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The Marriage Podcast for Smart People

Defining Emotionally Abusive Behavior

This is a subject we’ve wanted to address for some time. We see some irony in the work we do with couples or individuals when it comes to abuse. Often, though not always, people who are in a relationship with a truly abusive person do not realize it. On the other hand, couples who are in high conflict often label the other person as abusive when they are not really an abusive person, although they may relate to abusive tactics from time to time. So, the ‘abuse’ word gets abused sometimes. And other times, when it should be used, it’s not. So, we hope we can provide some clarity today by going through some of these emotionally abusive behaviors.

One distinction we want to make right off the bat is that probably all of us at some point in time have resorted to using one or more of the abusive tactics we are going to discuss in this episode. There’s a difference between bad behavior and a more fundamental problem of being an abusive person. The latter is a more characterological issue: it’s a way of seeing one’s intimate partner all the time as someone to be controlled, dominated, manipulated to serve you, as less than you. On the other hand, many of us in conflict may use some abusive tactics — that’s not acceptable either, but it’s nowhere near the scale of severity compared to a spouse who faces a characterologically abusive person every day. It may just be that your marriage is normal, there’s no cycle in that sense, but when you get into conflict, you might use unpredictability or blame. That’s bad too, but not problematic in the same way as abuse.

The key distinction between resorting to abusive behavior when in conflict and being in an abusive marriage is that the cycle of abuse is always happening in an abusive marriage. We talk extensively about being in an abusive marriage in episodes 123, 124, and 125.

Generally, abusive behavior can be verbal, emotional, and/or physical. Right now, we’re focusing on emotional abuse. Emotional abuse can include verbal assault, dominance, control, isolation, ridicule, or the use of intimate knowledge for degradation. This is the kind of abuse that targets the emotional and psychological well-being of the victim in order to gain power over them. It is often (though not always) a precursor to physical abuse.[1]

Some types of physical behavior can be considered emotional abuse in that they involve acts of physical violence although the victim is never physically impacted. Examples include: throwing objects, kicking a wall, shaking a finger or fist at the victim (threateningly), driving recklessly while the victim is in the car, or threatening to destroy objects the victim values.[2]

Emotionally Abusive Behavior

1. Gaslighting

According to Paige Sweet, gaslighting is "a type of psychological abuse aimed at making victims seem or feel 'crazy,' creating a 'surreal' interpersonal environment (so bad it didn’t seem real) (p. 851).[3] It’s more of a gendered phenomenon that occurs in power-laden intimate relationships where the wife is dependent, not the husband. The husband brings the social and economic capital to the relationship, and so has a degree of power that he can abuse. It promotes the idea that women are overly emotional, irrational and not in control of their emotions.

Signs of Gaslighting:

Spouses who gaslight will often "flip the script.” That’s the basic tactic: whatever actually happened, they’ll say something else happened. You heard them say XYZ, they’ll deny saying it at all or tell you it was actually ZYX and you must be losing it for not remembering. When there’s not another witness and your spouse is doing this constantly, it erodes your sense of self-trust. There’s lots of lies: about what was said, what actually happened, and who did what. This is usually more subtle, rather than a blatant thing.

Another tactic is to use your insecurities against you: you’re worried because he didn’t come home last night?
The Marriage Podcast for Smart People


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