Defining Emotional Abuse: An Assault on Identity, Worth, and Value

Emotional abuse is rampant in our culture of entitlement and autonomy. It is an element in almost every divorce. Here at the Marriage Recovery Center, our working definition of emotional abuse is an ongoing pattern of defensive behaviors used to gain and maintain power and control in a relationship

At its core, emotional abuse is an assault against one’s personhood. The assault is multi-faceted: targeting identity, worth and value; twisting perception of reality; disregarding emotions and lacking empathy; and using anger  as weaponry. This blog is part of a series that covers each of those aspects. I will be focusing on emotional abuse as an assault on identity, value, and worth.

The Assault on Identity, Worth, and Value

With regard to human development, identity refers to the stable, defining characteristics of a person that make them an individual. Having a solid sense of identity requires a thorough understanding of oneself, include one’s own traits, preferences, thought patterns, strengths, and weaknesses. Essentially, it is a construct of who you are and where you are going. Our sense of personal value and the basic values we live by are reflected in our sense of identity.

The assault on identity, value, and worth looks like taking away someone’s right and responsibility to decide who they will be and how they will show up the in the world. In other words, the abuser assumes the authority to define it, and his words trump all others.

The victim’s identity becomes not as a fellow human being, worthy of their own individuality, but essentially as an extension of the abuser. In the case of the husband being the abuser and the wife being the victim, he does all the thinking for her as if she has neither the ability nor the authority to think for herself. He causes her to question her own decisions as well as her ability to decide. He tells her who she is, what she must believe, how to think. The implication is that she can’t figure this out for herself. He knows better than her what “truth” is. He is the measuring stick.

Her value is measured by this same stick. The abuser often sets standards as a fluid target with rare acknowledgment that she’s met them successfully. She is constantly threatened with discard or replacement, both through words and with his wandering eye. Her hurt doesn’t affect him, her concerns are irrelevant to him, and her desire for anything that is different from his desires offends him. The message here is that she has nothing of value to add.

The assault on her worth puts her in a solid category of lesser-than. She’s treated like a child, a servant, and an object. At the end of the day, the message she hears loud and clear is that she is invisible, unknown, and has no influence.

“Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.” – Epictetus

Healing Your Identity

Part of the healing process entails reestablishing a solid sense of identity. Love requires being known—known in the authentic, transparent, free, unique way God created each individual to be known. When you know who you are, you will reach for the things that lend themselves to a life that reflects your character. And instead of looking for things or people to give you value, value becomes part of your internal sense of self. You bring your value to the table, so to speak.

In the context of a marriage, both spouses must have an honest, healthy sense of self in order to heal together in the relationship. In fact, in most cases, marriage issues aren’t really marriage issues! They are individual issues being played out in the relationship as symptoms. The root causes are within the individuals.

Here at the Marriage Recovery Center, we provide a comprehensive series of programs designed to create space for healing for the abuser, the victim, and the marriage. In our Healing Together program, both spouses begin with individual work. When growth is seen and the time is right, we begin couples counseling. If you want to break free from the stronghold of emotional abuse, contact us at (206) 219-0145 and get started on your path to freedom.