Share this with someone who might benefit.

If you told a “normal” person they were being emotionally abusive, you’d think they’d back off and re-evaluate their behavior. After all, people who care about you don’t want to hurt you. At least, that’s the hope.

Is there an easy way to convey to them that their hurtful words and actions are destroying the relationship so that they’ll “get it” and treat you nicer?

I received a message from someone who said, “I have a simple question. How do I make it easy for the emotional abuser to recognize he is abusive? If he can’t see it, the relationship will not survive.”

Thank you to the person who sent this in. Clearly, she’s grappling with challenges in her relationship and dealing with emotional abuse. It may seem like a simple question, but it’s quite complex. If you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, it’s likely that the abuser believes they’re justified in their actions.

This belief is the first obstacle. They may think their behavior is necessary for the relationship to hang by the thread it’s currently on, which might be an exaggeration, but it could be close to the truth. The emotionally abusive person may believe the relationship is only as good as it is—despite not being great—because of their actions.

This is the challenge. Because of this, I advise against starting a conversation with, “Hey, you’re being emotionally abusive.” Although, if they’re open to it, that conversation could go well.

However, if they’re the type to respond with, “I am? What do you mean? I want to learn more about that. I don’t want to hurt you,” then you could have a productive dialogue.

Even if they are receptive, there’s a way to approach this without labeling them or making them defensive.

Instead of saying, “You’re being emotionally abusive,” consider focusing on the behaviors that constitute abuse. Emotional abuse is about making someone feel bad, particularly about themselves, yet it’s complex with many nuances.

If you simply say, “You make me feel bad,” they might retort with, “Well, you make me feel bad too,” and you’re at a stalemate. So, this is indeed a good question and not at all a simple one. If the abuser doesn’t recognize their behavior, the relationship’s survival is in jeopardy. It seems the person who wrote values the relationship but cannot continue with the emotional abuse.

Let’s address the core issue of this article:

How do you help an emotional abuser realize their behavior is abusive?

I suggest avoiding terms like emotional abuse, verbal abuse, psychological abuse, narcissistic abuse, and other labels for mental and emotional abuse. These terms are broad and can be turned against you, leading to statements like, “You think everything I do is emotional abuse.”

This kind of generalization can trap you in a conversation and potentially lead to more emotional abuse. Instead, focus on highlighting the specific behaviors that constitute emotional abuse.

This is challenging because emotional abuse can be subtle, covert, and hard to pinpoint, which is why it’s tempting to say, “Stop emotionally abusing me.”

Ideally, the abuser would be shocked and say, “What? I’m emotionally abusing you? I don’t want to do that; I need to change.”

Unfortunately, that’s not why most people listen to this show. They tune in because someone close to them doesn’t understand the impact of their actions. So, it comes back to addressing specific behaviors.

The Mean Workbook is a tool I created to help articulate specific behaviors that are harmful in a relationship. I’m not trying to turn this into a sales pitch, but I want to share some of the checkboxes from the workbook that could help you pinpoint the exact actions causing you pain.

If I were speaking to the person who wrote in, I’d say, think about a particular thing he does that wounds you. Focus on something concrete that causes you hurt. That’s what you need to bring to light.

I’ve discussed this approach before, but the question you want to ask is, “Do you realize when you do that, it hurts me?”

Their response will be very telling. If they say, “No, I didn’t realize that,” it opens the door for you to ask, “Well, now that you know, will you stop doing it?”

I know I’m simplifying the conversation, and it’s rarely this straightforward, but that’s the essence of what you’re trying to achieve. You want them to understand that their actions are causing you pain and ask them to stop.

If they counter with, “I’m not hurting you,” or, “You’re hurting me too,” this is where discussions often spiral and become difficult to navigate. If they accuse you of hurting them as well, there’s a way to handle that. You could say, “That may be true, and I need to examine my own behavior. If I’ve said or done something that’s hurt you, I need to be aware of it.”

What this does is show that you’re willing to take responsibility for your actions. It also challenges them to take responsibility for theirs. Their next response is crucial. If they deflect and blame you, insisting that your behavior justifies their anger, they’re avoiding responsibility.

That’s when you return to the original question: “Do you realize what you’re doing is hurting me?”

If they didn’t before, but now they do, will they stop?
If they claim you’re hurting them, ask for specifics so you can address them. Say, “I want to understand the specific behaviors I’m doing that hurt you, so I can stop. I’m willing to take responsibility. Are you willing to stop the behaviors that hurt me?”

If they ask, “What behavior?” be ready with concrete examples. For instance, “Last night, when I was taking out the garbage and a piece fell on the floor that I didn’t see, and you yelled at me about the carpet, that was hurtful. You chastised me as if I were a child. It made me feel unequal, as if I’m not allowed to make mistakes, as if you didn’t care about me. There could have been a kinder way to handle it, but instead, it really hurt me.”

Hopefully, they would then acknowledge that they didn’t realize their actions were hurtful.

It’s essential to highlight specific behaviors so they can understand the impact. Labeling them as emotionally abusive without specifics might not convey which actions you’re referring to.

If they are aware and continue the behavior, that’s a sign of conscious abuse. Conscious abusers know they’re causing distress and choose to maintain control regardless of the pain they cause. In such cases, it’s vital to reassess your position in the relationship, as it’s no longer a partnership, but one person exerting power over another.

In a healthy relationship, there’s a balance. You relate to each other, support each other, and when mistakes happen, there’s forgiveness and understanding. Not all actions may be forgivable, and you may need to move on without that person. But generally, in relationships, there should be an equitable exchange, not one person consistently demeaning or intimidating the other.

The essence of a healthy relationship is a sense of equality. It’s about experiencing the ups and downs together, without one person consistently being painted as the villain, burdened with guilt and responsibility for all the problems. It should never be about that.

This is why understanding the difference between a conscious and an unconscious abuser is critical. If you ask them, “Do you realize you’re hurting me when you do or say that?” and they say yes but continue the behavior, you’re dealing with someone who is consciously hurtful and doesn’t seem to care.

This realization forces you to reflect on your own values. What do you value in a relationship? Are you willing to stay with someone who doesn’t care about your pain, especially when they are the cause of it? It’s a tough question, but one that’s crucial to consider.

I hope you’re not in this situation, but it’s important to confront it.

Let’s revisit the specifics. I advised the person who reached out to identify exactly what their partner did that was hurtful and how it made them feel. For example, if it’s something like the garbage incident where a piece fell and stained the carpet, and they exploded at you, it’s important to reflect on how that made you feel. Document those feelings, because it’s the specifics that matter.

When you’re able to say, “When you did or said this to me, I felt this way, and it hurt me deeply,” it’s powerful. It might seem like more than just an emotional trigger; it may feel like there’s a deep-seated animosity toward you. Writing down these specifics is key.

Emotional abuse is a broad term that covers many specific behaviors, but when you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to pinpoint them. That’s where the checklist in the workbook comes in handy—it helps you get specific.

For instance, one item reads, “Before I met my partner, I felt good about myself. That’s not so true anymore.”

If that resonates with you, it’s a specific point you can bring up. You can express to your partner that you used to feel good about yourself, and now you don’t, and you’re trying to figure out why.

These checklist items are conversation starters. You don’t need the workbook to do this; you can identify specifics in your relationship on your own. Having a list prepares you for a broader conversation.

Consider another item: “Everything in the relationship is so complex; nothing is easy with us.”

Though slightly vague, it’s a starting point to express that things used to be easier, and now they’re not.

Or, “My personal boundaries are often violated.”

Think of specific instances where this happened and share them. Maybe it was when they made fun of you in front of their friend, and you felt humiliated and deeply hurt.

Another point might be, “I get reminded by my partner that I am sabotaging our relationship.”

If that’s the case, you can say, “You often tell me I’m destroying our relationship, and it hurts because I’m trying so hard.”

Then there’s, “My partner wears me down with excessive talking.”

If they talk at you incessantly to get their way, you can confront them by saying, “You wear me down with your excessive talking, and I know what you’re trying to do. You want me to cave, and I won’t stand for it anymore.”

Standing up for yourself is essential, assuming the person you’re with isn’t dangerous. You can be assertive and say, “I know why you talk so much—it’s to make me give in, but I’m not going to fall for it anymore.”

These specifics are crucial for addressing the issues head-on and starting the conversation toward change.

When you start to illuminate the specifics of their behavior to them, a couple of things are likely to occur. They may become more self-conscious about those behaviors, which is beneficial because increased self-awareness often leads to less repetition of those actions.

Alternatively, they might attempt other tactics that they hope will go unnoticed by you. This really depends on whether they’re a conscious or unconscious emotional abuser.

An unconscious abuser typically exhibits harmful behavior due to inadequate coping mechanisms or survival skills acquired long ago.

When you call attention to the behavior that’s causing you pain, they might dive deeper into their repertoire of coping strategies, trying even harder to maintain control over you or avoid altering their own behavior, all to continue getting what they want.

What usually happens is this: If they’re more of an unconscious emotional abuser, they’ll likely become more self-aware and refrain from repeating those behaviors. If not, they may resort to different tactics that you need to be vigilant of, which underscores the importance of always being aware of how you feel.

One of the checklist items states, “Everything in this relationship is so complex, nothing is easy with us.” A healthy relationship, where both parties respect each other’s boundaries and values, should be straightforward.

Yes, challenges arise. You’ll face tough times, disagreements, and what might be considered normal relationship issues. But when you’re perpetually preoccupied with what you could do better, how you could improve, or how you could please your partner, that’s not healthy. It may indicate a dysfunctional or even toxic relationship because relationships should be somewhat effortless.

My girlfriend refers to it as having no glitches—a sign of a perfect relationship where there’s no need to listen to this show.

Yet, glitches do occur. You might have an occasional argument, disagreement, misunderstanding, or miscommunication. Both of you contribute to these, and they’re generally not a big deal; you work through them.

Or, if it is a significant issue, you still find a way to resolve it. However, when there’s a constant pattern of emotional jabs—whether subtle or blatantly obvious—where it’s always portrayed as your fault, when you feel responsible for everything going wrong, or when it’s consistently one-sided, that’s a glaring red flag that must be addressed.

As I’ve been saying, begin documenting the specific behaviors that make you feel bad, particularly those that diminish your self-worth. By doing so, you’ll be able to articulate how their actions are abusive without directly accusing them of being an abuser.

Share this with someone who might benefit.

Paul Colaianni

Host of Love and Abuse and The Overwhelmed Brain

5 1 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x