It is quite ironic that the person who loves you the best is also the person who is able to hurt you most deeply. Apparently, romantic relationships entail a great deal of suffering. Everybody seems to think that this is unavoidable, that suffering is just the price of admission for being loved. However, I think that it doesn’t have to be this way, that if we hurt the person we love it’s because we must be doing something wrong. It seems that when we reach a certain degree of intimacy we start allowing ourselves some behaviors that bring conflict and emotional damage. Then, perhaps what we should do is to learn to recognize those behaviors and ways to avoid them. We should learn to love in a better, healthier way.
“Abuse” is a strong word. We tend to neatly divide the world between abusers, who deserve our scorn and even jail time; victims, who must be protected and healed, and then the rest of us, nice people who are neither abusers or victims. This classification works quite well when it comes to physical abuse, because physical damage is relatively easy to identify. Likewise, social taboos about unwanted sexual contact are normally clearly established within any given society. However, there are no such clear boundaries when it comes to emotional abuse. Whether a particular act is abusive or not depends not so much on the act itself but on context, intention, how often the act is repeated, and how resilient or vulnerable is the person on the receiving end. Perhaps this explains why we hurt the person we love so often, sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently. When it comes to emotional damage, we all can be small-scale abusers and victims. Of course, there are the real psychological abusers, those who cause emotional damage in an intentional or habitual way with the objective of bringing the other person under their control. Emotional abuse could be defined as any behavior that causes psychological damage, produces dependence and decrease the self-esteem of the target person. It is based on using three key emotions, fear, guilt and shame, which are used to break the psychological balance of a person.
Here is a list of behaviors involved in emotional abuse:
- Coercion is defined as a demand that can’t be refused without bringing about serious negative consequences. One clear example is coerced sex; imposed, for example, under the threat of a fight. But coercion can be used to obtain many other things: going to a party, socializing with some particular people, choosing a vacation spot, how to decorate the house, or when to have children.
- Threats are one of the most direct forms of coercion. They evoke fear to get what we want. One of the most frequent threats in a couple is breaking up. This usually happen as a result of an unbalance of power based on one person valuing the relationship more than the other. It could be that she is more in love or that the relationship brings on advantages that he doesn’t want to lose. In these case, the impending threat of the break-up can become an unspoken but powerful coercion. It often happen that this threat is just a bluff.
- Frightening. Threats are just one way of using fear to control a person. Emotional manipulation can prosper in an environment of high anxiety created by actions like screaming, throwing things, breaking things, risking safety or breaking the law. The simple presence of fear creates an environment of oppression.
- Blackmail is a form of coercion that consist in threatening to do something that the other person doesn’t want us to do if he does not comply with our demands. The most familiar form of blackmail is the threat of telling about something. One clear example is “outing”: revealing that somebody is gay, bisexual, into BDSM, polyamorous, or any other form of sexuality not approved by society.
- Emotional blackmail consists in using fear, obligation or guilt (sometimes this is abbreviated by the acronym FOG) with the goal of pressuring another person to do what we want. There are four types of emotional blackmail. The first consists in the threat of punishment. A classic example in couples is the withdrawal of sex or affection. The second type is self-punishment: the threat of harming oneself. An extreme but all-too-familiar case is the threat of suicide. A milder case is that sulking attitude when we don’t get what we want. The third type of emotional blackmail consists in engaging in acts of self-sacrifice with the goal of evoking guilt. These include all those acts of service that are done not out of goodwill or love, but to get something in exchange. The fourth type is perhaps the most difficult to recognize, because it consists in offering a price in exchange for getting what we want. A classic example is offering candy to a child in exchange for a kiss. In a couple, offering sex as a price may seem like a good idea at first, but in fact this is not very different from withdrawing sex when we don’t get what we want. It leads to the creation of a manipulative environment in which we don’t know why things are done.
- Breaking boundaries. We all have things that we never want to do or want done to ourselves: those are our boundaries. In a healthy relationship each person defines what their boundaries are and respects the boundaries of the other. Problems arise either when boundaries are not clearly defined or when they are known but are broken nevertheless.
- Sabotage. This includes instances of not respecting the work, family and social obligations of our lover. The most typical case is when a couple’s brawl leaves us so upset that we cannot focus on work. In this case the sabotage is involuntary and indirect. A step up from that is when somebody has so little respect for their partner that he gives no consideration to her work schedule or the time he needs to devote to family and friends. Time and attention can be misappropriated, for example, by forcing dates or phone conversations at inopportune times. In the more extreme cases of abuse, the abuser directly interferes with the work or social environment of the victim with the clear goal of undermining them. I know a case of a husband who called her wife’s boss to tell him the she was quitting the job, which was not her intention at all.
- Lack of communication. Good communication is vital in any healthy relationship. It is hard even in the best situations, so it becomes nearly impossible when somebody sabotages it as part of a manipulative strategy. One example of this is the “silent treatment” (refusing to talk) or its modern version: blocking in social media. Another example is doing the opposite: talking continuously to create a “Wall of Words” that prevents the other person from talking.
- Lying. Of course, the worst form of lack of communication is not telling the truth. Lying could be considered as a way of taking power away from somebody, because misinformation prevents that person from making the best decisions. Lying is considered the main offense in infidelity, but any form of lying or dishonesty is harmful in a relationship because it undermines trust.
- Gaslighting is an extreme form of psychological abuse consisting in the systematic manipulation of the information that is provided to a person. The goal is to weave of a web of lies, half-truths, secrets and deceptions that creates a distorted view of reality. This is often done with the goal of hiding a situation of generalized abuse. Gaslighting greatly harms the self-esteem and may cause the victim to question her own sanity. The name comes from the play Gas Light and its movie adaptations.
- Keeping secrets. The question of whether is OK to keep secrets from our partner is a delicate one. On the one hand, everybody has a right to his own privacy - some things are so intimate that we want to keep them from absolutely anybody. On the other hand, hiding some things that our partner has the right to know could be considered lying by omission. The most clear examples are STIs and adultery.
- Invading privacy. The other side of that coin is privacy. Everybody has a right to reveal things about themselves only if they want to, when they want to and how they want to. We also have a right that whatever we tell somebody in confidence is not revealed to third persons without our consent. Even if it is not right to keep some things secret, that doesn’t mean that we may use coercion to force somebody to reveal a secret. The most clear example of violation of privacy, unfortunately common these days, is to search a cell phone or a computer for information without the permission of the owner.
- Complaints and criticisms. Complaining is normal. If something is not going well in the relationship it is essential for good communication to talk about it. But there are many ways to say something. When complaints and criticisms are made with the intention of evoking shame and guilt, we have entered the territory of emotional mistreatment. Problems should be presented at the right occasion, preferably with enough time to discuss them without feeling rushed. There should be no intention of hurting and offending. Like in many other things, quantity matters: a long list of reproaches is offensive. We should also pay attention to two bad habits related to this. The first is to be easily offended, so that whoever talks to us is kept on edge, having to constantly self-censor. Obviously, this gets in the way of good communication. The other bad habit is to present oneself as the victim, a common strategy of psychological abusers.
- Shaming. Even more than guilt, shame is the emotion that damages most the self-esteem. Consider, for example, all the cases of homosexual teenagers that are driven to suicide by shaming from their parents, their teachers, their classmates or religious authorities. One of the most common instances of emotional abuse are degrading comments and continuous criticism. A extreme case of shaming is cyber-bullying: the harassment and public shaming of individuals in social networks. Another form of shaming is to berate people not for what they do but for who they are, like their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or culture. Here we enter on the territory of bigotry and intolerance.
- Not apologizing. We all make mistakes, so we all should be ready to apologize when we hurt another person. A timely apology could mean the difference between a fight that is satisfactorily resolved and another that leaves scars for a lifetime. It could also mean the difference between a mistake done without malice or an act of deliberate abuse. When a person in a couple apologizes all the time and the other never does it, that is a sign that something is really wrong.
- Not forgiving. Not accepting an apology can undermine the dignity of the person offering it and thus can be hurtful and aggressive. Of course, not everything could or should be forgiven. In fact, in many instances of abuse there is a pathological form or forgiveness based on co-dependency - the victim constantly forgives the abuser, even making far-fetched excuses for the abuse. A necessary condition for forgiveness should be that the deed to be forgiven has ended. We can’t forgive somebody who persists in the misbehavior. On the other hand, not granting forgiveness that has been earned can become emotional abuse when this is used to perpetuates the guilt of the person asking to be forgiven as a form of control. So maybe the right thing to do when something cannot be forgiven is to terminate the relationship, rather than to continue it in the climate of power unbalance brought by the feeling of guilt. A variant of this problem is when an apology is accepted but used later on, over and over, to remind the person of his past guilt. This is not true forgiveness. We should move on.
- Passive aggressive behavior is an expression of hostility based on not doing things that we are supposed to do. It includes some of the problems that I mention above, like lack of communication, withdrawing affection, not apologizing and not forgiving. But there are many other ways of being passive aggressive, sometimes hard to identify. Even over-politeness or extreme compliance can be forms of passive-aggression. By the same token, it is easy to accuse a well-meaning person of being passive-aggressive and very difficult to defend ourselves against such an accusation.
- Social isolation. A common technique to create emotional dependence in sects is to separate the new follower from his family and friends. This way the victim loses the frame of reference that would allow her to escape indoctrination. A similar situation can take place in a couple when a person is separated from her friends and social environment, usually because of jealousy.
- Social pressure. I may also happen that one of the individuals in a couple becomes completely surrounded by the friends and family of the other. Then, when problems arise in the couple, these people would have a biased attitude about them. Social pressure can also come from cultural norms that favor one person over the other. One clear example is sexism, when society condones a man’s control over a woman’s behavior. Another case is when one person wants some kind of sexual freedom, like being kinky or polyamorous, and another person prevents it with the help of cultural norms and societal repression. This happens in instances of slut-shaming: harassing women because their sexual behavior infringes cultural norms.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I must confess that I have done some of the things in this list. Also, I had some of them done to me. Perhaps you think that you don’t do them just because you are a woman, or a feminist, or gay, or submissive. Well, think again, you may be in denial. After all, even hard-core psychological abusers don’t see themselves as such. Is all too easy to rationalize emotional abuse as self-defense, standing up for ourselves or even being funny. We should stop doing them because they really hurt that person that we claim to love. They also damage our relationship and gradually erode the love we seek. On top of that, when we engage in these behaviors we contribute to normalize them, making them harder to identify in cases of serious psychological abuse.
We all have been in a couple’s quarrel in which we have tried to scare or hurt the person that we love. We need to stop doing that, raise our ethical standards and, if we need to fight, at least fight fairly, without being manipulative or cruel. Emotional abuse should not be considered normal, even in its mildest forms. It leaves scars that undermine the relationship, setting the foundation for future fights and even turning the relationship into something toxic.
One of the worse things about psychological abuse is that it’s so hard to identify. In fact, I believe that there is a gradation between what is socially accepted behavior in a couple (but still wrong) and psychological abuse. Where our behavior falls in that gradient depends not only on what our intentions are but on how vulnerable is the other person. It’s way too easy to hurt somebody by mistake. Since it’s so easy to engage in emotional mistreatment, it often becomes mutual in a couple. This may lead to a toxic relationship where victim and abuser are not always easy to identify. So we should be mindful that, even if we are being mistreated, this does not justify retaliating with emotional abuse of our own. When emotional abuse has made a relationship toxic, the best solution is to break up. However, this can be surprisingly difficult to do because of trauma bonding.
I think that we all should examine carefully our behavior towards our loved one and carefully expunge any element of emotional abuse. When somebody opens their heart to us, this makes them extremely vulnerable. We should not betray their trust by using this vulnerability to hurt them or to exploit them. Even if we do it unconsciously, there is no excuse. If we want to be loved, we have to learn to love. And this consists in making the other person happy. Love should not hurt.