I see many examples of spouses and partners who endure consistent and systematic meanness from their significant others. This pattern is more prevalent than you might think, and the clinical term for it is emotional abuse. There are a number of warning signs that you might be in an emotionally abusive relationship. They include a spouse who wants you to him- or herself, and doesn’t understand that you have a life, family and friends outside of the relationship.
Another indication of abuse is the shifting of responsibility, where the abused partner is accused of being “too sensitive” after being called deliberately hurtful names. The abuser always feels entitled to be treated as if you were his or her willing servant. The common denominator in all these examples is a misguided sense of entitlement, where he or she feels deserving of aspects of your life to which he or she would not normally be entitled.
This principle carries not only social and political implications, but also has dramatic implications for daily life in a relationship. Emotional abusers are ultimately weak because they are banking on an irrational viewpoint in order to get their way. So, the abuser’s ability to get away with spewing disruption and hurt is only as strong as the spouse or partner’s willingness to evade the fact that he or she is sovereign over his or her own life. If one doesn’t believe that, and humbly remains in the hurtful relationship, this only strengthens the pseudo-power of the abuser who claims to love you. The very thing that is causing the hurt and pain is therefore fostered even more and becomes more invasive.
Of course, there are things to which a partner or a spouse can rationally feel entitled. In a monogamous relationship or marriage, each partner willingly agrees not to go outside the sexual relationship with other people. You’re not giving up sovereignty over your life by keeping an agreement you freely choose to make. But many problems in relationships arise from the false beliefs that one is entitled to something to which he or she is not.
When the abuser forgets that his or her partner is an autonomous individual, and stops loving him or her for the individuality that he or she possesses, this is when love invariably turns sour. When you want to possess the person rather than simply to love him or her, that’s the beginning of the end. The next step can become emotional abuse.
So what gives rise to this false entitlement? In the majority of cases that feeling is driven by anxiety – anxiety that you will abandon him or her. And that anxiety is amplified when you do something that suggests your having an autonomous self, i.e., going out with friends, visiting family alone, etc. A non-abusive partner might express hurt and worry that “you’re going to leave me,” perhaps hoping to control your behavior in that way. But the emotional abuser, driven by the same anxiety, takes the situation to a ridiculous conclusion by “daring” you, in a way, to defy the idea that you’re not the controller of your existence. The psychiatric labels “narcissistic personality” or “borderline personality” both refer, in large part, to this false sense of entitlement such people feel.
Irrational anxiety destroys everything it touches. The only cure for the emotional abuser is to challenge and correct these false assumptions of entitlement. And just as importantly, it’s the duty of those around them – spouses, partners and friends alike – to not buy into that false thinking. If you repeatedly let it slide and allow it to happen, then you are contributing to your own unhappiness and emotional turmoil.
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