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Facing Emotional Abuse? Get Help.

When Divorce is a Health-Seeking Behavior

written by Dr. Erin Leonard January 2, 2020
Facing Emotional Abuse? Get Help.

Here, RD&T contributing author, Dr. Erin Leonard, discusses the realities of weathering emotional abuse as well as the importance of seeking help.

Continuous and unresolved conflict, loneliness, and rarely feeling heard and understood are signs a person may be in an emotionally bankrupt relationship. Emotional mistreatment is real, yet often remains undetected because the offender convinces the partner that he or she is at the root of the problem.

Understanding the Basics

Emotional abuse impacts a person’s mental health and detracts from one’s sense-of-self. Over time, a person may experience heightened anxiety, depression, feelings of loss, confusion, and disempowerment. The process is slow but insidious. Understanding the psychological dynamics driving emotional abuse is critical in order to identify it and get help.

A person who engages in emotional abuse is not entirely aware of what he or she is doing. Many of the manipulations stem from his or her extreme cognitive distortions and rigid defense mechanisms. These pathological distortions impact the person’s ability to perceive and recall experiences as they happened. In short, an emotionally impaired person may unconsciously alter reality in order to make it more palpable for his or her ego. Victim stance is an example of a common distortion utilized by an emotionally unavailable person.

Typical Abusive Behaviors

Distortion

For example, often a culprit may be aggressive or attacking yet reframe the situation as if he or she was the victim in the scenario. Say this person avoids helping with the kids and when asked to assist with parenting, he or she explodes, name calls, and walks away slamming doors. When this person returns, he or she has already unconsciously altered the reality of what transpired. Deflecting accountability, the person accuses the partner of “picking on them” after a demanding workweek. Conveniently transferring the blame to the innocent partner who was simply asking for help with the kids, the person escapes accountability for his or her actions. In this example, ownership of the aggressive behaviors does not occur because the person distorted reality and believes the aggressive actions were justified. The inability of a person to own his or her part in a conflict makes it impossible to resolve productively.

When a person functions with significant distortions, he or she may possess a different version of reality than a partner, which makes the partner question his or her own reality. Living with someone who exists in an altered reality sometimes makes a person with less prominent distortions feel “crazy.”

Projection

Projection is a common defense mechanism, yet the rigidity and intensity of a projection when utilized by an individual who emotionally abuses is significant. Frequently, the person unconsciously projects his or her own negative qualities onto a partner and then feels entitled to criticize, correct, or berate the partner. Unfortunately, a partner who is introspective automatically believes the insults because he or she trusts the person and may not realize it’s the person projecting. Yet, the toll these inaccurate reflections take on one’s sense-of-self is significant.

Gaslighting

Gaslighting or an emotionally abusive person’s tendency to poke and provoke a partner until the partner responds in a hurt and angry fashion, allows the manipulative person the opportunity to point the finger at the partner and accuse them of being “out of control,” “too sensitive,” or “too emotional.” This is a frustrating set up because the nefarious partner refuses to take responsibility for gaslighting in the first place.

Attitude Shifts

Possibly the most confounding of all the dynamics is the abuser’s constant oscillation from nice to mean. This constant change in attitude towards the partner confuses the partner and keeps him or her spinning. Receiving positive accolades from a typically critical partner is a relief. Opening up is easier because the “trust” has returned. Yet, often this is a ploy. The emotionally abusive partner may use the information that he or she elicited and “throw it back in the person’s face” when they feel the need, eroding the person’s self-esteem. The incessant fluctuation from idealizing to devaluing is a heightened defense mechanism unconsciously enacted by the emotionally abusive partner’s need to maintain control.

Commonly, the dysfunctional person saves his nice persona for people outside of the home in order to garner favorable public opinion. This leaves the partner feeling unsure of the situation because most of the abuse is transpires behind closed doors. Socially and publicly the emotionally abusive person is viewed favorably, so it is difficult to credibly justify the reasons for the marital discontent.

Dismissiveness

The final blow to a partner’s self-esteem occurs when the emotionally abusive person dismisses and degrades the partner’s gifts and passions. For example, say the partner is a truly empathic and selfless mom, the abusive person may trash these attributes and call the person “soft” while accusing her of spoiling her children. It is the emotionally abusive person who is jealous of the mom’s ability to have empathy and remain close to her children, so he is driven to convince her that her endeavors to be close to her kids are negative.

The Importance of Seeking Help

Identifying emotional abuse is important, and getting the correct help is essential. Often, an emotionally abusive partner lacks insight, so he or she may vehemently deny negative and destructive behaviors. Deflecting responsibility, pointing the finger at his or her partner, and distorting scenarios may be common. A therapist may have difficulties sorting through the distortions, so it helps to keep two ideas in mind.

First, most people have suffered multiple tragedies and traumas, yet these past experiences do not give a person the right to mistreat another person. Integrating empathy, support, love and, when necessary, professional help, is a healthy way to heal past traumas, not utilizing the past as an excuse to abuse another human being in the present.

Second, if a partner has a pattern of excusing a person’s manipulative tendencies, he or she should ask the question: “Would I ever do that to someone else?” If the answer is a resounding “no,” his or her spouse may be problematic.

If emotional abuse is correctly identified, but the spouse is not motivated to change or access help, the decision to end the marriage may be a necessary and healthy choice.

Dr. Erin Leonard

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