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Emotionally abusive partners: Don’t take it in

emotionally abusive partners
Emotional abuse can leave your self-esteem shattered  


*NB: I have used the male pronoun for ease of writing and because many abusive partners are male, though certainly not all. These points apply equally to females who are repeatedly abusive. These principles may also apply to emotional abuse in other relationships, such as friendships, sibling, colleague, and parent-child relationships.

Emotional abuse is more than just verbal insults. It consists of repeated behaviours that degrade the other person and trigger hurt, fear, anxiety, guilt or shame. These behaviours include insults, put-downs, threats, punishment, rejection, emotional manipulation, blaming, ignoring, silent treatment, or teasing. Emotional abuse doesn’t always seem severe or dramatic, but its effects over time can be profound.

Some of my clients will say things like: “But it’s true. I am fat (…”bad with money,” “over-sensitive” etc.) Criticisms and put-downs that appear to have some truth to them are the hardest ones to deal with for people living with abusive partners. One client of mine had an ex-partner who called her a ‘psycho’ regularly, and the truth was, she had done some things she now regretted.

Does that mean her ex was trying to help her face some things she could work on in herself? Does it mean she was wrong to feel incensed about the way he tried to bludgeon her with his words?


The truth is that even when they seem to be right, they are still wrong. They are definitely not trying to help you, though they may tell you differently.  If they genuinely had the intention of helping and supporting you to face some difficult aspect of yourself or your life, would they go about it in this way?

Here are some reasons not to take those put-downs into your heart:

  1. The abuser is exaggerating your difficulties or shortcomings in order to hurt you, even if there is some truth to his words.
  2. The abuser is telling you (or implying) that all the difficulties in your life are your own fault, which just shows what a weak (selfish, lazy, stupid etc.) person you are underneath. And that is completely incorrect.
  3. He is ignoring how his mistreatment of you has contributed to these problems, or maybe created them entirely in some cases. When you live with criticism and undermining behaviours, your self-esteem suffers. Your other relationships can suffer. Your concentration and motivation may suffer. And he is definitely not helping things, but rather making things worse.
  4. Our struggles and flaws do not – and should not – define who we are as a human being.
  5. An abuser who chronically mistreats you is a terrible source of information about who you are. His vision is distorted, self-centred, and self-serving. His comments lack useful clarity, especially if the subject is you.

It is impossible for anyone to see us clearly while they are trying to control us, abuse us, or manipulate us.

So what can you do?

You cannot make him change, so stop trying. You have to garner your inner-strength, your personal power, start to trust your feelings, and listen to your inner voice and to the people who do love you and do treat you well. In time, I hope you will have the strength to move right away from the abuser in your life, and if you cannot completely do that, you can learn to let his tirades and criticism go in one ear and out the other.

For domestic violence support you can call: 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732): National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service.

6 thoughts on “Emotionally abusive partners: Don’t take it in

  1. I was with someone once who got very abusive when drinking, and I would stand up for myself on every occasion and let him know I would not tolerate it under any circumstances, during and after the drunken phase had passed. So once he realised that wouldn’t work he started with the silent treatment. Once he went three whole weeks without saying a word to me. But he’d slam doors and hide down stairs just to let me know he wasn’t happy about something. I have to say that the silent treatment well and truly did my head in and wore me down to the point where I had no other option but to leave. At least when they’re screaming at you in an incoherent rant you know it’s abuse, and can call them out on it, but when they do the silent thing……well that’s where I didn’t know how to handle it. I guess that’s the point you go see a psychologist? Great article Rachel!

    1. Thanks Belinda. I think I will add ‘silent treatment’ to this article, as it’s quite common. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  2. I totally concur with the examples and concepts presented here. In my experience, emotional manipulation (abuse, call it what you will) is even more toxic than overt, physical abuse. Does more damage because it’s hard to see. Alice Miller explained it beautifully in her books, and it’s sad that so many people aren’t more aware of this issue. For those who do address, and overcome, there is such a huge “payoff”….it’s so worth it. Cheers everyone.

  3. I am in a relationship with an emotional abuser that twists and tricks, makes me go from sure of myself to fighting off the enemy. I am in the mormon church and nobody has any real care for me they think he is terrific. His marriage licesnce seems to allow for him to belittle me infront of my kids and neighbors. I just want to be rescued. Sometimes i believe him but it wont go into my body anymore its all lies. I should make a utube channel.

    1. Dear Julia, I’m so sorry to hear this. You don’t need to put up with this treatment. Find a family or marital therapist or counsellor or visit your family doctor and get some advice about your options. Think about this: What do you want your kids to learn about relationships? About how to treat women? If they see this behaviour from him every day, they will internalise it and normalise it. If you have sons, they will learn this is an ok way to treat their partners. If you have daughters, they will accept this sort of treatment when they are older. Also consider: Can YOU live like this for the next 10, 20 or 30 years? All the very best on your quest for a better life 🙂 Rachel

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