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The emotionally abusive person can have a traumatic past. Their abusive behaviors can have an abusive origin.

Is it better to help the abusive person address their past to stop their behaviors toward you? It’s an important question that you should definitely want to know the answer to. 

Someone wrote to me asking for help with their partner. They said, “I am so grateful to have found your page. I am desperate for help, please. I’m deeply in love with an emotionally abusive man who was tortured by emotional pain, but he doesn’t see the ways he is creating that pain by hurting me and others.

He is estranged from his children, and he has failed other relationships but will not see that he is the common denominator. Like you, he grew up with an alcoholic dad who he described as anger was the only emotion he expressed. It is tragic. This man is so kind-hearted but also twisted. I see his pain. I see that he’s suffered abuse and thus abuses me.

What I don’t know is how to approach this with him. Please help. We’re nearing the end of our relationship if we don’t make progress. I’m going to see a therapist, but I don’t know how much longer I can last.

To the person who wrote that, thank you for sharing. Indeed, it’s a complex situation when someone carries the weight of their own suffering and trauma, and they’re still grappling with it.

They may be dealing with PTSD, and they have issues that they need to work through. We care for these people, but sometimes, they struggle to reciprocate that love in a healthy manner. And this is quite common. So, the first step I’d like you to take is to listen to the Love and Abuse podcast episode titled “Is There an Easy Way to Help Someone Understand They’re Being Emotionally Abusive?

That episode will be beneficial for you. It will provide you with tools and communication strategies that can assist you in conveying this message to him.

That’s your starting point. Then, the second step is to keep in mind, and I might have mentioned this in that episode, that you’re not dealing with his past, his trauma, or his pain. Your focus should be on his behavior toward you, and that’s all you should concentrate on.

We’ve all had our challenges, and while I’m not diminishing or invalidating his experiences or anyone else’s, everyone has their own history of suffering or trauma. Even those who believe they’ve had none, there’s almost always something.

Some individuals are fortunate. Some don’t go through such experiences. They have a great upbringing, they establish healthy boundaries, they’ve gone through any necessary healing, and they’re doing well.

But I’m referring to people who have endured suffering and still need to heal from their past. We’ll meet and form relationships with such individuals. Their suffering, trauma, and their PTSD are real. And it’s theirs to work through and heal from.

You can offer support to these individuals. You can listen to them. But ultimately, it’s their journey. You can be there for them to bounce ideas off you, and they can seek your advice or tips. Your support is beneficial, but you must treat the behavior toward you as a separate issue. If you don’t, you’ll end up blending their trauma with yours, their past abuse or neglect with the present, and as soon as that happens, it’s a no-win situation. You’ll find yourself stuck, limited by how much they’ve healed from their past.

I understand it’s all connected. Their past intertwines with their present, their current thoughts about their past, how they cope with it, and how they handle emotional triggers today. But what you’re dealing with is their behavior toward you, and if they can’t stop that if they can’t heal, then they might need professional help. And as you mentioned, he doesn’t recognize that he’s the common denominator in all these problems.

I’ve been there myself. I lost several valuable relationships because I didn’t realize I was the common denominator in all of my relationship challenges.

For those who don’t know, I was once emotionally abusive. I was critical and judgmental, and I made my partner feel guilty, giving them the silent treatment, among other terrible behaviors. I feel embarrassed admitting this, but it’s the truth. And it’s important for you to know because I can recognize these behaviors in others and understand the path to moving past them.

I know the consequences of not healing from these behaviors—they lead to the end of relationships. It took me four relationships to come to this realization. It required someone standing up to me and saying they couldn’t take it anymore, that they didn’t want to be with me. It took repeated confrontations with that reality for me to understand the compound effect of my actions.

What I mean by that is sometimes we don’t see the problem until it’s repeatedly in our face.

It’s a profound moment of realization when we discover that we are the problem! This insight often comes at a high price, typically when we’ve lost something or someone significant to us. It’s not that I’m advocating for breakups, separations, or divorces as a learning tool, but unfortunately, for many, it’s the loss that serves as a wake-up call. As long as the relationship persists, the person exhibiting harmful behavior may not recognize the severity of their actions because, in their mind, if it were truly bad, the relationship would have already ended.

I’ve discussed this concept multiple times on my podcast. The emotionally abusive person might rationalize, “Obviously, my behavior isn’t that bad, or you wouldn’t still be here,” which places the partner in a difficult position.

What does that imply for the partner?
Should they leave, separate, or divorce?

Is a drastic action necessary to catalyze change in the abuser’s behavior? I believe that, yes, sometimes a drastic step is required for the abuser to grasp the impact of their actions—how they are causing a loss of love and pushing their partner’s tolerance to the brink.

It may be essential to communicate to them, “I can’t tolerate this anymore. I can’t move forward like this because you continue to hurt me. You hurt me today. You hurt me yesterday.”

When addressing specific behaviors, it’s crucial to avoid vague accusations like “You’re emotionally abusing me,” which can be too broad and non-specific. Instead, it’s vital to articulate precisely what they are doing and how it affects you. For instance, “When you do this, I feel hurt,” or “When you say that, it makes me feel unloved.”

If they do something in front of your friends that embarrasses you, tell them, “When you do this, it makes me feel disrespected.”

I may have touched upon these points in the episode I mentioned earlier, and even if you’re familiar with this advice, it bears repeating. Avoid using high-level labels like “You’re a narcissist,” which can encompass a wide range of behaviors and may not be constructive.

Instead, identify specific actions that cause pain or discomfort and communicate how those actions make you feel—hurt, unloved, disrespected, or embarrassed. Always ensure your safety first and choose the right moment to have these conversations.

But if you want to convey the harm someone’s behavior is causing you, specificity is key. General accusations like “You’re being harmful” are less effective than pointing out the exact behavior at the moment it occurs, explaining, “That behavior – that’s what hurts me.”

For those trying to express the pain caused by someone’s actions and seeking guidance on addressing it, listen to the episode I mentioned above and remember these points. Using broad terms like “emotionally abusive” or “narcissist” may not lead to a productive conversation and could even backfire.

If you label someone as emotionally abusive, they might simply retort with the same accusation toward you, which leads nowhere. To communicate effectively about the behaviors you wish to change, it’s essential to be specific and clear about the actions and their impact on you. That’s how you deliver such a message.

If you’re struggling to express how someone’s behavior is hurting you, revisit that episode and keep these insights in mind. This approach will help you address the very specific behaviors you hope to change, without resorting to labels that could escalate the situation.

Indeed, pinpointing the problem behavior is the initial step. When you’re dealing with emotional abuse, it’s imperative to be specific about what actions are causing harm. This specificity gives you something concrete to discuss—it puts the behavior squarely on the table for examination.

Now, let’s say you’ve done that. You’ve been clear about what hurts you, and yet the behavior persists. This is when you must come to terms with the fact that the person is aware they’re causing you pain but continues to do so regardless.

When you’ve communicated your pain, the disrespect you feel, or how unloved their actions make you feel, and they repeat those actions, it’s a conscious decision on their part. This doesn’t negate the possibility that they’re being triggered unconsciously, but the first and foremost change that needs to occur in an emotionally abusive relationship is that the hurtful behavior needs to stop.

This is the cornerstone of what I teach in Healed Being: The behavior has to stop.

If you’re yelling at someone, and that’s part of the emotional abuse, you must stop yelling. I understand it’s challenging. People are triggered, and they yell, but you have to stop the front-line behavior of the abuse, such as yelling.

If you’re someone who uses the silent treatment to withhold love, that needs to stop as well. It’s a simple request, yet incredibly hard for someone who’s been emotionally abusive for most of their life. Speaking from personal experience, it’s tough to stop being who you’ve been for so long, but it’s necessary.

Believe me, if there’s a threat to the relationship—if it’s on the line unless you change—you’re likely to see change. If not, it may indicate that the person isn’t invested in saving the relationship or doesn’t believe you’ll follow through with your plans. But the individual who is emotionally abusive must understand that their behaviors must cease, or they will be held accountable for the consequences.

Unfortunately, many won’t take responsibility for what happens next. Part of the cycle of emotional abuse includes criticizing and blaming you for taking steps that honor yourself and are healthy for you. This is another facet of emotional abuse. When you take steps that are good for you, which indirectly are also good for them, they may criticize you for it. Yet, by honoring yourself, you’re actually giving them a gift. You’re showing them how you need to be treated, and how to love you in a healthy way.

Setting boundaries, reminding them of your boundaries (what’s important to you), and telling them how you wish to be treated is a gift that can help them stop the behaviors.

A person who loves you will do their best to stop behaviors that hurt you and go against your values.

If they don’t stop, then they are knowingly inflicting pain. The behavior has to stop.

To the person who wrote in, let’s assume you’ve shared all this. You’ve detailed the specific behaviors that hurt you and make you feel bad, and despite calling out these behaviors, he still doesn’t stop. What do you do then?

We’re addressing the behaviors toward you separately from his pain and trauma because he needs to heal from those and deal with them, but not within the emotionally abusive cycle that’s been created in the relationship.

He needs to work on these issues with someone who knows how to help him—someone outside of the cycle. And while he can certainly engage in self-help through books, videos, reflection, meditation, and journaling, it’s crucial that this is done apart from the dynamic between the two of you.

Absolutely, if what he’s doing is helping him change, that’s fantastic. More power to him. But should that not be the case, it might be necessary for him to seek assistance elsewhere. It could be a different approach or someone who can guide him through the change.

While I have a comprehensive program designed to help people stop being emotionally abusive, I never push it on anyone. And I certainly don’t recommend that the victim of emotional abuse push it on the abuser, either. The person who is hurting others has to want to stop; they need to recognize their behavior and desire to change.

They have their own issues to confront, and it’s crucial for them to stop inflicting pain on others, not just internally but outwardly, toward other people.

The first step is a vital one. It’s to stop harming the people you claim to care about. If you have been emotionally abusive, you need to demonstrate love in a healthy way and support them in a way that doesn’t involve harmful behaviors. Those behaviors are selfish, controlling, and hurtful. Sure, as the person who wrote said, they stem from personal trauma and inadequate coping mechanisms developed in childhood.

Since those coping mechanisms never evolved, those same mechanisms are inadequate and often detrimental as an adult.

The big challenge with undeveloped coping strategies is that they are not consciously relied upon. They are a default, unconscious reaction. Emotionally abusive individuals often fall back on these childhood coping mechanisms when faced with challenges. These mechanisms were designed for survival in childhood. They are self-serving, crafted in response to trauma, neglect, or abuse, to get through the moment.

But when these same coping strategies are applied to adult challenges, they fail because they’re rooted in a child’s perspective. If an emotionally abusive person doesn’t evolve beyond these childhood strategies, they continue to react and respond in the same ways they always have.

If they lash out to create a protective barrier, avoiding vulnerability or deep, painful emotions, then that’s their default response to challenging situations.

If they continue to hurt you, despite your efforts to point out specific behaviors and your deep investment in the relationship, then you must come to terms with the possibility that they may never change.

That’s a hard truth to accept! If they recognize their behaviors are causing pain because you’ve been clear about what hurts you, and they still don’t change, then that’s a reflection of who they are in the present. This is the version of themselves they’re choosing to show you today. And it’s likely who they’ve been all along.

Initially, they may have had the ability to control it, to choose not to show this side, because most people don’t continue a relationship after being emotionally abused from the get-go. But often, emotionally abusive people don’t reveal their true nature right away. They present their best side, which indicates that, in many cases, it’s a choice.

Sure, there are nuances to consider. I often discuss the difference between conscious manipulators—those who knowingly inflict pain—and unconscious manipulators, who react without intent to harm.

This reactive behavior, akin to a fight-or-flight response, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re inherently bad people. More often than not, what begins as a wonderful relationship with a person showing up in admirable ways can devolve as they start reacting without conscious thought. They let their guard down, their filters slip, and they become more comfortable, which can lead to surprising, awful, and hurtful behavior.

In such relationships, particularly romantic ones, you might find yourself falling in love with someone who, for a time, seems fantastic. It could be bliss for the first several months or even years. But then, troubling behaviors emerge.

At first, you might question yourself, taking on the blame and feeling guilty, because they were once kind and caring, so you continue to invest, committing to the relationship. And you hold onto hope that they will change sometime soon. You may even believe you can adapt to what’s happening and find other ways to improve the relationship.

However, the hard truth is that you cannot change them. They are who they are, and maybe that’s who they’ve always been, but they chose to present themselves differently at the relationship’s onset. Whether they were uncomfortable being themselves initially or intentionally deceiving you, the honeymoon phase eventually ends, and their true behaviors begin to surface.

When you see these behaviors persist, especially after they realize they’re hurting you, and yet they don’t stop, you must come to a place of acceptance: This is how they are choosing to treat you.

I assure you, I’m not blaming the victim or suggesting it’s your fault for staying. Everyone has their reasons for staying, and sometimes, there’s no choice but to endure a harmful situation due to a lack of resources or circumstances. But once you accept that they won’t change—even as you suffer, cry, and feel bad—you’re at a crossroads.

Accepting their behavior means you’re prepared to tolerate it, and that’s when you must make the next best decision for yourself. That could mean planning your exit, speaking your truth, or setting a boundary, like sleeping in another room permanently or moving in with a relative.

If you don’t reach this point of acceptance, you might remain in hope of change, but how much more evidence do you need?

It’s a tough message, and it might not be what you want to hear, including the person who wrote to me. To that person, I know this is difficult, but it’s crucial to separate his pain and trauma from your own. You have your challenges, and it’s essential to address them, just as he must confront his own.

Addressing the challenges of how he treats you is paramount. And let’s be clear: you are not his therapist, coach, or guide. Your role is to provide emotional support, to care for him, and to assist him through certain situations.

However, when it comes to emotional trauma, PTSD, and emotional triggers, that’s not your responsibility. I’m being assertive with you here because you have your own issues to contend with. If you were fully healed, if you were actually a therapist, and if you could detach your own emotional baggage from his, then perhaps you could be present for him in a therapeutic capacity. This would mean listening without judgment and hearing critical things about yourself without interjecting or taking them personally.

But that’s a tall order! It requires a special set of skills. And while some people—including myself—have managed to do this on occasion, in the context of an emotionally abusive relationship, it’s a different story. Trying to support each other when both parties have their own issues can quickly deteriorate the relationship, sometimes exacerbating the problems.

It’s immensely challenging to be there for someone else when you’re grappling with your own struggles. I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that it’s incredibly difficult, especially within the confines of a romantic or close relationship where everything is deeply intertwined.

Mixing your issues with his past can create a toxic mix that’s harmful to both of you, preventing you from being what the other person needs. My hope is that something I’ve shared today resonates and offers some guidance.

To the person who wrote in, and for anyone reading this who’s facing similar challenges, this is the straight talk you might need to navigate such a complex situation. If you’re unable to take the necessary steps right now due to a lack of resources, mentally planning for those steps is crucial.

There are times when acceptance is the only option, recognizing that there might be nothing you can do. Reaching that level of acceptance may lead you to make different decisions for yourself and those you care about. Remember, people who really care about you will want you to make decisions that are right for you.

Those who want to control the decisions you make are acting from a selfish place and aren’t loving you in a healthy way.

Share this with someone who might benefit.

Paul Colaianni

Host of Love and Abuse and The Overwhelmed Brain

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