Is emotional abuse contagious?

“I can’t believe the way I act toward my husband,” a client told me recently. “I speak in ways I never used to. I call him names, just like he does to me. I respond to him in the same angry tone he uses. I’m not proud of it, but it happens.”

I often share with couples that “emotions are contagious.” Think about the last time someone spoke harshly to you. Did you speak harshly back or at least consider doing so? It is tempting to react to provocative behavior by acting in a similar manner. We’ve all done it. When treated harshly, we lash out or withdraw into cold silence, all in an attempt to cope with abuse.

I respond to him in the same angry tone he uses. I’m not proud of it, but it happens.

So, are narcissism and emotional abuse actually contagious?

I’d have to say that, to a certain extent, they are. You cannot physically ‘catch’ a diagnosable disorder, of course, but you certainly may find yourself ‘dishing it out’ just the way you are treated. Feeling raw, exhausted, and mistreated, you certainly will be more prone to speaking and acting in ways you would not otherwise speak or act.

What you can do to avoid “catching” abusive behaviors:

  1. Be honest with yourself.
    You cannot change what you do not own. Take a courageous look in the mirror and reflect on your own behavior. While you have reasons for acting the way you do, do your actions reflect who you want to be? Are there changes you want to make?
  2. Remember who you were and who you want to be.
    Remember who you were previously, what changes have taken place, and note the difference. Then clearly define who you want to be and who God wants you to be. For example, do you want to be a person known for their kindness? Do you want to have your speech marked by respect?
  3. Reflect on the reasons for change and set boundaries on the emotional abuse.
    Determine what is happening in your world that is causing you to act this way.  You will not likely be able to stop speaking and acting in ways that you know aren’t helpful while still being mistreated. Figure out exactly what must change, and get appropriate support (perhaps professional) to come up with next steps.
  4. Cultivate your own path of recovery.
    Develop a comprehensive plan for bringing about the changes you need, letting go of any abusive language and behavior, and recovering the kind and respectful person you know yourself to be.

In summary, while your harsh language and behavior may be reactive, and must be seen and viewed in that context, it is not who you want to be and harms others as well as yourself. Set out today to regain your dignity and self-worth by having a clear plan of recovery. The Marriage Recovery Center is happy to help you get to where you want to be, so give us a call at (206) 219-0145 or email us.