Hardcore TW on this for emotional abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, mentions of self-harm and suicide.
We don’t have a great pattern for talking about healthy relationships, and the boundaries between human flaws and abusive tendencies. This means that many times, when writers seek to show abusive relationships, they jump right to the obvious stuff: the “I’ll kill you before I let you leave me!” level physical aggression and verbal abuse.
But to present a more realistic and compelling abusive relationship, you need to think subtler. Here’s a few emotional abuse techniques that worm into the relationship long before someone raises their hand. As always, your mileage may vary. This is simply my perspective and experience, as someone who’s survived a lot of domestic violence, both from family and partners. Some examples explicitly refer to heterosexual relationships, however the core aggression we’re talking about can happen in any relationship. And its shape is so heavily influenced by the individuals involved, that this is hardly a conclusive rundown of all of the manifestations of non-physical abuse out there.
Manipulation: use of cause/effect to weight outcomes in their favor. For instance, every time they visit their family, you become insecure and demand a significant amount of emotional work from them in calming you down, catching up on what they missed while they were gone, reassuring you that their mom doesn’t hate you, etc. This ends up levering the investment needed for that simple visit to something much more time and labor intensive… something they’ll be less able to do, or will do less frequently. Say the visit is an hour of relaxation for them…. and two hours of you ignoring them, you being pissy at everyone around them, and another hour or two of them wracking their brains to try to placate you and make you feel heard/respected despite them being gone earlier. Past a point, it just becomes… not feasible… to undertake that kind of time investment for such limited “rewards”. You aren’t TELLING them that they can not see their family, but in practice, you are making them tell THEMSELVES that. And because they think it’s their idea, it doesn’t register that it’s a red flag, much like the imagery of putting a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly boiling it so the critter isn’t aware of the water heating. And over time, this can lead to the abuse victim being isolated from people who might otherwise challenge the status quo and help them to understand their situation as abusive. A shortcut to this is often shown as the abuser directly warning their victim to stay away from people they feel are a threat– “I don’t want you being friends with him, I don’t trust him,” and the like– but in many relationships, it’s never spoken that plainly. It’s instead executed with acts of passive resistance that slowly condition the victim to isolate themselves and thus render themselves more vulnerable to abuse.
Positive reinforcement: Selective use of compliments, recognition, and support to create an inequitable status quo. For instance, only thanking them for cooking when they cook recipes YOU have chosen. In time, this alters their behavior so that they’re doing more and more of what you want, and less and less of what they want, because the need for validation is more important than the need to taste THEIR favorite recipes, or cook food that’s more convenient, or cheaper, or whatever the reason might be. Unfortunately, while this may make your life more comfortable, it’s coming at the expense of depriving your significant other of their fulfillment, and potentially setting them up for other fights, too. For instance, if the food budget is too big, and you fight over money or label their spending habits as the problem.
Some degree of this is held in some circles as normal and even healthy– see “choreplay”-type discussions on how to distribute unequal burdens related to unequal gender roles. The problem comes when it’s not simply a manner of equalizing the load; it can be a matter of receiving support in the relationship, or not. In some relationships, it may mean that one partner applauds the other when they adhere to restrictive gender norms (like a woman watching the kids and getting praised, but going to work, and receiving no support from her partner when she requests help with the kids while she works late.)
It sets up a situation where… yes, the person being abused could do what they want… at the expense of their overall emotional health in the relationship. It can make it seem healthier, short-term, to play along. Using the above example, she might not put her hat in for promotions or volunteer to do additional work, since she’ll never get a thank-you for bringing in the extra money; only more irritation. Or in extreme cases, she might agree to have additional kids, even though that’ll mean sidetracking her career with more maternity leave sabbaticals and childcare responsibilities, out of hunger for the “closeness” her partner allowed her when they liked that she was pregnant.
Gaslighting: This one’s talked about a lot. It’s extremely pervasive and harmful because its effects linger so long after the relationship ends. It’s a form of manipulation that focuses on destabilizing their reality, so they are less able to stand up to you, or trust their recollections. For instance, when you ask them to do something for your benefit, they react as though you slapped them. “You’re so demanding,” they say. “So selfish. You didn’t even say please. What are you punishing me for?” You know you did say please, and weren’t talking aggressively or nagging, but the more this happens the less likely you’re going to be willing to escalate the fight by saying it. So instead, you say “Maybe it came out more harsh than I meant it to.” You apologize. Explain you’re having a rough time at work and hadn’t meant to snap—even though you didn’t. And the original request is deflected, with the fault squarely on you.
When this happens with every single decision, it’s hugely destabilizing. You never know what will cause a fight or a reaction, or what you’ll do “wrong” next. You wonder if they’re right, if you are demanding, or selfish, or cruel. It erodes your self-esteem, makes you less able to stand up for yourself. That first time, it’s over something minor like asking them to do the dishes…. but after a few years, maybe they’re telling you it’s YOUR fault they cheated on you, because you don’t act happy enough when you give them blowjobs. So really you owe THEM the apology, and are hurting THEM with your displays of frustration and hurt at being cheated on. It grooms you for physical violence, because you’re already used to thinking you’ve caused, or deserve, their outbursts. You see yourself as a combatant and an aggressor (it takes two to tango), even when it feels as though you weren’t doing anything wrong. And for years afterwards, you catch yourself changing your behavior because some part of you still believes that they’re right. That you are the toxic, unhealthy one in the relationship.
Forgiveness As Abuse: Some people are talking about this one, and it’s a tenant of many religions. However, like any idea that has a grain of goodness at its core, it can be turned to harm. In many circles, forgiveness is used as a way of erasing the abuse’s harms. If you show you’re still hurt by your partner’s actions, it’s YOUR fault for not forgiving. It’s a sign of your emotional immaturity, negativity, unhealthiness. Only by bearing their abuse silently, and never bringing up “water under the bridge” can you be respected in their eyes, and in the eyes of those around you both. Most devastatingly, this manner of invalidation often occurs from outside the relationship, too. It’s not just that your partner says you’re a harpy who holds grudges when you hold them accountable… it’s that your family and sometimes your pastor does, too. “Why can’t you just let that go, forgive them already?” It acts similar to gaslighting in that it’s used to convince the victim that their reality, and the hurt and emotion and trauma in it, is less important than forgiveness and “wholeness”, that is to say, that they are the problem, rather than the abuse.
One Against The Other: Spousal violence isn’t the only kind out there. Often, in abusive families, forced competition, threat of other siblings being abused or punished for one’s transgressions, are used to maintain a sort of violent order in the home. Often, it’s a result of parents encouraging children to emulate their unhealthy dynamic, or children modeling it simply because of exposure. The show Arrested Development is great in this area, although it plays the family’s dysfunction for comedy. But watch it, and watch their dynamics, to see how this type of manipulation perpetuates itself between the Bluth family siblings. This is incredibly toxic to children, as many people will tolerate behavior toward themselves that they won’t tolerate toward others. If you get in trouble, and your older sibling is punished for it because they are seen as responsible for your behavior, the punishment can sting ten times worse than if the brunt of it had fallen on yourself. It makes you feel complicit in it, as though you were the one hitting them. And the mental effects of feeling that you “caused” that hurt just as much as the one enacting the actual violence can lead to self-loathing, mental illness, especially self-harm, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, or other expressions of mental illness that cause the sufferer to “punish” themselves, shrink themselves, or otherwise minimize the damage they feel they are doing to those around them.
Ownership: This is a tough one, as to some extent, any familial or intimate relationship involves giving degrees of your trust and autonomy to others. However, the idea of group accountability can also be used in abusive relationships, to coerce someone into doing things they don’t want to. For instance, an abusive spouse wants his wife to have more children, which she doesn’t want. So he might let it slip to her mother what he wants, sell her on the idea of having another grandchild to up the leverage, up the emotional cost of his partner saying no to him and continuing to take her birth control. Or in Breaking Bad‘s first season, the lead character’s family, upon finding out he has cancer and doesn’t wish to seek treatment, verbally abuses him into ignoring his own needs, by staging an intervention, so his own voice is drowned out by theirs, and he ends up consenting to medical procedures he hadn’t wanted to undergo, giving up autonomy over his own body. Unfortunately, this method of manipulation and abuse can have devastating effects, as the person at the receiving end of it becomes less and less willing to trust their partner, their family, their friends, knowing the likelihood of their abuser being able to use those people against them. And given the “blood is thicker than water” way we’re accustomed to treating and forgiving our families, it’s difficult to call family members on abusive tendencies.
The Cycle: It’s well-known that abusive relationships tend to follow cycles. Starting during a honeymoon phase, when everything is beautiful, gradually escalating tensions, becoming an abusive altercation, followed by a return to the honeymoon phase, when the abuser promises it won’t happen again, when both parties feel they’ve argued it enough to have a solution. It’s rarely all violence, and quite a lot of the damage happens during the escalation. That’s when the victim begins altering their behaviors to please their abuser, hoping to avoid another fight. And the more they change and their partner still finds those changes unsatisfactory, the more it primes them for the escalation. This phase of the cycle can be the one that’s most prominent, when it’s not bad enough to make the person leave, but still fresh from the memory of the honeymoon phase, when things were okay. It’s an ungodly stasis of just holding your breath, hoping that the less you do, the less you move, the less likely you will be to inadvertently trigger the hurricane.
This is hardly a complete rundown, but it gives you some idea of some of the tensions and faultlines that develop in abusive relationships over time. Portraying an abusive relationship without considering what non-physical abusive traits may feed into it, or how the faultlines develop outside of the worst-of-the-worst violent incidents is a problem, because it enforces an ideal of the relationship that disenfranchises survivors. It shapes the question of “Why did they stay” as being extremely logical, since who WOULD stay with a relationship with that extreme of an escalation? Cutting out the intermediary steps and violences makes it more difficult for survivors and their social circles and families to recognize abuse in its early stages, when it’s more possible to get out safely. And it erases the existence of a whole host of other abuse experiences, since many of the most violent, toxic relationships don’t leave a single bruise on the victim.
Not to mention, purely from a writer’s perspective here, it cuts out a lot of the most gut-wrenching and anxiety inducing bits. The compelling bits that shape your character, and that would pull a reader along for a much more grippingly evocative ride.
We tell each other stories in large part to stimulate our brains to learn skills. It’s part of our evolution as conscious beings, to run mental simulations of traumatic experiences, and test our “skills” in them. The more we present abuse as one-dimensional, only occurring in particular ways, or in particular kinds of relationships, only being perpetrated by particular kinds of people, the less we or our readers will be able to learn from these stories. The less we’ll be able to recognize ourselves in them, and apply their lessons to our own lives. It makes it more difficult for us to recognize and support the abuse survivors in our own social circles. It makes it more difficult to recognize when we ourselves are being abused or manipulated.