- If an abuser continually focuses on what is wrong with their partner, they don't have to look at their own issues.
- Abusers tend to always see themselves as victims.
- Victims need to learn that they are not responsible for their partner's anger or overall happiness.
Many of my clients who are being emotionally abused are not aware that this is what is going on in their relationship. In fact, most who come into counseling want me to fix them so they will be a better partner or parent. They often ask, “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do things right?” Why can’t I do what my husband asks me to do? Why can’t I prove to my wife that I love her?
What becomes abundantly clear once clients begin to describe their life with their partner is that the problem is not that they are too lazy, too selfish, that they don’t want to have sex enough with their partner, or any of the other complaints their partner has about them. The problem usually lies in the unreasonable expectations of their partner or in the distorted way their partner views themselves, others, and the world.
Those who are being abused tend to believe that when their partner complains about something, it is because they are, in fact, doing something wrong. This may seem like a reasonable assumption. But in actuality, it is likely that their partner complains so much for the following reasons:
- Abusers have a need to make their partners feel bad about themselves.
- Abusers focus on their partner’s real or imagined faults so they won’t have to focus on their own.
- Abusers tend to need everything to go their way and they can never be pleased.
- Most important: As long as your partner shames you, they don't have to acknowledge their own shame.
The first step in being able to tune out emotional abuse is to stop always believing what your partner tells you. Stop taking your partner’s abusive actions and words personally. Instead, it is important that you come to understand that your partner’s perceptions, evaluations, and beliefs may be faulty, distorted, and unreasonable.
This may seem like a radical stance to take. After all, your partner can’t always be wrong. Some of the things they tell you about yourself seem accurate. They seem to know you better than anyone else. They know your history and "what you are capable of.” And they aren't always critical. Sometimes they are loving and caring, and because of this, you believe they really care about you.
No longer automatically believing your partner's words is necessary in order to balance out your tendency to always believe them. If you are like most victims of emotional abuse, you suffer from an excess of accountability—you already believe everything is your fault. This makes you extremely vulnerable to blaming, manipulation and lies.
You don’t need your partner reinforcing the idea that you are always wrong. The chances are high that you already believe this. In fact, what you need is the opposite. You need to begin to believe that you are not always the cause of the problem. You need to realize that you couldn’t possibly be as bad as your partner makes you out to be. No one constantly messes up the way you are being accused of doing.
This is not an easy task. It can be difficult to suddenly begin to look at and listen to your partner from this different perspective. In this post, I will offer you some tips on how to do this.
The Lies You Are Being Told
The way the typical abuser views their partner and relationship is based on three major lies. Let’s examine each one in depth.
1. You are responsible for your partner’s happiness.
This lie plays on your natural, healthy desire to please your mate. But no one is responsible for their partner’s happiness. You can do all you can to help your partner feel loved and secure, but ultimately it is your partner’s responsibility to make themselves happy. And unfortunately, abusive people often have unreasonable expectations when it comes to what they feel makes them happy, including that you:
- Focus all your attention on them
- Put their needs ahead of your own, or even your children’s
- View them as your boss who has the final word in all decisions
The bottom line: No matter how hard you try, there are people who will never be happy, so your attempts to please them will be for naught. Abusers are often depressed, insecure, inadequate people who have serious mental health issues that you cannot solve.
2. You are responsible for creating the abuser’s anger.
Abusive partners believe that it is your fault whenever they become angry. If only you had done such-and-such or not done such-and-such they wouldn’t have gotten angry. And because you "made them angry," in their mind, their emotionally (or physically) abusive behavior is justified.
The solution to the problem—as far as they are concerned—is to just don't make them angry. Do whatever they want, don’t question them, don’t dare to disagree with them. This lie puts the abusive partner in the role of a parent, boss, or authority. And it puts the abused partner on the defensive, causing intense self-monitoring, second-guessing, and self-blaming.
3. You are responsible for fixing the relationship.
Because abusers cannot or will not acknowledge their own problems or issues, they project them onto others, especially their partners. As far as they are concerned, the relationship problems all center around you—you have to be the one to solve them. But the chances are very high that you play no role in your partner’s problems and only a small role in the relationship problems.
Yes, you’ve heard many times that relationships are a two-way street and there are always two sides to a story. Of course, there is truth to these concepts. But the stronger truth is that no one causes their partner to become abusive. They came into the relationship with issues and problems that caused them to be abusive. And even though we typically think that it is the responsibility of both partners to fix a broken relationship, it is always the abuser’s responsibility to stop being abusive. Even though you may have tolerated or enabled their behavior for far too long, you are not responsible for stopping it. They are.
How to Counter These and Other Lies
It all starts with you no longer believing your partner’s put-downs, so-called “suggestions for your own good,” and evaluations of who you are. They don't see you better than anyone else because they see you through a lens of shame—their own shame. The shame they want to pass on to you so that they don't have to feel it.
In order to stop believing your partner’s put-downs, negative assessments, and unwanted advice, you will need to begin to do the following:
- Stop acting as if their words are the absolute truth. Your partner’s words are not dictated by words from on high. No matter how much they act like the ultimate authority, the fact is, your partner is just a normal human being, no better than anyone else. Not only that but their words are often calculated to make you feel bad—to make you feel less-than, inadequate, unworthy. This is how they can stay in charge, stay in control. Don’t continue to give them that power.
- Stop believing your partner when they tell you that something that seems unreasonable is actually reasonable. It is an unreasonable expectation that you check in to tell them where you are at all times; that you have sex every night; that you account for every penny you spend. It is also unreasonable for your partner to expect that you always agree with them or that you see things from their perspective.
- Stop believing in their perceptions when they seem distorted to you. Your partner may tell you that their perception of the way things are is the correct one, but the truth is, their perceptions are often distortions—distortions created so they will look good and you will look bad, distortions so that they never have to admit they are wrong, distortions so that they never have to look at their own issues. Begin to notice that they always see themselves as the victim—not just with you but with others—and they seem to only be able to see things from their own perspective, never the other person’s.
- Start trusting your own perceptions and intuition. This can be an incredibly difficult thing to do since your partner’s brainwashing has likely taken its toll. But if you begin to listen to your gut and start following your instincts, you will undoubtedly find the truth that lies there. Gavin de Becker—the author of the best-selling book, The Gift of Fear, believes that our instincts, or intuition, can help protect us from harm if we pay attention to them. Our intuition is a sensation that appears quickly in our consciousness—noticeable enough to be acted on if we so choose—without us being fully aware of the underlying reasons for its occurrence. According to de Becker, we are innately well-equipped to make an accurate evaluation as to whether a situation or a person is safe. Unfortunately, many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of using our instincts as a guidance tool. Start paying attention to your gut or your intuition. If what your partner is telling you feels wrong, truth your instincts.
- Get outside feedback. Victims of emotional abuse tend to keep to themselves, both because abusers tend to discourage or even prohibit close connections outside their relationship and because they are so filled with shame they don’t feel worthy of friendship or support. But if you still have some close friends, begin to check out whether what the abuser is telling you about yourself is actually true. For example, instead of taking the abuser’s word that you are selfish, ask a friend if that is how she sees you. Instead of believing that you are flirtatious, ask family and friends if that is how they perceive you. The more outside feedback you can get, the more reality you will be able to take in.
You don’t have to continue to be the receptacle of your partner’s shame and anger. You don’t have to continue to buy into the notion that you are responsible for their unhappiness. There is nothing more powerful than the truth. Truth does indeed set us free. Uncovering your partner’s lies—the lies they tell you and themselves—will be one of the most effective ways for you to begin to emotionally free yourself from an abusive partner.
de Becker, Gavin. (2021). The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect us from Violence. New York: Back Bay Books.
Engel, Beverly. (2021). Escaping Emotional Abuse: Healing from the Shame You Don't Deserve. New York: Citadel Press.