A definition of An Emotionally Abusive Relationship

In an Emotionally Abusive Relationship, one partner consistently undermines, belittles, or invalidates the feelings and self-worth of the other. Although lacking physical violence, emotional abuse can be equally or more damaging to one’s mental and emotional well-being. It can take various forms, such as constant criticism, humiliation, gaslighting, affection withholding as punishment, or manipulating emotions for desired responses. Abusive partners may use control, isolation, or threats to maintain dominance.

Over time, the recipient of this abuse might suffer from a profound loss of self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and a feeling of powerlessness. Emotional abuse’s insidious nature often makes it hard to recognize, particularly when interspersed with positive affirmations or apologies, causing victims to doubt their perceptions and endure maltreatment.

(This article is part of the series: Unhealthy Relationship Patterns: Categorizing the 21 types)

The Perspective of Partners

Emotionally Abusive Partner:

  • Perception: May view their behaviors as necessary means of maintaining control or order in the relationship. They might believe they’re acting in the best interest of the relationship or might not even recognize the harmful nature of their actions.
  • Emotions: Might experience feelings of insecurity, jealousy, or a need for dominance, leading them to exert control through emotional manipulation. There could also be underlying unresolved traumas or patterns learned from past relationships or environments.
  • Behaviors: Engages in consistent undermining, belittling, or invalidating actions. Uses tactics like constant criticism, humiliation, gaslighting, withholding affection, or manipulating emotions.
  • Rationalizations: They might believe that their partner “needs” this kind of guidance or control. They may also feel justified in their actions, thinking they’re for the “greater good” of the relationship or are necessary to “keep their partner in line.”

Subjected Partner:

  • Perception: Feels consistently undermined, belittled, and invalidated. Might believe they’re at fault or have done something to deserve the treatment, especially if the abuse is interspersed with positive affirmations or apologies.
  • Emotions: Predominantly feels a profound loss of self-esteem, coupled with feelings of anxiety, depression, and powerlessness. Over time, might also develop feelings of confusion, doubt, and fear.
  • Behaviors: Might attempt to appease the abusive partner, avoid confrontations, or constantly seek validation. They may also isolate themselves from external support systems due to shame or the controlling behaviors of the abusive partner.
  • Rationalizations: They might believe that the relationship has its ups and downs and that the positive moments can outweigh the negative. They may also doubt their perceptions due to the gaslighting and believe they’re overreacting or misinterpreting the behaviors.

Is it an Emotionally Abusive Relationship or something else?

The “Emotionally Abusive” relationship type does have overlaps with several other relationship dynamics. Let’s delineate these intersections and underscore the distinctive attributes of the “Emotionally Abusive” dynamic:

  1. Passive-Aggressive Relationship: Passive-aggressive behaviors can be a subset of emotional abuse. A partner may use covert aggression or the silent treatment to inflict emotional pain. However, while passive-aggressive actions are typically more concealed and indirect, emotional abuse encompasses a wider array of both overt and covert hurtful behaviors.
  2. Walking on Eggshells (or Dysregulated) Relationship: Partners in both types may feel apprehensive or uncertain about their partner’s reactions. However, the “walking on eggshells” dynamic stems from erratic or unpredictable behaviors of one partner, while the emotionally abusive dynamic involves consistent patterns of one partner demeaning, belittling, or hurting the other emotionally.
  3. Coercive and Controlling Relationship: Emotional abuse can be a tool used in coercive and controlling relationships. For instance, demeaning comments or threats might be used to exert control. However, the coercive and controlling type primarily aims for dominance and manipulation, whereas emotional abuse centers on diminishing self-worth and emotional harm as its key objectives.
  4. Manipulative Relationship: Emotional abuse can sometimes overlap with manipulative tactics, where one partner employs emotional ploys (like guilt-tripping or playing the victim) to achieve their goals. The main distinction lies in the intent: while manipulative behaviors are geared towards a specific outcome or advantage, emotional abuse is about exerting power and causing emotional pain, even without a tangible gain in mind.

Unique Indicator for “Emotionally Abusive” Type:

The defining feature of the emotionally abusive relationship is the recurrent infliction of emotional pain and trauma. This can manifest as constant criticism, belittling, gaslighting, or other behaviors that degrade and diminish the partner’s self-worth and emotional well-being. The abuser in this dynamic often seeks power and control, using emotional tactics as their primary weapon, leading to a profound negative impact on the victim’s mental health and self-esteem.