns the behavior and his/her obligation
to end the
abuse, the behavior continues. Sometimes
the courts demand counseling. Sometimes the
weight of mandated counseling does have an
effect. Sometimes the awareness that a loved
leave the relationship in one way or another
will jolt the abuser into an acceptance that
the behavior must stop. And sometimes not.
My husband is a very abusive person. We have
been married for eight years now and it doesn't
get any better and it doesn't improve. ... He
calls me a nut, humiliates me in front of my
children." The emotional abuse, indeed,
so often leads to escalating abuse and feelings
I could divorce him, but I can not afford to
give up my current lifestyle." When the "current
lifestyle" includes violence of any
kind - emotional, physical, sexual, verbal
can not afford not to look for healthier
There is help. There is support. No one deserves
to be frightened, terrorized or helped to
feel hopeless and helpless about themselves
When you find yourself climbing out of the
fog, tentatively at first - or perhaps with
of energy long buried, you begin to notice
that all the things your abusive partner
could not do - you can do! You can survive!
Do try to access the many sources of help
to you ... the bookstore and library are
good beginning resources. The following are
National Council on Child Abuse and Family
National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
National Women's Resource Center - 1-800-354-8824
Dr. Pamela Brewer is the director of Cedar
Lane Psychotherapy Services Inc. a private
psychotherapy practice in Bethesda, Maryland.
Since 1997, Dr. Brewer has also been the
monthly relationship and mental on-air consultant
NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, DC Tri-State
area and host of the popular MyNDTALK radio
program. For more information, visit: www.myndtalk.com