Why Does Emotional Abuse Happen?

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 if 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?”

Before we answer the question, “Why does emotional abuse happen?” Let’s first define emotional abuse and what it does to the victim of emotional abuse.

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse can present itself within relationships in many different ways. The most common manifestation of emotional abuse is through having relationship control and power over the victim of emotional abuse.

Why Does Emotional Abuse Happen


Control is seized by the abuser through a mixture of criticism, explosions of anger, insults, neglectful behavior, and even threats once an emotional attachment with the victim has been established.

Being yelled at and criticized will make you question your abilities and sanity. Being neglected by someone you want attention and affection from leads to a lowered perception of your own sense of worth. Insults, even subtle ones, make you question your human right to self-determination. Threats add fear to this already emotionally toxic mixture.


If the victim of emotional abuse does not understand their situation and doesn’t recognize that their partner is an emotional abuser, then he or she will come to believe that they cannot survive without their abuser.

All the threats, anger, neglect, and insults have taken their toll and the victim, whose self-esteem has been destroyed, believes they cannot survive on their own.

If the abuser threatens to leave, fear sets in, and the victim clings to their abuser even more and becomes even more compliant in an effort to prevent their emotional abuser from leaving.

At this point, the emotional abuser has seized full control of the relationship and has absolute power over his or her partner.

Fortunately, emotional abuse is not an incurable disease! Emotional abuse can stop — provided the emotional abuser wants to.

Emotional abuse and all other forms of abuse are wrong! They cannot be justified, and the abuser cannot legitimately blame his or her partner. Emotional abuse is a personal failure on the part of the abuser!

Abusers can stop!

No one likes the idea of being labeled an emotional abuser, regardless of the type of abuse that is happening.

Some people have a reaction of horror when they realize that they’ve been causing so much pain to the person they care about the most. 

They really don’t realize they are an emotional abuser because they blame their partner for their anger and efforts to control the relationship.

Professional counseling with a caring therapist can be found for those in emotionally abusive relationships, whether they’re on the giving or receiving end of the abuse. 

Equally important and essential for those people who cannot find or afford counseling, is self-education. There are many good courses, books, and lay individuals that can help somebody replace anger, controlling behavior, and meanness with kindness, reasonableness, and respect.

In my counseling practice, I have helped countless men and women overcome emotional abuse and become loving and caring partners with those people they have chosen to live and often have children with.

Why would anyone marry an abuser?

It can be hard to see a relationship you voluntarily chose to join believing you would be loved and cared for 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 ways that hurt you. 

Regardless of the explanations for the emotional 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 during the dating and courtship aren’t very good. That is why a potential emotional abuser is on his or her best behavior during the informal period of getting to know one another.

The beginning of an abusive relationship starts like any other — flirting, acts of kindness, physical passion, and fun. You’re falling in love with who this person presents themselves to be, not who they will be once you are living with him or her and committed to one another. 

Typically within the first year of marriage, the victim of emotional abuse is ambushed by the onset of criticism, insults, neglect, and anger.

The real truth is that nobody would marry an abuser! But they might marry a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ — someone they believed would be loving and kind and turned out to be the opposite.

Why does emotional abuse happen?

The reason why a person becomes an emotional abuser is complex. There is no clear scientific evidence to point to a single cause, and there is no blood test that can determine who is an abuser and who is not.

While we cannot control our genetic inheritance, however, we can control the environment in which we live. And if we are parents, we can influence by example and education how our children will behave once they are adults.

A loving environment where all members of the family are treated with respect will most likely produce a kind, respectful, and loving adult.

On the contrary, a harsh environment where the value of family members is demeaned and disrespected will probably cause a person to have low self-esteem and poor self-worth. 

A child exposed to anger and a range of negative emotions may be a candidate for becoming an emotionally abusive adult. On the other hand, just as we don’t know ‘why’ someone becomes abusive, we also don’t know ‘why’ when someone is exposed as a child to an unhealthy home environment, he or she does not become abusive as an adult.

The following reasons, based on clinical experience and general psychological knowledge, explain some of the possible reasons why a person may become an emotional abuser.

1. Emotional abuse may be rooted in childhood.

Emotional abuse may be learned from one’s family of origin. 

Bad parenting

Parents who spoil their children are doing them no favors. Parents need to set limits and teach a child how to be satisfied with less than they want.

A child should not get their way by demanding or throwing temper tantrums.

When parents coddle their children and give them everything they want, they are setting them up to do the same once they are adults and make unreasonable and harsh demands upon their adult partner. Adult behavior like this is often the first step toward abuse.

A spoiled, narcissistic child believes that they are owed everything. As an adult, such a child is unprepared for the reality of a healthy relationship that requires sharing, respect, and acknowledgment of one’s partner’s human rights.

Sometimes, childhood neglect can also lead to an abusive adult. For example, if the child is home alone for many hours of the day and evening without any governance, they may become indulgent. Any limitations may seem foreign to them, and they will be resisted as an adult.

A person may have been raised with inadequate parenting, and this is the reason why they become an emotional abuser.

Observing abuse

Children often model what they see and understand. 

If children see “emotional abuse,” they may think that it is normal and that this is how to conduct oneself when they are in their own adult relationship.

In a family, abuse can come from a parent or a sibling. Such abuse is internalized by the observing child and then replicated in their own adult relationship.

Sometimes, it could be even deeper and more complex. An adult partner can behave towards his or her partner in the ways that he or she was treated or observe others being treated during their youth. It is a phenomenon similar to “trauma bonding.”

A trauma bond is a pathological connection an abused person has to their abuser. As an adult, even when the abusive person is no longer present, the victim may then turn into an abuser, reenacting what he or she experienced.

In these types of situations, it can be very difficult to identify the reason a person has a tendency to be cruel and insensitive toward others. A good relationship investigator —a good relationship doctor — can uncover these hidden causes of abuse.

Glorification of power

Some families have their own unique culture that glorifies power and violence. 

Guns, violence, war, and the like are central themes in homes where some abusers came from or in the homes that abusers have created for their own families. 

When strength and power are equated with ‘entitlement’ and the ‘right’ to do something, abuse goes with the turf.

Only families that recognize the intrinsic value of each individual and that decisions and governance are based on kindness and respect will abusive behavior find no place to live.

Individuals who were emotionally hurt because they were not given a full measure of love and respect as children, can still overcome their childhood deficiencies to be loving and caring partners and parents.

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 sometimes resort to bullying tactics to get others to acknowledge their worth. 

To the extreme, this can evolve into emotional abuse whereby the perpetrator tries 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.

3. Emotional abuse may be rooted in a person’s genetic code.

We all inherit a set of genes from our parents. These are tendencies, preferences, and attitudes that influence how we relate to other people. 

Yes, we cannot change our genetic code, but we can modify it through the use of our consciousness and willpower to become better than we would be if we were to surrender to our natural inclinations.

Some individuals with inherited tendencies may require medical attention. If that medical assistance is rejected, it is possible that such an individual is not fit to be in an intimate relationship with another person.

Personality disorders

Numerous personality disorders express themselves with extremely aggressive and insensitive behaviors.

Some examples of such disorders include narcissistic personality disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder.

Living with individuals who genuinely have severe cases of these personality disorders often means living with conflict, uncertainty, and disappointment, especially when the underlying disorder is left untreated.

The recipient of the emotionally unwell individual feels emotionally abused, and from a technical point of view, he or she is.

However, with appropriate medical and therapeutic help, it may be possible for such individuals to become ‘reasonable enough’ to contribute and live in a healthy and loving relationship. 

Impulse control

Due to their genetic constitution, some individuals find it difficult to resist their impulses and reactions to various situations.

An example of a condition where the lack of impulse control is known as Attention Deficit Disorder. Also, some people who are naturally prone to fits of anger and rage would qualify as an individual having a difficult time controlling their reactions to unwanted events and situations.

Individuals with the above conditions may or may not want to control their partners with anger, bullying, or selfish behavior.

Regardless, such behavior cannot be tolerated within an intimate relationship or family. 

There are many therapeutic and educational resources to help individuals who have difficulty controlling themselves to attain greater self-control and awareness so that they are more fit to live in close proximity to others.

We are all born with “good genes” and “bad genes.” Through education, determination, and a little help from Above, a person can overcome many natural but unwelcome tendencies and replace them with healthy and positive behaviors and attitudes that are good for oneself and for those whom one shares life with. 

Good marriages are made. Rarely do they happen on their own. Often, the essence of overcoming relationship difficulties is learning how to behave properly in spite of one’s genetic impulses and tendencies.

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 would when they are clean.

While substance abuse is not a direct cause of emotional abuse, it can increase a person’s tendencies to act emotionally abusive. Regardless of the cause of emotional abuse, a victim of emotional abuse suffers the same pain and humiliation.

If someone chooses to use drugs or alcohol, and others have told him or her that their intoxication brings out abusive behavior, it is the substance abuser’s responsibility to stop the abuse by getting clean. 

Refusing a lifestyle of sobriety means that they are unfit to live in an intimate relationship or family. They are causing havoc and hurt to each family member.

Whether or not they intend to abuse, they are the cause of their abusive behavior, and they must be held accountable.

There are many good programs to help people who are addicted to substances or other addictions, and there are many people who are in recovery or who have recovered.

The 15 Essential Facts Victims of Emotional Abuse Need to Know by family therapist Abe Kass

The 15 essential facts victims of emotional abuse need to know


So now you have the answer to the question, "Why does emotional abuse happen?"​

You’ve been presented with four general categories of explanations for “Why does emotional abuse happen?” Knowing why things happen will help you to figure out an appropriate remedy. If you’re being emotionally abused or are suffering from any other type of abuse, get the help that you need. Abuse is serious, and, unfortunately, many people have lost their lives at the hands of their abuser. Even if your physical safety is not at stake, your emotional health is! 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 should “abuse” be the price that has to be paid to maintain the relationship — even when there are children in the family! Professional help is available and comes in many forms. If you need outside help, reach out to others who can assist you. It is important to know that emotional abusers can change and that many have done so.

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abe kass

Abe has helped thousands of individuals, couples, and families for twenty-five-plus years. When it comes to relationship expertise — Abe is the real deal and can be trusted!

abe kassProfessional Therapist Abe Kass MA RSW RMFT

Abe has helped thousands of individuals, couples, and families for twenty-five-plus years. When it comes to relationship expertise — Abe is the real deal and can be trusted!