One 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.