There is no one size fits all description for emotional abuse; but, there are some generalizations to be made. Emotional abuse is any type of intentional behavior that hurts its target emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and psychologically (if you can find the distinctions). Emotional abuse, on its own, is particularly damaging because it is insidious and tends to be covert. By covert, I mean, it flies under the radar. Most victims and others do not see it.

During the creation of an abusive relationship, the victim becomes conditioned to respond in certain ways, which reinforce the abusers use of controlling behaviors. This is not to say that the victim of abuse is in any way culpable for the abuse, it is just to say that the victim, by staying in the relationship, confirms the abusers tactics as either not that bad or normal.

While staying in an abusive relationship the victim uses coping strategies. These coping strategies tend to be self-protective in nature; they include denial, minimization, addictions, arguing, defensiveness, rationalization, compliance, detachment, and dissociation.

Because abusive behavior tends to be cyclical and inconsistent, the victim learns to wait it out over time. Victims learn to block out abusive events, which is much easier to do with emotional abuse because it is so elusive. The victim may not even realize abuse is happening.

Just like drug addiction or alcoholism is progressive disease, abuse is a progressive disease as well. This is not to say that emotional abuse will progress to physical abuse, but that the occurrences of abuse will increase, and the existence of chronic disrespect and even cruelty will become commonplace in the relationship. The relationship will end up being a system, where the abuser does whatever the hell he or she wants and the victims become programmed to cope with it in some way. Victims may comply, numb out, take anti-depressants, live in a detached state of being, pretend that everythings fine, etc. Sometimes in family systems you hear of the scapegoat, the golden child, the family mascot, etc. These are examples of how children can act out their unspoken hurts within their dysfunctional family system.

Victims are notorious for being conditioned to walk on eggshells in the relationship in order to try to prevent or minimize any future occurrences of upsetting the abuser; this rarely works, and when it does, its only temporary. But there is great damage caused to the person who does the walking on eggshells. Victims will slowly lose their sense of self because they are being continually conditioned to only focus outside of themselves. They have learned to be hyper-vigilant to the feelings and reactions of others and have stopped focusing on their own internal feelings. Their feelings and thoughts are invalidated so often that victims stop listening to their own inner voices. This causes victims to become personal shells of who they really are.

Victims also tend to be compassionate themselves and will offer empathy and forgiveness to their abusers, and will put the matter in the past each time an abusive event occurs. Usually, it is the victims strengths and assets that keep him or her in the relationship; traits such as, forgiveness, empathy, compassion, long-suffering, self-control, stick-to-it-iveness, loyalty, etc. While these are all awesome character traits, an abuser will use them to his or her advantage.

Without blaming victims, it is essential to recovery that victims take ownership of how they participate in the abusive relationship in a number of ways:

  • By staying in the relationship they have given tacit approval for abuse to continue; at least, this is how the perpetrator interprets things.
  • Victims have oftentimes allowed themselves to be used as containers for the abusers rage and shame.
  • Using their personal strengths as coping strategies to remain in the cycle of abuse. Victims are usually unwilling to believe they are victims or use the term, victim to describe themselves.
  • Their belief system causes them to overlook abuse, and their denial keeps them thinking abusive episodes are isolated events rather than a pattern of abuse.
  • By compassionately focusing on the abusers feelings, hurts, and needs when abusive events occur, which continues the pattern of enabling the abuser free reign to behave in unacceptable ways.
  • By taking too much responsibility for the climate of the relationship and by blaming him or herself for the problems.

I realize these truths are harsh realities for victims to grapple with, but grapple with they must in order to heal. Victims must stare the truth in the eyes and deal with reality. Otherwise, change will not occur. Victims must stop colluding with the abuser, step aside, and observe their relationship from an outside perspective. Victims can do this by pretending they are standing outside the roomobserving the relationship dynamics externally, from a neutral vantage point.

If victims can see their own contributions to the relationship based on their personal choices, their personal power can be identified and fortified. When victims of abuse start facing the reality of how they have co-created their relationships, they can see that they really have the capability to be agents of change as well. This empowers them to change their lives.


If you would like to be on the mailing list for my free monthly newsletter on The Psychology of Abuse, please email me and let me know at:

Also, if you or someone you know is interested in joining an abusive relationship recovery group, and live in the Los Angeles/Orange County area, Lifeline Counseling Services offers low cost groups (English and Spanish.) For further information on groups, contact:

Counseling available: