What drives emotional abuse in romantic relationships?

Taking a look into the perspective of an abuser

Photo by Niels Smeets on Unsplash

On a typical day, the National Domestic Violence Hotline receives about 20 thousand phone calls. Their statistics say that every minute, roughly 24 people in the United States experience physical abuse by an intimate partner.

Abuse, however, doesn’t always involve any direct physical harm. Emotional, verbal or psychological abuse is just as common as physical abuse, and “frequently occurs prior to, or concurrently with physical or sexual abuse,” according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV).

The NCADV states that there are no specific patterns or reasons for someone to become a victim, and that domestic or emotional abuse can “come from all walks of life, varying age groups, all backgrounds, all communities, all education level, all economic level, all cultures, all ethnicities, all religions, all abilities and all lifestyles.”

If anyone can become a victim, it raises the question of who the abusers are in intimate relationships. Who is prone to be become abusive toward their partner? What are the goals of abusers, are they aware of their abusive behaviours, and most importantly, how can emotional abuse be prevented?

What is known about emotional abuse?


Emotional, verbal or psychological abuse can occur in any type of relationship. It can precede or occur in combination with physical abuse, but it can also stay strictly emotional, the NCADV states.


The non-profit organization LoveisRespect.org defines emotional abuse as, “non-physical behaviors such as threats, insults, constant monitoring or ‘checking in,’ excessive texting, humiliation, intimidation, isolation or stalking.”

The NCADV lists behaviours such as: humiliating the victim, controlling, deliberately doing something to make the victim feel diminished or embarrassed, demeaning the victim in public or in private, undermining the victim’s confidence or sense of self-worth, or convincing the victim that he, or she is crazy.


Any type of abuse can have severe long-term effects on the victim. According to a study on intimate male partner violence, 7 out of 10 psychologically abused women display symptoms of depression and, or PTSD.

The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey reports that consequences can also include severe mental health issues.“

LoveisRespect states that oftentimes, the abuse can be so severe that the victim will start believing what the abuser says, which will cause a decrease in self-confidence and self-esteem. In worst-case scenarios, it can even lead to other mental health issues, as well as suicidal ideation, and difficulty trusting others.

What is known about abusers?

Most of the time, the goal of an abuser who is in an intimate relationship is to execute and control power. The reasoning behind this motivation differs in every case, but it can include the idea of owning the right to control the other person, thinking they know what is best, or the manipulation is used to force the partner to stay in the relationship.

LoveisRespect argues that abusive behaviour is learned behaviour. An abuser might have witnessed such abuse as a child, others might imitate their friends or pick up certain behavioural patterns from society.

The New York City based organization Day One New York, who focuses on teen dating violence and abuse, states that abuse is always a choice, and anyone can become an abuser, no matter their background.

“It is important to understand that people commit domestic violence because they choose to do so, not because they can’t stop themselves,” Day One reports.

Studies have shown that while more women experience intimate partner violence than men, emotional abuse affects all genders almost equally, with 40 percent of victims being male. Ben H. Hoff, J.D., who explored the likelihood of male victims from physical violence and psychological abuse, said, “we need to recognize that intimate partner violence is a people problem, not a women’s problem.”

Although it is still unclear whether there are more male or female abusers, the tactics and methods used in emotionally abusive relationships are always similar. According to the NCADV, abusers “are manipulative and clever and will use a myriad of tactics to gain and maintain control over their partner, often in cycles that consist of periods of good times and peace and periods of abuse.” This cycle might repeat itself and become even more intense each time. Whether or not the tactics are repeated, or differ in severity, their goal is always to install fear.

A common term used for these tactics is “coercive control,” which “refers to abuse as a “strategic course of oppressive behavior,” according to the New York State Office for Prevention of Domestic Violence.

Before coercive control occurs in a relationship, the abuser oftentimes may initially seem very loving, caring, charming and interested in their partner. Over time, the NCADV reports, this behaviour changes and might turn into an isolating and controlling environment, leaving the victim feeling trapped. If the victim tries to assert him- or herself, it might cause the abuser to become even more manipulative and controlling, according to the NCADV.

There are mental health disorders that have been connected to emotionally abusive behaviours, such as narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder. As the recent case of Michelle Carter shows, who as a teenager three years ago, persuaded her former boyfriend to commit suicide through a series of urging text messages and phones calls, mental health is often very likely the cause for abnormal social behaviours.

Possible explanations for abusive behaviors

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

According to the Personality Disorders Awareness Network (PDAN), 6.2 percent of the adults suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). It’s a mental illness that “that manifests as an excessive preoccupation with personal adequacy, power, vanity and prestige.” People who have NPD are often unable to be empathetic and most of the time, feel they are superior to others, which are traits that have the potential to cause toxic relationships. If the victim nor the abuser are aware of the disorder, the narcissistic characteristics can be a serious reason for a severe level of abuse.

NPD can be treated, however, only if the patient personally seeks help, according to PDAN.

Borderline Personality Disorder

Roughly 14 million Americans suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). This mental illness is often related to NPD, as between 16 and 39 percent of patients with BPD also have NPD. The National Institute of Health defines BPD as “pervasive instability in moods, interpersonal relationships, self-image, and behavior. While a person with depression or bipolar disorder typically endures the same mood for weeks, a person with BPD may experience intense bouts of anger, depression, and anxiety that may last for only a few hours to a day.” These are also traits that can lead to emotional, verbal or psychological abuse in relationships.

There are many reasons why somebody might become an abuser. Whether it is by choice, or a reaction from a traumatic event during a person’s childhood, or whether the abusive behaviors are connected to one or a combination of different types of personality disorders or mental illnesses; it’s important for victims to recognize these patterns early. Since emotional abuse almost always precedes physical violence, there are resources available for victims, such as emergency hotlines, family lawyers, psychiatrists or shelters, which can provide the necessary support for victims to take proactive measures.