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Definition of Abuse: Emotional, Verbal, and Psychological Abuse

Find out about the different types of abuse, the psychological tools used by the abuser, and how to deal with your abuser.

Emotional, Verbal, and Psychological Abuse, Domestic and Family Violence and Spousal Abuse

Violence in the family often follows other forms of more subtle and long-term abuse: verbal, emotional, psychological sexual, or financial.

It is closely correlated with alcoholism, drug consumption, intimate-partner homicide, teen pregnancy, infant and child mortality, spontaneous abortion, reckless behaviours, suicide, and the onset of mental health disorders.

Most abusers and batterers are males - but a significant minority are women. This being a "Women's Issue", the problem was swept under the carpet for generations and only recently has it come to public awareness. Yet, even today, society - for instance, through the court and the mental health systems - largely ignores domestic violence and abuse in the family. This induces feelings of shame and guilt in the victims and "legitimizes" the role of the abuser.

Violence in the family is mostly spousal - one spouse beating, raping, or otherwise physically harming and torturing the other. But children are also and often victims - either directly, or indirectly. Other vulnerable familial groups include the elderly and the disabled.

Abuse and violence cross geographical and cultural boundaries and social and economic strata. It is common among the rich and the poor, the well-educated and the less so, the young and the middle-aged, city dwellers and rural folk. It is a universal phenomenon.

Abusers exploit, lie, insult, demean, ignore (the "silent treatment"), manipulate, and control.

There are many ways to abuse. To love too much is to abuse. It is tantamount to treating someone as an extension, an object, or an instrument of gratification. To be over-protective, not to respect privacy, to be brutally honest, with a sadistic sense of humour, or consistently tactless - is to abuse.

To expect too much, to denigrate, to ignore - are all modes of abuse. There is physical abuse, verbal abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse. The list is long. Most abusers abuse surreptitiously. They are "stealth abusers". You have to actually live with one in order to witness the abuse.

There are four important categories of abuse:

Click HERE forA Classification of Abusive Behaviors

I. Overt Abuse

The open and explicit abuse of another person. Threatening, coercing, beating, lying, berating, demeaning, chastising, insulting, humiliating, exploiting, ignoring ("silent treatment"), devaluing, unceremoniously discarding, verbal abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse are all forms of overt abuse.

II. Covert or Controlling Abuse

Abuse is almost entirely about control. It is often a primitive and immature reaction to life circumstances in which the abuser (usually in his childhood) was rendered helpless. It is about re-exerting one's identity, re-establishing predictability, mastering the environment - human and physical.

The bulk of abusive behaviors can be traced to this panicky reaction to the remote potential for loss of control. Many abusers are hypochondriacs (and difficult patients) because they are afraid to lose control over their body, its looks and its proper functioning. They are obsessive-compulsive in an effort to subdue their physical habitat and render it foreseeable. They stalk people and harass them as a means of "being in touch" - another form of control.

To the abuser, nothing exists outside himself. Meaningful others are extensions, internal, assimilated, objects - not external ones. Thus, losing control over a significant other - is equivalent to losing control of a limb, or of one's brain. It is terrifying.

Independent or disobedient people evoke in the abuser the realization that something is wrong with his worldview, that he is not the centre of the world or its cause and that he cannot control what, to him, are internal representations.

To the abuser, losing control means going insane. Because other people are mere elements in the abuser's mind - being unable to manipulate them literally means losing it (his mind). Imagine, if you suddenly were to find out that you cannot manipulate your memories or control your thoughts... Nightmarish!

In his frantic efforts to maintain control or re-assert it, the abuser resorts to a myriad of fiendishly inventive stratagems and mechanisms. Here is a partial list:


 


Unpredictability and Uncertainty (Intermittent Reinforcement)

The abuser acts unpredictably, capriciously, inconsistently and irrationally. This serves to render others dependent upon the next twist and turn of the abuser, his next inexplicable whim, upon his next outburst, denial, or smile.

The abuser makes sure that HE is the only reliable element in the lives of his nearest and dearest - by shattering the rest of their world through his seemingly insane behaviour. He perpetuates his stable presence in their lives - by destabilizing their own.

TIP

Refuse to accept such behavior. Demand reasonably predictable and rational actions and reactions. Insist on respect for your boundaries, predilections, preferences, and priorities.

Disproportional Reactions

One of the favorite tools of manipulation in the abuser's arsenal is the disproportionality of his reactions. He reacts with supreme rage to the slightest slight. Or, he would punish severely for what he perceives to be an offence against him, no matter how minor. Or, he would throw a temper tantrum over any discord or disagreement, however gently and considerately expressed. Or, he would act inordinately attentive, charming and tempting (even over-sexed, if need be).

This ever-shifting code of conduct and the unusually harsh and arbitrarily applied penalties are premeditated. The victims are kept in the dark. Neediness and dependence on the source of "justice" meted and judgment passed - on the abuser - are thus guaranteed.

TIP

Demand a just and proportional treatment. Reject or ignore unjust and capricious behavior.

If you are up to the inevitable confrontation, react in kind. Let him taste some of his own medicine.

Dehumanization and Objectification (Abuse)

People have a need to believe in the empathic skills and basic good-heartedness of others. By dehumanizing and objectifying people - the abuser attacks the very foundations of human interaction. This is the "alien" aspect of abusers - they may be excellent imitations of fully formed adults but they are emotionally absent and immature.

Abuse is so horrid, so repulsive, so phantasmagoric - that people recoil in terror. It is then, with their defences absolutely down, that they are the most susceptible and vulnerable to the abuser's control. Physical, psychological, verbal and sexual abuse are all forms of dehumanization and objectification.

TIP

Never show your abuser that you are afraid of him. Do not negotiate with bullies. They are insatiable. Do not succumb to blackmail.

If things get rough - disengage, involve law enforcement officers, friends and colleagues, or threaten him (legally).

Do not keep your abuse a secret. Secrecy is the abuser's weapon.

Never give him a second chance. React with your full arsenal to the first transgression.

Abuse of Information

From the first moments of an encounter with another person, the abuser is on the prowl. He collects information. The more he knows about his potential victim - the better able he is to coerce, manipulate, charm, extort or convert it "to the cause". The abuser does not hesitate to misuse the information he gleaned, regardless of its intimate nature or the circumstances in which he obtained it. This is a powerful tool in his armory.

TIP

Be guarded. Don't be too forthcoming in a first or casual meeting. Gather intelligence.

Be yourself. Don't misrepresent your wishes, boundaries, preferences, priorities, and red lines.

Do not behave inconsistently. Do not go back on your word. Be firm and resolute.

Impossible Situations

The abuser engineers impossible, dangerous, unpredictable, unprecedented, or highly specific situations in which he is sorely needed. The abuser makes sure that his knowledge, his skills, his connections, or his traits are the only ones applicable and the most useful in the situations that he, himself, wrought. The abuser generates his own indispensability.

TIP

Stay away from such quagmires. Scrutinize every offer and suggestion, no matter how innocuous.

Prepare backup plans. Keep others informed of your whereabouts and appraised of your situation.

Be vigilant and doubting. Do not be gullible and suggestible. Better safe than sorry.


 


III. Control and Abuse by Proxy

If all else fails, the abuser recruits friends, colleagues, mates, family members, the authorities, institutions, neighbours, the media, teachers - in short, third parties - to do his bidding. He uses them to cajole, coerce, threaten, stalk, offer, retreat, tempt, convince, harass, communicate and otherwise manipulate his target. He controls these unaware instruments exactly as he plans to control his ultimate prey. He employs the same mechanisms and devices. And he dumps his props unceremoniously when the job is done.

Another form of control by proxy is to engineer situations in which abuse is inflicted upon another person. Such carefully crafted scenarios of embarrassment and humiliation provoke social sanctions (condemnation, opprobrium, or even physical punishment) against the victim. Society, or a social group become the instruments of the abuser.

TIP

Often the abuser's proxies are unaware of their role. Expose him. Inform them. Demonstrate to them how they are being abused, misused, and plain used by the abuser.

Trap your abuser. Treat him as he treats you. Involve others. Bring it into the open. Nothing like sunshine to disinfest abuse.

IV. Ambient Abuse and Gaslighting

The fostering, propagation and enhancement of an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, instability, unpredictability and irritation. There are no acts of traceable explicit abuse, nor any manipulative settings of control. Yet, the irksome feeling remains, a disagreeable foreboding, a premonition, a bad omen. This is sometimes called "gaslighting".

In the long term, such an environment erodes the victim's sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Self-confidence is shaken badly. Often, the victim adopts a paranoid or schizoid stance and thus renders himself or herself exposed even more to criticism and judgment. The roles are thus reversed: the victim is considered mentally deranged and the abuser - the suffering soul.

TIP

Run! Get away! Ambient abuse often develops to overt and violent abuse.

You don't owe anyone an explanation - but you owe yourself a life. Bail out.

APPENDIX: A Classification of Abusive Behaviors

Abusive conduct is not a uniform, homogeneous phenomenon. It stems and emanates from multiples sources and manifests in a myriad ways. Following are a few useful distinctions which pertain to abuse and could serve as organizing, taxonomical principles (dimensional typologies) in a kind of matrix.

1. Overt vs. Covert abuse

Overt abuse is the open and explicit, easily discernible, clear-cut abuse of another person in any way, shape, or form (verbal, physical, sexual, financial, psychological-emotional, etc.).

Covert abuse revolves around the abuser's need to assert and maintain control over his victim. It can wear many forms, not all of which are self-evident, unequivocal, and unambiguous.

2. Explicit vs. Stealth or Ambient abuse (Gaslighting)

A more useful distinction, therefore, is between explicit (manifest, obvious, indisputable, easily observable even by a casual spectator or interlocutor) and stealth (or ambient) abuse, also known as gaslighting. This is the fostering, propagation and enhancement of an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, instability, unpredictability and irritation. There are no acts of traceable explicit abuse, nor any manipulative settings of control.

3. Projective vs. Directional abuse

Projective abuse is the outcome of the abuser's projection defense mechanism. Projection is when the abuser attributes to others feelings and traits and motives that he possesses but deems unacceptable, discomfiting, and ill-fitting. This way he disowns these discordant features and secures the right to criticize and chastise others for having or displaying them. Such abuse is often cathartic (see the next pair of categories).

Directional abuse is not the result of projection. It is a set of behaviors aimed at a target (the victim) for the purpose of humiliating, punishing, or manipulating her. Such abusive conduct is functional, geared towards securing a favored and desired outcome.

4. Cathartic vs. Functional abuse

While pair number (3) above deals with the psychodynamic roots of the abuser's misbehavior, the current pair of categories is concerned with its consequences. Some abusers behave the way they do because it alleviates their anxieties; enhances their inflated, grandiose self-image; or purges "impurities" and imperfections that they perceive either in the victim, or in the situation (e.g., in their marriage). Thus, such abuse is cathartic: it is aimed at making the abuser feel better. Projective abuse, for instance, is always cathartic.

The other reason to abuse someone is because the abuser wants to motivate his victim to do something, to feel in a certain way, or to refrain from committing an act. This is functional abuse in that it helps the abuser to adapt to his environment and operate in it, however dysfunctionally.

5. Pattern (or structured) vs. Stochastic (or Random) abuse

Some abusers heap abuse all the time on everyone around them: spouse, children, neighbors, friends, bosses, colleagues, authority figures, and underlings. Abusive conduct is the only way they know how to react to a world which they perceive to be hostile and exploitative. Their behaviors are "hard-wired", rigid, ritualistic, and structured.

Other abusers are less predictable. They are explosive and impulsive. They have a problem with managing their anger. They respond with temper tantrums to narcissistic injuries and real and imaginary slights (ideas of reference). These abusers appear to strike "out of the blue", in a chaotic and random manner.

6. Monovalent vs. Polyvalent abuse

The monovalent abuser abuses only one party, repeatedly, viciously, and thoroughly. Such abusers perpetrate their acts in well-defined locations or frameworks (e.g., at home, or in the workplace). They take great care to hide their hideous exploits and present a socially-acceptable face (or, rather, facade) in public. Their are driven by the need to annihilate the object of their maltreatment, or the source of their frustration and pathological envy.

In contrast, the polyvalent abuser casts his net wide and far and does not "discriminate" in choosing his prey. He is an "equal opportunity abuser" with multiple victims, who, often, have little in common. He is rarely concerned with appearances and regards himself above the Law. He holds everyone - and especially authority figures - in contempt. He is usually antisocial (psychopathic) and narcissistic.

7. Characteristic (personal style) vs. Atypical abuse

Abuse amounts to the personal style of most Pattern, or Structured abusers (see point 5 above). Demeaning, injurious, humiliating, and offensive behavior is their modus operandi, their reflexive reaction to stimuli, and their credo. Stochastic, or Random abusers act normatively and "normally" most of the time. Their abusive conduct is an aberration, a deviation, and perceived by their nearest and dearest to be atypical and even shocking.

8. Normative vs. Deviant abuse.

We all inflict abuse on others from time to time. Some abusive reactions are within the social norms and not considered to be indicative or a personal pathology, or of a socio-cultural anomie. In certain circumstances, abuse as a reaction is called for and deemed healthy and socially-commendable.

Still, the vast majority of abusive behaviors should be regarded as deviant, pathological, antisocial, and perverse.

It is important to distinguish between normative and deviant abuse. A total lack of aggression is as unhealthy as a surfeit. The cultural context is critical in assessing when someone crosses the line and becomes an abuser.


 

next: The Gradations of Abuse

APA Reference
Vaknin, S. (2009, October 1). Definition of Abuse: Emotional, Verbal, and Psychological Abuse, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, June 26 from https://www.healthyplace.com/personality-disorders/malignant-self-love/definition-of-abuse-emotional-verbal-and-psychological-abuse

Last Updated: July 5, 2018

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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