Note: Dr. Stosny posted some of this same material and much more on emotional abuse on the Oprah Winfrey website
You Are Not the Cause of Your Partner’s Anger or Abuse
Anger and abuse in relationships are about blame: "I feel bad, and it's your fault." Even when resentful, angry, or emotionally abusive people recognize their behavior, they are likely to blame it on their partners: "You push my buttons," or, "I might have overreacted, but I'm human, and look what you did!"
Angry and abusive partners tend to be anxious by temperament. From the time they were young children, they've had a consistent sense of dread that things will go badly and they will fail to cope. They try to control their environment to avoid terrible feelings of failure and inadequacy.
The strategy of trying to control others fails even if they are powerful, for the simple reason that the primary cause of their anxiety is within them, not in their environment. It springs from one of two sources: a heavy dread of failure or fear of harm, isolation, and deprivation.
The Silent Abuser
Not all emotional abuse involves shouting or criticism. More common forms are “disengaging” – the distracted or preoccupied spouse - or "stonewalling" – the spouse who refuses to accept anyone else’s perspective.
While verbal abuse and other forms of emotional abuse can be roughly equal between men and women, stonewallers are almost exclusively male. Biology and social conditioning make it is easier for men to turn off emotions. The corpus callosum – the part of the brain that connects its two hemispheres is smaller in men, making it easier for them to shut out information from the emotionally-oriented right hemisphere. On top of that slight biological difference, social conditioning promotes the analytical, unemotional male on the one hand or the strong silent type on the other.
The partner who stonewalls may not overtly put you down. Nevertheless, he punishes you for disagreeing with him by refusing even to think about your perspective. If he listens at all, he does so dismissively or impatiently.
The disengaging husband says, "Do whatever you want, just leave me alone." He is often a workaholic, couch potato, womanizer, or obsessive about sports or some other activity. He tries to deal with his inadequacy about relationships by simply by not trying – no attempt means no failure.
Both stonewalling and disengaging tactics can make you feel:
- Unseen and unheard
- Like you don't count
- Like a single parent
What All Forms of Abuse Have in Common
Whether overt or silent, all forms of abuse result from failures of compassion; he/she stops caring about how you feel. Compassion is the lifeblood of marriage; failure of compassion is its heart disease.
It would be less hurtful if your partner never cared about how you felt. But when you were falling in love, he/she cared a great deal. So now it feels like betrayal when he or she doesn't care or try to understand. That’s not the person you married. Failure of compassion can feel like abuse.
Harmful Adaptations to Anger and Abuse: Walking on Eggshells
The most insidious aspect of abuse is not the obvious nervous reactions to shouting, name-calling, criticism or other demeaning behavior. It's the adaptations you make to try to prevent those painful episodes. You walk on eggshells to keep the peace or a semblance of connection.
Women are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of walking on eggshells due to their greater vulnerability to anxiety. Many brave women engage in constant self-editing and self-criticism to keep from "pushing his buttons." Emotionally abused women can second guess themselves so much that they feel as though they have lost themselves in a deep hole.
Recovery from walking on eggshells requires removing focus from repair of your relationship and your partner and placing it squarely on your personal healing. The good news is that the most powerful form of healing comes from within you. You can draw on your great inner resources by reintegrating your deepest values into your everyday sense of self. This will make you feel more valuable, confident, and powerful, regardless of what your partner does.
No One Escapes the Effects of Abuse
Families do not communicate primarily by language. That might surprise you, until you consider that humans bonded in families for millennia before we even had language. Even today, the most sensitive communications that have the most far-reaching consequences to our lives occur between parents and infants through tone of voice, facial expressions, touch, smell, and body posture, not language.
Though less obvious than interactions with young children, most of your communications with your older children and with your husband also occur through an unconscious process of emotional attunement. You psychologically and even physically tune in your emotions to the people you love. That’s how you can come home in one mood, find your husband or children in a different mood and, bam! – all of a sudden, out of nowhere, you’re in their mood. Quite unconsciously, you automatically react to one another.
Emotional attunement, not verbal skills, determines how we communicate, from our choice of words to our tone of voice. If attuned to a positive mood, you are likely to communicate pleasantly. If you’re in a negative mood, your words will be less than pleasant.
Now here’s the really bad news. Due to this unconscious, automatic process of emotional attunement, your children are painfully reactive to the walking-on-eggshells atmosphere between your husband and you, even if they never hear you say a harsh word to one another.
Everyone in a walking-on-eggshells family loses some degree of dignity and autonomy. You become unable to decide your own thoughts, feelings, and behavior, because you are living in a defensive-reactive pattern that runs largely on automatic pilot. No fewer than half the members of these unfortunate families, including the children, suffer from clinical anxiety and/or depression. (“Clinical” doesn’t mean feeling down or blue or worried, it means that the symptoms interfere with normal functioning. You can’t sleep, can’t concentrate, can’t work as efficiently, and can’t enjoy yourself without drinking.) Most of the adults lack genuine self-esteem (based on realistic self-appraisals), and the children rarely feel as good as other kids.
When it comes to the more severe forms of destructiveness, purely emotional abuse is usually more psychologically harmful than physical abuse. There are a couple of reasons for this. Even in the most violent families, the incidents tend to be cyclical. Early in the abuse cycle, a violent outburst is followed by a honeymoon period of remorse, attention, affection, and generosity, but not genuine compassion. (The honeymoon stage eventually ends, as the victim begins to say, “Never mind the damn flowers, just stop hitting me!”) Emotional abuse, on the other hand, tends to happen every day. So the effects are more harmful because they’re so frequent.
The other factor that makes emotional abuse so devastating is the greater likelihood that victims will blame themselves. If someone hits you, it’s easier to see that he or she is the problem, but if the abuse is subtle – saying or implying that you’re ugly, a bad parent, stupid, incompetent, not worth attention, or that no one could love you – you are more likely to think it’s your problem.
Important questions to ask of yourself:
- Do I like myself?
- Am I able to realize my potential?
- Does everyone I care about feel safe?
- Do my children like themselves?
- Are they able to realize their fullest potential?
- Do they feel safe?