Emotional violence in a relationship

21. Sep 2020 | Articles

Post author: Kadri Sakala

Kadri Sakala

Having worked as a relationship therapist for years, I have been alarmed to see how much emotional violence is used in relationships. It can even be considered an epidemic.

From brain scans, we know that the brain processes emotional pain in the same area that records physical pain. However, invisible wounds are often left untreated, and the abuser is not required to take responsibility. The impact of emotional violence on the psyche is profound and widespread.

Trust helps couples to get through the difficult moments and periods of life. Knowing that I can trust my partner provides enough of a foundation to calm me down and allow me to keep a clear head in stormy moments. However, it is impossible to trust an emotionally violent person because one cannot rely on them, and that is why these relationships often break down. Trust doesn’t help.

The onset of pain

In a relationship, the brain asks questions to check: “Can I count on you? Are you there for me?” If the answer is no or maybe, this immediately activates the reptilian brain, which controls fight-or-flight responses. And it paves the way to an emotionally violent relationship. Instead of talking about our fears, emotions and needs in a tense situation, most of us start blaming and turning away. We do not seek help and comfort from our partner if we feel insecure; instead, we become nervous and angry or cold and insensitive.

Very few have been raised with the skills needed to cope with emotions. Abuse starts when a person cannot cope with some of their emotions – such as helplessness, fear, sadness, or weakness – and is unable to express this in a non-violent way. To cover up a vulnerable feeling, one becomes angry or numb and attacks his or her partner or runs off to TV, work, garage, child, friend, sport, etc.

Psychologically healthy people can control their emotions and understand that rude behaviour is never justified. They feel ashamed enough to take responsibility for their actions. They apologise and ask their partner, “How can I make it up to you for what I’ve done?” and change their behaviour. Their sense of shame prevents them from mistreating another person.

However, the abuser has no sense of shame and therefore finds no reason to ask for an apology. As they see it, the partner should understand and tolerate their behaviour, and in most cases their conduct is the partner’s fault. They have a hundred and one justifications for raising their voice, lying, ignoring, breaking an agreement or other mistreatment. And even if they apologise at some point, they still won’t change their behaviour.

If a person can’t be vulnerable in a relationship, he or she becomes nervous. In the worst case, they get sick, start consuming drugs or envision an invisible divorce where people live under one roof, but in different universes.

Since those in an emotionally violent relationship lack an understanding of what is acceptable and what is not, each side blames the other for their own shortcomings and refuses to take responsibility or take sole responsibility for the quality of the relationship.

In emotionally violent relationships, the abusers lie to themselves and those around them: “You make me behave like this.” And the victims of violence lie to themselves: “If only I were good enough, they wouldn’t be violent with me.”

Emotionally violent people find it hard to understand the feelings of their partner. They may be empathic with strangers, but at home they can act cruelly, using bad language and raising their voice. In a conflict situation, they are unwilling to listen to their partner to the end and are not prepared to remain polite in the course of the quarrel. When they make decisions, the world revolves around them, even though they don’t see it that way.

What is emotional violence?

Raising your voice and shouting, being dismissive (including in a joking way), betraying trust, rewriting history, denying your words or actions, criticising and being judgemental, shaming, threatening, concealing, lying, insulting and using ugly words about others, calling names, keeping important information to yourself, disrespect, hostile humour, ignoring others (neglecting their feelings and needs, not answering questions, etc.), repeatedly not keeping promises and sticking to agreements, mocking others, setting traps for them, framing them, instability (today I love you, tomorrow I don’t; today the agreement applies, tomorrow it doesn’t – unpredictable behaviour) and impulsiveness (reacting or acting thoughtlessly, making decisions without full information).

How to talk about a partner’s disturbing behaviour

Clients often ask: If I’m not allowed to criticise, how am I supposed to comment on a partner’s unpleasant behaviour? The rule is simple: to express frustration is healthy; to criticise is not healthy.

In expressing frustration, you describe the behaviour that bothers you (e.g., you’re late, you don’t listen to everything I had to say, you didn’t stick to the agreement, etc.).

While criticising, you attack another person or his or her character traits (e.g., you are selfish, stupid, embittered, a victim, lazy, etc.).

Faith in healing

Those who have entered a relationship with an emotionally violent person cling to the hope that deep down in this abuser, there is a good person, and if they are loved enough, goodness will come out of them at last. They start apologising for their partner’s behaviour. They find it hard to understand that everyone is solely responsible for their own behaviour.

Victims of violence blame themselves for the partner’s reactions and begin to walk on eggshells, fearing a new explosion from the partner. They put the partner’s needs first, and by the end of the day, they feel empty and powerless. They only want to see what is good about the partner and refuse to see cruelty or recklessness. These are people who often come to therapy and stay there for a long time, with the aim of learning to be an even better person for their abusive partner. They also hope that the other person will magically start loving them and treat them humanely and politely.

It is difficult for those suffering from violence to break out of a relationship because the instability of the abuser makes them question the adequate perception of their own reality. Since the thinking, feeling, judgement and behaviour of the abuser can change at any time, the other partner cannot keep up with it. One of our basic needs is to feel safe and secure, and if our partner provides that security, we can predict how life will go and how the partner will behave. A lack of a sense of security, on the other hand, drives you crazy, and the instability destroys your psyche. Studies have revealed that living in fear and instability changes the brain and makes us, as human beings, more stupid.

An abuser’s behaviour is accompanied by the idea of “but I have the right to do it now”. And this idea prevents them from changing. If such a person says he or she wants to change but doesn’t seek help or do everything he or she can to change their behaviour, it’s best to leave this relationship.

How do I know if it’s worth staying in a relationship, and if it’s worth trying to improve the relationship? Look at what the partner is doing: do his/her words and actions go together? If words and deeds do not match, believe the deeds.

What makes it more confusing for many victims is the fact that abusers are usually able to keep up a very good facade in front of others. They can be great colleagues, managers, friends and companions. There they are able to adjust themselves because it is important for them to be liked by others, whereas being liked by their partner is not as important. Instead, it is important for them to feel that they control the situation in a relationship and that life goes as they wish.

Love is an act that says, “I care.” People who love you don’t mistreat you. They behave respectfully and gently with you, stick to the agreements, pay attention to your feelings and needs, and treat them fondly. They are honest and caring.

Basic forms of abusive relationships


  • A person must be able to feel and express their emotions. And the one must remain non-violent towards the other. An abuser cannot remain polite to the partner if the partner is sad, upset, resistant, or in need of help, because abusers cannot handle any of the emotions – be they insecurity, helplessness, weakness, sadness or something else – that their partner’s emotion activates in them. They cannot offer comfort and understanding, for they’re unwilling to explain to themselves what is going on inside them, and so they pour themselves out on the other or move away.
  • When a partner gets hurt by our behaviour or something else happens in their life, we often begin to negate their emotions by saying, “You shouldn’t feel that way, it’s all right”, “You’ve got it all wrong”, “Stop this nonsense, I didn’t mean anything by that!” This will teach the partner that they cannot be sad or vulnerable with us, and they must suppress their emotions. This, however, destroys the trust that has taken a long time to be gained. We must suppress some part of ourselves when suppressing emotions. This often manifests itself in the form of overwork, over-eating and -drinking, risky behaviour, depression, illness and so on. If there are children in this family, the whole family system will suffer, and children will learn these destructive patterns of behaviour and repeat them in their relationships in their adulthood.
  • A healthy partner allows their partner to feel offended, sorrowful, resentful, etc. All emotions are allowed and valuable because they carry a message. The question is how to express that emotion. Insulting, ignoring and inconsiderate behaviour are not acceptable. It is necessary and healthy to express your emotions in a polite way. We know how much we need to feel that the partner is there for us and that we are special and valuable to them, and if we do not get this feeling, we will be disappointed. Or if our needs are not met in a relationship, we feel pain and abandonment. At times like this, we need to be able to experience our partner’s comfort and support, their listening and understanding. We need to see that our partner is there for us: they are our safe harbour.


  • An abuser can’t handle two different points of view. Their reasoning is as follows: “If you don’t agree with me, then you’re against me,” and that’s why they attack the other person or walk away and grow cold. It is either their way or nothing. It is difficult for them to consider the feelings and needs of their partner, and they are not interested in the partner’s perspective because they feel it would make them give up their own standpoint. This approach comes out well in conflict. Instead of devoting time to understanding the partner, restoring contact, and finding common ground, the abuser decides to use their time to show how the partner has misunderstood them. And if the partner doesn’t get it, the abuser just walks away or raises their voice and hurls insults.


  • The world of abusers is so fragile that it doesn’t work for two equal people. In order to survive, there can only be one individual – only his or her emotions, needs and fears. The abuser doesn’t consider it important to share information about their behaviour, deeds and choices or to take into account the feelings and needs of their partner. A partner is an object for them, a household decoration that is dealt with when one has the time and the inclination. In an equal relationship, there are moments for each other when the other one needs it – for comfort, support, hearing, apologies, and so on. Abusive partners, however, perceive the other’s need for them as a punishment, in which they must sacrifice something: their time and attention. It’s annoying for them, as they don’t understand why a partner might be feeling bad. They don’t have enough empathy to be able to put themselves in the partner’s position at these times and remain polite and caring.


  • Abusive partners can often change their opinion – for example, “today I feel I want to be with you, but tomorrow I can think something else” – and so you can never be sure what they will do the next day, how they will feel or behave. They are unpredictable and unstable yet expect their partners to read their thoughts. Or they might be physically present, or at home, but mentally checked out or somewhere else. They live their life separately and leave their partners alone with responsibilities. It is also difficult for them to understand why a partner might bring up their deeply hurtful behaviour a long time afterwards.


  • Abusers always have an excuse for why they raised their voice, used offensive language, ridiculed their partner, didn’t stick to the agreement, etc., and they can come up with reasons why their partner is responsible for their behaviour. If you instil such a feeling in your partner for a long time, they’ll start believing it. An abuser disguises their abusive behaviour with ”I love yous”. It’s not at all unusual for them to say, I love you. I want you. But you make it impossible for me to remain polite. If you hadn’t asked me about the arrangement, or if you hadn’t come to complain to me about your concern now, I wouldn’t have told you off. In other words, read my mind if you want me to be polite to you. And since the victims of violence cannot explain to themselves how their partner can act so disgracefully with them and yet claim to love them, the victims eventually begin to believe that they are the cause of their partner’s abusive conduct. And fearing that the abuse will start up again, they start walking on eggshells and trying to be even better.

How to change your relationship

  • Figure out what you want. Set your direction and goals so you know where to go. What kind of life do I want? How do I want to feel? What kind of relationship do I want? What kind of friendship do I want?
  • Draw up an action plan on how to achieve that. Surround yourself with people who support your journey. Create a new image of love: How do I want the people who love me to behave with me? In a relationship, in a friendship, in work relations, in a relationship with yourself.
  • Deal with your emotions. Adults who have grown up in an insecure family probably haven’t been able to express their anger and pain in a healthy way. It is often thought that the emotions experienced in childhood no longer affect us because they were felt such a long time ago. Emotions remain in the past only if they have been addressed and expressed.
  • Take notice of your partner; take time out for him or her. Regularly setting aside time for your partner is a critical part of a successful relationship! You could make sure to go on a date at least once a week. Love your partner using kind words. I often see people paying attention to their partner only when they want to reproach them or keep them in line. There must also be moments of praise and recognition.

Nobody wants to be a bad partner, but being a good partner is an art. To learn to be happy in a relationship is to learn how to be a safe partner. We may want the best, but if we have soul wounds that we have not acknowledged or dealt with, they will dominate our life, including how we interact with our companions. Ugly behaviour doesn’t apply to a good relationship. There are plenty of ways to get new knowledge and skills concerning relationships these days.

It’s always suggested that you do to others as you would want them to do to you. In fact, this should be rephrased: “Do to others what they would like you to do”, because everyone’s needs are different. It may be that, in moments of anxiety, you need the security of knowing a partner is listening to you, while in similar troubled moments, your partner may need you just to hold him or her, and they may want to have time to gather their thoughts and speak only later. Learn your partner’s love language and be very attentive to your partner’s needs. We need to learn to comfort our partners and support them the way they need it. Then the relationship can be wonderful, too.

The article appeared in the magazine Hingele Pai (Autumn 2018)

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