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Intimate Relationships, Psychological Abuse and Mental Health Problems  by Linda Berg-Cross, Ph.D.

Learning Objectives

  • Learn the three different approaches used by psychologists to define abuse.
  • Learn the components of psychological abuse.
  • Learn the mental health effects of psychological abuse.

There are three different takes on what criteria should be used to define psychological abuse. The first approach, the Socio-Cultural Model, assumes that there is a defined class of behaviors within each culture group that can be categorized as psychologically abusive. Calling someone fat in middle America is abusive whether they are overweight, skinny, or just right according to this model. By definition, the use of a socially noxious word directed at a loved one is abusive to adherents of the Socio-Cultural Model of psychological abuse.

A second approach, the Motivational Model, stresses the intent of the alleged abuser. If I am calling someone fat in a joking way, with the intent of showing them how ridiculous it is for them to be worried about their weight, I would not be considered abusive in the motivational model. If I call them fat because they are sitting down with a second bowl of ice cream and I feel irritated that I am cramped next to them on the sofa, I am being abusive. Thus, if the intent is to hurt, denigrate or intimidate, the act is judged abusive. If there is no intent to hurt the partner, then no psychological abuse has occurred.

The third model, the Impact Model, and the one most clinicians and researchers are leaning towards, is that abusive behavior is defined by the felt impact on the victim. One girl may just laugh when her boyfriend calls her fat and for her there is no psychological abuse being inflicted. For another young woman, it could be humiliating and denigrating to hear her boyfriend call her fat. Her partner would be considered as acting in a psycholgically abusive way irrespective of his intent according to the Impact Model.

When working with couples, it is wise to think about the couple's interactions in terms of all three models and have them guide your assessments and interventions. The clinician wants to know who feels psychologically abused and what behaviors, attitudes, reactions or interactions make them feel that way. If the abuser has been unintentionally or unknowingly hurting his/her partner, chances are he/she will be able to change quite readily within a therapeutic environment. If the motivations appear more nefarious, whether or not the abuser owns up to his/her hurtful intentions, then treatment efforts need to be directed towards the root causes of the psychological abuse. Of course, the causes are as varied as the abusive behaviors. However, they include, most prominently and most often, unresolved anger, hurt and shame, projective identification, and orthogonal life paths, rather than interdependent paths. Treatment approaches for these issues are discussed later.

Some Startling Statistics: Almost all women who are physically abused are also verbally abused (84%) and psychologically abused (Follingstad et. al., 1990) • 72% of battered women report that emotional abuse had a more severe impact on them than physical abuse (Follingstad et. al., 1990) • Among a group of battered women, 46% of women state that emotional ridicule is the worst type of abuse to experience (Follingstad et. al., 1990) • There is no difference among the races or various ethnic groups on the incidence of physical abuse (Lockhart, 1985; Campbell, 1989) • No research, to date, has systematically examined cultural differences in the prevalence of psychological abuse • Psychological abuse is a significant predictor of depressive symptomatology and problem drinking (Arias, Street and Brody, 1996) • Psychological abuse is a meaningful predictor of parents who will neglect or maltreat their children (Arias, Street, and Brody, 1996)

Components of Psychological Abuse

There appear to be as many ways of grouping the different types of psychological abuse as there are researchers who write on the topic. Some use three categories, some seven or more. Most factor analyses show four to five distinct categories, of which I will describe the four most frequently mentioned.

1) Intimidating or Denigrating

Intimidation and denigration most commonly surface as verbal abuse, where one partner is devaluing, criticizing or demeaning the other's personality, values, attitudes or abilities. Researchers were very surprised to discover that, overall, the most deleterious type of psychological abuse is that which is directed to demeaning, ridiculing or putting down the personality traits or core values of an individual by their intimate partner. That is, when the partner is rejecting the person rather than the behavior, the effects can be long lasting and devastating. It may feel bad to have your spouse embarrass you by making fun of the tie you are wearing when you are out with friends for dinner, but it feels a lot more painful when your spouse is making fun of your desire to dress for success.

Marshall (1992) describes three types of subtle psychological abuse, two of which fall under this general rubric and are not necessarily displayed verbally. First are behaviors that undermine their partner's sense of well-being. Undermining involves putting negative ideas into one's mind about oneself that were not there before and that most people would agree should realistically not be a matter of concern. It may be that the spouse is making his/her normal weight partner become worried about his/her health (e.g. being overweight can lead to heart problems); or making one doubt whether or not he or she can take care of him or herself; or making them ashamed or guilty. Often, the partner will excuse their subtle abuse by stressing how the feedback will hopefully make him/her a better person. Another set of behaviors, difficult to detect, are discounting behaviors. This is when your partner acts secretive and tries to keep everyday things from you (she won't tell you what she brought her brother for a Christmas present); or acts as if you can do what you want but then becomes upset if you actually do it; or acts like there is something emotionally wrong with you. Discounting behaviors inhibit a person from engaging in behaviors that may be in his/her interest and that the person wants to engage in - whether it is normal shared conversation about Christmas shopping or getting babysitting coverage from your spouse so you can take a crafts class.

2) Withholding: Passive Aggressive Behavior of Emotional Support and Nurturance

Many passive aggressive acts are very subtle. And indeed, there seems to be an inverse relationship between subtlety and extent of psychological damage. The more subtle the act, the more devastating it can be. Take the following example: during a heated argument, your partner starts screaming that his mother was snubbed at the last family get together and that he can't take that type of behavior towards his mom. In this case, a woman is likely to attribute the comment as much to his anger as to her behavior. The personal blow is lessened because the statement and the sentiment are attributed to his personal emotional state at the time. However, if he seriously and tenderly says that while he was brought up around lots of kindness and graciousness, your
childhood left you as damaged goods, so he understands how difficult it is for you to be polite. What can you feel? The more such loving statements are made, the more your belief in them will be strengthened. Why would someone who loves you say things to you that are not true or at least true only in their eyes?

3) Restricting and Isolating

It is easy to recognize the most pathological forms of this behavior. When we encounter a partner who doesn't let the other talk on the phone to friends or family, refuses to let him/her have a cell phone, goes out with him/her whenever they are shopping, and discourages any outside activity, the diagnosis is clear. However, there are many subtle forms of restricting and isolating behavior. Your partner may profess how being away from home robs the two of you of precious time together or how your activities can just as well be done at home, thus with your partner.

4) Control/Domination

The most studied and the most obvious type of psychological abuse concerns controlling and/or dominating actions. Control and domination can play out in countless ways. Ehrensasft et al. (1999) has suggested that there are four distinct areas where control and domination can be expressed in a relationship. The first area is in decision making. Often, in psychologically abusive relationships, one partner makes all the major decisions about where to vacation, what to buy, how much to spend, where to live, what church to attend, etc. Even when the other person has strong opinions, he/she is not allowed equal access to decision making. Such abused partners may present as though they really don't have strong preferences; however a little clinical scratching often reveals that whenever they do voice a preference, rejection and control are exercised by the offending partner. The second area where control may be expressed is in relationships. If one partner determines who the other person spends time with on the weekend, who is allowed to call the house, who are acceptable people to enagage in hobbies or sports, or what relatives one can spend time with on the holidays, relationship control is at work. Relationship control is often cloaked as a protective and loving act. The controlling partner feels that he/she is making rational judgments about the bad influence particular people have on the partner or the relationship. Even when this is true, it does not negate the psychologically abusive use of control that is occurring in the relationship. The third area where control is expressed surrounds activities. Each partner should be free to select the recreational or evening activities of his/her own liking, he/she should be free to schedule his/her day, and most importantly he/she should be free to do things without the other person. The most extreme cases of activity control involve women who are not allowed to leave the house alone or are not permitted to spend time with female friends. Unfortunately, when women exert this type of control over men, it is usually a cause for laughter and the men are denegrated. The fourth area where control can be expressed is far more subtle than the other three, but potentially the most damaging. This is the area of self-image. If the controlling spouse makes his/her partner feel inferior or unable to deal with daily pressures and problems, he/she is controlling the self-image. Intimacy accords the partner great power to affirm our efficacy and competency as human beings or to destroy it. Every time our partner brags about us or has pride in our actions, our self-image is bolstered. Every time we are made to feel as though we flubbed up, we are diminished. Image control is both intimidating and controlling.

Gender and Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse is perpetrated by both men and women, although until fairly recently, feminist theories focused on male perpetrators have dominated the literature. Male patterns of psychological and physical abuse have been explained by patriarchal norms (Strauss, 1989), traditional sex-role attitudes (Burke, Stets, & Pirog-Good, 1989) and peer support for male courtship aggression (DeKeseredy, 1990). Gender neutral theories of psychological abuse come primarily from psychodynamic theories that highlight how frustration and anxiety shape passive aggressive and controlling behaviors.

How frequently do men and women become perpetrators of psychological abuse? We have more data on the incidence of psychological abuse perpetrated by men. Both Follingstad et. al. (1990) and Stets (1990) reported that an astounding 99% of battered women experience psychological abuse of some type. Murphy and O'Leary (1989) found that the amount of psychological aggression displayed 18 months after marriage significantly predicted physical aggression one year later.

Kazdin and Painter (1992) collected some of the first data on male victims of psychological abuse. In their study of 1,625 college males, approximately 20% reported isolating and emotionally controlling behaviors by their partners; approximately 15% reported diminishment of their self-esteem by their partners and approximately 20% reported experiencing jealousy from their partners. More recently, Simonelli and Ingram (1998) reported that 90% of the males in their sample reported experiencing some type of emotional abuse: 77% reported jealousy, 77% withdrawal, 63% diminishment of self esteem; 60% verbal abuse and 49% reported social and emotional control. Similarly, Hines and Malley- Morrison (1991) found that 82% of their college male sample reported being emotionally abused. Three conclusions seem obvious: a) psychological abuse rates get astronomically higherwith broader definitions of irritating, demeaning, or interfering behaviors; b) even with the most stringent definitions, psychological abuse is a significant social problem and c) both men and women are perpetrators and victims of psychological abuse.

Mental Health Effects of Psychological Abuse

Almost all of the research on psychological abuse in intimate relationships is on women who were physically abused as well as psychologically abused. Research consistently shows that psychological abuse is a separate aspect of the abuse experience and has independent effects on the mental health of the victim. How can the researchers be sure that the mental health effects they are finding are due to the psychological abuse and not to the trauma of being physically violated? The statistics are intuitively understandable.

Most studies give separate physical abuse scales and psychological abuse scales. These are the independent variables. The dependent variables are various mental health scales on depression or fear. Using hierarchial multiple regressions, the scores on the psychological abuse scales are entered first, followed by scores on physical violence scales. Then the regression is repeated with physical violence scores entered first and the psychological abuse scales entered second. By looking at the amount of variance in the mental health scores that are attributable to reported psychological abuse, in both analyses it becomes clear that psychological abuse has a direct impact on mental health. For example, Sackett and Saunders (2001) examined the relative contributions of physical and psychological abuse to fear, depression, and damaged self-esteem. When looking at the mental health outcome of fear, if psychological abuse was entered first, it accounted for 53% of the variance in the fear scores (and physical violence added only 1% to the variance); when physical violence was entered first it accounted for 18% of the variance, but the second variable, psychological abuse, raised the percent variance an additional 36%. Psychological abuse was by far the biggest contributor to making people more fearful. It seems to be the case that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can hurt forever. In the same way, when looking at the mental health outcomes for depression and damaged self-esteem, both physical violence and psychological violence had their own unique and statistically significant impacts.

These findings are in accord with the well-cited research linking the incidence of depression in women to stressful, unhappy marriages and the lifting of depression in leaving a destructive relationship.Thus, when therapists assess the presence of psychological abuse, they need to look for how the person's mental health has been impaired. Similarly, when someone in a relationship presents with low self-esteem, depression or fear, it makes sense to try to assess if psychological abuse is occurring.

What is the Stockholm Syndrome?

The Stockholm syndrome was originally coined to describe the paradoxical interpersonal relationships many hostages have with their persecutors. Hostages almost always live in great fear of their keepers. Yet, at the same time, they grab onto any perceived kindnesses extended by the captors as signs of hope or potential special treatment. The expectation and desire for a moment of
kindness or care make them become overly dependent and bonded to their captors. They see no way of escaping without creating a special bond with the tormenter so that they are likeable and loveable. They hate them but they love them.

This same syndrome appears to describe the predicament of many abused men and women who stay in relationships that are detrimental or even devastating to their well-being. Therapists have long wondered why people stay in relationships that are so damaging. Aren't we all governed by the laws of operant conditioning? Don't we all seek pleasure and try to avoid pain? The Stockholm syndrome describes the unexplainable. Researchers are just now going beyond the description of the phenomena to understand the dynamics of the phenomena - what creates the dependence and why it is so resistant to the more compelling reality of the relationship. Many psychological theories provide windows of explanation that can be tested in the future (Graham et al., 2001).

From a behavioral perspective, the love dependence that develops towards the tormenter is based on the principles of intermittent reinforcement. When a behavior, emotion, or attitude is reinforced on an intermittent, unpredictable schedule, it becomes highly resistant to extinction. If the tormenter only intermittently and unpredictably reinforces the victim's expressions of gratitude, admiration or acts of compliance, the victim will find these expressions deeply ingrained and try endlessly to get the reward - which one knows, historically, will eventually come, if only for a brief moment.

From a psychodynamic perspective, love dependence develops as the victim denies the horror of the real relationship and projects the wish for safety of a caring, committed partner onto the abuser.

Cognitive theorists have hypothesized that over time, abusive acts are repressed and fade in intensity, along with the original fear and need to escape. Expectations of positive encounters (often reinforced by the honeymoon acts that follow most abusive episodes) help bolster the illusion that better, more loving times will surely shape future interactions. Cognitive theorists also suggest that cognitive dissonance plays a role in creating the love dependence - if I am staying in such a crazy relationship, he/she must definitely be worth it.

Treatment of Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse is critical to treat because a) of its strong link to physical abuse; b) the devastating mental health effects it inflicts; c) the corrosive effect it has on maintaining intimacy and healthy relationships; and d) the power it has to shut down the individual growth of the perpetrator as well as the victim.

There is no one gold standard or evidence-based practice for the treatment of psychological abuse. The field is too new. Recent data indicates that men who are psychologically abusive are more likely to drop out of treatment interventions designed to reduce couple violence, irrespective of the level of physical violence in the relationship. Indeed, Brown, O'Leary and Feldbau (1997) found that 47% of 70 couples in their violence reduction program dropped out and the only variable that predicted drop out status was level of psychological abuse. Thus, treatment compliance is a major issue facing even the most effective and innovative treatment interventions for domestic violence. However, research suggests that the effective treatment of psychological abuse will involve many of the following treatment strategies.

1) Drug and Alcohol Treatments

Contrary to what many may believe, no simple causal relationship has been demonstrated between alcohol and/or drug abuse and domestic violence. However, it is clear that both drugs and alcohol compromise the coping skills of perpetrators and can spark many abusive incidents that otherwise would not occur. The Women's Rural Advocacy Program (2005) reports that the concurrence of domestic violence and alcohol abuse varies widely, from as low as 25% to as high as 80% of cases. Even the 25% concurrence rate means that one should always assess for drug or alcohol problems. Despite the strong concurrence rate, experts in the field stress that many men who do not drink or take drugs beat and abuse their wives, just as many men who drink and/or take drugs never engage in domestic violence. Because they are two separate problems, domestic violence must be add-ressed independently of the drug or alcohol problem. However, my own clinical judgment is that without effective drug treatment, any skill or emotion based treatment of domestic violence is foolhardy and of minimal value. It is true that both conditions (drug dependence and domestic violence) share important characteristics, such as generational transmission, the overuse of denial and minimization as defense mechanisms, and isolation of the family. To the extent that the drug and/or alcohol treatment addresses these issues, it will facilitate the successful treatment of domestic violence.

2) Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral techniques directly confront the abuser with the destructiveness of their behaviors. Therapists explain to clients how the type of thoughts one has drives both emotions and behaviors. They try to persuade the abusers to develop new cognitions about their partners, themselves, the stressors in their life, and the costs of abusive behaviors. The techniques are many but include, a) psychoeducation about psychological abuse; b) anger management (e.g., learning to recognize anger cues, diffuse the intensity of felt anger, and self talk that stresses rational strategies for reducing anger); c) communication training (e.g. daily debriefing sessions about the day's events, assertive training, listening skills, empathy skills, negotiation skills); d) stress management; e) conflict resolution skills / problem solving skills (e.g., stating problem, brainstorming solutions, evaluating solutions, implementing top choice); f) safety plans (how to escape cascading abusive episodes by safely exiting the situation); and g) time outs (how to give yourself time to cool down and make a better decision on how to handle feelings or conflicts).

3) Empathic Acceptance Therapy

Empathic acceptance therapy embraces most of the cognitive behavioral approach but stresses that the most important way to prevent abusive behavior is to simply accept your partner for who and what he/she is (Jacobson and Christenson, 1996). This most difficult task is accomplished by teaching empathy skills, focusing on the individual autonomy of each person, and promoting tolerance and detachment as coping skills. If people can open-heartedly accept his/her partner, he/she will be unlikely to be abusive regardless of their own emotions of the day, their physical state (how tired or hungry they are), or the maladaptive ingrained patterns that emerge when threatened or when wanting to control a situation.

4) Re-Socialization Therapy

Re-socialization therapy is rooted in feminist psychology and stresses the role that male power has in defining and distorting heterosexual relationships. One of the principle teaching tools is a Power Wheel, similar to the one on the following page (Dutton and Starzomski, 1997). Participants are trained to see how all abuse has at its hub, control and power. The role of equity is stressed as the path to healthy partner relationships. Participants learn to hear abusive vignettes, pinpoint the type of abuse that is occurring, discuss why power dominated the response, and learn alternative responses to the provoking situation. Resocialization therapies are the dominant modality used in court referred treatment programs for male perpetrators of domestic violence.

5) Psychodynamic Therapy

Psychodynamic therapies focus on the deeper internal models (story lines or schemas) individuals use to relate to one another. While cognitive-behavior therapists focus on direct behavior (the isolating behaviors or controlling behaviors), psychodynamic therapists focus on the emotional roots that nourish those abusive behaviors. The focus is usually on low self-esteem, dependent behavior styles, and personality disorders that distort how one infers intentions, interprets actions, and prompts abusive reactions. All three of these root issues affect current relationship patterns and are associated with increased violence and abuse (Feldman and Ridley, 1995). Psychodynamic therapists look for how these emotional roots play out in the transference relationship and use that situation as an opportunity for insight and new learning.

6) Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy

Emotionally focused couple therapy is a type of dynamic therapy zeroing in on the quality of the attachment between the partners (Johnson and Greenberg, 1995). Many couples, as they go through the traumas and turns of daily living, have negative experiences and disappointments mount. Individuals begin to feel that they cannot trust their partner and that their partner is neither emotionally accessible to them nor on their side. Lacking basic trust, they want to hide their most primitive and vulnerable emotions, such as fear, anger, and sadness. History has shown them that they will only feel worse if they share these emotions - not better. Unable to share their emotions and find solace, they are caught up feeling isolated, abandoned, and distant from their partner. For emotionally focused couple therapists, only after the couples are guided, in the safety of the therapeutic holding environment, into sharing the fear, the anger, and the sadness that is walled up inside them, can they get desensitized and learn that their partner is still capable of responding to them in a deep, respectful and helpful manner. Caring moments, understanding moments, and tender moments are the healing balm for the blisters of abusive behaviors.

7) Group Therapies

Traditionally, physically abusive men were treated in all male groups. The benefits of the group modality, particularly for court referred abusive men, include cost effectiveness, opportunities to be supported and challenged by other men with whom they can identify, and the opportunity to practice interpersonal skills (Geffner and Rosenbaum, 1990). While these groups were often successful in reducing the rates of physical violence, they did not seem to noticeably impact the psychological abuse that was occurring. Since 50% of physically abused women choose to stay with their partner, it seemed critical to treat the psychological abuse that both partners may be perpetrating (Murphy and O'Leary, 1989).

Many believe that same sex groups are but one developmental step on the road to healthy relationships for couples caught in a domestic abuse cycle. After the threat of any physical violence has been reduced, both partners need to learn how to communicate without using their well practiced abuse patterns. Couple groups are very helpful with this task, as individuals and couples can get peer support, multiple perspectives, the opportunity for others to confront the abuser, and the opportunity to see the universal maladaptive experience of abuse played out in many different forms (Neidig and Friedman, 1984).

Therapists who treat abusive couples in a group or in couples therapy must be on the alert not to blame the victim or inadvertently encourage the underlying inequality of power between the partners. In couples groups, it is useful to have two leaders: one of each gender. Again, therapists uniformly agree that couples therapy is only useful or advisable after any physical violence has gotten under control and that the likelihood of paybacks for discussions in therapy is minimal.

Current Scales that Assess Psychological Abuse

Current scales used in research and clinical practice to assess psychological maltreatment are listed below. All have adequate reliability and validity data reported.

1. Index of Spouse Abuse (Hudson, 1990). Two scales (psychological abuse and physical abuse), each with 25 items, measure women's reports of abuse. Women rate each item of a five point frequency scale.

2. Spouse Specific Aggression and Assertion (O'Leary and Curley, 1986). Twelve items measure psychological aggression and 17 items assess assertion towards a partner. This scale can be used for men and women.

3. Psychological Maltreatment of Women Inventory (Tolman, 1989). This is a 58 item scale that gives two factor scores: an emotional-verbal abuse factor and a dominance-isolation factor. There is a brief version that contains two 7 item scales and measures the same two factors (Tolman, 1999).

4. Measurement of Wife Abuse (Rodenburg and Fantuzzo, 1993). A 15 item measure that assess psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and verbal abuse.

5. The Dominance Scale (Hamby, 1996). Measures three psychologically abusive interaction styles that are deviations from an egalitarian relationship: Authority, Restrictiveness, and Disparagement.

Suggested Books for Psychologists' Further Information

1. Ending Spouse/Partner Abuse: A Psychoeducational Approach for Individuals and Couples. Robert Gafner and Carol Mantooth. (1999) New York: Springer Publishers.

2. Psychological Abuse in Violent Domestic Relations. K. Daniel O'Leary and Roland D. Maiuro. (2001) New York: Springer Publishers.

3. No Visible Wounds: Identifying Non-Physical Abuse of Women by their Men. (1995) Mary Susan Miller. New York; Fawcett Columbine.

4. The Domestic Violence Sourcebook. (2000) Dawn Bradley Berry. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Author

Linda Berg-Cross received her Ph.D. from Teachers College/Columbia University and is a Professor of Psychology at Howard University. She is a member of the National Register Board of Directors.

The following text is from a brochure on psychological abuse developed by Dr. Berg-Cross.

The Three Freedoms

There are three freedoms in intimate relationships. Promoting these freedoms in your partner will safeguard your self-respect and avoid any psychologically abusive behavior on your part. When your partner protects your freedoms, you will never be a victim of psychological abuse.

I. The first law of Intimate Relationships, asserts that certain BEHAVIORAL FREEDOMS should exist in every intimate relationship. These include:

  • freedom of religion.
  • freedom of speech.
  • freedom to have friends of one's choosing.
  • freedom to honestly and fearlessly express felt conflicts.
  • freedom of movement.

To deny these freedoms to a partner is to be emotionally abusive. The offensive behavior is CONTROL.

  • Is your partner critical about your religious views or rituals?
  • Does your partner discourage you from expressing your point of view in public or when the two of you are alone?
  • Are you encouraged to communicate with and see your friends?
  • Does your partner control what you wear, where you work, what you buy, or who you see?
  • Does your partner encourage you to try new things and go new places?
  • Are you limiting your partner's behavioral freedoms?

II. The Second Law of Intimate Relationships asserts that certain INTERPERSONAL FREEDOMS should exist in every relationship including:

  • freedom from fear and isolation.
  • freedom to experience security.
  • freedom to experience companionship.
  • freedom to experience physical comfort.

To deny these freedoms is to be psychologically abusive. Disregarding the Second Law of Intimate Relationships makes one WITHHOLDING, INTIMIDATING, and/or DENIGRATING.

  • Does your partner make fun of your triumphs, discourage your plans, or minimize your successes?
  • Do you feel belittled or does your partner ridicule the traits you admire most in yourself and others?
  • Does your partner make you feel immature, dumb, or ugly?
  • Does your partner make you feel like the less important partner?
  • Does your partner disapprove of or thwart your important life goals?
  • Does your partner enjoy it when you feel insecure?
  • Does your partner avoid intimacy or resolving conflicts?
  • Do you feel the sexual relationship is all about your partner?
  • Does your partner order the house in a way that stresses your partner's comfort more than yours in terms of food preferences, temperatures, sleeping conditions, etc.?
  • Are you limiting your partner's interpersonal freedoms?

The Third Law of Intimate Relationships asserts that certain EXISTENTIAL FREEDOMS exist in every relationship including:

  • The freedom to carry out responsibilities towards family, friends, and communities
  • Freedom to pursue meaningful careers and pastimes
  • Freedom to have time alone
  • Freedom to deal with death, disability, and illness in a way that is congruent with lifelong values

To deny these freedoms to a partner is to be psychologically abusive. The offensive behavior is RESTRICTING and ISOLATING.

  • Does your partner diminish your responsibilities (e.g., taking care of a parent or neighbor; volunteering to work late; paying off a debt, etc.)?
  • Does your partner argue against your engaging in hobbies or work related activities?
  • Does your partner feel abandoned by your need for time alone?
  • Does your partner lack commitment to help you if you are disabled or ill?
  • Are you limiting your partner's existential freedoms?

How do I avoid infringing on my partner's three freedoms? How can I strive not to CONTROL, WITHHOLD, INTIMIDATE, DENIGRATE, RESTRICT, or ISOLATE?

  • Ask your partner which freedoms he/she feels you protect and which you limit.
  • Find out which freedoms are most important to your partner.
  • Sign on to protecting the freedoms most important to your partner.
  • Remember that these freedoms are restricted by our resources, our responsibilities, and the need to endlessly negotiate a fair deal with our partner.
  • Protecting your own freedoms at the expense of your partner's freedom is selfish and invariably makes you an abuser.

If you are being psychologically abused, be able to verbalize the freedoms you are missing and work with your partner or a mental health professional to find solutions.

There are four methods that will help prevent psychological abuse.

I. Acceptance of Separateness

Intimate relationships can warp us into believing that we have become one. When we lose sight of our partner's independence from us, we are prone to take his/her freedoms away without weighing the consequences.

II. Personal Insight into Projection

When we believe that we are "one," we project our own nightmares, intolerances, self-castigations, and conflicts onto our partner.

Once you realize that traits you hate in your spouse are often pictures of your own struggles, you gain perspective. This perspective will help you reduce the likelihood of being psychologically abusive to your spouse.

III. Commitment Towards Personal Changes

This pamphlet is about your journey. It is about realizing the extent to which you are psychologically abusive to your partner and CHANGING. It will improve your relationship but more importantly, it will make you proud of who you are.

Everyone has troubles. Psychological growth is about learning how to change when you are confronted with your particular troubles. I hope everyone reading this is willing to take baby steps towards change and persist in learning how to elicit the best in our dearest relationships.

IV. Strive for Interdependence

Each person in an intimate relationship is responsible for acknowledging that the psychological abuse they inflict is psychological abuse. Denial is the key enemy to progress. When you get control of your psychologically abusive tendencies you increase the likelihood that you will elicit the best in your partner. It maximizes the likelihood that you will live or leave with dignity if your partner continues to be psychologically abusive. Tit-for-tat is the second worst enemy to progress.

We need to cultivate interdependence. Interdependence is supporting and being supported in the three freedoms for healthy relationships.

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