The Secret Rules of Emotional Abuse

24 Oct 2013

crazywomansmall It’s easy to underestimate just how disorienting emotionally abusive relationships can be. That’s because they don’t function according to any normal relationship dynamic. When you’re with an emotionally abusive partner – or other emotionally abusive person, you learn to expect, and fear, bad behaviors.  The way they behave towards you turn nasty at any time.

I was reminded of that, yesterday, sitting in a room with a family group for whom emotional abuse has been the lifelong norm. When I came away, I had to pinch myself –I’m pinching myself, still. Only long experience stops me asking myself one of the time-honoured questions I’ve asked myself so many times before:

“Did that really happen?”

I’ve finally given up asking myself that other, old, emotionally abused woman’s standard:

“Was it me? Was it something I did?  Did I get it wrong, over and over again?”

If you look at it on the level of what appears to be happening, in any given scenario, an emotionally abusive relationship can be quite, quite crazy-making.

Maybe you go into a scenario where you are expecting the person to behave normally and, instead, you get a behavior you hadn’t anticipated – because, as a sane human being, you know that specific behavior is wildly inappropriate. Obvious examples of an emotionally abusive partner’s wildly inappropriate behavior include:

  • an explosion of rage
  • improbable accusations levelled at you, or someone else
  • the silent treatment
  • the ‘subtle’ response. (This one can be harder to identify. It puts me in mind of a lovely, loving, loyal woman I know who, when newly married, turned to her adored husband and said: “I’d love to have a cat.” His reply was: “Darling, I love you so much. I don’t want a cat coming between us.” Hence, no cat for the 10+ years the marriage lasted…)

But those aren’t the only ways an emotionally abusive husband – or other emotional abuser – will behave.

You underestimate, at your peril, the way emotional abusers will use ‘shock tactics’ to keep you off balance.

So, it was that yesterday I walked into a situation in which emotional assault had been all but promised. What I met with, instead, was a nice, little set piece of “Happy Families” and “Normality”. It was Smiley Faces Time, with Everyone Playing Nicely Together. Sure, if you scratched the surface you’d notice the undercurrents. But it was a cute, little set piece. 

There was even something that looked like it might almost have been an acknowledgement that my position was justified…

What had really happened?

They’d just changed the ball-game… for the time being.

After all, if you’re an emotional abuser, you don’t want the person on the receiving end of the abuse to know what to expect, do you?

And the inevitable questions start to surface: how do they do that? Why do they do that? Do they know that they’re doing that? Can’t they do anything different/better?

Emotionally abused women tend to get caught up in how ‘subtle’ the emotional abuse they experience is. That drives me hopping mad – although, at one level, I can empathize.

Emotional abuse is never really that subtle. We miss it because we aren’t looking for it.

We’re looking for something quite different, so it’s easy not to make sense of what is in front of our eyes. It’s like when you buy a new car – or want to buy a specific make and model of new car – and all of a sudden, you see that make and model of car, EVERYWHERE on the road. What aren’t you actively registering? All the other makes and models of cars on the road. Because they are no longer of equal interest to you.

So, we look at an emotionally abusive partner whose behavior bears some similarity to normal: he may be smiling, and joking, rather than snarling and screaming. That leads us to think: “This is normal.  We’re back in the land of normality, now.  It’s going to be alright.”

That’s most UN-likely.


If you bother listening to the content of his speech, it could be relatively normal, but it may well not be. When I think back over the wasband’s best – that is sweetest -moments, they included:

  • veiled accusations
  • veiled demands
  • ‘subtle’ comments about my frailties
  • infantile conversation. I’ve endured more conversations in the course of my lifetime about doo-doos (so funny), sexual activity (so amusing), and what-an-important/amazing-person-the-abuser-is, than I care to remember.
  • Endless criticisms of the failings of 3rd parties/Other People.
  • Tiresome monologues about The World According to…

In all of this splendid stuff, your feelings, and your opinions, are curiously unimportant.

And that brings us to the common thread between emotionally abusive partners’ ‘good’ behaviors, and their bad ones. In both cases they tend to be immature – if not downright infantile – and remarkably self-centred. It’s mostly – if not ALL – about them. Even when it’s allegedly about you, it’s really about them. (If an emotional abuser is ‘nice’ to you, you know that he’s behaving really well, and needs to be rewarded and/or kept sweet because of it.) 

An emotional abuser usually operates at the emotional level of the toddler. An emotionally abusive man has the temper tantrums of a toddler. When he’s through with the temper tantrum, he’s into a different emotional state, until something upsets him again.  

It is always the emotional abuser who sets the emotional state in the relationship.

fatmaninnappysmallChronological toddlers try to set the rules with their temper tantrums. Mostly, as adults, we have the confidence, and the emotional resources to deal with those temper tantrums and take charge of the situation.

It’s very different with an emotionally abusive partner. It’s not our place to ‘take charge’ of their emotional state and help them to grow up.

They have no wish to grow up.

Temper tantrums work beautifully for emotional abusers.

The secret rules of emotional abuse are very simple. There are just two.

Rule 1 It is my inalienable right to have temper tantrum whenever I want, and say and do whatever I want.

Rule 2 I choose the game we play at any given time. Games may as rough as I choose to make them. And I always get to win.

End of.








Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.

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