Category Archives: Emotional Abuse

Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Dr. Sue Johnson and her colleagues pioneered Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), a therapy that is successful with as high as 70% of couples. Note that Dr. Johnson states that EFT does not work with “abusive relationships.” She describes 3 common “demon dialogues” that create problems that require counseling: The point of this blog is to help differentiate some of the types of relationships are not suited for couples counseling, even with a therapy as successful as EFT.

Note that these “demon dialogues” include emotional abuse. For example, the demon dialogue that she describes as “Find the Bad Guy” is the shame and blame game, which is emotionally abusive. In the Protest Polka, there is critism and withdrawal, and in Freeze and Flee, both partners have emotionally withdrawn. So when does the emotional abuse in a relationship require a different approach? The dividing line that I have found useful is that there is a pervasive pattern of psychological abuse. In other words, there are a number of different types of emotional abuse used by at least one partner in a frequent or relentless way. (See types of Emotional Abuse:

If one partner is addicted, there is often a pattern of Gaslighting in an attempt to hide the addiction. In order to heal the relationship, the addiction must be addressed. Sometimes the pervasive pattern of abuse dissipates once the addiction is in remission, and sometimes it escalates. Sometimes a pattern of emotional abuse in an addicted family system persists because at least one party never learned how to fight fair or the addicted family system needs to heal. These two scenarios are dynamics that couples and family counseling can often improve.

However, if a pervasive pattern of emotional abuse persists, a couple is better served by each party getting their own counseling, at least until there is significant progress by the abusing partner(s).  Abusers tend to manipulate the counseling session to scapegoat their partner in couples counseling and the abuse may escalate (often after counseling sessions when the counselor is not present to observe). In this aspect, these emotionally abusive relationships are very similar to other forms of domestic violence.

In fact, if there is a pattern of coercive control, there is a risk of physical violence when the abused partner leaves, even when there has been no previous physical abuse. Couples counseling may feed an emotional abuser’s internal and external dialogue that his/her partner is the cause of the abuser’s distress. The abusive party needs to deal with his or her own internal defenses that are abusive – it is not just a communication problem or a case of normal attachment needs going unmet.  And it is important to have a feedback loop with the primary counselor of the abusive partner with the abused partner to insure that the changes the primary counselor sees in his/her client are being carried over into the couple’s relationship.

Unfortunately, too many abusers refuse to go to counseling or drop out prematurely. Recovery is a slow, gradual process when it does occur. While all of the above mentioned patterns can lead to relationship dissolution, couples counseling is dangerous when there is physical abuse or a pervasive pattern of emotional abuse.

It is important to address the needs of the abused partner. Often, there is so much focus on the abusive partner and his/her intensive needs, that the very real needs and welfare of the abused party are neglected. Long-term emotionally abusive relationships can impair psychological health, resulting in depression and/or an anxiety disorder, as well as have health consequences to the rest of the body, creating illness and reducing vitality and longevity.  While the good news is that there is a couples therapy, EFT, that is wildly successful with a majority of couples, couples therapy in general is unsafe with some emotionally abusive couples.

Beliefs Prejudicial toward the Abused in Abusive Relationships

cartoon couple with telescopeOne of the problems people have who have grown up with emotionally abusive parenting or who have lived with an emotionally abusive partner is that when they try to describe their experiences to others, people think that they are exaggerating. Others will try to normalize the abused person’s suffering, saying that everyone loses their temper occasionally. Much of our popular psychology advice addresses relatively normal problems between people. Even family and couple’s counseling addresses emotional abuse as a matter of problems that gradually escalated out of hand over time, whereas, when one party is an emotional abuser and personality disordered, the abuse suddenly escalates after the other partner has been swept off their feet and the “honeymoon” phase is over.  For someone with an emotionally abusive partner or parent, the abuse can be relentless and/or over-the-top and out-of-proportion every time the abuser is upset. If a person hasn’t experienced it, it is highly difficult to imagine.

Another caveat of family and couple’s counseling that fails people with emotionally abusive partnering is the die-hard conviction that people in a relationship are equally sick. And sometimes that is true. And often, it is not. Subconsciously, people with personality disorders sometimes seek partners who are highly flexible and highly patient and good-natured. They have uses for these traits and can readily manipulate their partners’ benevolence toward tolerating their rigidity and self-centered insistence that others tolerate their difficult moods and need to control.

While the abused may be “too good for their own good,” that is a far cry from being personality disordered. Often the abused partners in these relationships are highly functional, but somewhat uncertain of themselves and their boundaries after growing up with a highly critical or otherwise abusive parent. The abused partner often has worked hard on themselves and has all or most of the basic skills needed to maintain a satisfying relationship, but are partnered to someone whose disorder makes it impossible to maintain a healthy relationship. In counseling, an abuser may present charming, flummoxed, or may perfectly model the role playing exercise prescribed by the therapist in session, only to berate their partner all the way home. With counseling, emotionally abused partners in my practice go on to find much more loving partners after leaving their abusive partner. All too often, abusers drop out of counseling and go on to find another victim or someone who is also personality disordered.

These are not patterns that would be predicted by the theory that both parties in a relationship are equally dysfunctional. Yes, everyone has issues, but that is far different from equally disordered. A common complication is that the abused party in an abusive relationships often develops an anxiety and/or depressive disorder due to the stress of the relationship. Both courts and counselors may target the abused as the problem, ignoring the personality disordered person who presents well because they have developed intense defenses like being super charming, highly skilled at lying, being highly resolute, etc. (and have unloaded all of their stress on their partner and/or their children).  Counselors and the court system need to become more sophisticated about the dynamics of abusive relationships, including emotionally abusive relationships. Otherwise both the mental health field and the legal system collude in enabling abusers and persecuting the abused.

Abusive Political Tactics resemble the Tactics of Emotional Abusers


A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation. – James Freeman Clarke

It is an apt time to discuss the tactics of abusers, including political abusers. With climate change and ocean acidification looming in our future with an ever narrowing time frame in which to react, it is urgent that we be able to identify abusers in the public arena and cease electing them to public office. Knowledge of the dynamics of abuse is a start:

Abusers wear their opponents down by being unfairly Relentless, Rigid and Repetitive. The goal of emotional abusers is to confuse people, even members of their own party or household. They intuitively know that all they have to do is to create doubt to immobilize resistance.

Abusers play head games. They engage in and promote all or nothing thinking. A particularly nefarious head game is entrapping others in Catch-22 situations, often utilizing cultural mores for destructive means.

Abusers insinuate that you have major character flaws or have violated ethical principles without giving specific examples or by giving examples that are relatively insignificant. Their communication tends to remain in the abstract, but the inference is that you are bad or have done something really bad. Abusers harp on a minor complaint as if it were a big deal. Abusers traffic in innuendo.

Abusers make it difficult or impossible for you to do something, and then complain when it doesn’t get done or raise the bar when you succeed against the odds. An abuser is never satisfied – that is not the goal. The goal is to keep you off balance and playing by their rules by continually discrediting you.

Abusers adamantly protest that something isn’t true if the truth doesn’t serve their goals. The truth rarely supports their goals. An abuser will swear up and down that they haven’t done something when they have.

Abusers Lie as a tool of manipulation and control. Lies can take several forms:

  • Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
  • Bluff and Bluster
  • Obfuscate with word salad
  • Double Speak: Use lofty sounding principles using code that has a different and specialized meaning relative to their own psychological make-up, or in the case of politicians, their own political group. In other words, what is spoken is not what is meant in normal parlance. It has a secondary meaning or purpose.
  • Say one thing, do another. Politicians make use of the fact that Americans rarely follow any issue consistently.
  • Lie Blatantly.
  • Use the exception to prove the rule.
  • Make arrogant comments.
  • Debates facts, like Climate Change, as if they were opinions
  • Rapid fire, sentences or short phrases (incomplete ideas).
  • Braggadocio

Abusers are often Economically abusive. One glaring political example is the shaming of poor people after the Great Recession. Abusive politicians worked in concert with economic power brokers to set up an economic system like a row of dominoes, and then blamed the dominoes when they fell.  Abusers blame the victim for the mess that the abusers themselves orchestrated. Economic abusers hide resources, lie about finances, steal, cheat, and mishandle resources.

Abusers violate their agreements and the basis for the relationship. ALEC, an alternative legislative process has been established by corporations, acting outside of the constitution. This is the political equivalent of leading a double life.

Abusers have no tolerance for mistakes by you, but claim laxity for themselves. For them the Double Standard is the Golden Rule. They don’t play fair and live by their own set of Rules.

Abusers equate the inequitable. You do It too! This common tactic ignores that fact that the abuser does it to a much greater extent. Since everyone makes mistakes, there is often a smidgeon of truth to what they say, but it is a truth stretched to the max.

Abusers refuse reasonable compromises and insist on unreasonable compromises. Then they complain that you won’t compromise. Abusers will accuse you of the thing that they are doing. If you hold them accountable for their bullying ways, they will complain that they are being bullied.

Note that failing in an earnest attempt at improving the common good is not abusive. Also note that occasional abuses do not an abuser make. Abusers engage in a pervasive pattern of multiple abuses.

Abusers have no intentions of fixing problems because problems serve their dysfunctional goals. Abusers obstruct if they don’t get their way. In families and the culture at large, abusers create conditions that promote physical, emotional, and environmental illness. It is time to learn to recognize bullies, rather than elect them.

©Noreen Wedman 2014

Noreen Wedman is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, WA. Ms. Wedman has been registered or licensed to practice counseling in Washington state for 24 years. She is author of a Toolkit for Healing from Verbally Abusive Relationships and author of the forthcoming Journal for Healing from Emotionally Abusive Relationships.

Relief in Identifying an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

Having words for what is being experienced in an emotionally abusive relationship is inherently empowering and validating. Many people in emotionally abusive relationships have the experience of trying to explain what is happening to them and not feeling understood because they do not have words to describe what is happening. In addition, the degree to which they are being emotionally abused is so far above what is normal that they may appear as if they are exaggerating when they are not.  To assist others in identifying Emotional abuse and communicating what they are experiencing, I have compiled a list of types of Verbal and Emotional Abuse.

Discovering words for what has happened to you infers that someone else has experienced the same thing and that along brings relief. You are not making this up. Having a name for your experience of emotional abuse helps you sort out which issues belong to the abuser (and which issues are yours), confront the invalidation of the emotionally abusive person, and elicit support from others.

The article, “How to Recognize an Emotionally Abusive Relationship,” provides an excellent list on how to recognize the signs of whether you are in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship. To their list, I have added these signs:

  • Changes from treating you well early in the relationship to treating you poorly once the relationship has progressed to an increased level of commitment;
  • Relentless pursuit and stalking when you end the relationship;
  • The abuser implies, “I can do it better,” but the abuser doesn’t offer help or criticizes you even more.

Sometimes how we are raised leaves us with blind spots in recognizing emotional abuse. For example, if you grew up in a verbally abusive home, you may think that it’s normal. In addition, emotionally abusive relationships erode self-esteem, confidence, and are confusing. Being able to recognize the signs of an emotionally abusive relationship is a big step toward healing.