Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Defining Emotional And Verbal Abuse

April 16, 2001

Many men and women don't recognize the mind games and emotional abuse in their marriage or primary relationship. Verbal abuse is a way to gain power and control in a relationship.

Why do people engage in verbal and physical abuse? Abuse occurs when relationship partners use power and control to feel good about themselves, to get their needs met or to get their way. The use of physical, sexual or psychological abuse violates the self-determination, well-being, competence, dignity and freedom of their partner.

Men and abuse. Many men use power against women to compensate for perceived threats to their status as the man in the family. Abuse of power comes from the entitlement and privilege men feel in relation to women. The vast majority of physical and sexual abuse is perpetrated by men while verbal and emotional abuse can go in both directions.

A typical male abuser:

- has feelings of inadequacy.

- believes strongly that there is a "right" way for men and women to act.

- is unable to express feelings verbally.

- feels his happiness and support are dependent on his partner.

- fears rejection and abandonment.

- is jealous or is overly possessive.

- is moody, depressed and/or angry most of the time.

- feels that his personal wants, needs and desires come first.

- witnessed abuse between parents or was a victim of parental abuse.

Men use psychological and physical power to get their way, to discharge tension and energy and to validate or feel good about their own masculinity. The main difference between male and female psychological abuse is that men rarely fear that an argument will escalate to physical or sexual abuse. Women understand the reality that they are potentially vulnerable to assault and physical harm.

After an explosion of physical or emotional abuse a man can be quite contrite, loving, and kind. Kindness in a context of fear conditions her to stay in the relationship. She believes her partner can change. During this time she feels loved and cared for.

Emotional abuse. Psychological or emotional abuse tactics are used by a partner to keep power in a relationship. This is done to promote their needs while neglecting the needs of their partner.

Abuse victims describe an insidious process that, at the time, is not recognized as abuse. Emotional abuse conditions them to feel helpless and powerless to leave and makes them vulnerable to subsequent physical or sexual violence.

Emotional abuse tactics. A perpetrator of emotional might use some of the following tactics:

- Isolates the victim. Loyalty is proven by cutting off friends and family. Friendships and family contacts are undermined by subtle and direct messages that they are not acceptable. Isolating the victim is one of the main tactics in abusive relationships.

- Questions conversations with others. Questions become hostile, repetitive and controlling.

- Expects to spend all available free time together.

- Is possessive and jealous. Makes accusations of flirtations and infidelity. Gives surveillance.

- Gives intense concentration on one issue until the partner gives in.

- Voices strong opinions or judgments and backs them up by a short temper. The abuser tries to take over the thinking of the victim.

- Uses money to control and create dependency.

- Gives criticism and humiliation on traditional female skills - housework, childcare, cooking, etc. Makes attacks on appearance that undermine self-confidence and self-esteem.

- Destroys partner's favorite possessions. Is physically violent with property.

- Gives verbal abuse such as put-downs, name calling, blame, sarcasm and public humiliation.

- Uses threats to create feelings of fear and danger.

- Disregards or neglects the opinions or needs of the partner.

- Makes unwanted or inappropriate sexual overtures as harassment.

A cumulative effect. Not just one act of emotional abuse produces helplessness and powerlessness in a partner. It is the cumulative effects of many acts of emotional abuse over time. Those suffering from emotional abuse feel unloved, unwanted, inferior, inadequate and cut off from support. Victims feel shame, guilt and worthlessness. They are confused and angry.

Once these power tactics are understood as abuse, a woman can recognize how and why she feels devalued and violated. Once it is understood how destructive this behavior is to her emotional well-being and how it may lead to physical abuse, she can take steps to protect herself. Emotional abuse is abuse.