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Intimate Relationships, Psychological Abuse and Mental Health Problems
by Linda Berg-Cross, Ph.D.
- 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Mental Health Effects of Psychological
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
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
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
Current Scales that Assess Psychological
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
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'
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:
3. No Visible Wounds: Identifying Non-Physical
Abuse of Women by their Men. (1995) Mary Susan Miller. New York; Fawcett
4. The Domestic Violence Sourcebook.
(2000) Dawn Bradley Berry. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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
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
- 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
II. The Second Law of Intimate Relationships
asserts that certain INTERPERSONAL FREEDOMS should exist in every relationship
- 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
- Does your partner avoid intimacy or
- 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
The Third Law of Intimate Relationships
asserts that certain EXISTENTIAL FREEDOMS exist in every relationship
- The freedom to carry out responsibilities
towards family, friends, and communities
- Freedom to pursue meaningful careers
- 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
- 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
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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