Intimate partner or domestic violence is common with 1% of all women being victims in a given year and 24% being victims of severe abuse at some period in their life. More common but less easily detected, emotional abuse involves specific patterns of isolation, possessiveness, demeaning comments, threats to harm themselves or others, withholding information, controlling finances and major decisions. The crux of emotional abuse is when one partner's repeated control tactics result in the other partner's focus on avoiding the negative, abusive behaviors and comments of the other partner. Emotional abuse is always present with physical and sexual abuse of a partner, and is always the most difficult form of abuse to overcome. Researchers estimate at 35% of women have been emotionally abusive relationships.
Men are also the victims of emotional abuse. Emotionally abusive women use tactics such as insults, false accusations, threats to harm themselves or others, isolation, controlling information, and controlling the finances.
Honeymoon to Abuse
Most abusive relationships start out with very low conflict and high romance. Think Casanova, flowers, gifts, and romantic dinners. The abusive behaviors may take 6-18 months to appear. Then the couple begins to move through a pattern of honeymoon (high romance and promises for change) and tension leading to abuse (whether physical, sexual or psychological). Initially, there are long periods between the honeymoon and abuse phases, but over time the incidents get closer together. The abuser is like two different people in each phase: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This dramatic shift in character makes it difficult for the abused partner to make sense of what is going on.
Personality Disorders and Emotional Abuse: Borderline, Narcissist and Antisocial
The National Institutes of Health estimate that 9.1% of Americans qualify for personality disorder diagnosis. A personality disorder involves deeply ingrained and maladaptive patterns of behavior that are most apparent in intimate relationships. In recent years, professionals have sought to identify specific patterns of emotional abuse frequently found in three of the most common types of personality disorders: borderline, narcissistic, and antisocial. For some clients, understanding these personality dynamics is useful in recovering from their abusive relationship experience.
I begin with a comprehensive assessment that includes not only standard DSM diagnosis, but also consider specific brain-based understanding of human behavior; relational dynamics that inform choice of treatment; and other physical factors that may contribute to the symptoms. Beginning with a comprehensive understanding of the psychological, relational, and physiological factors ensures that treatment is focused on the right issues.
When working with women and men who have been in abusive relationship, I begin with education about abuse to help them better understand their experience and reduce self doubt. Many of these clients are also struggling with PTSD, depression, and anxiety, and so I also address these issues to increase their ability cope.
Resolving the Abuse
Once clients are more emotionally stable, I work with them to examine the abuse dynamic, explore why they responded as they did, and identify early life events that may explain their response. We then begin to identify specific behaviors that the person needs to change to ensure that they don't end up in a similar relationship in the future. Most of my clients find that certain behaviors, such as not asserting their needs, that lead them to tolerate abusive behavior are also present to a lesser extent in other relationships.
Finally, I help clients rebuild their lives, including helping them through the dating process, which is where old patterns are most likely to repeat themselves.
Why Does He Do That? examines the psychology of men who are verbally abusive. Bancroft argue that the underlying belief that leads to such abuse is male privilege. He also identifies several different types of male abusers. This book can be helpful for those trying to make sense of a psychologically abusive relationship.
The Dating Radar guides you in identifying common personality disorder types early in the dating process.
A Harvard psychologist, Stout radically proposes that most sociopaths are not serial kills, but rather charming yet manipulative people that not only lack empathy but a conscience. She estimates that 1 in 25 Americans fits this profile, who manipulate others for not only financial gain but also a personal sense of power and fulfillment. This book can be helpful in understanding some of your most challenging relationships.
Psychopath Free helps anyone recovering from a toxic relationship with an emotionally abusive partner. MacKenzie explains how anyone can initially get pulled into such a relationship, helping to alleviate nagging questions, such as “how did I not see this?” He also outlines a path to recovery and wholeness.