The 20 Tactics of Psychological Abuse
Domestic Violence includes not only physical abuse but sexual abuse as well as emotional/psychological abuse and financial abuse against a partner or within an intimate relationship. It effects all genders, races, ages, and is non-discriminatory. In clinical settings we see it expand into violence of many different contexts from spousal to familial. Domestic violence has significant long term effects to the victim as well as far reaching costs to the victim and to society. These costs include; economic costs to both society and the victim (criminal justice system, housing, health care, social services, civil legal; economic loss for employers and employees; and human/emotional costs to the victim).
Psychological and Emotional Abuse
Repercussions of psychological and emotional abuse are often times overlooked in society as not as severe or extreme as physical or sexual abuse, leaving victims feeling disregarded and minimized by society as apart of the victim blaming culture that we often experience (Arabi, 2017). The experience of psychological abuse often times is downplayed because there are no visible wounds. Many times victims report being told by those close to them things similar too; "It takes two to tango," "You're overreacting," "I am sure he/she did not mean it that way," upon copious other invalidating statements (Arabi, 2017). In clinical practice it is also common to have client's presenting as confused about their own experience with psychological and emotional abuse because of the conflicting messaging they receive through their support systems about the abuse, conflicting messaging they receive through media sources that portray abuse tactics as comical and due to the nature of what psychological abuse is in and of itself. However, research shows that chronic psychological and emotional abuse, especially in youth or childhood, can lead to the development of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in victims (Arabi, 2017). In fact, in my clinical experience, the majority of my clients, many of whom have diagnoses of Borderline Personality Disorder, report extensive emotional and psychological abuse compared to physical or sexual abuse history. As one of my areas of interest in clinical practice is survivors of Narcissistic Abusive (NA) relationships, I see quite a few clients who have extensive histories of psychological and emotional abusive relationships. Research also suggests that psychological abuse can often times be missed in clinical practices. Reasoning for this is:
1) often times the clients do not understand that what they are experiencing is in fact abuse
2) client's often experience cognitive dissonance about their experiences because of the nature of psychological abuse
3) therapist's do not know or understand the warning signs of psychological or emotional abuse
4) it does not leave visible scars or wounds to be detected
5) in certain circumstances the therapist themselves can be manipulated by the abuser (i.e. couples therapy).
What is Psychological Abuse?
Psychological abuse is a form of domestic violence or abuse that uses psychological tactics to intentionally cause harm and malice to the victim while shifting power and control over the victim in favor of the abuser. Sometimes it is hard to determine where on the spectrum a persons experience may fall as everyone at some point in time has engaged in use of one or more of these tactics. The major difference between normal human maladaptive communication patterns and abuse is the consistency of abuse tactics used, intention to cause harm and the use of these tactics to gain control. Psychological abuse is a slow burn and is accumulative. These tactics are not being used once or twice in heated arguments, they are being used unprovoked and in extreme cases, they are used the majority of the time. Psychological abuse accumulates over months or even years in duration because it is usually undetected or brushed off at first. These tactics are designed to undermine the victims sense of self, confidence in decision making, and security within the context of the relationship and the world. Common tactics that we see in psychological abuse include but aren't limited too; psychological manipulation, gaslighting, blame-shifting, smear campaigns, triangulation, intimidation, name calling, overt/covert threats, projection, nonsensical communication/word salad, deliberating misrepresenting your thoughts/feelings, baiting and feigning innocence, blanket statements and generalizations, criticism and moving goal posts, avoidance of accountability, destructive conditioning, love-bombing and devaluation, testing boundaries and hoovering, aggression disguised as joking, pre-emptive defensiveness, condescending and patronizing tone, shaming, and control (Arabi, 2017).
A Closer Look at the Most Common Psychological Abuse Tactics
Gaslighting is where the abuser manipulates the victim by replacing factual information with false information. This works to distort the victims perceptions, experiences and erode their sense of reality. This in turn causes great cognitive dissonance for the client and low self-esteem. Gaslighting is a very serious and dangerous abuse tactic that is present in almost all abusive relationships. It has such a drastic impact on clients that it is now referred to as “The Gaslight Effect" (Arabi, 2017). The Gaslight Effect is inability to trust your reality once an abuser has conditioned you to second guess your perceptions of the abuse and manipulation that is taking place. The effects of gaslighting linger long past the duration of the relationship and can often lead to the intense cognitive dissonance that clinicians will see when working with the client. Gaslighting is so psychologically destructive that it can lead to the victim gaslighting themselves to reconcile the cognitive dissonance they are experiencing (eg. did this really happen or am I overreacting?) (Arabi, 2017).
Projection is a defense mechanism used to avoid accountability by placing the responsibility for one’s own actions/traits onto someone else (Arabi, 2017).Though projection is a normal human experience, it crosses the borders into psychological abuse when the abuser is excessively cruel and hurtful. In abuse situations, the abuser would rather have the victim take responsibility for any poor behavior and feel shameful, rather than taking accountability themselves. (Arabi, 2017). Eg. A pathological lying spouse may project on their spouse that they are dishonest and cannot be trusted.
#3 Non-sensical Conversations
Often times in psychological abuse the abuser will respond to serious conversations that call into question their behaviors, events, etc. with non-sense conversations, word salad and circular conversations(Arabi, 2017). This is to get the victim confused, off-track and disoriented should they try to disagree or challenge them. By doing this, it takes accountability away from them and often times allows the abuser to circle away from something that is important to the victim. This further undermines the victims perception of the experience as the abuser takes control of the conversation by bringing forward examples, experiences, and conversation that is irrelevant or vaguely connected to the initial conversation topic.
#4 Blanket Statements & #5 Generalization
Often times abusers will generalize and make blanket statements due to their inability and unwillingness to see anything from a different perspective. In communications they use this to generalize everything the victim is saying and make blanket statements that do not acknowledge aspects of their argument (Arabi, 2017). For example: the victim may say "It hurt my feelings when you insulted me as a joke at our friends house today." And the response on the abusers part will look like "I can never do anything right to you, I can't even make a joke now without you taking it personal and getting upset." In this example you can see that the blame has been shifted away from the abuser, there is no accountability and the aspect of how the victim is feeling was completely disregarded by the abusers blanket statement and generalization about their sensitivity to all jokes and never being able to do anything right. You will see this both at a conversational level and in perspectives towards society (Arabi, 2017).
#6 Misrepresentation of your thoughts and feelings
Misrepresenting thoughts and feelings is where the abuser will translate the victims differing opinions and legitimate emotions into character flaws and evidence towards their irrationality (Arabi, 2017). This includes reframing what they are saying to make them look ridiculous, absurd, wrong, or heinous. (eg. “Oh so I am a bad person and you are so perfect then”) (Arabi, 2017). Often times abusers will use this outside of the relationship with others in combination with another tactic called triangulation. An example of this would be to misrepresent your thoughts and/or feelings in communication behind your back to a mutual third party. This serves to isolate the victim from mutual contacts while usually shifting victimhood onto the abuser themselves (eg. "my partner makes me feel like I am such an awful person when I am trying to give them everything they could ever want").
#7 Moving Goal Posts
Moving goal posts is when the abuser sets unrealistic expectations and moves the expectations so that they can continuously be dissatisfied with the victim. The goal is to nit-pick, put down and scapegoat the victim in any way that they can (Arabi, 2017). Often times this can look like being asked to do something and upon completion being berated for how it was done, even if done successfully. Moving goal posts will occur on big life and relationship goals/expectations such as parenting decisions, etc. as well as trivial meaningless tasks like doing household chores. The goal of this is for the abuser to always shift expectations so that they can remain in a position of power and control. This allows them to continue to undermine the victims self-confidence and sense of self, creating more dissonance within the victim at the same time.
#8 Avoidance of Accountability and Blame Shifting
In a category all of its own is avoidance of accountability. Although many of the already mentioned tactics serve in some way to avoid accountability, abusers will do almost anything to make sure they do not have to be accountable for their behaviors. Avoidance of accountability often looks like diverting the topic to a completely different topic all together, redirecting away from something they have done wrong and shifting blame to the victim (Arabi, 2017). An example of blame shifting would be "I wouldn't call you names if you would just listen to me the first time." "I wouldn't have to look at another person if you weren't fat." Often times this can look like bringing forward mistakes that the victim made months or years prior as a means to shift accountability back towards someone other than themselves.
#9 Overt and Covert Threats
Overt and covert threats often happen when the victim challenges their abuser or when they cannot meet the unreasonable demands that the abuser has placed on them. This is used to instill fear of consequences for disagreeing or complying with demands (Arabi, 2017). Overt threats includes anything that is directly threatening, for example; "If you don't do what I say, I'm going to hurt you or the kids." Covert threats fly under the radar and are less conspicuous than overt threats. An example of this is: "Every time we would get into a disagreement I would go out hours later to find him on the computer looking "casually" at places to rent and then feigning trying to hide it when he "realized" that I was coming." Covert threats often serve to undermine confidence in the victim's position within the relationship, however they can also threaten personal safety, or safety of those we love in a less direct way.
#10 Name Calling
Name calling is used as a quick and easy way to degrade and put the victim down. Often it will target the victims intelligence, appearance, or behavior while invalidating the victims right to their own perspective (Arabi, 2017). Many times abusers will learn the victims biggest insecurities and target those specifically as a way to be more malicious and intentional with their degradation. For example, for a client who was sensitive about their weight, name calling by her partner would almost always include a reference to that specifically.
#11 Destructive Conditioning
Destructive conditioning occurs when the victim is conditioned to associate their strengths, talents, and happy memories with abuse, frustration, shame and disrespect. This is primarily done through put-downs targeting the very traits and talents that were once idolized by the abuser during the idealization phase (Arabi, 2017). For example, in the idealization phase you may have been told "you are so intelligent and smart and how attractive it is," in the devaluation phase this turns into how "you think you're better than everyone else, and everyone can see that you think you are so much smarter than them. That you look down on others." This tactic can include isolation from family and friends and financial dependence as apart of the conditioning (Arabi, 2017).
#12 Smear Campaigning
Smear campaigns usually occur upon dissolve of the relationship but in more extreme cases they are occurring behind the backs of their partners during the relationship. This is used to discredit and humiliate the victim to anyone involved in their lives (Arabi, 2017). This is also used to paint the abuser as the victim (eg. My wife is crazy, she cheated on me and lied our whole marriage). Usually smear campaigns have little to no truth and are fabrications of the abuser, at most they may have a grain of truth that has been grossly exaggerated to benefit the abuser. This behavior can escalate to include stalking the victim once the relationship has been dissolved (Arabi, 2017).
#13 Love-bombing and # 14 Devaluation
Love-bombing and devaluation go hand in hand in a psychologically abusive relationship. They are part of the two phases that we see in narcissistic abuse patterns that are always consistent- idealization and devaluation. Love bombing is included in the idealization phase, where the victim is put on a pedestal by the abuser. They are perfect and the victim can do no wrong. This serves to sufficiently hook the victim and create investment in the friendship or relationship. Examples of love-bombing include phrases such as "I knew from the first day you were my soulmate." "I have never met a person as beautiful as you, inside and out." "You make me a better person because you are so amazing, driven, and smart." Love-bombing can seem similar to compliments, however love-bombing occurs almost instantly, before the person even really knows you. Devaluation comes as a second phase in the abuse cycle where the very traits that were once admired become worthless. Devaluation as a phase includes multiple abuse techniques as we've discussed above, as an abuse technique it looks like making the victim internalize they are worthless. Often times in the idealization phase the abuser will be devaluing someone else to the victim (eg. A previous partner) (Arabi, 2017). In the majority of relationships that the abuser maintains, they will be devaluing someone to someone else.
#15 Pre-emptive Defense
Pre-emptive defense is used to put a potential victim at ease by providing unwarranted evidence that they are trustworthy or great people. This is often shown as overstating their positive traits like compassion, trustworthiness, honesty, etc. Most people do not feel it is necessary to excessively boast about their positive traits (Arabi, 2017).
#16 Bait- Feign Innocence
Baiting and feigning innocence is where the victim is baited into a senseless argument just to be put in their place with cruelty and degradation. This can often look like the use of “innocuous comments” that lead to catastrophic arguments (Arabi, 2017). This leads to the possibility of more manipulation and gaslighting techniques. (eg. Presenting you as the irrational one). An example of this would be when a partner comments about how your sibling reacted like a bitch followed by "that must run in the family" as a sleight at you, an "innocuous" comment that is a little dig. Bait and feigning innocence works well because the abuser has usually caused so much destruction and turmoil in the relationship already that the victim is constantly on edge. Everything feels like a personal attack because everything is a personal attack. These comments are not innocuous, they are designed to be little digs to make the victim seem reactionary so that the abuser can run their narrative of the innocent victim with a partner that is reactive and destructive, that causes fights "over nothing."
Triangulation is very common in abusive relationships. This is where the abuser will bring the opinion, perspective or suggested threat of a third person into the relationship dynamic, even if it is only fabricated to do so. Triangulation is used to create isolation and insecurity in the victim. It is also used to increase attachment to the abuser; as the victim’s self esteem and self worth decrease, perceived threats to their relationship security can drive the victim to “work to improve themselves to increase security and partner interest." Triangulation also facilitates pulling the victims attention away from the abuse and towards the abuser as either correct, founded in their actions or desirable. It can include actual affairs but can be completely fabricated on behalf of the abuser (Arabi, 2017). Examples of triangulation are: "My ex was the most beautiful woman, she looked like this (listing the exact opposite of you)." " My parents don't like you, they think you are controlling and awful to me." "Every friend we have won't come here because they say you make them feel awkward and uncomfortable." "I asked my friend if we should get married and they said if I married you they wouldn't come to the wedding because you're toxic and vile."
#18 Boundary Testing, Hoovering and Aggression Disguised as "Jokes"
Boundary testing is a common occurrence with abuse because often times the abusers like to see how far they can trespass on their victims boundaries. This is often why when abuse victims return to the relationship they endure more severe incidence of abuse post-return (Arabi, 2017). When abuse victims return to the relationship, the abuser can feel more aversion and disgust towards them for being weak, however challenging them also ends up in the same direction because how dare anyone disrespect them (Arabi, 2017). The dynamic is always a lose lose for the victim. Boundary testing allows the abuser to disrespect and degrade their partner in a systematic way. Hoovering refers to a technique to bring the victim back into the abusive situation, including sweet words, empty promises, and fake remorse (Arabi, 2017). Aggression disguised as jokes is also common in abusive relationships. It serves to discount accountability for their rude and cruel comments designed to degrade and put the victim down as harmless and funny jokes. This enables them to shift accountability to the victim for their "overreaction" or "reactivity." Aggression disguised as jokes ties very closely into #16 Bait and Feign Innocence.
#19: Condescending and Patronizing Tone
Condescending and patronizing tone are used to belittle and degrade the victim further undermining their self worth. This can be used to manipulate the victim further (eg. You’re so sensitive). It also serves in that the victim becomes conditioned to be hypervigilant towards their own self expression leading to victim self-censorship (Arabi, 2017). This is apart of walking on egg shells. Many victims will report knowing what to say and what not to say, how to express themselves, working on their own tone or inflictions as to not set the person off. Even if the victim is feeling one way, they will often report not expressing it in fear of the consequences, hence the self-censorship.
#20 Shaming and Control
Shame is used to target any behavior or belief that challenges the abuser. This is also used to diminish any remaining self esteem the victim may have- often targeting any traits, accomplishments or qualities the victim once might have been proud of (Arabi, 2017). Control is one of the utmost important abuse techniques. Abusers will isolate and micromanage victims to maintain control. This can be in the form of finances, social networks, and emotions. Abusers will often fabricate conflicts to keep victims on edge and on egg shells so the abuser can maintain control (Arabi, 2017). Almost all, if not all, the tactics discussed previously give the abuser control, however this tactic is referring to blatant control of the victim. For example, controlling who they speak to, how much money they spend, if they are allowed to leave the house, when they have sex, if friends can come over, etc.
As you can see the tactics abusers use are like psychological warfare, making the victim feel and look crazy to themselves and others. Undermining their sense of self, their self confidence and eroding any self worth they had. Leaving any abusive relationship is hard for the victim because the majority of abusive relationships include elements of these tactics. For victims that are engaged in exclusively psychologically abusive relationships (meaning there is little or no physical or sexual abuse occurring) it is very challenging to piece together a reality that looks different than the one the abuser has painted. Psychological abuse usually starts slow and accumulates over months or even years before the victim or anyone around them even knows, if they ever know, that it is happening. Many psychological abuse victims do not know what they endured was in fact abuse until well after the discard and dissolve of the relationship.
Remember that relationships are complex and fall on a greyscale, there is no black and white and no relationship is perfect, no human is perfect. We all have tendencies to communicate poorly. We all have and probably will use some of the above mentioned tactics when we are arguing or feeling defensive. What I would say as a clinician to this is that we can all work on our own "toxic traits" without being classified as abusive. While you reflect on this remember that abusers almost never take responsibility or accountability for their actions and if they do it is because it benefited them in some way to do so in that moment. At best, it will be inauthentic and a feigned response. Abusers also use these tactics consistently, there is no once in awhile. Psychological abuse is a slow burn, it is about the accumulative effect, which roots over months and years. So if you see yourself or your partner, sibling, parent(s), friend(s), etc. in these tactics above, reflect on their intention and the consistency. If during an argument they use gaslighting or projection, however afterwards are able to listen, respect you, and apologize authentically, you're dealing with poor coping mechanisms and unhealthy communication patterns. If during arguments there is blame shifting or gaslighting but outside of this context there is nothing, you are most likely dealing with poor coping mechanisms and unhealthy communication patterns. If you find that you and/or your partner engage in some toxic communication traits, the two of you can work together to correct that and have a more healthy relationship by either consulting self help resources around communication or seeking professional help together. If reading this, you realize that you and/or your partner engage in abusive behavior, seek professional help for either yourself or as a couple so that you can explore the avenues that are available to you and them (whether you are the victim or perpetrator).
Upcoming Blog Posts:
The abuse cycle: idealization, devaluation and discard. How do victims get trapped, what is trauma bonding and how can they get out?
What does healing look like after a psychologically abusive relationship?
What are the green flags of a healthy relationship?
Arabi, S. (2017). Power Surviving and Thriving after Narcissistic Abuse. Thought Catalog Books. Williamsburg, Brooklyn (2017).