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The Six Strategies of Subtle Emotional and Psychological Abuse

May 7, 2015

Much is written about overt abusive behavior, the kind of in-your-face actions that are easily recognizable to virtually anyone. Those more obvious forms of abusive behavior include behaviors such as yelling, screaming, name calling, threatening and intimidating as well as physical forms of violence such as hitting, kicking, pushing, shoving and strangulating up to stabbing and shooting. But what of the more subtle forms of abusive behavior?

With the more subtle forms of abusive behavior, the abuser can appear with a smile on their face and absolutely calm and in control of themselves. They can be remarkably charming and convincing, causing the abused to believe they are the problem. These are more cold and calculating forms of abuse. However the victim, unable to identify the abuse is still affected by it.

There is a craziness the victim of these more subtle forms of abuse feels and that craziness is often accompanied by feelings of guilt and/or depression and/or anxiety and/or anger and resentment.

The goal of the subtle forms of abuse is the same as for the more overt or egregious forms of abuse: power and control. In virtually all cases of abuse, the abuser is seeking to hold power and control over another person to one’s own gain. That gain can include power and control for its own sake as well as for other objectives such as sex, money, favors and/or access to other resources.

By identifying the more subtle forms of abuse, the victim is freed from thinking the problem is oneself and can more appropriately hold the abuser accountable for their actions. Although the abuser using these strategies will be skilled in the art of manipulation including deflection of responsibility, it is important for the target of the abuse to realize they must not depend upon the abuser acknowledging the abuse in order to free oneself from their clutches.

The victim must come to their own realization and accept the fact the abuser may never take responsibility for their behavior. When this is the case it becomes vital for the target of the abuse to extricate themselves from the situation for self-protection.

These are six key forms of subtle abusive behavior: Stonewalling, Gaslighting, Duplicity, Guilt, Memory Loss and Sarcasm.

  1. Stonewalling is basically a refusal to communicate or address the issue. It can take an angry form such as when a partner exclaims they are not going to talk or outright refusing to listen to your concerns. It can also take a more passive form such as when a partner simply avoids you or puts off dealing with the matter at hand. The abuser uses extreme patience to wait you out until finally you cave to their wants.
  2. Gaslighting is the distortion of information so that something appears other than what it is. For example, when you think your partner is having a romantic tryst and it gets explained away as an innocent business meeting, yet the credit card charge includes the hotel fee. While you are given a plausible explanation for something, the total story doesn’t hold together, yet it is difficult to put your finger on it.
  3. Duplicity is out right telling you one thing while doing another. Outright deception. You know your partner is duplicitous when you finally gather irrefutable evidence of the problematic behavior.
  4. Guilt is when the abuser tries to make the other feel bad about themselves for somehow not having met the abuser’s needs or expectations, particularly when those needs or expectations are only self-serving and/or could undermine the well being of the other. You are somehow made to feel bad for thwarting their objective. A favorite line of this abuser is “If you really loved me, you would….”
  5. Memory loss is simply the “I forgot” strategy. If I forgot, then somehow I am not accountable. People who use this strategy however will appear to have excellent memories when it suits them.
  6. Sarcasm is the use of humor to disguise verbal abuse. When the target of the sarcasm complains about the comment, the abuser hides behind the humor, saying the comment was just a joke. Abuse disguised as humor is still abuse.

All of those behaviors are emotionally and psychologically abusive. If you are the victim of any of these behaviors, trying to hold your partner accountable is like trying to catch smoke. Your partner will be slippery and likely not take responsibility for their actions. If you think you need their validation of the abuse in order to perhaps leave or at least feel better, then you will remain in their clutches.

Rather, if you are victim to any of these forms of abuse and your partner will not take responsibility, then couple counseling is likely useless and you should consider individual counseling to address the need for validation and to consider your options. First and foremost though, YOU ARE NOT CRAZY, although you may be driven nuts.

Like banging your head against the wall, it’s so good when you stop. When your partner will not change, you may want to consider getting out of your partnership.

Download this blog post as a one-page handout.

If you are thinking of counseling, consider this.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.

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  1. A very useful blog indeed!

  2. Sharon allen permalink

    Can’t leave the relationship when the abuser is the client (child protection social work). Blaming, then when that is addressed, he goes onto someone else in the circle who is dealing with the child, and around we go.

  3. Katie permalink

    I would just like to thank you for this information. My Marriage of 22 years was exactly this, all of the above. I thought it was me, I thought I was the one who was loosing my mind and that I was no good to anyone. It wasn’t till I left him and went into counselling and realized the different types of abuse. I was physically abused as well but this is exactly what I went through for many years. When I found this information I was astounded, I cried and realized I’m not going crazy…. That my thoughts and desires are valuable and so am I. Thank you.

  4. Good article. It can pertain to any relationship. I am very lucky to have a loving and supportive husband, but the monster in my psychological abuse is my mother, who taught my brother to abuse me and my family in much the same way. It is frustrating when people judge me for finally ending the relationships with my mother and brother, and blame me. It is very difficult as I am very insecure after a lifetime of abuse,…but I have to focus on my wonderful husband and amazing kids!
    Thank you for the insight this article has given me.

  5. S T Tong permalink

    I think that this article is good, but would be better if there was a time-frame indicated on how long these symptoms have persisted, and whether there has been any attempt by the alleged abuser (yes, I am a lawyer) to improve on his or her behavior.

    I feel that all these 6 signs are part of every relationship at one stage or another. Couples will have times when they are negotiating and re-negotiating their relative positions over various issues, like finances, child-upbringing principles, career-change, physical house-moving, retirement.

    Also, everyone of us comes into a relationship with our own years and decades of past emotional baggage, and it may take time and patience from our partners to let us move on from these baggage. And there may be a sudden explosion of emotional baggage at a certain phase in our lives where we may behave symptomatically as Gary stated.

    I fully appreciate Gary’s article, and I thank Gary for his many good contributions in his blog.

    It is, of course, much easier for someone like me to add qualifications and exceptions here and there to his article.

    • Hi ST Tong:

      In my practice I rarely see people pulling the trigger on their relationship too quickly. I more often see folks desperately hanging on in their relationships which are abusive. I also think that most folks do differentiate between transitional issues and even “smoothing out the rough edges.”

      When abusive behavior persists and particularly in view of intervention, then one must look at oneself and not the other. Further we know there is a cycle to abusive behavior and that folks don’t want to be lulled into a false sense of change. Eventually you must ask yourself: Why do I stay? What I am hoping for? Am I realistic?

      You have given me the idea for another article though: When is Enough, Enough.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • Hi ST,
      Here is the litmus test for your questions…
      Does the abuser feel remorse for their hurtful behavior?
      Yes, we all make mistakes and say and do hurtful things to our partners from time to time for various reasons.
      However, the difference lies in the aftermath. If one is made aware that their behavior hurt their partner, they feel bad about that, they learn from that and work to make sure it doesn’t happen again, that is the sign of a healthy individual.
      However, an abuser will feel fully justified in their behavior because they are getting what they want and that’s all that matters. The hurt and distruction they cause to the other is of no consequence to them. In the worst cases the abuser knows exactly the hurt they are causing their partner. That’s the point of their behavior. Keep power and control over the other person. Keep them on edge. Lower their self-worth another notch.
      So whether it happens once or many times over many years, isn’t the point. It’s the intent behind the hurtful behavior and how they handle apology and behavior change (or not) that you need to pay attention to.

  6. S T Tong permalink

    Definitely looking forward to reading When is Enough, enough! Thanks Gary. And I take your point. You are seeing cases from your end of the line, I am living with myself and my significant others from along the line, and so I read your article from this perspective.

  7. You just defined all the reasons I left my abusive 25 year marriage! Unfortunately, he still uses these tactics with our children and against me in Court. Post dissolution, he owes me over $210,000. in support payments!

  8. Danielle Fox permalink

    I had all these in my relationship with my soon to be ex-husband and thought it was just me,
    i wanted to make him be the man i thought he was, thr man he told me he wanted to be ( he’s a heavy drinker) after i kicked him out he assulted my eldest son ( not biologically his) this was it for me our twin boys then confided in me that he had been physically and psychologically abusing then too (they were 10 at the time) i had to fight through the courts for 2 years 😦
    i lied over the years how i recieved my injeries amd never phoned the police on him as i loved him, so there was no evidence regarding the abuse i had recieved, he said i was the abuser and the judge diecided that he couldn’t find in either’s favour ( that hurt)
    i now have to send my 5 year old daugter to the man who abused me and my 3 boys, every other weekend this is having a detrimental effect on her but there is nothing i can do.
    He continues to use this as a way of continuing his control over our lives 😦

  9. Rainey permalink

    Thank you so much for this article. My ex fiancé is a narcissist stonewaller. I was very fortunate that I’m older & have experienced enough crap in my life that reflags started going up 6 months ago. I knew I would never get the truth or validation, all though that would have been nice I realized I had to completely cut off and get out of the relationship when it started making me physically sick. We’ve been broke up 2 weeks and I’m already feeling healthier & happier. Thank God the right words & people have been in my path at the right time or I might just be playing into his sick games even still. My heart goes out to anyone who is dealing with anyone with this types of problems because they are so very hurtful and a true stealer of your happiness. Remember you can not change a person. You can only change yourself.

  10. leah permalink

    I’m in this very situation its got to the point I jus don’t know if I am crazy and I’m the abuser as my partner keeps stating or if I am really been emotionally abused, everything I do he picks at it puts me down in front of his family and friends then tries to shift the blame onto me all of which makes me so upset and angry then I will become agresive and angry but because I am thinking why are u doing this I was recently in a physically abusive relationship so I have a tendency now to not allow myself to be treat badly all of which leads to my anger my partner then thrives on this as I’m proving him right in the abuser although I am not i don’t ever start dis agreements I never try to put him down in always angry in retaliation to his mind games for example he had his older son Sta over for a few days and in this time he was saying and doing subtle things which I know he’s son would not notice he does it knowing it will not be noticable so when and if I react I look like a nutter, anyway so as to avoid his behaviour I took my children to school in the morning and went upstairs to keep away from his games anyway only for him to come up and start talking of how I have to stop doing this in his words I love you but I’m allowed to speak to my son also !!!! See now u reading this might think ye ??? And ??? But it absolutely infuriated me as I know his games that was him saying basically that this whole situation as been coursed because I’m jealous or hate his son !! This is something he does regular its as if he doesn’t want people to like me anyway so I said no that’s not the case and I came down yo tell his son that we always have these arguments and no way is it about him my partner then came and said to his son tell her to go away coz u don’t wanna hear it ur my son u don’t wanna know tell her to go away for me …..grrrr I am jus so lost already I have lost my family and friends to my ex physically violent one) as I had to move me and my children 70 mile away from our home and was advised not to contact friend and family incase he found out my location so I literally only have him and my kids to speak to I jus feel so alone I even say sorry to him when I’ve done nothing wrong because I hate not having a conversation I hate the atmosphere bad it all reminds me of my ex and I hate those situations as I get very anxious and nervous anyway getting to the point I’ve lost all my confidence I don’t know who I am anymore I don’t even know if me been angry after he gas’s lights me means I’m also abusive I’m jus so confused and it hurts so much to not know ur own mind ..

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