How To Stop Being Emotionally Abusive To Your Partner

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People tend to underestimate how deeply emotional abuse can affect their loved ones. Those that aren’t purposefully malicious may not even realize that their behaviors are unhealthy because they feel so normal.

But, of course, not everyone is oblivious to their negative actions. Some people fully understand what they are doing. They use emotionally abusive tactics to demean, change, and control their partner because they choose to.

But, since you are reading this article, chances are pretty good that you recognize your behavior is wrong and want to change it.

Good for you! That’s a powerful first step on your path of healing and doing better things. Some people can never admit they were doing wrong things and do not want to change. The fact that you’re here means you’ve cleared a significant hurdle: recognizing that something is wrong in the first place.

And really, that’s where you begin to end emotionally abusive behaviors.

1. Identify the harmful behaviors.

Emotional abuse encompasses a wide spectrum of negative behaviors. The bottom line of those behaviors is that they cause harm to the person experiencing them. Some examples of abusive behaviors include:

Controlling: limiting the time your partner spends with friends and loved ones, dictating how your partner should look or what they should or shouldn’t wear, not “giving permission” for them to do something they want to do, calling or butting into their personal time. Anger and shame are common tools of control. You may also control or monitor money use or what your partner eats or drinks.

Invalidation: not taking your partner’s emotions seriously, massaging the narrative of negative things you did to not be responsible, making it seem like it’s less bad than it is, straight-up lying about what happened, telling your partner their emotions are wrong or incorrect.

Criticizing: your partner can never do anything right, anything your partner does do right wasn’t done correctly, you are regularly telling your partner what they are doing wrong.

Neglect: using the silent treatment as a punishment, not answering messages or phone calls, withholding affection as a punishment.

Codependence: encouraging an unhealthy dependence for approval, making your partner earn your love and affection, encouraging helplessness so your partner is dependent on you for validation, help, or the ability to live their life.

Belittling: laughing at your partner’s attempts to do something, making disparaging comments about the choices they make, crushing their dreams, name-calling, telling them that they are lucky to have you because you “could do a lot better.”

Making threats: warning your partner that you’re going to get angry if they don’t behave how you want, telling them that you’ll sell or bin their possessions, saying you’ll break up with them if they’re not careful.

All of these behaviors and more can point to emotional abuse. The unifying thread of these behaviors is their negativity. They are used to undermine, hurt, and ultimately control how your partner feels or what they do.

2. Identify why you are doing these things.

Most emotionally abusive people aren’t doing it out of maliciousness. There’s an old saying that, “Hurt people hurt people.” It means that many negative behaviors like these are driven by the harm that the abuser suffered. They may simply not know any better because it’s how they grew up, or it’s the lingering effects of abuse they suffered.

Of course, that’s not an excuse for bad behavior, particularly once you’re aware of it. But it can be a reason.

Attachment issues, trauma, and mental illness can also cause people to act in unhealthy ways that are emotionally abusive. Likewise, certain aspects of a relationship can cause knee-jerk emotional reactions that are not healthy. These types of behaviors don’t come from a place of maliciousness. Instead, they are triggered by feelings of disconnect, discomfort, and anxiety about what goes on in the relationship.

People who feel that their relationship is flimsy may react poorly to ensure they won’t be hurt again. A person with abandonment issues may do unhealthy things to ensure that they aren’t left alone again. Trauma and mental illness can play a major role in why an emotionally abusive person behaves the way they do.

Stress can be an instigator of toxic behavior. A person working a difficult, stressful job may find themselves blowing up or acting negatively to the people around them. Sometimes emotional abuse can be the result of poor stress management. The partner gets a large part of their stress and ire because they are just close and available.

Substance abuse can be another contributing factor. Drugs and alcohol can fuel emotional dysregulation and moodiness.

Ask yourself, “Why?” Where is this behavior coming from? Stress? Past trauma? Unresolved conflict? Substance abuse?

3. Seek an appropriate resolution to the “Why?”

Once you’ve identified the “why,” you can then move on to a solution. Maybe you need to cut back on drugs or alcohol. It might be time to look for another job that doesn’t negatively affect your mental health and well-being.

Therapy may be in order if you feel like you’re still being affected by past traumas or mental illness.

You’ll want to move away from the situations that cause the type of unwanted behavior that you’re experiencing.

Chances are pretty good you’re going to need to do some therapy to address the “why” behind your behavior. Healing trauma or breaking substance abuse habits is a challenge, even with professional help. It’s a lot of work and a long journey, so you’ll likely need some professional help to get to where you want to be.

A good place to get that professional help is the website – here, you’ll be able to connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message, and they’ll be able to guide you toward the kinds of resolutions you need in your specific circumstances.

Click here if you’d like to learn more about this service and the process of getting help.

4. Take some time to listen to your partner.

You can more easily identify negative behaviors by listening to how your behavior affects your partner. This can also help you validate their emotions and experiences with your negative behavior.

This is going to be a difficult conversation to have. You may feel like you’re being attacked. Do your best to let the person say what they need to say and hold back your own defensiveness. Don’t make excuses or try to justify the harm. Just listen. Try not to make the situation about you or your feelings at all.

It can also be helpful to understand how your partner views you through these negative behaviors. This can be valuable fuel to help facilitate the change that you want to make in your life. Change is hard, so every little bit helps.

5. Accept responsibility for your actions.

Every person bears responsibility for their own actions. You can feel however you want. However, it is up to you to determine what you do with those feelings. There are healthier ways to deal with every negative emotion, even if it means not reacting to it at all until you feel more in control of your response.

Focus on just listening until the other person has said what they need to say. Then, ask what you can do to help make it better, if anything. Focus on using “I” statements and finding a resolution for what you did wrong because that’s within your control.

6. Accept their response.

There’s a pretty good chance you’re not going to get much sympathy or support from a person you’ve emotionally abused. They will likely be angry and may erect healthy boundaries to keep themselves well and healthy. That’s okay. Don’t expect support from them. Instead, you’ll want to look for support from friends, family, a support group, or mental health professional.

Don’t expect forgiveness. The other person may not have had enough time to emotionally process the situation to a point where they are ready to offer forgiveness. You can ask for it, but don’t put pressure on the other person to forgive. Also, bear in mind that forgiveness does not mean that all will be forgotten either. Sometimes the harm can be so much that the other person will want a healthy boundary between the two of you.

Do not use your desire to change to try to leverage the other person into forgiving you. That’s manipulative and will likely just be seen as you doing more emotionally abusive things.

7. Develop better habits.

Once you have identified and worked on the problems causing these issues, then you can start focusing on developing better habits to replace the old ones. Areas you will likely want to focus on include anger and stress management, relationship management, and communication.

Communication plays a pivotal role in healthy relationships. It’s not only being able to say what you need to say for your own benefit, but it’s also to hear what your partner is saying so you know when things aren’t right. It’s learning not to be dismissive of the harm that your actions or words may be causing to your partner. Learning to be more selective with your words can make a massive difference in the health of your relationship.

One excellent rule of thumb for anger and conflict management is to not reply for ten seconds. You take those few seconds to stop and think about what’s going on, let a surge of anger pass, or more carefully consider your reply. This would be tied in to the practice of mindfulness and can really help end volatile arguments where you and your partner are just flinging things back and forth.

8. Seek to forgive yourself.

Are you a bad person?

Probably not.

Bad people don’t tend to care about how their bad behavior affects other people. Or worse, they know exactly how it affects other people, and they enjoy it, relish in it, and seek to do more harm. They may view other people as pawns or tools to get what they want instead of people. They use and manipulate people to get what they want with little concern for the well-being of those people.

The fact that you’re here looking for information on how to be a better person and changing your harmful behavior is a pretty strong indicator that you’re not a bad person. Maybe you’re just a hurt person who’s been acting in an unhealthy way. Maybe you’re a mentally ill person who isn’t always in control of how you act.

Whatever the case may be, you’re in a position to choose to do better. And by making that choice, you’re on the right path to being a better person than you were yesterday. You’re a human being, you’re allowed to be flawed, and you’re allowed to grow from those flaws. Yesterday does not have to define who you are today and who you will be tomorrow.

To forgive yourself is to accept yourself as you are: a flawed human being doing some wrong things. Don’t waste your time and mental energy tearing yourself to pieces because of it. Abusive patterns and behaviors can be established as far back as to how you were treated in childhood. That’s not something you are responsible for. But what you are responsible for are your actions and choices now. So focus on making better ones.

9. Do seek professional help or support.

This likely isn’t going to be a problem you’ll be able to fix yourself. It would be a good idea to speak to a qualified mental health professional about the behaviors, get to the root of them, and find a way to develop better habits.

Again, we’d recommend as a good starting point. It’s more convenient than in-person therapy and can be far more affordable too. But you still get the same quality of care from fully qualified professionals.

Click here if you would like to sign up, or simply to get more information.

You may also want to ask about batterer/abuser support groups and classes in your area. Different social services do run these kinds of classes that are aimed at rehabilitating abusers.

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