Why don’t hurtful people stop hurting? Can the emotional abuser or controlling / manipulative person change? Can your relationship with them be saved?
These are important questions I get all too often, so in this episode I dive into why some emotional abusers can change, and why some can’t.
(The following podcast transcript has been modified for easier readability and to benefit the Deaf and hard of hearing)
I receive the question “Can the emotional abuser change?” quite a bit. The answer is yes, but only if they feel empathy and only if they know that they’re hurting you and actually care that they’re hurting you. As long as those components are present, they can change.
However, you need to find out if they can change by asking them questions and then waiting for them to act upon their answers. For example, you can ask, “Do you realize that what you’re doing is hurting me?”
I think it is a valid question when you’re being emotionally abused or when you feel harassed or abused in any way in your relationship. This question allows them to react from a non-defensive place. It is a way to convey how you’re feeling. It’s just like telling them you care about them. You may not be using the same words. It doesn’t sound like the same message. But it’s said in a kind way that isn’t offensive. It’s not an attack.
It’s a non-attacking, non-aggressive approach that shows you still love them. They may not realize they are hurting you, so it’s fair for you to ask. A question like this gives them a chance to respond from an authentic place inside of them. It gives them a chance to really “check in” with themselves and understand their own behavior from a different perspective.
This is an empowering moment for them. You are helping to make this happen inside of them. You’re not forcing them to say anything that you want to hear or that they think they should say.
Of course, they may respond with something they believe you want to hear, but you’re still giving them the opportunity to respond in a way that is real for them, and it isn’t pushed or forced upon them.
I think it’s important every time you communicate with someone who may be being emotionally abusive, manipulative, or controlling, that you question them in a way that doesn’t back them into a corner, which might fire off their fight or flight response. Their coping or survival mechanisms are what control them to control you. When their fight or flight kicks in, it is a self-protective mechanism to make them feel more comfortable and safe.
When you are dealing with someone who is harassing or abusive, and you respond in a way that offends them, puts them on the defense, or makes them think they have to survive, their fight or flight response activates. At that point, you’re going to see them do more bad behavior.
I think the best way to respond or talk to someone like that is to come from a place of love. i.e., “I love you. Do you know you’re doing this? Do you realize you’re doing this?” Then, find out the response that you get because their response is going to be very telling. It’s going to give away big clues or maybe even an answer you may not want to hear. But maybe you’ll hear something you do want to hear.
Their answer could be, “No, I didn’t know I was hurting you.” Or, “No, I don’t mean to hurt you.” We’ll talk about that in a moment.
Their answer may also be, “Yes, I know I’m hurting you.” I had somebody write to me and tell me they asked that question to their significant other, and that’s the answer they got.
What do you do after a response like that? You now have evidence. Well, it’s not really “evidence,” but it’s concrete data that tells you they know they’re hurting you, and they’re doing it anyway.
What you do with that concrete data is going to make all the difference from that point on. You could go into denial mode. You could think things like they’re still in my life, so they must care about me at some level. This is denial because someone who hurts you isn’t going to feel those things for you. I hate to say that because it might be a downer.
I don’t mean to be a downer. I just mean when you have concrete data that indicates another person knows they’re hurting you, that’s really important for you to know because it means you have someone in your life that might be dangerous or is dangerous. It may not be a physical danger at this point, but it could turn into that. Sometimes it does. But you have to be aware that when someone knows they’re hurting you and they keep doing it, then it’s time to make decisions that are better for you.
There’s a second question that comes up if they say “no” to the first question (“Do you realize you’re hurting me?”). If they say, “No, I didn’t know I was hurting you,” or some iteration of that, you should now ask, “Now that you know that behavior hurts me, will you stop doing it?”
Responding this way once again gives them the opportunity to come up with the solution themselves. They have a chance to figure out a solution that’s best for both of you. You are empowering them again! In fact, every step of this questioning process is a way to not only highlight the issues but empower them to make better decisions next time.
Everything you can do to try to help someone stop abusing you is a step in the right direction. That sounds so ridiculous to even say, but this is what happens: You are trying to help them stop abusing, harassing, controlling, and manipulating you.
Ask those questions, and their answers will reveal what’s going on in their head. You may not like the answers, but at least you’ll have a conversation about it.
The healthier the relationship, the more likely you’ll have a two-way conversation about it, not a one-way conversation where one person is dominant and just talking over you, and you are forced to listen. In those cases, nothing you say is right so you feel like you just have to sit it out.
You need to have a two-way conversation where the other person says, “I’m working on this. You’re right, I need help. We need to talk about this every time I do this.” Hopefully, the conversation goes like that.
What happens if they answer the first question like this: “Yes, I know I’m hurting you.”?
If they say that, your next question should be, “Then why do you keep doing it? Why do you keep hurting me, knowing you’re hurting me?”
Again, their answer to that question will be telling. It will let you know the concrete data that you need to know. Of course, you may not get a concrete answer. They might be evasive or ambiguous. They might delay or act ignorant and say something like, “I don’t know why I keep hurting you. It’s just what I do,” or “I don’t know where it comes from.”
They might be being truthful, or they could just be lying too. So you need to go back to the question, “Now that you know, will you please stop doing it?” and make sure to get an answer. And listen to their answer. What they say in that moment says a lot! It’s going to tell you where you stand with them.
If you want to know if you can help the emotionally abusive person in your life stop hurting you, questions like this are how you do it. It’s almost a direct path to helping them stop the behavior. If you don’t ask these types of questions and you’re just hoping and waiting for them to figure it out on their own, you may spend the rest of your time together, hoping, waiting, praying, and wishing for something better. This type of behavior usually gets you nowhere.
In this type of relationship, you often go nowhere until you find out the concrete data that you need to either move on with them or without them. Once you know the data, you can take action. You can make smarter decisions – ones you can trust will be based on facts, not crazy thoughts you think might not be true.
I realize that some people in this position don’t want to ask questions like this. Some people don’t want to have this kind of conversation because of what it may lead to. The truth can be hard to handle.
How do you deal with a truth that might be hard to handle? Usually, you just push through it. You just figure it out because you can’t make up a story of what might happen. You just have to push through it, ask the questions, and know that you may hear something that you don’t like.
I hate to tell you this, but it really doesn’t matter if you don’t like the truth. It doesn’t because the truth is more important than the way you feel about it. I know that sounds insensitive, but I don’t mean to be. It’s important for you to know the truth so that you do something to get out of a potentially dangerous situation.
Does that mean you leave a family that’s toxic?
Does that mean you break up with someone who’s being emotionally abusive?
Does that mean you leave a work environment that is harassing and abusive?
Those are questions that will certainly come up in your mind. I don’t know your situation. In fact, no one knows your situation better than you. This is why it’s important for you to see it for what it is so that other people don’t tell you what it is.
It’s important for you to look at your environment and your relationships and determine if they’re toxic. You need to determine if they’re manipulative, controlling, or abusive in any way so that you aren’t actually exposing yourself to what I would call toxins. It’s a form of “relationship radiation” that keeps you where you are: Unhealthy, unhappy, and in a rut because you never know where it’s going to go.
If you don’t want to have the conversation I’m talking about above, it could be because you are making up all the scenarios in the world of what might happen after you have the conversation. And you might be completely wrong.
You could be right, of course. What you imagine happening after a conversation like that could be happy. But you also might be wrong. Either way, all you’re doing when you imagine what’s going to happen is simply making it all up in your head before you even have the conversation. You might think you won’t be able to handle it.
Believe it or not, if you’re dealing with any type of abusive behavior, you are already resilient. You’ve learned how to be resilient and tolerant of things that you probably thought you wouldn’t be able to handle before the situation began, so remember that. You have this strength inside you. You have this resilience and a high level of toleration.
I don’t even want you to develop tolerance for bad behavior, but this is what happens in an abusive relationship: You develop tolerance for bad behavior. On the plus side, high tolerance for bad behavior contributes to your resilience, which actually gives you the strength to be able to handle anything that comes your way.
When you get into these conversations that can lead to concrete data, you will have everything you need to help you make the next decision. You will have what you need to help you make the next right choice for you.
The next right choice for you is always the right choice for other people who love and support you, too. Remember that. This is the most important thing I probably have ever said on this show (and I swear, I’m not patting myself on the back), soak this in:
When you make the right choice for you, those who love and support you want that for you as well. People who love and support you want you to be happy. They want you to follow your dreams, your passion, your goals, your vision, and anything else that makes you happy.
This is assuming that your situation is not dangerous and that you’re not putting yourself in harm’s way. If you are in harm’s way, that’s another story, and you need to find safety as soon as possible.
But my point is someone who loves you wants you to be happy. And they’re going to support your decision to be happy. Those decisions are yours. When you make decisions that are right for you, they are right for everyone who loves and supports you because they’re going to be happy that you’re happy!
If you’re reading between the lines, you know what I’m saying. I want you to be careful around people who aren’t happy with you making decisions that are good for you because the underlying message is that those who aren’t supportive of your happiness probably aren’t the best people to be around. Or, at minimum, they need to be reminded of your worth and significance. They need to be reminded that you deserve happiness and better treatment.
At a minimum, you need to know this yourself. You need to convince yourself (if you aren’t already convinced).
A lot of different types of people tune into the show. There are people who write to me and say, “I act badly toward other people (friends, family, romantic partner, etc). I do the things you’re talking about to the people I love.” In other words, they know they’re doing bad behavior to people they love. When you love someone, you don’t want to hurt them. But this is why I asked and answered the question at the beginning of this episode:
Can the emotional abuser change?
Absolutely. But they have to have empathy, and they have to be aware that they are hurting people with their behavior. And they have to do something about their own behavior, too. If not on their own, then together with those who want to help them improve and heal.
That might mean going to therapy. As long as they work on themselves in some way, shape or form until they get to the point where they are no longer triggered. They can’t take any of their upset out on you because here’s what happens:
When I was going through my transformation, when I was healing from my emotionally abusive behavior toward my wife when I was married, I finally reached a place where I stopped being judgmental and I stopped glaring at her when she would eat junk food. I stopped giving her the silent treatment when I was angry. I stopped doing a lot of things. In fact, I stopped the bad behavior altogether. I wasn’t fully cured of the triggers at that time, but I had a phenomenal head start.
By the way, if you’re a new listener to this show and you haven’t heard my episodes where I talk about my bad behavior with my wife, I recommend you listen to past episodes of either this show, Love and Abuse, or my other podcast, The Overwhelmed Brain. I’m fully transparent about my past. My marriage did not last because of my bad behavior, so that was the greatest accountability that I needed in my life. It was to realize that my behavior wasn’t acceptable or healthy.
When you try to control someone else, you’re destroying love and connection.
This is what you hear about narcissistic parents and their children. The children want to love their parents, they really do, but the narcissistic mom or dad destroys that love and destroys safety and trust by being controlling and manipulative, and belittling and hurtful in many ways, so that the child (or the adult child when they’re older), gets confused. They really want a parent but can’t get one can’t get the one they really need in their life, so they go through life trying to find other ways to parent themselves.
I actually promote parenting yourself, especially in circumstances like this. I highly recommend it in fact. You need to parent yourself when you don’t get that parental love, support, connection, and everything else that you would get from a “normal, healthy parent.” You need to do that when you haven’t gotten those things from your parents.
It’s often to parent yourself when you have no parental role model from which to draw. It’s hard to draw from past experience when you have no references. It’s hard to know how to parent yourself if you weren’t parented well yourself. Not that there’s one correct way. But if you weren’t parented in a healthy way, if you weren’t parented with love, nurturing, and support, how do you know how to do this with yourself?
This is work! But it’s work worth doing. This is what you need to do for yourself so that you can heal.
Can the emotional abuser change? Can they heal? Can they transform? The answer is yes, if they have empathy. And yes, I’m repeating these answers on purpose because you need to know if they have empathy or not. You need to be crystal clear if they’re empathetic because if they’re not, then they’re not going to feel bad when they make you feel bad.
It’s very difficult to be around someone who doesn’t feel bad that they’re hurting you, so be careful what you expose yourself to and who you’re around that does that to you. Because what happens is you do become a little too tolerant of bad behavior. What you may end up doing is making excuses, saying things like, “Well, at least they’re not hitting me.” Or, “At least they’re not bad to the kids.” Or “At least they take the dog for a walk.”
You can come up with all kinds of justifications if you think hard enough. When you start making excuses, you’re basically saying, “I’m going to tolerate this behavior. I can keep that aspect of the relationship.”
What this does is discount all the bad behavior because you’re focusing on the minimal amount of good behavior or benefits that you want to have in your life. Unfortunately, some people get stuck there. Some people will be okay with the 98% of the time the relationship is not okay.
Hopefully, it’s not that bad for you. I hope there is some behavior you won’t accept or don’t like, and you can talk about it. That would be great because, yes, empathetic emotional abusers can change when they know they’re hurting you and they don’t want to hurt you, but they need to do the work. They can’t just say, “Yes, I want to change,” or “Yes, I will do something about it.” They have to actually do something about it.
They have to be humble and realize that they are in the wrong and they’re about to lose someone that’s important to them. They need to treat this problem seriously. They need to do the work. They can’t just say they’re going to do the work. They can’t just tell you they scheduled an appointment for therapy if that’s how they’re going to improve themselves. They actually have to go to therapy, too. They have to do it.
If and when they actually go through with it, then they need to continue going through with it until you see changes. The changes you see in an emotionally abusive person will be obvious because they will be slowing down or stopping the hurtful behavior.
Real improvements result in more positive results.
Whenever someone is trying to stop doing hurtful behavior, it’s important they ask themselves important questions like:
Am I doing or saying this to control this person?
Am I doing or saying this to get the outcome I want regardless of what they want?
Am I manipulating that person so they’ll say yes?
Am I trying to set up the circumstances or tell a story so that it works out in my favor?
That last question, as much as it may not seem like emotional abuse, is definitely a manipulation. So, one has to be really careful that they’re not doing some old, default behavior that causes them to want to control the other person. Manipulating them or the situation in any way just to make the other person say yes or comply with something is emotionally abusive behavior.
Remember these questions and make it a philosophy in your life to respect others even if it seems they’re hurting you or abusing you. That doesn’t mean tolerating the behavior. It just means loving them while respecting yourself. What that involves is letting them know exactly what they’re doing to you.
You may be able to identify the exact behavior you’re experiencing (it can be difficult to spot specific emotionally abusive behaviors, especially one component of a pattern of behaviors that outline a larger scope of abusive or psychologically damaging behavior), but you do know when it hurts. You know when you feel bad about yourself. You know that you’re experiencing something that doesn’t feel right. Even saying “Something doesn’t feel right. What you’re doing right now doesn’t feel right. It makes me feel bad. Do you know that you’re making me feel bad?” can be a way to enter a conversation when you’re not sure how they’re making you feel bad.
They may reply with, “I can’t make you feel anything. That’s up to you!” That could be something they say. In which case, you could respond, “Well, your behavior helped to make me feel bad. Don’t you want me to feel good?”
Of course, you might have to get into a deeper conversation after that because a conscious manipulator (one who knows they’re being manipulative or abusive toward you), is going to want to argue with you.
But how can anyone argue while you’re hurting inside? That’s not a conversation you argue about. They might try to invalidate what you feel and tell you “You don’t feel pain. You don’t feel bad,”, but that’s also a manipulation. When that happens, and you can’t even have a conversation with them because they go directly to invalidation, then maybe the conversation is not worth having.
This is where you find out that they may not have the answers you want to hear. And because of that, you may never get the closure you want. You may realize that every time you try to talk about it with them and how it is hurting you, or that it isn’t good for “us”, that they turn it back on you. They may only want to talk about how the relationship problems are your fault. If that’s the case, you’re going to be stuck in a rut which is when you are with someone that doesn’t want to go down that road of responsibility and have a real conversation with you.
A healthy conversation may never happen which means you’ll just have to make the decision for yourself. If the other person isn’t interested in making decisions with you and only wants to blame you, you have to make the tough decisions on your own. That’s when it’s so important to nurture yourself, care for yourself, respect yourself, and love yourself. Because sometimes someone else won’t be there to do that with you.
That’s hard to hear I know. But at least when you start looking at all of the dynamics of your relationship and figure out what’s really not working and what you might need to do next, you get to make decisions that are right for you.