Words that bruise: Are you emotionally abusive?

This is the second installment of a two-part series. Click here to read the first article.

Jerry is always right. Carolyn, his wife, is always wrong. He makes sure she knows this. He shifts blame, shirks responsibility and seeks control, but still proclaims his commitment to their marriage. This juxtaposition of love and abuse blinds him to the fact that he’s an emotionally abusive husband.

Jerry and Carolyn are a fictional couple, but their situation is not uncommon, even in Christian marriages. Spouses in abusive relationships are often blinded to their situation – the perpetrator to the fact that they’re being abusive, and the victim to the fact that they may be enabling the toxic relationship.

Emotionally abusive spouses usually point the finger at anyone but themselves. This month, we chatted with the experts to tell you what emotional abuse is, bring you inside the mind of a perpetrator and shed some light on how to break this destructive cycle.

What does emotional abuse look like?

Unlike physical abuse, emotional abuse has no visible symptoms and can often be hard to detect. Carleton University’s Pauline Jewett Institute of Women’s and Gender Studies defines this type of abuse as “any behaviour that does not affirm or nurture another’s unique sense of self. Rather, it engages intentional and purposeful action to diminish a person’s identity and personal power.”

Karin Gregory, a counsellor at Focus on the Family Canada, says symptoms include shifting the blame on their spouse and needing to stay one step ahead of everyone else. “Emotional abuse is putting my pain and anger on someone else to fix,” she says. “In my world, I expect you to fix it because I don’t know how. You are responsible for my happiness.”

It’s important to note that, while the following references refer to men, women can just as easily be perpetrators of emotional abuse. Regardless of gender, there’s a high probability that abusers don’t know their actions are destructive.

In his book Why Does He Do That? Inside The Minds of Angry and Controlling Men , Lundy Bancroft explores different profiles of abusive men and how they carry out their tactics:

  1. The Demand Man: Very entitled, easily enraged and extremely critical, often overvaluing their household contributions.
  2. Mr. Right: Sees their own perspective as the ultimate authority and doesn’t value their spouse’s feelings; they also distort their spouse’s rational logic into something absurd, causing their spouse to regret even having their own opinion.
  3. The Water Torturer: Manages to verbally assault their spouse without shouting or raising their voice; these quiet attacks can cause their spouse to get angry, making it look like the spouse is the abusive one.

According to research, these profiles are manifestations of a distorted belief system. In their book When Love Hurts: A Woman’s Guide to Understanding Abuse in Relationships , Jill Cory and Karen McAndless-Davis write that abusive men believe they are central , superior and deserving . “The man uses abusive tactics in order to impose his belief system,” they write. “The abusive tactics allow him to stay in control and to have more power than his partner. An abusive man will use whatever form of abuse he needs to ‘win’ and get what he wants.”

What causes someone to be abusive?

While it may be easy to dismiss these actions as inherently awful, Bancroft explains that understanding the cause can help remedy destructive behaviour.

“An abuser is a human being, not an evil monster,” he writes. “But he has a profoundly complex, destructive problem that should not be underestimated.”

Due to the complex nature of abusive tendencies, the roots can be equally complex. Gregory says that abusive behaviour can sometimes come from feelings of fear and shame, adding that these tendencies may result from abuse they suffered long before they met their spouse. This, she says, often results in the need to control their shame through subsequent abuse. “The abuser may be thinking, ‘I will never be that trembling little boy or girl again,’” she says. “‘I will never be in that place of vulnerability again, so I will stay in control.’”

What can be done today?

Don’t lose heart: Emotionally abusive marriages can change. Bancroft says that it begins with helping the abuser examine their world view and perspective. “The problem of abusiveness has surprisingly little to do with how a man feels and everything to do with how he thinks ,” he writes. “My job as a counsellor is to dive into the elaborate tangle that makes up an abuser’s thinking and assist the man to untie the knots.”

One obstacle to overcome first is the stigma surrounding counselling. “Most abusive men resist counselling,” Cory and McAndless-Davis write. “They do not want to be challenged [and] do not want others knowing about their ‘bad’ behaviour. They want to keep their abuse a secret. Secrecy is part of what keeps the abuse working.”

Similarly to how a victim of abuse often isn’t aware of the abuse until a counsellor points it out to them, Gregory explains that a perpetrator may not even realize they’re turning the relationship toxic.

“I spoke to a Christian man who was horrified to realize that he had actually been the same to his wife that his dad had been to his mother, and he’d sworn he would never do that,” she says. “So when he realized that, he went and got help to break that cycle.”

Gregory cautions against doing counselling as a couple at this stage, as it’s unsafe for the victim to tell the counsellor the whole truth with their abuser present. She adds that the abuse isn’t the victim’s fault, but is something the abuser needs to work through on their own first.

“How can a spouse safely discuss things in therapy and then endure a ride home filled with the same belittling, blaming and emotional 'beating up' that took them to therapy, even if there's never been a blow landed on the body?” she asks.  “Couples work of any sort cannot take place safely and effectively while abuse is still going on.”

Gregory adds that after the abusive spouse has gone through effective counselling on their own, the couple can then go through therapy together.

If you feel you need more guidance on this topic, you can request a one-time complimentary consultation with one of our trained and qualified staff counsellors. If you need assistance finding a registered professional Christian counsellor in your region, Focus on the Family Canada has a listing of therapists who have been thoroughly screened. You can contact them Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific time at 1.800.661.9800 .

Todd Foley is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.

© 2013 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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