Alcoholism and Emotional Abuse
While not all alcoholics are abusive, abusive alcoholics are common. Alcoholism makes it almost impossible to maintain healthy relationships, and abuse is sometimes the by-product of poor attempts. Addiction to any drug is tough on relationships.
The inability to express or process emotions and other brain changes are symptoms of alcoholism. Communication skills tend to erode as well, combining anger with an inappropriate release mechanism. The result is physical or verbal abuse. Being the victim of alcoholic verbal abuse could be even worse than being physically abused.
What is Emotional Abuse?
There are a lot of ways to hurt a person, some without ever touching them. Emotional abuse is just as real as physical, but it has the added detriment of being easier to hide. The devastation it causes, however, can be more severe than the scars of physical abuse, even though the evidence can go unseen.
Emotional abuse can lead to serious consequences for the victim. It can have more harmful effects on the victim than physical abuse because it’s relentless. Physical abuse tends to be cyclical: there is an incident of abuse followed by a period of remorse and affection, and then another incident of abuse. Emotional abuse can be subtle and constant. There is no honeymoon period for the victim.
The effects of emotional abuse are devastating. It causes anxiety disorders, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It damages a person’s self-esteem, and because it goes on for long periods, the results can be extreme. Often, victims of emotional abuse blame themselves rather than their abuser. Sometimes it’s difficult for them to see that another person is verbally assaulting them.
Emotional abuse can be verbal or non-verbal. The verbal abuse takes the form of name-calling, belittling disabilities, insults, threatening harm, or harassment at work or school. A lot of what is referred to as bullying falls into this category. Words meant to hurt or publicly humiliate are emotionally abusive when they represent a pattern of behavior.
Non-verbal forms of emotional abuse include neglect and withholding basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter from someone who has no other means of obtaining them. It can also take the form of withholding affection, ignoring emotional needs, refusing to talk to, pay attention to or even look at someone. In a more complex relationship, refusing to allow for personal growth is also a form of emotional abuse.
Some signs of emotional abuse are active, with the abuser making deliberate attempts to intimidate and degrade his or her victims. Some examples of active emotional abuse include:
How are Alcoholism and Emotional Abuse Related
To understand the relationship between emotional abuse and alcoholism, you first have to know what causes emotional abuse. Just like with physical abuse, it’s not the norm, and it’s certainly not the fault of the victim. There is usually some underlying condition in the abuser that causes this behavior.
Causes of emotional abuse can be broken down into these four categories:
- Historic Abuse — Once a person has been exposed to an emotionally abusive relationship, they’re more likely to become an abuser themselves. In fact, one third of all children who are abused grow up to become abusers themselves. Childhood abuse is also more likely to lead to substance abuse and addiction. Emotional abuse tends to cycle through families for generations.
- Stress — The primary contributor to mental illness, stress is everywhere. People have different ways of dealing with financial concerns, work-related problems, and interpersonal crisis. One way to relieve the pressure and put it on someone else is to lash out verbally. Emotional abuse is sometimes the product of poor stress management, and it’s often directed at children or other vulnerable bystanders.
- Mental Disease — Many emotional abusers are suffering from some underlying mental disorder. People who are depressed, narcissistic, bipolar, suicidal, or are afflicted with some other personality disorder can become emotionally abusive to the people around them. They can exhibit poor impulse control resulting in emotional outbursts, compromising their overall ability to maintain healthy relationships.
- Addiction — Addiction can be part of the emotional abuse cycle. Children who grow up with addicted parents are likely to become victims of emotional abuse. They, in turn, can grow up to become emotional abusers themselves. Children of alcoholic parents are also more likely to become alcoholics. Addiction makes it nearly impossible to maintain healthy relationships, and emotional abuse is often part of the mix.
Emotional abuse and alcoholism are often intertwined. It is difficult to say which condition caused the other. One person’s emotional abuse could possibly stem from another person’s (their parents’) alcoholism. This cycle might have perpetuated in the family for generations.
It’s also possible for someone without a family history of addiction or abuse to become emotionally abusive. They may be driven to addiction through a different path, other than genetics, and the addiction could lead to emotional abuse. Anyone suffering stress or emotional pain can become an emotional abuser, but substance abuse and addiction are usually part of this scenario.
Why Are Alcoholics Typically Emotionally Abusive?
Verbal abuse and alcoholism sometimes go together. They tend to tap into the same fear and anger issues. The stereotype of the abusive alcoholic is common. Some abusive alcoholics are physical while others resort to verbal abuse.
Addiction causes people to behave differently than they normally would. It can bring out behaviors and traits that are unpleasant and that usually go away when the addiction is resolved. There are no rules in addiction recovery, though. Every addiction is different.
Like addiction, emotional abuse is slightly different in each case. However, some common elements help link emotional abuse to alcoholism.
These are the typical characteristics of emotional abusers:
- Hypersensitive — Abusers are very sensitive and easily hurt. They take even the slightest comment personally. Every action feels like a personal attack to them.
- Isolationists — Abusers know that their victims are more vulnerable when they’re alone. They promote isolationism to cut them off from others, either family members or friends. Abusers want to be the only contact for their victims.
- Jealous — Abusers express love as jealousy. They don’t seem to understand the possessiveness of their jealousy. They’re extremely jealous of other people who gain their victims’ attention.
- Charming — Abusers are quite charming when they’re around other people. Usually, only their victim gets to see their abusive behaviors. It’s often hard to identify an abuser unless you’re the one emotionally abused.
- Sexually Aggressive — Someone who is emotionally abusive may like to engage in forceful sexual behaviors. Putting their partner in helpless positions can be one way they act out their abusive behaviors.
- Perfectionists — Abusers have very high expectations for the people around them. They might push their children or spouse to be perfect, unreasonably so.
- Impulsive — Abusers may rush into relationships out of a fear of being alone. They tend to bond very quickly with friends or intimate partners, but these relationships are unhealthy.
- Alcoholic — Many abusers use alcohol to relieve stress. Not all abusers are alcoholic, though.
- Poor Communicators — Abusers have trouble expressing their feelings in words. They may even struggle with processing certain emotions.
Emotional abusers don’t like to take credit for the harm they’ve caused. When confronted, an abuser will often turn the situation around and try to blame the victim. Even when they lash out on purpose to inflict pain, abusers don’t hold themselves accountable. Instead, they claim that the victim made them do it, was asking for it, or is in some way inferior and therefore deserved it.
These common threads among emotional abusers point to an inability to process emotions and a distorted perspective of reality. Alcoholism results in both of these conditions, as well. Most alcoholics use the drug to deaden their emotions, so they don’t have to deal with emotional pain. While under the influence of alcohol, they often experience distorted vision or even hallucinations. The alcohol interferes with the brain’s sensory system giving them a distorted perspective.
A study published in 2009 shows that alcoholics process emotional cues in a different part of the brain than non-alcoholics. The implication of these findings is that people with a history of alcohol abuse may have lost the ability to process emotions, and the means they use to hide that deficit result in inadequate or distorted emotional behaviors.
The exact reason why alcoholics are emotionally abusive is not known. It could be that they’re not able to process emotions properly, and therefore, have a skewed perspective of reality. In emotionally charged situations, they get the cues wrong and behave inappropriately. They also may use emotional abuse to cover up for their inadequacies, and, when confronted, deflect fault to their victim.
How to Recognize Emotional Abuse
Emotional abuse can be subtle and difficult to recognize. If you’re the victim of emotional abuse, your perspective may be skewed by the damage the abuse has already caused to your psyche. Trust your instincts, though, and look for these signs:
- You’re held to an impossible standard.
They expect everything you do to be perfect. If your appearance is not perfect at all times, you’re ridiculed or belittled. You feel overwhelming pressure to meet unrealistic demands.
- The blame is always on you.
When someone else does or says something wrong, they blame you for it. When you complain about how you’re treated, it becomes your fault for being too sensitive. If you return the insults, you’re a bad person. You can’t seem to get out from under the ridicule and blame.
- You live in fear.
Your fear may not be physical but it’s real. You’re constantly afraid of what your abuser will say next. You’re afraid of their reaction to any thing you do or say. Even when you think you’re doing a good job, you know they’ll find a reason to criticize.
- Your needs seem unimportant.
You try to fulfill your partner’s every desire, but they don’t do the same for you. Their needs always come first. If there is something you want that isn’t important to them, you don’t get it. It feels like your only purpose is to please them and they have no requirement to do anything for you.
- You’re not allowed to make your own decisions.
Your spouse makes all the social plans and you’re expected to go along. The decision to work or where to work is not yours, but made for you. They control your access to money, so you cannot make any decisions about how to spend it.
- They use threats to control your behavior.
Your spouse threatens to leave you if you don’t behave a certain way. They say they’ll kick you out of the house or threaten physical violence in order to get their way.
- Insults and ridicule are constant.
You live with constant name-calling and belittling comments. They purposely insult you, call you stupid or imply you’re not successful. They constantly berate you with hurtful and personal verbal attacks.
- You cut ties with the outside world.
You don’t participate in any hobbies you used to enjoy. Your social life consists only of going out with your spouse. You seldom see or talk to your family any more. The focus of your entire life is your relationship.
- You feel worthless.
Your sense of self-esteem is very low. You’re not sure why anyone would love you because you’re so flawed. You no longer dispute the constant insults, but instead you believe they’re probably accurate.
- You turn to substances to relieve your pain.
You started drinking to help you deal with your emotional abuser. You find that with a few drinks, it’s not that bad. You drink to keep up with your spouse’s habit. When both of you are drinking, the marriage seems to work better.
It can be easy to explain away any of these signs of emotional abuse. When you’re under pressure, you tend to think you’re somehow the problem. If you recognize any of these signs, though, especially if more than one of them applies to your situation, you should seek help.
Signs That Someone You Know is Emotionally Abused
It may be hard to determine that your loved one is in a relationship with an emotional abuser because abusers tend to appear charming to everyone else. There are signs you can look for in your loved one’s behavior. If they exhibits one or more of these signs, there may be emotional abuse going on:
- Hiding — Victims of emotional abuse don’t like to draw attention to themselves. They try to keep a low profile and avoid the spotlight.
- Apologizing — Emotional abuse causes people to apologize for their actions a lot. They apologize for not being perfect, and they offer blanket apologies for “messing everything up.” Their apologies may not be very specific. They seem to take responsibility for everything that goes wrong.
- Championing — Victims of emotional abuse tend to be very loyal to their abuser. They explain away any evidence of abuse and take responsibility for any mistakes.
- Lying — Telling unnecessary lies is a sign of emotional abuse. Individuals often learn to lie as a survival skill to avoid the anger of the emotional abuser. Victims of emotional abuse also lie about their relationship with the abuser to make it sound better than it is.
- Not Communicating — Victims of emotional abuse have trouble expressing themselves. They don’t know what they want because the abuser usually makes decisions for them. They’re afraid to say what they think, because the abuse has conditioned them to fear the response.
- Judging — Victims of emotional abuse are harsh judges of themselves. They begin to internalize the negative messages and insults they receive. They believe that the abuse would stop if they could just be perfect. They fuel their quest for perfection by the desire to please their abuser.
- Isolating — Withdrawing from friends and family is often a result of the control of the abuser. Emotional abusers try to sever connections between their victim and others, so they’ll get all of their attention. Victims of emotional abuse sometimes avoid family and friends in an attempt to hide the abuse. They don’t want to be insulted or ridiculed in front of anyone else.
- Fearing — Victims of emotional abuse develop a fear of their abuser. They always seem on edge when the abuser is around because they never know when the insults will start again. Over time, this heightened sense of anxiety applies to everything. Anxiety develops around certain places or activities, and even other people. Victims of emotional abuse are often fearful of the future. They don’t have a positive outlook but might be vague about what they think could happen.
- Depending — Victims of emotional abuse are dependent on others to get through life. They don’t have the confidence to stand on their own or speak up for themselves. They may wait for others to make decisions, and they’re always willing to go along with someone else’s idea. They avoid confrontation because they believe they need other people to like and accept them.
If you notice one or more of these signs of emotional abuse in someone you care about, get help for them right away. The sooner the abuse stops, the easier it will be for them to recover from it.
Help for Anyone Being Emotionally Abused By an Alcoholic
Whether you or someone you know is being emotionally abused, the first step is to distance from the abuser. As long as the abuse continues, you cannot begin to heal from it. The scars of emotional abuse can go very deep.
Overcoming emotional abuse is similar to fighting addiction. Part of it’s rooted in habit and habits are hard to change. Since alcoholism and emotional abuse have such an intertwined relationship, they need simultaneous treatment. Whether the alcoholic is the emotional abuser or not, if one condition is left untreated, it will re-ignite the other.
Here are some steps to take to begin healing from emotional abuse:
- Reconnect with your family and friends.
Spending time with the people who truly care about you can be therapeutic. It will help rebuild your sense of self-worth and provide the support you will need to confront your problems.
- Be honest about the abuse.
You don’t have to tell everyone about it, but share your experience with a trusted friend or family member. Getting a more objective opinion will help you see the abuse for what it really is. Be honest with yourself about how you feel and what is happening to you. It may be sad to face the truth about your situation, but it’s also the first step in making the necessary changes.
- Learn to set boundaries.
Make some decisions about what you will not accept and stick with them. If constant insults are played off as jokes, for example, make it clear that you will not tolerate that type of joking any more. Name-calling and ridicule is not okay. Make a stand on some of these issues.
- Take care of yourself.
Regaining or maintaining good physical health will help you or your loved one recover from emotional abuse. Get enough sleep, practice good nutrition, and exercise regularly. This will also help reduce your stress and improve your mental outlook. Taking care of yourself will remind you that you don’t need anyone else to take care of you. You don’t need to be dependent on someone, especially someone who is emotionally abusive.
- Learn to let go.
There is a time to forgive your abuser and move forward with your life, and only you know when that time is. Forgiveness does not mean you ignore what they did to you or that you forget all about it. When you’re strong enough, you will be able to let go of the anger and resentment this abuse caused, and know that you’re okay without that toxic relationship.
- Get professional help.
Emotional abuse is serious and can have devastating consequences. Talk to a trained professional about your situation to be sure you’re on the right path to healing. They can let you know what other mental health resources are available in your community. You may benefit from some group counseling or becoming a member of a discussion group.
If you or someone you know is in an emotionally abusive relationship, contact 12 Keys for help.
. We can help you understand the dynamics of emotional abuse and alcoholism in a relationship. Our experienced and expert staff will answer all of your questions and provide solutions for treating the effects of emotional abuse, alcoholism, and any underlying mental illnesses.