What Causes Emotional Abuse?

When you’re on the receiving end of anger or abuse, it can leave you in an utter state of confusion. The confusion alone is a hard-enough emotion to deal with, let alone the upset and distress caused by the hurtful actions and words directed towards you.

Therefore, it’s important to understand that you aren’t to blame for the treatment you’re receiving.

No matter if you’re told you’re the root of their emotional outbursts or the cause of their bad moods, you need to know that you aren’t to blame.

Nobody is ‘perfect’ in a relationship, so it’s natural to have moments where we can be a little harder to handle; perhaps the stresses of life can get in the way of us acting like our partner would ideally want. Lord knows I could sometimes be hard work if my job was pressuring me or if I was feeling a little low. This is no reason for anybody to have the right to emotionally abuse the other person; so, don’t allow your partner to tip the blame of their actions onto you.

To fully believe that you aren’t to blame for the treatment you’re receiving, it helps to gain a better insight as to why your abuser behaves the way they do. Once you have established where their abuse comes from, you can then understand how you aren’t culpable for their behaviors.

The truth is that the question “why do people abuse” has several answers. It totally depends on the abuser’s circumstances – something that’s out of your control entirely.

After reading the below root causes of emotional abusive behavior developing, I hope it’ll comfort you and help you understand that you’re not to blame for anybody else’s actions.


It’s a common theme among abusers to have had complex childhoods. Although it’s not a prerequisite to have suffered a difficult upbringing, it’s something that appears to be a common pattern with abusers.

The trauma suffered by the abuser could be a number of things throughout their childhood. They could have witnessed abuse, have been victim to abuse themselves or grown up in an environment filled with conflict.

You may or may not know about this trauma, or they have perhaps not revealed the full extent of their history to you.

Unaddressed and unresolved trauma can rear its head in adulthood in many forms, one of them making the victim abusive. It’s a sad and all too common irony that victims often end up becoming the abuser.

Traumatic histories can mean that abusive behavior is normal to an abuser and it’s the way they cope with the emotions of relationships.

This was the case for my ex-partners who were emotionally abusive to me. Both of them had particularly difficult and emotionally damaging upbringings, and they had a high volume of unresolved trauma that was still in the forefront of their minds as adults.

I would often excuse their abusive comments and behaviors and blame it on their troubled upbringings; I would try to be understanding that they hadn’t been shown the right kind of affection and tell myself that their abuse was attempts to push me away and down to the fact that they were afraid of getting hurt.

It was the same for my parents; my father had grown up in a very violent and abusive household. He held a lot of anger about this, and he was traumatised about several aspects of his childhood. He was open about this for the most part, and my mother used his damaged upbringing as an excuse for his behavior.

In reality, she was doing the exact same thing I would end up doing years later: making excuses.

Trying to overlook or defend emotionally abusive behavior only enables the abuser to carry on, and do so with a sense of entitlement, which is also a reason in itself that some people abuse and is explained further on in this list.

I would like to note that being exposed to abusive situations does not mean a person will then go on to be abusive, but those that have been through a traumatic childhood are statistically higher to go on to abuse.

Difficulty Accepting Injury

When I refer to injury, I don’t mean the physical kind. An emotional abuser finds it incredibly difficult when dealing with their feelings being hurt. In fact, they don’t deal with it at all – it transpires as abuse and manipulation.

Tolerating emotional injury, i.e. managing the feelings of being embarrassed or disappointed is an important life skill, especially in a relationship.

Again, transcending from childhood, an abuser learns this dysfunctional way of dealing with emotions from an early age.

An example of this could be picked up from a young age, with the young abuser being unable to handle small embarrassments like a trip in the playground. Something so small would be devastating to them, and this heightened reaction to emotions would continue into adolescence.

By this point, it would be stormy tantrums that are displayed at embarrassing or disappointing scenarios. Things such as not being picked for a sports team would ignite a fire that would cause the young abuser to overreact.

Often in these types of cases, the abuser is protected, either by family or teachers. They would aim to soothe this behavior and placate the youngster. They would be encouraging towards them, and would only be doing so with the best intentions.

However, this has a negative impact on the child / teenager, as it protects them from confronting emotions and teaches them that they don’t need to confront them. In a scenario like the one above, the youngster wouldn’t be given the opportunity to learn how to handle emotions like disappointment, shame or upset in a way that is acceptable. The parents / teachers would be reinforcing to the child that they should be protected from emotional discomfort. This entitlement continues into adulthood.

Growing up, learning to tolerate being hurt is important. To grow into a well-rounded and emotionally open person, we all need to be exposed to emotional discomfort and learn healthy ways to deal with the emotions that arise from it. It can often be the case that an abuser hasn’t fully been exposed to this opportunity, which leads to the next point:


The abuser, beginning from an early age or during adolescence, believes they have a right not to be hurt, upset or embarrassed.

It’s when this ‘right’ has been violated that their sense of entitlement is exchanged for more sinister emotions. If you have unwittingly embarrassed them or been as bold to confront their unreasonable behavior, in the eyes of the abuser you will have completely disregarded their right.

Because of this, they will reciprocate by punishing you. This can be seen in many forms; they can ignore you, they can become aggressive or defensive or they can behave in ways they know will upset you.

As an example, I’ll give you a scenario with fictional couple John and Jane. John returns home from work and argues with Jane. When Jane confronts him about his behavior and brands John’s actions hurtful and unpleasant. He knows she’s right – he can be hurtful. However, because he feels entitled to have his feelings protected and not be confronted about them, he will punish Jane by becoming emotionally abusive towards her.


Lacking in Accountability

This one ties in with the above point. In a world that deems it mostly acceptable to hurt others when they have hurt us, an emotional abuser can take this to the next level.

If an abuser is hurt (or injured, as mentioned above) by their spouse, even over something seemingly small, they feel like it’s okay to retaliate and hurt them.

Because the world often accepts the notion ‘an eye for an eye’, the abuser feels no accountability for their actions or words.

During my abusive relationships, I would often wonder how someone could treat me like this and not feel bad about it – even if they apologized, I would sense how disingenuous it was. Tying this point in with the above ones, my abusers would feel entitled to make me feel belittled or bad about myself if I somehow injured their feelings. Most of the time, I wouldn’t realize I was hurting their feelings.

My first ex-partner was highly sensitive to normal, day-to-day activities. If I let slip I went for lunch with co-workers, he’d be hurt. If I had already been to a place with somebody else before him, he’d be hurt and refuse to go. If I spent too long at my mother’s house, he’d be hurt. Upon  my return home, I would be branded degrading names, followed around the house being mentally tormented and goaded into crying.

The list goes on, and even though I’d never done anything to purposefully hurt him, I would still feel the wrath of his emotional abuse when I inadvertently made him feel injured.

It was the same with my second partner, although there was a variation in what made each of my exes treat me so badly. One thing remained the same, however; they both lacked any kind of accountability for their treatment of me.

Lacking in Empathy

As a characteristic that humans have only possessed for a short period of time in our history, empathy is in low supply with emotional abusers.

If you ask a handful of people what empathy means, you’ll get a general set of answers that all amount to something like “empathy is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes”.

This is a simple enough explanation to summarize what empathy is, and emotional abusers are capable of showing empathy. It’s the actual feeling of empathy for their victim that is lacking.

Empathy requires generosity of kindness and the ability to give the benefit of the doubt, two things emotionally abusive partners don’t tend to offer up when they are constantly feeling injured or attacked.

I hope the above points can help you gain a better understanding as to why this emotional abuse could be happening, and more importantly, I hope any blame you have been made to feel about the abuse has been lifted. One of the most important things to know at this stage is that it is not your fault.

I understand if you feel pity or compassion to your abuser – you love them, so it’s natural. However, you can’t let your feelings of care overshadow your own mental well-being.

You aren’t to blame for any of the scenarios or reasons why your spouse deems it acceptable to emotionally abuse you, nor are you acceptable for your other half not seeking the relevant help in order to overcome the problem.

Under no circumstances does any blame, responsibility or fault lay with you. I hope this post goes some way into helping you realise that.