Abuse is a pervasive social problem that is only recently being identified. It’s not a new phenomenon, however; abuse has probably been going on for centuries — we’ve just never talked about it until recently. The #MeToo movement is a testament to the pervasiveness of sexual abuse, and the defensive (i.e., enraged) responses from abusers is a testament to how abusiveness is justified by those who do it.
We are a deeply wounded culture in desperate need of grieving, but we will not be able to realize the full extent of our wounds until we remove our fig leaves and begin to understand how all of us (even and especially the worst of us) have been abused. I stand by the maxim that hurt people hurt people, and make no exceptions for abusers. I also stand by Alice Miller, author of The Drama of the Gifted Child (1994), who believes that psychological disturbances are based in repressed experiences of abuse that occurred during childhood.
Before we can tap into our grief and begin to heal our wounds we must first develop better understandings of what abuse entails; we can’t heal from something until we know what it is that we are healing from. My writing is an effort toward this aim, and this specific piece is an attempt to explain how emotional abuse is performed. I hope that by drawing attention to the doing of abuse we can begin to mobilize collective resistance to it as it occurs instead of after it has happened.
What is Abuse?
Abuse comes in many forms: physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual, intellectual… the list goes on. What all these forms of abuse have in common are that they cause harm and are inflicted by those who aim to maintain power over others. Abuse more specifically functions to control the behaviors of other people upon whom abusers depend for a sense of agency. Abusers will never admit dependence on their targets, however, and nor will they own up to being abusive… which is part of what makes them abusive in the first place.
Abuse performs dominance, and dominance feels like superiority. People abuse others in order to feel powerful, which means that they otherwise carry a sense of powerlessness. This sense of powerlessness probably comes from having been abused in the past, which is what makes abusiveness a kind of traumatic inheritance and morbid family heirloom.
There is a logic to abuse that can and should be explicated so that it can begin to be identified, addressed, and resisted as it occurs. Abusers depend on their victims’ complacent acquiescence in order to repeatedly perform abusiveness. By understanding the logic of abuse we can use the master’s tools on the master himself instead of trying to destroy his house.
What is Emotional Abuse?
Emotional abuse involves voiding the integrity of emotional experiences in order to silence, distort, and/or invalidate someone’s perspective. The purpose of emotional abuse is to prevent the abuser’s abusiveness from being exposed by introducing auxiliary wounds that maintain emotionally-charged behavior on behalf of the target. The feminization of emotionality makes emotional abuse popular among misogynists and other toxically-masculine subjects.
Emotional abuse typically occurs when an abuser’s abusiveness is about to be exposed. Long-term and more subtle forms of emotional abuse are intended to distract from ever coming close to recognizing the abuser’s abusiveness.
Emotional abuse is akin to a type of scapegoating wherein the target’s emotionality is manipulated to shame and distract from the abuser’s behavior. More extreme forms of emotional abuse function as a type of gaslighting wherein the abuser aims to get the abused to question their perception of the abuser’s abusiveness by using their vulnerabilities against them.
Emotion communicates and maintains relationships between individuals, values, and senses of well-being (Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought, 2001). To emotionally abuse someone is to therefore challenge their values and threaten their sense of well-being by invalidating the integrity of their emotional experiences.
I have a keen eye for emotional abuse because I have been subjected to a lot of it; I have been emotionally abused by family, friends, lovers, roommates, bosses, and even a few therapists. I’m not writing to lament these experiences, though; I’m here to extrapolate from them two gestures that encompass how emotional abuse is performed.
Step One: Violate
Emotional violation is intended to affect a defensive reaction that distracts from the abuser’s abusiveness. This is when abusers will use someone’s vulnerabilities against them in order to affect an emotional response. I imagine emotional violation as an act of purposely sticking filthy fingers into a preexisting wound in order to affect pain (“Ouch, what the fuck are you doing?!”) and subsequently prevent discussions of abusive behaviors from occurring (“You’re yelling, see how mean you are to me!”)
To violate someone emotionally is to disrespect and attempt to harm the integrity of their emotional experiences. Sometimes the violation is on purpose, and other times it is incidental. Emotional violation is purposeful when the abuser’s abusiveness is about to be identified, and it is incidental when the abuser is acting out of habit. In either case, however, the violation is real, and the defensive response that occurs as a result of it is justified. It is important for abusers to affect defensiveness in their targets because this defensiveness is then used as leverage against discussing their own abusive behaviors.
Step Two: Denigrate
This is when the abuser denigrates the victim for displaying emotionality in response to being violated. The purpose of emotional denigration is to shift attention and blame away from the abuser and onto the target. If effective, then the target will feel like a bad person for having reacted defensively, and the abuser will get away with their abuse. Emotional denigration is an elaborate form of bullying that exploits emotionality in order to justify abusive behaviors.
Emotional denigration happens independently of violation when a boy is told to stop being a sissy for crying after being hurt. Ad hominem attacks are also emotional denigrations because they use personal qualities as proof of inadequacy (e.g., “You’re not good at math because you are a girl,” “You are just a brainwashed liberal snowflake,” etc.)
The point of emotional denigration in the context of emotional abuse is to create a situation where the abuser can continue getting away with their abuse while the target takes the blame for being abused. It’s a sick and twisted way of behaving that is unfortunately commonplace in our patriarchy.
The One-Two Step: Violate, Denigrate
Let’s put these two steps together into choreographed movements via some examples. Here is a general example of how this plays out:
Abuser says something hurtful to target, and target responds to the hurt with anger. The target’s anger then becomes the focal point of the encounter as the abuser uses it to draw attention away from their violation. The abuser feels powerful, and the target feels ashamed for having gotten angry. Narcissistic abusers will perform woundedness (i.e., play the victim) after the target’s defensiveness in order to get attention and make the target seem like one who is at fault.
Here is a more specific example:
He texted me and said that he wanted to talk to me; I was in the bedroom having a separate texting conversation with a family member, and therefore did not respond to his text because I was busy. Less than a minute after sending his text he barged into the bedroom, raised his voice, and said that he wanted to talk to me. This pissed me off because I was busy and he was not respecting my boundaries, so I raised my voice in response and said I was busy and that he was going to have to wait. This offended him; he left the bedroom and texted me again asking why I was so mad. I said that it was because he was not respecting my boundaries by expecting me to drop what I was doing to respond to him. He then said that I was disrespecting him, and that I should have just told him that I was busy. I tried to explain that the fact I was busy meant that I was not going to respond to him right away, but was not successful because he was playing the victim. I asked him why he was being so impatient, which made him even more upset. He burst back into the bedroom and began screaming at me: “I want to talk to you and you’re being rude— ” I dissociated as I so often do when under attack, but came back with coolness amidst a pounding heart. I calmly began to explain that I was texting a family member and that I was therefore not going to drop what I was doing to talk to him instead, but could not get this far into my explanation because he kept interrupting me with screaming about how I was being disrespectful. My brows furrowed and I started to ask whether he expected me to drop what I was doing for him, but could only get to “Do you expect — ” before he yelled an emphatic “Yes!” I tried a few more times (“Do you expect — ” “Yes!”, “You don’t even know what I’m trying to say— ” “Yes I do!”, “Do you expect me — ” “Yes!”), but after realizing we were going in circles I decided to end the conversation. He ran out of the room, slammed the door, and texted me again with more accusations about being disrespectful. I told him he needs to calm the fuck down, and he responded by saying to let him know when I was free to talk. I told him that I was not going to talk to him that day because I was upset and did not want to say mean things to him, and that I did not tolerate being yelled at by anyone. He became wounded again (“Fine!”) and we did not talk again. I haven’t spoken to him since and don’t plan on it.
Here’s another example:
We were in a long distance relationship and I was feeling like our communication was not consistent because our scheduled Skype dates were repeatedly postponed for reasons that were ambiguous. This person apologized and vowed to work on communicating with more regularity. I was relieved; long distance is hard, and communication has to be solid if it is to succeed. The next day I texted this person good morning but got no response, which sounded inner alarms that grew louder throughout the day. By mid afternoon I had still not gotten a response and was nauseous with anxiety. I then received an email from this person: they were at work and forgot their phone at home and were so sorry! I felt somewhat relieved but also very upset; I didn’t think it was a coincidence that this happened the day after our conversation about communicating better, but didn’t say anything because I had yet to understand what abuse was or how to identify it. I forgave this person out of love and trust that they did not earn, and was horrified the next day when they left their phone at home again. I still forgave and forgot, thus giving this person the power over me they needed in order to abuse me. I was understandably anxious about our relationship pretty much all the time from this point forward, which this person exploited by telling me during an anxiety attack that they “thought I was more stable than this.” Hearing this was devastating; it took me a few weeks to understand how much it hurt, and when I let this person know it hurt they apologized with what seemed like sincerity… until they said it again during another one of my anxiety attacks. They knew this hurt me and therefore said it during my anxiety attacks because it would stop me from discussing the reasons for my anxiety — which were, in this case, because I was with an emotionally abusive partner.
This person broke up with me the night before moving across the country into an apartment I helped choose, and what prompted our breakup was my asking about what they meant when they said they felt like they wanted to lose me after giving me permission to have a one night stand with someone else. Their rage was terrifying, but it also taught me a lot; our breakup conversation is mostly a blur, but I do recall having my instability used against me again, to which I (finally) responded with acknowledgment that my instability was because I have been dating someone who was trying to make me unstable. “You’re crazy,” they said… and from this point forward I began the torturous process of linking my mental health struggles to abusive relationships past and present.
These stories have in common the aforementioned two steps of emotional abuse: violating a target (i.e., saying something hurtful, violating boundaries, and lying with the intent to manipulate), then denigrating the target for responding to the violation with upset (i.e., being angry, asserting boundaries, and anxiety attacks). I encourage the reader to think of some examples from their own life that demonstrate emotional abuse.
Emotional abuse is not always severe; it can be mildly irritating to grossly destructive, but harm is involved regardless of the intensity. For example, I currently work with someone who mumbles and then gets upset about me not being able to hear him — this is technically abusive and somewhat hurtful, but I don’t really care because I am just trying to get paid. Speaking of which: thank you for reading this — you are helping me get paid! I hope that this helps you better understand emotional abuse and that you can use this understanding to better navigate through your relationships.