Bob tells me ‘his story’ and asks: “Why does emotional abuse happen?”
The scene that has happened so many times before was unfolding in front of me again.
I tried to joke with Cecilia the way I do with everyone else, but she took it as an attack and responded by shutting me down.
I’ve always been easygoing and good-humored, qualities that she used to love about me, but now… it seems that the only way to speak to her properly is to compliment her.
I’m walking on eggshells, finding that I have to really think hard about what I say around her. Some days I am so afraid I say nothing.
Slipping up could mean ending up being chastised, verbally abused, or given the complete cold shoulder for days, all of which make me feel like in her eyes, I’m some kind of monster.
And sometimes I wonder that maybe I am a horrible person. I think to myself, “I must have done something to make Celia so angry, so abusive to me.” That I must have done something to turn her into an abuser!
Whatever I do for Cecilia is never good enough! — I am always feeling bad around her.
At other times I am more rational. I realize being an abuser is something Cecelia chooses to be — that no matter what I do I don’t deserve to be abused!
As far as I knew, Cecilia had received more than enough attention from her parents when she was growing up, and even after their divorce, they tried to keep their relationship civilized for the sake of their kids.
So, what was she exposed to that made her see herself as justified in her abusive actions? What was it at her core that made her this way?
The beginning of our relationship was like magic— we were compatible in all of the most important ways and the time we spent together never seemed like enough. I found myself longing to be with her when I wasn’t.
But after some time, she started to act manipulative towards me, making me feel bad for spending my time or money on anything but her.
I had such a hard time trying to understand how the woman I fell in love with became the person I was now stuck with. Every day, I ask myself the question, “Why does emotional abuse happen?”
Why would anyone marry an abuser?
It can be hard to see a relationship you care about turn into a nightmare because of emotional abuse. You may wonder how things changed and why they did, or even how this person you love can justify acting in the ways that hurt you. Regardless of the reason behind the abuse, it’s important to remember that it isn’t your fault — there’s nothing that you did to deserve being abused.
Emotionally abusive relationships never start out that way. Think about it — the odds of someone staying in a relationship that was abusive from the start aren’t very good.
The beginning of an abusive relationship starts like any other — flirting, sweet acts of kindness, physical passion, and fun. You’re falling in love with who this person presents themselves to be, only to be ambushed by the onset of subtle insults, neglect, and emotional pain.
By the time you realize that this person is no longer who you fell for, you’re enduring full-blown abuse, but find it difficult to leave the relationship because you’re bound to him or her in so many ways. Your attachment to your abuser, based on how they used to be, renders you incapable of seeing him or her for what they really are: A wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Why does emotional abuse happen?
Our personalities and characteristics are often shaped by the environments that we’re most exposed to. A loving environment where all members are treated with respect will most likely produce a kind, respectful, loving personality.
On the contrary, a harsh environment where the value of members is demeaned and disrespected will probably cause a person to be anxious, self-conscious, and fearful. Such a person may be on the road to becoming emotionally abusive, verbally abusive, and psychologically abusive (these three expressions of abuse depict the same type of bad behavior).
1. Emotional abuse may be rooted in childhood.
Abuse is something that is learned — no one wakes up one morning and makes the conscious decision to start acting abusively without having an idea of what it looks like or what it can help them achieve.
It is up to the parents to set limits and teach a child how to be satisfied, even when he or she is disappointed because they didn’t get everything they wanted.A child needs to learn to be satisfied with less than what he or she wants. In the mind of the child, control should not be equated with getting his or her way.
When this doesn’t happen, a child grows up spoiled and thinks that the world owes him or her everything. As an adult, the idea that his or her partner will assert natural limitations by having rights and needs will appear fundamentally unreasonable to this person.
Part of growing up is learning how to cope with not being able to control everything we wish we could. A spoiled, narcissistic child believes that he or she is owed everything. As an adult, he or she is not prepared for reality nor that resources and freedoms are shared in the context of how they impact others.
A child who regularly sees his parents verbally abuse each other can easily accept what he or she is observing is what a ‘normal’ romantic relationship looks like. If the only relationships a child ever observed or experienced included abuse, why would he or she think it is abnormal or unhealthy?
Unfortunately, some experiences that people have in their formative years include being a witness or a victim of abuse, whether it be physical, sexual, or emotional. Research has clearly demonstrated that these observations or actually being a victim of abuse predisposes the child to then go and abuse once he or she is an adult.
Glorification of power
Some families have their own unique culture that glorifies power and violence. The child is taught that ‘might makes right.’ Guns, violence, war, and the like are central themes in homes where some abusers emerge from. They enter into adulthood feeling that being ‘strong’ is the way to assert one’s personal value. For men, strength over others proves one’s worth and masculinity.
Children who are neglected by their parents may be forced into self-reliance that isn’t age-appropriate. Because of this, the child may develop a very determined personality that is determined to overcome adversity. In a relationship, such a child, now as an adult is disinclined to step back when confronted with and challenged by the needs of his or her partner. Their attitude becomes that of ‘my way or the highway,’
Even when abuse is learned as a child, he or she has to make choices as an adult. Every adult, regardless of his or her upbringing, has a choice of whether or not they continue the cycle of abusive behavior and bring it into their own relationships. In fact, I know many people who have had emotional abuse as a part of their lives and have chosen not to bring those behaviors forward into future relationships. They can see the damage that emotional abuse causes and they successfully keep it out of their lives.
2. Emotional abuse may be rooted in low self-esteem.
There are many reasons individuals have low self-esteem. Most of them never become abusers, but some do. Here’s why:
Avoid thinking of self
When a person has low self-esteem, they often don’t like to think about themselves. The negative thoughts that come through reflection are painful. One of the many ways to avoid thinking about oneself is to find fault in others and to create arguments. Doing so keeps the focus outside of oneself. Thus, abuse and all its associated volatility are self-serving.
Force others to acknowledge their personal value
People who feel worthless and unappreciated will sometimes resort to bullying tactics to get others to acknowledge their worth. To the extreme, this can evolve into emotional abuse whereby the perpetrator is trying to force the victim into acknowledging his or her superiority. Although extremely dysfunctional and self-defeating, it’s a way for the person with low self-esteem to now feel that he or she has value.
Some abusive individuals have a low emotional IQ. For whatever reason, their age does not reflect their ability to think, feel, and behave in a responsible and reasonable way. It’s as if the victim is married to a child — the only difference is that their partner has an adult body and adult resources and uses them to victimize his or her power.
Abuse as a tonic for low self-esteem is doomed to fail. An abuser is feared, not loved. Such a relationship with others can only lead to failed relationships, lack of intimacy, and avoidance. All of these are prescriptions of what isn’t wanted because it confirms their low self-esteem.
3. Emotional abuse may be rooted in a person’s genetic code.
Technically, people who have genetic maladies aren’t really abusers. Rather, they are unwell individuals that need medical help. However, since some of you are trying to sort out why you are being emotionally abused, I have included this category as part of the explanation.
There are numerous personality disorders that express themselves with extremely aggressive and insensitive behaviors. Some examples of such disorders include narcissistic personality disorder, bipolar disorder (which is actually a mood disorder), and borderline personality disorder. Living with these individuals often means living in terror, especially when the underlying disorder is left untreated.
Due to their genetic constitution, some individuals find it difficult to resist their impulses. It is not that the intent is to abuse their partners, but that they just don’t know how to restrain their own desires. As a result, they often overwhelm and even crush, their partners.
People with genetic predispositions for aggressive and abusive behavior are not intentionally abusive, but there are appropriate therapies and medical treatments to help them learn to restrain themselves and act in a more socially acceptable way. Taking the necessary steps to eliminate negative behavior can help to keep them accountable. If the individual doesn’t have the emotional and mental resources to get the help needed, they should refrain from such intimate relationships with others.
4. Emotional abusive behaviour can be increased by substance abuse.
When a person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they don’t behave the way they normally do. While substance abuse is not at the root of emotional abuse, it can increase a person’s tendencies to act emotionally abusive. Someone who would otherwise be reasonably mannered might reveal their abusive side when alcohol or drugs enter the picture. Although these individuals might claim that the substances are the cause of the abuse, there is no excuse for their behavior.
If someone chooses to use drugs or alcohol and others have told him or her that their intoxication brings out abusive behavior, it is now their responsibility to stop. Refusing to kick the habit means that they must be held accountable and correctly labeled as abusive, as anyone without the consumption of substances would be.
So now you have the answer to the question, “Why does emotional abuse happen?”
You’ve been presented with four general categories of explanations of why emotional abuse, verbal abuse, and psychological abuse occur. Knowing why things happen will help you to figure out an appropriate response. If you’re being emotionally, verbally, or psychologically abused, or are suffering from any other type of abuse, please get the help that you need.
Abuse is serious and, unfortunately, many people have actually lost their lives at the hands of their abuser. Even if your physical safety is not at stake, your emotional health is at stake.
Learn more about emotional abuse and come up with a plan to either change your situation or exit the relationship. Nobody should have to live with abuse in any form that should not be the price that is paid to maintain a relationship.
Professional help is available and comes in many forms. As you learn more about emotional abuse, you will understand more clearly the exact type of help that will be most helpful to you. If you need outside help, reach out so that others can assist you.
It is important to know that emotional abusers can change.
If you are the victim of abuse (or you are an abuser) you will want to know if your abuser (or you) can stop abusing. Answer the 15 questions confidential Emotional Abuse Quiz and find out. ONE MILLION INDIVIDUALS have taken this scientific-based Emotional Abuse Test!
About the author
Abe Kass, MA, RSW, RMFT, CCHT., is a Registered Social Worker, Registered Couple and Family Therapist, Certified Hypnotherapist, and award-winning Educator. He has a busy clinical practice in Toronto, Canada, and throughout the world using the phone or Zoom.
After many years of clinical practice and research, Abe concluded that practical solutions requiring a focused effort of no more than a few minutes a day for very specific relationship problems were critically needed. GoSmartLife Publishing House has been created to fill this need.