Ron was reluctant to start the conversation with his wife, Robin, about their vacation plans this year. In years past, he would take a week off from work to spend it with her family. But her family didn’t like him so returning to work was the only part of the vacation he enjoyed. This year, he wanted it to be different. He wanted a vacation with just his wife and kids and no one else. However, he knew Robin enjoyed the time with her family and seemed disinterested that he was miserable.
He began the discussion carefully but within minutes an insignificant comment about meal choices suddenly ignited a firestorm. Instantly, he was accused of things far out of his scheme. She said he was trying to alienate her from her family, that her family showed love by criticizing and he was ungrateful for their input, and he wanted to keep the kids from knowing their grandparents. None of this was true but the harder he tried to explain it the more adamant she became until he got emotional and reacted negatively.
Robin then used his emotional reaction to justify her desire to control the outcome. Ron then gave in and agreed to see her family for a vacation. This is an example of emotional blackmail. Robin took no responsibility for igniting the flame and instead blamed Ron for everything.
This is emotionally abusive behavior. Beside each emotion is an example of how that emotional reaction can trap you into a cycle of abuse.
Nitpicked: Ron felt like he was being picked apart bit by bit. The issue could be large like a financial decision or minor like what color shirt he was wearing. She had an opinion on everything and treated him like he was stupid. When Ron fought back, she would say his feelings were wrong, his behavior was inappropriate, or he was too sensitive. Whatever was or wasn’t important to Ron was minimized in comparison to Robin’s agenda.
Surprised: Ron was surprised by her random favoritism of one child over the other. He was shocked when she would accuse him things she blatantly did. And he was stunned when she would sabotage a calm atmosphere with unnecessary conflict in order to get attention. This element of surprise kept Ron constantly worried that something awful would be on the horizon.
Embarrassed: Robin detested being embarrassed but had no problem embarrassing Ron. She would do this by sharing his private information without consent, treating him like a child in front of others, or exposing something shameful. Ron’s fear of embarrassment grew to the point he stopped sharing any information with Robin.
Anxiety: Ron was not an anxious person before Robin. But now, he found it easy to become anxious because she would question his every move, motive, or aptitude. He could not even take a detour on his way home from work to stop by the grocery store without being accused of cheating. Yet, Robin’s poor behavior or Ron’s important conversations were conveniently forgotten leaving him even more anxious.
Overwhelmed: Ron would feel overwhelmed from the excessive responsibility Robin dumped on him. She expected him to drop everything whenever she needed something even when he was feeling depressed, angry or anxious. She would frequently blame him for her problems or unhappiness. There were times when she would talk for hours bombarding him with unnecessary, irrelevant, and repetitive information.
Ridiculed: Robin belittled his accomplishments, aspirations, or personality in front of others. When he would confront her, she would minimize him by saying, “It was only a joke.” Teasing and/or sarcasm was commonly used to degrade and mock Ron. However, Ron was never allowed to do the same back to Robin, this was a sign of disrespect.
Guilt: As soon as Ron would try to do something positive in his life, Robin would stop him using guilt. She would claim that she should be the most important person in his life and as such he owes her his unwavering loyalty. When Ron would say he is trying to do self-care, she would call him selfish and insist that he care for her first.
Insecurity: Robin would hold Ron to unrealistic, unattainable or unsustainable standards such as cleaning out the garage in a couple of hours. Then when he failed, she treated him as inferior, saying that he was too slow. His thoughts, beliefs or values became insignificant, incorrect or worthless. At times, Robin also became verbally abusive toward Ron.
Confused: Robin would confuse Ron by treating him as an extension of her, not as a separate person. Her likes became his, her dislikes were his as well. This became a justification for her acquired “mind-reading” skills and general over-reaction to nearly everything he would say and do. His words were twisted into something he never meant. Robin used these incidents as a rationale for withdrawing from him, chronically sabotaging and then re-establishing closeness.
Shame: When manipulated right, shame is a powerful motivator. Robin would shame Ron by constantly reminding him of his shortcomings, often in a passive-aggressive way. Or she would complain about how badly he would treat her in comparison to how “great” she treated him. Ron’s shame turned into fear which paralyzed him and kept him from trying new things.
Alienated: Robin had a better chance of control when other people weren’t influencing him, especially his family. So, she belittled his friends and family to make his social engagements a nightmare and alienated him from support. She also restricted his normal communication by interfering in his relationships unnecessarily. Meanwhile, her friends and family were acceptable to be around.
Scared: Robin used intimidation to scare him into compliance. She would threaten to divorce him, hit him, or sabotage a work environment. Ron became so frightened of her threats that he chose the path of least resistance. This was often a reluctant agreement to some demand she made to avoid the harsher threat.
Anger: Robin generated an angry response by acting immature and selfish but then accused him of behaving that way. Then, she would divert the discussion when confronted thereby preventing any real resolution. This happened frequently when she was failed to perform a task she already committed to. In the end, he was set up with only he loses-she wins options. Ron’s anger was a response to feeling like he was fighting a no-win battle all the time.
Hostility: It was difficult for Ron to think of his home as a hostile place, but Robin sometimes created that atmosphere. For instance, she constantly interrupted while he was talking so he would feel unheard. Or she would stalk him both at home and work. She also restricted his sleep cycle by waking him up in the middle of the night, so he was increasingly tired and frustrated.
Rejected: Ron hated to feel rejection which Robin knew and preyed on. She began by denying the relevance of his point of view during a discussion. Then she would refuse to acknowledge his worth or contribution by withholding love or intimacy to prove her point. Finally, she threatened to abandon him when he refused to comply with her request.
Fear: It can be a powerful motivator or a terrorizing experience. Robin would use intimidation, threats, frightening behavior, or destruction of Ron’s treasured possessions to incite fear. He became paralyzed, felt hopeless, and therefore relied (without questioning any further) on whatever she would say. His fears felt insurmountable.
It took Ron a long time and considerable amounts of therapy to recognize these emotionally abusive tactics. But when he did, he could not not see the manipulative behavior and decided to end his marriage to Robin. Emotional abuse is just as damaging as other types of abuse, if not more so because it leaves no visible scars. Instead, the wounds are deep and can take a functioning person and turn them into traumatized.