How Abusers Gain Control By Appearing to Lose It

July 22, 2012 Kellie Jo Holly

You can minimize the effects of verbal abuse by understanding how abusers gain control by playing with emotions - yours and theirs.

You, the target of verbal abuse, have one mission in your efforts to end verbal abuse: keep your emotions in check. Your verbal abuser subscribes to the opposite mission. Your abuser wants you to lose emotional control because when that happens, you've lost control of you. When you lose control of you, your abuser snatches control of the conversation and you.

Think of a few times you've lost control of you. Did you ever match your abuser's extreme emotional level only to see them step back, shut up, and smirk? Or maybe they upped the ante and banged on things with their fist to make a bigger noise and drive your emotions to higher limits. You've got to know that although you may feel out of control, your abuser is very much in control of what they're doing.

Your Abuser's Out-of-Control Emotions Are For Show

That spit at the corner of his mouth, foaming in anger? Yep. He knows it's there. In the back of his mind, he's thinking, "This will show her!" He's not really mad. He's only pretending to be angry.

Or what about those tears rolling down her cheek as she turns the tables on you, blaming you for making her feel so rotten? Yep. She's pretending to be hurt; she wants you to think you're the monster. She's thinking, "Okay, he's almost to the breaking point...a few more sobs, reach for the Kleenex, bow my head so the tears fall dramatically to my lap..."

And if they're so out of control that they must break stuff, why do they break only your stuff? They could grab their own stuff to break, but why would someone who knows exactly what they're doing break their own stuff? They wouldn't. They'll break their own stuff only if its relatively unimportant to them and they can get mileage out of blaming you for "making" them upset.

The difference between your abuser's emotional reactions and yours is that yours are real. Your abuser's emotions look real, but to gain control of you, they must be in control of themselves. Because they're in control of themselves, they can put on any emotional performance they think will bring you under their control, too.

Your Out-of-Control -- But Very Real Emotions

You've probably experienced verbal abuse and reacted in a way that doesn't make you proud. Perhaps you switched into a screaming meme, flopped down like a sobbing doormat, or placated and agreed with everything your abuser said about you. There are as many responses to verbal abuse as there are emotions (Domestic Abuse Victims Think They Are The Abuser).

The key that we're looking for here is extreme emotion that makes you feel shame or guilt in hindsight. When you exhibit extreme emotion, then you've lost control. Unfortunately, losing control like this makes us want to apologize for our behavior. Being empathetic and responsible people, we victims go to our abuser and apologize for our reaction to their abuse.

And bing. The abuser gains control because they see you subjugating yourself, and they will take advantage of your shame. If they don't manipulate you immediately, you can bet they'll call up this apology at some time in the future. They'll act like you "owe them one" and ignore the fact that they were the catalyst to begin with.

Feel Angry Yet?

The emotional roller-coaster of life with an abuser takes its toll. It makes sense that over time, your apologies, emotional outbreaks, and outrageous, stupid arguments lead to you feeling bottled up. Confined. Frustrated! You're ashamed of behaving the way you do, but your partner never truly apologizes and always lets you take the blame.

All of that (and more) creates a deep-rooted anger. You push your anger down further. You feel your anger, but you may not be sure what causes the inner hostility. Maybe you can't put into words why you're so mad, and perhaps you believe you have no right to be angry.

Let's put all that aside for a minute. If you're angry, so be it. You don't need a reason why right now, all you need to do is address the feeling. Fortunately for you, your anger is real and justified. That means that anger management techniques will work for you. Your abuser doesn't have an anger management problem - they're putting on a show.

Healthy Emotions Help You Stay in Control of You

There is no unhealthy emotion, only unhealthy reactions to emotions. Anger serves a purpose just as happiness does! Your emotions are signals to what is happening in the world around you, and we could live better if we paid attention to every emotion instead of trying to exorcise the "bad" ones.

We'll discuss keeping our emotions in check in the next post. There are ways to bring yourself down to earth and respect your emotions without losing respect for yourself. Living with abuse emotionally challenges you, but it doesn't have to overcome you.

Next: How to Keep Control of Your Emotions

You can find Kellie Jo Holly at Verbal Abuse Journals, or social media on Google+, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon Authors.

*Both women and men could be abusers or victims, so do not take my pronoun choices as an implication that one gender abuses and the other is victimized.

APA Reference
Jo, K. (2012, July 22). How Abusers Gain Control By Appearing to Lose It, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 25 from

Author: Kellie Jo Holly

Rose saragosa
August, 2 2017 at 12:33 pm

Only when we commit to getting our power back can we create the shield of self responsibility. The more we try to love an empty container the deeper the fall.

Sarah Lund
April, 23 2016 at 4:56 am

Sorry, I'm not trying to be everyone's advise. I think the best lesson I learned from being around him, is that it tough me to avoid divorced men, who are still bitter about their ex 's. It does no good to the person having to put up with their angry talk. You're better off finding a man who has a positive attitude. So am I. I can't fix broken men. After lots of years of living, I'm not just suddenly going to accept being hurt or being shouted at by ANY man. It's his own responsibility to show a woman some appreciation. Sure he was Mr Nice Guy every morning, but I always knew that he'd start his angry abuse towards me, when it got to 5pm.

Sarah Lund
April, 23 2016 at 4:34 am

The brain-washing is very cleverly done. They will slip their "opinion" into the conversation, and say something after it, like "Aren't they?" or "They aren't very nice are they?", because the person wants you to agree with them. God help you if you have a different opinion on the same subject. If you're not a racist like him, or if you're not into bully in others, he is now going to spend awful lies about you, and is going to use ignoring you, as his latest weapon. You didn't once give him ENOUGH attention. He still wants more. So he's now going to speak to everyone else on the room, apart from you. He SAID you are very special to him, but it's a smoke - screen, to cover up what's going on inside his brain. Don't believe your special to any man, unless he actually goes out of his way to check whether you're alright. Also, if a man wants you to stick around, he will make sure he never makes you feel less of a person, because he will dread losing you to another man. If he regrets losing you, and you never want to see him ever again, he should have thought about his behaviour sooner. Unless he's prepared to beg you to come back into his life, he shouldn't think he deserves such attention. A tough guy, will never show a woman his true emotions. A more sensitive soul will. Oh and he apparently "felt sorry for me" when he first met me. Well sorry to burst his fantasy bubble because I never believed he did. He was too dramatic for his own good. He is on his own from now on. We were never a team. A true genuine team - mate would treat me with compassion. What a laugh.

Diane Ogden
January, 8 2016 at 2:43 pm

Thank you. I met a wonderful man 6 months ago. I saved all our texts THANKFULLY as they have shown me he is a verbally abusive controller. I have loved him beautifully but it did no good. I feel so stupid. Yet it has become the hardest thing in the world for me to get away/leave him. I was alone for 14 years and he showed me such sweet love. WRONG!!

November, 4 2015 at 10:07 am

It's always my fault according to drb. We are having a new bathroom fitted and I had spent an extra 200 on fittings . Important to note he won't spend money or do work himself or let me do it. My dad is helping us out financially
He was pointing at me in front of work men sayingN I told you extra 200 its nothing to do with me. I was embarrassed and humiliated. He says I'm a fat ugly cunt and I don't want to go out customers he puts me down. We have no mortgage and he said I embarrassed him as I pmd him on fb to say he paid nothing to council tax bills etc I hate him but love my pets

April, 22 2014 at 12:56 am

I am an abuser. I have never related to anything as much as I have to the description of the abusers in this article. The amount of shame I feel and the guilt as a tormentor to my husband. I know its time for help and Its time for change or I will lose the soul mate I adore. We have issues to work through yes, but it doesn't have to be my way or the highway. Ive got a lot of work to do, but he's worth it. So am I.

March, 16 2014 at 2:44 pm

Its tough living with it. When your partner is abused as a child they stop loving themselves. In the bible it talks about loving each other as we love ourselves. What happens if you don't love yourself. You cannot meet others needs. I dearly love my husband and I can only encourage him to seek God for a victory. He and his parents have a strained and poor relationship. His father has been emotionally abusive all his life. And lost everything but his wife over it. His home, his business twice and his childrens trust and admiration. What makes me so sad is that they too were little babies new to the world and deserved all the love they needed but didn't and it wasn't their choice so life followed as it began. Family cycle is vicious and unbreakable unless you earnestly call on god. He can truly move mountains and loves each and everyone of us more than you can comprehend. I can talk because I was in the same boat as my husband for which reason I think I married him. We share the same hurts and I thought I could mend him. Give him the love he never got. Turns out it's much more complicated than that. When you don't love yourself you cannot and do not know how to receive love. The world will constantly crash in around them and they don't know how to help them self because they don't feel worthy of love so they are in this vicious cycle of self sabotaging. Because of god I'm out of the tunnel and basking in his light and love. Physically abused by my father and never accepted for who I was. But then in a family of 7 children it tough. I was a boisterous kid with food intolerances but because of my family situation I hated myself and by 16 I was well into depression with suicidal thoughts thinking it was the only way to end my misery. My normal weight wasn't accepted so I fell into a dangerous eating disorder for years. All of which was secret to my parents until I had been married for a couple of years. I looked to blame for my hurt. I didn't understand why I was dealt this harsh hand in life. I then had a beautiful boy and struggled to do what was needed to run our little family. Then a brother in Christ said "for you to think that God cannot give you a victory is self righteous and saying that what Jesus did was not enough for you to overcome and get a victory over this. Being a godly women I immediately felt how dare I think you can't or won't do this Jesus. I am so sorry. This is what he came for. He new our pain and our sinful state and gave his life so we could be forgiven and made whole. Healed, set free and at peace. And to be reunited spotless and blameless before God.I diligently sort the lord in spirit and truth for three days. It was like a long therapy session where God literally rid my body of past junk and hurt and I was healed. Just before the moment I felt it I was walking my boy and looked up to the sky and said "God if I can make it to your Kingdom when your son returns, if I could just get there where I know all pain will stop then I will live with this."I felt physically a burden lift from me there and then." My mind was healed. My body had some recovery to make which god set me on the right path. God was so loving to wait until I had my mind on the end prize. He cares for my sole more than my current health I had asked god so many times to help me to see myself as you do lord, help me to love myself and accept your love God. And he answered those prayers in 2011. For the first time in my life at age 30 I loved myself and I was free from my own bounds and the hurtful past. I maintained a relationship with my parents quite well except for the last few toughest months. They did give us a godly foundation and teach us respect by example. But now I don't blame my dad. And they love me for who I am now. They still don't understand why with my eating disorder like its not a real thing but it doesn't bother me. I love them and all is forgiven. God gives us enough love for ourselves and others. I want the same for my husband but I trust gods plan and gods time. But I need to pray for him. Because God loved me in spite of all my mess and he has taught me its what we do for others. Doesn't mean its not what feels unbearably hard at times. But there is hope. In God all things are possible. And if it wasn't for Jesus I wouldn't have a relationship with both him and God. My advice if its not too late for unmarried people is to not get in a relationship with someone who doesn't have a healthy relationship with their parents. You will be treated how they treat their family. I did not see that my then boyfriend arguing with his mum would be me on the end of that once married. If it is too late then try what I did and not just once. Give God the benefit of the doubt. I came from blaming God and my parents to wow you really love me God and you are always there for me. My 5 year old is the smartest in his class and so comfortable and confident in his skin. How could I have helped him there without giving him the same love, grace, godly instruction and acceptance God gave me. It is all God. I don't have to have all the answers. God does and his way is perfect. Children who have an emotionally abusive parents need a stable unchanging father to call on. My son talks to God morning and night and now whilst he puts the little things to prayer like God help me to find my orange ball or God help my friend at school be brave to say goodbye to their parents each day then he is learning in time to put the big things like God help my marriage. Help me be a good parent. I hope this helps. X

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

December, 21 2022 at 11:05 pm

I love the internet. What a beautiful comment that I read every word of - years after you wrote it and have probably long forgotten about. God is so great and it's impossible to fully comprehend His love for us, but I am so lucky I've been blessed with the opportunity to try. God pulled me out of a very dark place, my whole life really, but half a year ago I finally heard and accepted the call. Comments like yours keep me going. I pray I can bring the same light to others when they need it...thru God's grace.
I pray your husband has accepted God's love so he can love others as he loves himself. I pray you and your family continual love healing and forbearance.
Thank you so much for sharing such beautiful words. And thank God for guiding me to them exactly when I needed to hear them. Thank Him for everything!

December, 6 2012 at 1:35 am

I was in a relationship with my child's father. Unfortunately it hasn't stop. No matter what I do to get away it's always a problem. He promise me like sole custody money and henevr gives. He draggs out court cases for no reason. Today he loves our child tomorrow he doesn't and I figure he will enjoy his new life with his new wife because I was no good. Nope he is forever lying

July, 23 2012 at 7:45 pm

@granniemaryann - I'm sorry to hear about what you're going through. I too am in my second marriage to verbally abusive people who were abused as children. It is definitely a tough nut. One thing that might help a little bit is to read the book "The Verbally Abusive Relationship" by Patricia Evans. I read it a year ago and it at least explained what is going to. No longer do I have to try to understand why she is the way she is. I now understand why.
Then, continue to research on line. Maybe call the domestic violence hotline at 1−800−799−SAFE(7233). They will talk to you about verbal abuse too, not just physical abuse. They may also have some suggestions for you. I wish you the best.

Kellie Holly
July, 23 2012 at 8:06 am

Nikky44, I know. A therapist asked me once, "Could you just be happy when he was happy? Enjoy it?"
That therapist wasn't too familiar with DV. Of course I could pretend to be happy, and I could feel relief to an extent. The thing the therapist didn't seem to understand was that the NICE could end at any second for any reason.
I was constantly on my toes...waiting, watching. You can't be truly happy with an ominous cloud over your head.
Nikky, there may have one technique you can use to help yourself. You said that when you're silent, he stops. He is interpreting your silence as agreement, and that may work to your benefit.
Of course no one wants to agree by silence - especially when you don't agree! But on those days where you need a rest, try this:
Be silent. But in your mind, go somewhere else. Name the type of abuse he is using (diminishing, intimidation, denial, et cetera. Observe him to see how he uses body language, tone of voice, etc. Watch and listen, making mental notes to yourself. Tell yourself that when he is done, you will write this incident down in a private place to add to your records, or relate it to your friends and ask them to keep the record so he can't find it.
Trick HIM for a change. Be present, let him think whatever you want him to think. But during this time, he is nothing but a lab rat to you. An oddity to observe.
I hope you're in a better place very soon.

July, 23 2012 at 7:17 am

Exactly, so well described. Sometimes I'm too tired to react, sometimes I'm too hopeless to have or show any emotion and he just stops. Those days when I hope he would just kill me and end my suffering, he would stop the abuse. He only goes on when I react, when I try to explain, when I'm hurt.
It is still so hard for me to accept that he is not sincere when he acts nice :(

July, 22 2012 at 5:41 pm

"That spit in the corner of his mouth..."
OMG - I was hooked as soon as I saw that. Yep - that's how my ex was. Even though we've been divorced for 12 years, I will still occasionally have nightmares about him.
Probably one of the worst 'threats' was after a fight we had in 1997. It was after 10pm, dark... I laid on our bed crying after he left the condo. Then it dawned on me: "Why are you crying? This is what you've been waiting for. He's left... let him go."
Right about that time, I head the door downstairs, then his feet come up the steps to the bedroom. My back was to the door of the room and I heard drawers opening and closing. Whatever he was looking for, he wasn't finding it immediately (or... just making noise to draw attention.) I finally turned around to ask, "What are you doing?" to see him standing there with his 9mm pointed at his temple. I screamed "OMG OMG" He started off on a rant about what a bitch I was and that it was all my fault for him wanting to pull the trigger. He said some other stuff too, but that was the gist of it. He wanted me to know that I was to blame for everything.
I worried for my babies asleep in the next room and could only picture them coming into their mommy and daddy's room to find us dead.
I turned away from him, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of seeing my face if he pulled the trigger. I don't think I've ever been MORE terrified for my life. I thought he would shoot me then turn the gun on himself.
Thankfully, he left... everything was silent and I couldn't move. When I felt sure he was gone, I went into the babies' room to check on them. They were both sound asleep (thank God).
I have a hard time reconciling with myself about allowing him back into my/our lives. I should've packed my stuff and run as fast as I could. But when you're abused, you somehow buy their apologies or reasoning... again, taking all the blame for what happened and vowing to 'do better.'
I walked on eggshells for more than 20 years. I'm so relieved to be away from him. Unfortunately, he's been successful at alienating my children from me.

July, 22 2012 at 4:49 pm

I am 69 years old. Had a horse training business, three children and worked hard. My husband has been verbally abusive and physically abusive in the past. Now he is 74, not so much physical but the verbal abuse is horrible. I am an idiot, stupid, a MF'R, c...., the devil, mean (lately I have standing up for myself) but he does not stop with the verbal abuse no matter what I do to make him happy. He sold my farm I paid for and built the business (this is my second marriage) and spent, gambled all the money. This was money that was suppose to be my retirement fund. I invested all the money I made in my children and business and now I am broke. Can't divorce him because I have no money now. Fixed up tv room in the back of this mobil home he bought for me. I had a large house, beautiful, now in a 1976 mobil home. I was verbally and physically abused as a yound child, now in marriage, twice. Seeking advice and help.

July, 22 2012 at 12:55 am

I recognize the signs in this as my abuser played a very clever game he was very needy and demanding of my time it terms of caring for him. If I didn't acquiesce to his "cry's for help" I was uncaring.
He very subtlety had control over most aspects of my life and tried to lead me to think he only had my best interest at heart. I was in a 5 yr relationship with him .His previous partner was in contact with him the whole duration.She had similar problems with him and told me so.
Within a few weeks of our relationship ending he is back with her even though they live 100s of miles apart.I am glad I am out of it now but 5 yrs of lies by both of them have left a lot of damage.Not all verbal abuse is violent sometimes it can be very cleverly disguised as "caring" Listen to your "gut instinct" if its telling you its wrong ...then it is and get away no matter how hard!

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