How to Recognize Emotional Abuse

We usually recognize physical abuse because it often leaves external marks: bruises, broken bones, wounds, gashes or disfiguration. Because such abuse tends to be objectively identifiable, we’re not only likely to recognize its signs, but also to sympathize with the victims. Some of the great novels of modern and contemporary literature focus on victims of (statutory) rape, battery and other forms of physical abuse. I’m thinking, above all, of Nabokov’s incomparable Lolita which, without any trace of sentimentality or moralism, offers a multidimensional characterization of the victim as well as a realistic portrayal of the remorseless pedophile. Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone and Anna Quindlen’s Black and Blue, two of my favorite contemporary novels, give a compassionate portrayal of the victims. If readers readily sympathize with the heroines of these novels, it’s partly because the victims are as innocent as it gets and partly because their physical abuse (rape in one case, battery in another) is obvious. Yet, as I’ve tried to convey here, in many situations in real life the abused isn’t as morally pure (because she colludes with the abuser) and her abuse isn’t necessarily so obvious (because it may be emotional rather than physical in nature). Some psychopaths, especially those who also suffer from borderline personality disorder, may, indeed, spin out of control and engage in acts of physical violence. But many are subtler in the damage they inflict upon others.

As we’ve seen, charismatic psychopaths present to the outside world and even to their partners an impeccable image of self-control, sanity, kindness and charm. Such psychopaths sometimes pose a greater danger than those who engage in overt acts of physical violence because their personality disorder is better camouflaged. Unfortunately, so are the symptoms of their abuse. Which brings me to my main point here. Just as outsiders may fail to identify and sympathize with the signs emotional abuse, the victims may as well. In her article “How Can I Get My X Away from the Psychopathic Con Artist?” Liane Leedom explains that psychopaths escalate their control over their partners gradually, BITE (behavior, information, thoughts, emotions) by BITE. (lovefraud.com, September 7, 2007) Psychopaths intuitively tighten the screws at the moment when they feel they can get away with it. Over time, the victim becomes used to each new form of abuse as well as to the on-going manipulation and deceit. Charismatic psychopaths poison you softly, while pretending to love you and act in your best interest.

To offer an analogy, I’ve watched several episodes of Forensic Files where a man has poisoned his wife by introducing small doses of a toxic chemical into her food. She eventually died after months of gruesome suffering. Most psychopaths don’t literally poison their spouses. But they achieve a similarly toxic effect on a psychological level. They introduce tiny doses of emotional poison into their partners’ daily lives.

Your life with a psychopath can turn into a constant state of anxiety and self-doubt. You may develop neurotic habits, eating disorders and depression. Furthermore, the abuse can be so underhanded that you may not even realize that the person causing you all these negative symptoms is your own partner, the supposed love of your life. Consequently, saving yourself from a charismatic psychopath entails, first and foremost, recognizing his pattern of emotional abuse. After all, you can’t fix a problem until you identify its cause.

Definition: Emotional abuse constitutes a pattern of behavior over time that is designed to control another human being through the use of manipulation, deceit, threats, intimidation, emotional blackmail, verbal abuse, insults, gaslighting, coercion or humiliation. Even normal people occasionally engage in some of these behaviors. But the key term here is a “pattern” of such behavior over time. Emotional abuse functions as a form of brainwashing. The strategies I will describe below are commonly used in prisons, labor camps, by the Secret Police of totalitarian regimes and cult leaders. They’re extremely effective and very destructive. They can reduce a healthy and strong human being to the mere shadow of her former self.

1. Abusive Expectations. Emotional abuse occurs in asymmetrical relationships, where one partner strives to meet the expectations of the other, while he constantly raises the bar. In a healthy relationship, expectations are reasonable, fair and balanced. Both partners strive to please each other and treat each other with mutual respect.

2. Threats. A psychopath maintains control of a relationship through the use of implicit or explicit threats and the inculcation of fear or anxiety. He may tell his wife that she needs to lose weight, or move to another state with him, or change her interests and habits, or leave her job in order to keep him. Otherwise, he implies, he’ll cheat on her or even divorce her. A sword hangs over the victim’s head if she doesn’t meet the psychopath’s incessant demands and unreasonable expectations. However, even when she meets his demands he still cheats, lies and actively seeks other opportunities. Meeting a psychopath’s demands accomplishes nothing constructive. It only weakens the victim and places her further under his control.

3. Verbal Aggression. This includes name-calling, blaming or commanding. Psychopaths rely upon such tactics to assert dominance. Verbal abuse transforms what should be an equal and mutually respectful relationship into one where the psychopath is on top. His partner fears to disappoint him or do anything that might trigger his anger.

4. Condescending Attitude. Charismatic psychopaths often couch their aggression in a condescending attitude towards their partners. For instance, a psychopath may act as his partner’s spiritual guide or life coach. He may pretend to alleviate the symptoms of the psychological problems that he, himself, has caused her. If she develops anxiety attacks, insomnia or an eating disorder because of his ongoing deception, manipulation and mind games, he might paternalistically act as her guide, as if to help alleviate these negative symptoms. The underlying assumption in such a relationship is that the psychopath is healthier, more sane and superior to his partner. She should strive to approximate his level of mental, physical and emotional health. This cultivates her dependency on him and fosters a sense of helplessness. More importantly, it masks the underlying source of her psychological problems, which is him and his harmful behavior. It’s kind of like the husband who puts poison in his wife’s soup while pretending to be loving and concerned. When you get rid of the psychopath in your life, who’s poisoning your existence, you also alleviate the symptoms of whatever psychological and physical ailments you developed while being involved with him.

5. State of Uncertainty/Emotional Chaos. A psychopath derails his partner by keeping her in a perpetual state of uncertainty. She doesn’t know what to do to please him. She constantly struggles to keep him from engaging in various misdeeds or abandoning her. Psychopaths who also have borderline personality disorder transform daily life into a battlefield with occasional truces. A charismatic psychopath, however, poses a more hidden threat. He preserves the external appearance of being calm, collected and loving while periodically hinting that the perfect picture of the relationship you struggle so hard to preserve is highly precarious. Anything you might do–or fail to do–can destroy it. In reality, of course, nothing you do or refrain from doing meaningfully affects his behavior. I’ve never read about (or met) a psychopath who didn’t do exactly what he wanted.

6. Denying your Needs. Being completely narcissistic, a psychopath won’t prioritize your needs unless they coincide perfectly with his or cultivate your dependency on him. Consequently, he’s bound to discourage you from any pursuits that solidify your bonds with others or make you stronger, more successful and more independent. His motive is clear. The less self-confidence and meaningful contact with others you have, the more he has you under his thumb and can mistreat you however he wishes. Moreover, if you dare complain that he doesn’t satisfy your basic emotional need for caring or communication, he’s likely to become dismissive, sarcastic, derisive or even aggressive. In his mind, everything and everyone should revolve around him.

7. Domination. Psychopaths establish control over their partners through a ratchet. They automatically get their way on everything when their will is not contested. When you challenge them and express your own needs, they may sometimes compromise with you, to appear fair. This image of equality is misleading, however. When you look at the whole picture of your relationship over time, you notice that it’s systematically determined by the desires of the psychopath. Such an asymmetry constitutes a form of domination, which should be unacceptable to any woman who considers herself equal to her partner and worthy of the same consideration and respect as him.

8. Invalidation. To psychopaths, what other people think, want and feel is, to use the vernacular, “bull crap” (they commonly use such vulgar language). If you disagree with a psychopath, he’s likely to invalidate your arguments and insult you. Psychopaths tend to be stubborn and persistent. Even when a psychopath momentarily relents, in the long run he returns to the same issue to “win” the match by getting his way. If your partner consistently dismisses what you know, feel, want or believe, it’s obviously a very bad sign. It means that he doesn’t have any genuine respect or love for you.

9. Minimizing and Gaslighting. If you tell a psychopath that you’re hurt by his actions–such as his constant lying and cheating–he’ll either deny that behavior (i.e., lie to you yet again) or minimize it by saying that you’re being hypersensitive or paranoid. He’ll argue that you misinterpreted the matter, or that you’re exaggerating, or that it’s just a misunderstanding, or that you’re being a drama queen. If he calls you “crazy” and tells you that you’re imagining things when you accuse him of the bad deeds he’s actually done, then he’s also gaslighting you.

10. Arbitrary Reactions. Psychopaths and narcissists commonly use arbitrary reactions to establish dominance over others. If you can’t anticipate how your partner will react, then you’re always on edge, trying to figure out what to do or say to please him. In addition, if you care about his opinion, your moods and self-esteem will oscillate like a yo-yo, depending upon his approval or disapproval. A psychopath can keep his partner completely focused on his needs by toying with her emotions in this seemingly arbitrary fashion. This despotic behavior leads his partner to feel unhinged, anxious, depressed and powerless.

11. Sarcasm, Irony and Humiliation. Because they prefer to cultivate a nice external image, charismatic psychopaths may not verbally abuse their partners in a blatant fashion. They may opt for more subtle techniques—such as sarcasm, irony and humiliation–to make the victims feel bad about themselves. If you’re involved with a psychopath, you may have noticed that while he makes fun of you and others, any joke or wry comment about him is unwelcome and not considered amusing. Psychopaths establish double standards in practically all aspects of their lives: fidelity, honesty, freedom and even the hidden weapons of sarcasm and humor. While they routinely humiliate their partners to weaken their self-esteem, they demand nothing but the utmost respect for themselves.

The only way to reclaim your dignity when you’ve suffered the pattern of emotional abuse I’ve just described is to go straight to the source. Uproot the psychopath from your life. If you stay with him, he’ll continue to mistreat you and undermine your self-esteem as he’s done so far.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness


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7 Comments

  1. I am stunned. I have been trying to figure our what the hell I have gotten myself into. I have searched the internet for info on bipolar disorders, paranoia, manic depressive, anger…..but this article hit the nail on the head for me. It happens so slowly and gradually. I can put a check mark on every point you make. But add episodes of paranoia on it. This is the first time I have ever communicated this to anyone. I cannot heal him. I am in need of healing. And that is what I will do. Thank you.

  2. You’re welcome. This is what makes psychopaths the most dangerous beings on Earth: they mask
    their evil nature and intent as good, and they push the envelope of their victims very gradually, so that
    by the time you wake up you are already isolated from those who care about you, under their spell and controlled by them.
    A hidden danger masked as good is far more dangerous than transparent evil. I’m so glad you’re on the path to healing now. Claudia

  3. I have been involved with a psychopath for 10 yrs. and have been in denial have been in denial about it for 5 yrs. My soul has been destroyed and I am in such unbearable pain withdrawing from this relationship. The bond was like no other I have ever experienced. I was in rehab twice and have been in therapy for 8 yrs. trying to get over this guy. I am suffering from depression and have been suicidal. Are there any support groups out there for women who have loved psychopaths? It would help to hear how other women disengaged from this bond and went on with their lives. Thank you for this site,

  4. Suzanne, I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve been in such pain. You’re absolutely right, the psychopathic bond is very addictive and the withdrawal is very difficult. It takes a kind of deprogramming like those who have been trapped in cults. I know of several online support groups for women involved with psychopaths, but as for real-life ones, I know there are retreats, but you have to pay for those, of course. If your insurance covers therapy, I’d start with a therapist who knows about personality disorders first and if there’s no support group for this in your area maybe you could start one yourself. But, there was one thing that wasn’t clear in your note: you broke up with the psychopath 8 years ago and you’re still in a deep depression about it? Are you still in contact with him? Claudia

  5. Glad to read the bond is so addictive and it’s actually called “withdrawal.” That is exactly how I felt. It is extremely difficult for friends and family to undertand why I even continued to give him the time of day, much less continue dating him, year after year when he had done so many cruel things to me. It is difficult for me to understand as well. But, he just had this way of sneaking his way back into my life time and time and time again. I never understood why I felt literally compelled to respond to his requests myself, against my better judgement and my own conscience. I can think of many times when I’d be laying next to him with this overwhelming sense that I was w/evil. Then I would feel so bad for thinking such an awful thought of him and turn my mind to all the good things I saw in him.
    I always knew there was something “off” about him. But, couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Even so, I would let him waltz in/out of my life hating myself each time. But, feeling like I couldn’t say no to him. Partly I was always trying to keep things peaceful and he of course was always trying to get things frenzied. I knew to tell him “no” whether it was “no” I won’t see you anymore, “no” you can’t come over, “no” I don’t want to go out to dinner….whatever – the request was I denied him, I knew it wouldn’t be accepted easily. There would be all this chaos that would ensue. So, I tried avoiding all the chaos a lot of times by letting him stick around. Odd, I know. But, I didn’t see any other way to deal with it. They keep you worn down and emotionally drained, giving in just seems easier sometimes. Then when it’s all over and you have calm in the air again. It is difficult to get used to EVEN though you want it and need it.

  6. Lisa, you have to always keep in mind that he used his qualities for evil ends. Dr. Jekyll was always Mr. Hyde, but he could hide his real identity when it suited his purposes. Claudia


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