Belittled: Abuse in Intimate Relationships

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Belittled: Abuse in Intimate Relationships term "intimate relationships" is used here to be maximally inclusive of any romantic and/or sexual relationship between two non-biologically-related people, including dating or courtship relationships, relationships in which the romantic partners live together in the same household (cohabiting), relationships in which two people have children in common but are no longer formally romantically or sexually involved with one another, and marital relationships. Ideally such relationships are loving and supportive, protective of and safe for each member of the couple. Unfortunately, some people, while fulfilling these nurturing, positive needs of their partners at least some of the time and at least early in their relationship's development, also behave abusively, causing their partners (and often others as well) substantial emotional and/or physical pain and injury. In extreme cases, abusive behavior ends in the death of one or both partners, and, sometimes, other people as well. Non-lethal abuse may end when a relationship ends. Frequently, however, abuse continues or worsens once a relationship is over. This can happen whether the relationship is ended by just one of the partners or, seemingly, by mutual consent.

There are several types of abuse that occur in intimate romantic relationships. It is frequently the case that two or more types of abuse are present in the same relationship. Emotional abuse often precedes, occurs with, and/or follows physical or sexual abuse in relationships (Koss et al., 1994; Stets, 1991; Tolman, 1992; Walker, 1984). Sexual and non-sexual physical abuse also co-occur in many abusive relationships (Browne, 1987; Mahoney & Williams, 1998; Walker, 1984), and, as with emotional abuse, sexual and non-sexual abuse often are combined elements of a single abusive incident (Bergen, 1996; Browne, 1987; Finkelhor & Yllo, 1985; Russell, 1990; Walker, 1984). 

As discussed by Tolman (1992), it may be somewhat artificial to separate emotional abuse from physical forms of abuse because physical forms of abuse also inflict emotional and psychological harm to victims, and both forms of abuse serve to establish dominance and control over another person. However, it also is possible for any one of these types of abuse to occur alone. In fact, emotional abuse often occurs in the absence of other types of abuse. Therefore, despite some conceptual and experiential overlap, the various forms of abuse also are separable conceptually and experientially. Moreover, for better or worse, they are often treated separately by the research community, although that practice is changing as research on these topics matures and progresses. The categories of abuse that occur in intimate romantic relationships include:

Emotional Abuse (also called psychological abuse or aggression, verbal abuse or aggression, symbolic abuse or aggression, and nonphysical abuse or aggression). Psychological/emotional abuse has been variously characterized as "the use of verbal and nonverbal acts which symbolically hurt the other or the use of threats to hurt the other" (Straus, 1979, p. 77); "behaviors that can be used to terrorize the victim. . .that do not involve the use of physical force" (Shepard & Campbell, 1992, p. 291); the "direct infliction of mental harm" and "threats or limits to the victim's well-being" (Gondolf, 1987), and ". . . an ongoing process in which one individual systematically diminishes and destroys the inner self of another. The essential ideas, feelings, perceptions, and personality characteristics of the victim are constantly belittled." (Loring, 1994, p. 1). 

Psychological/ emotional abuse is considered an important form of abuse because many women report that it is as harmful or worse than physical abuse they suffer (Follingstad, Rutledge, Berg, Hause, & Polek, 1990; Walker, 1984) and because of its role in setting up and maintaining the overall abusive dynamic of the relationship (Boulette & Anderson, 1986; Dutton & Painter, 1981; Dutton & Painter, 1993; Loring, 1994; NiCarthy, 1982, 1986; Romero, 1985). Behaviors regarded as psychologically and/or emotionally abusive include, but are not limited to: 

Yelling Doing something to spite one's partner
Insulting the partner Withholding resources such as money
Swearing at one's partner or calling him or her names Refusing to share in housework or childcare
Belittling or ridiculing the partner; insulting the partner Restricting the partner's usage of the telephone and/or car
Belittling or berating one's partner in front of other people Not allowing one's partner to leave the home alone
Putting down the partner's physical appearance or intellect Telling one's partner his or her feelings are irrational or crazy
Saying things to upset or frighten one's partner; acting indifferently to one's partner's feelings Turning other people against one's partner
Making one's partner do humiliating or demeaning things Blaming the partner for one's problems and/or one's violent behavior
Demanding obedience to whims Preventing the partner from working or attending school
Ordering the partner around/treating him or her like a servant Preventing the partner from socializing with friends and/or seeing his or her family
Becoming angry when chores are not done when wanted or as wanted Preventing the partner from seeking medical care or other types of help
Acting jealous and suspicious of the partner's friends and social contacts Throwing objects (but not at the partner)
Putting down one's partner's friends and/or family Hitting or kicking a wall, furniture, doors, etc.
Monitoring the partner's time and whereabouts Shaking a finger or fist at one's partner
Monitoring one’s partner’s telephone calls or e-mail contact Making threatening gestures or faces
Stomping out of a room during an argument or heated discussion Threatening to destroy or destroying personal property belonging to one's partner
Sulking and refusing to talk about an issue Threatening to use physical or sexual aggression against one's partner
Making decisions that affect both people or the family without consulting one's partner or without reaching agreement with one's partner Driving dangerously while one's partner is in the car as a conscious intentional act to scare or intimidate
Withholding affection Using the partner's children to threaten them (e.g., threatening to kidnap)
Threatening to leave the relationship Threatening violence against the partner's children, family, friends, or pets

(These examples are based on items from various instruments used to measure emotional aggression in romantic and family dyads including those by Follingstad et al., 1990; Hudson & McIntosh, 1981; Marshall, 1992a, 1992b; NiCarthy, 1982, 1986; Pan, Neidig, & O'Leary, 1994; Shepard & Campbell, 1992; Stets, 1991; Straus, 1979; Straus & Gelles, 1986; Straus, Hamby, Boney-McCoy & Sugarman, 1996; Tolman, 1989).

Economic Abuse. This could be considered a subcategory of emotional abuse since it serves many of the same functions as emotional abuse and has some of the same emotional effects on victims. However, it can be distinguished by its focus on preventing victims from possessing or maintaining any type of financial self-sufficiency or resources and enforcing material dependence of the victim on the abusive partner (that is, this behavior is intended to make the victim entirely dependent on the abusive partner to supply basic material needs like food, clothing, and shelter or to supply the means to obtain them). The desire to isolate the victim from other people can be one of the motives for economic abuse as well, however (See Social Isolation category below). Behaviors that could lead to the material dependence of a victim of abuse on her (or his) abuser (some of which are already listed under the larger Emotional Abuse category) include but are not limited to, when the abusive party:

Makes monetary or investment decisions to which the partner might object that affect both people and/or the family without consulting the partner or without reaching agreement with the partner Restricts the partner's usage of the family car or other means of transportation.  Does not allow the partner to leave the home alone
Withholds resources such as money or spends a large share of the family budget on him- or herself leaving little money leftover for purchase of food and payment of bills Prevents or forbids the partner from working or attending school or skills training sessions
Refuses to share in housework or childcare responsibilities so the partner can work Interferes with work performance through harassing and monitoring activities like frequent telephone calls or visits to the workplace (in the hopes of getting the partner fired, for example).

Social Isolation. This also could be considered a subcategory of emotional abuse since it serves many of the same functions as emotional abuse. It can be distinguished by its focus on interfering with and destroying or impairing the victim's support network and making the victim entirely or largely dependent on the abusive partner for information, social interaction, and satisfying emotional needs. Socially isolating the victim increases the abuser's power over the victim, but it also protects the abuser. If the victim does not have contact with other people the perpetrator will not be as likely to have to deal with legal or social consequences for his behavior and the victim will not be as likely to get help, including help that may lead to an end to the relationship. Abusive behaviors that could lead to the social isolation of a victim of abuse (some of which were already listed under the larger Emotional Abuse category above) include:

Acting jealous and suspicious of the partner's friends and social contacts; Acting in ways that are aimed at turning other people against the partner
Putting down the partner's friends and/or family Preventing the partner from socializing with friends and/or seeing his or her family
Monitoring the partner's time and whereabouts Preventing the partner from seeking medical care or other types of help; threatening the lives or well-being of others with whom the partner might have contact.
Restricting the partner's usage of the telephone and/or car; not allowing the partner to leave the home alone  
Preventing the partner from working or attending school  

Physical Abuse (also called physical aggression or abuse; intimate partner violence or abuse; conjugal, domestic, spousal, or dating or courtship violence or abuse). Physical aggression in the context of intimate relationships has been defined as "an act carried out with the intention, or perceived intention, of causing physical pain or injury to another person" (Straus & Gelles, 1986). This is behavior that is intended, at minimum, to cause temporary physical pain to the victim, and includes relatively "minor" acts like slapping with an open hand and severe acts of violence that lead to injury and/or death. It may occur just once or sporadically and infrequently in a relationship, but in many relationships it is repetitive and chronic, and it escalates in frequency and severity over time.

Physical abuse includes, but is not limited to:
Spitting on Cutting; scalding or burning
Slapping or hitting with an open hand Forcing a person out of a moving vehicle
Spanking (non-playfully) Holding down or tying up the partner to restrain the partner against his or her will
Scratching Locking a partner in a room, closet, or other enclosed space
Pushing; shoving; grabbing Choking or strangling
Arm twisting or bending Beating up
Hair pulling Attempting to drown
Hitting or punching with a fist Threatening with a weapon
Throwing objects at the partner Attempting to use a weapon against a partner
Hitting with hard or sharp objects Actually using a weapon against a partner
Kicking; biting (non-playfully)  
Throwing or body slamming the partner against objects, walls, floors, vehicles, onto the ground, etc.  
Pushing or shoving or dragging a partner down stairs or off any raised platform or height  

(These examples are based on items from various instruments used to measure physical aggression in family dyads and on research on domestic and dating violence, including Gondolf, 1988; Gray & Foshee, 1997; Hudson & McIntosh, 1981; Makepeace, 1986; Marshall, 1992a, 1992b; Pan, Neidig, & O'Leary, 1994; Shepard & Campbell, 1992; Straus, 1979; Straus & Gelles, 1986; Straus, Hamby, Boney-McCoy, & Sugarman, 1996; Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000).

Sexual Abuse. (This category includes marital rape and rape by a dating or cohabiting partner. NOTE: The behaviors listed in this category also can be directed toward people other than romantic partners and would fall under broader definitions of sexual assault, incest, and rape as well. For more information on this topic, click here to view the Rape and Sexual Assault Overview article by Dean Kilpatrick or here to view Mary Koss’s article on Rape Prevalence, or see Patricia Mahoney’s article on Marital Rape or articles by Kim Slote and Carrie Cuthbert on intimate partner sexual assault across cultures in the International Perspectives section of this web site) Sexual abuse includes behaviors that fall under legal definitions of rape, plus physical assaults to the sexual parts of a person's body, and making sexual demands with which one's partner is uncomfortable (Marshall, 1992a; Shepard & Campbell, 1992). It also had been defined as including ". . . sex without consent, sexual assault, rape, sexual control of reproductive rights, and all forms of sexual manipulation carried out by the perpetrator with the intention or perceived intention to cause emotional, sexual, and physical degradation to another person" (Abraham, 1999, p. 592).

Sexual abuse includes, but is not limited to:
Demanding sex when one's partner is unwilling Physical attacks against the sexual parts of the partner's body
Demanding or coercing the partner to engage in sexual activities with which the partner is uncomfortable Interference with birth control
Coerced penile penetration of any kind (oral, vaginal, or anal) Insistence on risky sexual practices (such as refusal to use a condom when a sexually transmitted disease is a known or suspected risk)
Physically coerced sexual acts of any kind (e.g., through threats with or use of weapons or threats or use of other means of inflicting bodily harm) Forced or coerced participation in pornography
Using an object or fingers on one's partner in a sexual way against his or her will Forced or coerced sexual activity in the presence of others, including children
Use of alcohol or drugs on one's partner to obtain sex when the partner was (and/or would be) unwilling Forced or coerced prostitution or non-consensual sexual activity with people other than and/or in addition to the partner
  Forced or coerced sex with animals
  Forced or coerced participation in bondage or other sadomasochistic activities

(These examples are based on items from various instruments used to measure sexual aggression in romantic dyads and on research on rape, sexual abuse and sexual abuse in marriage, including Koss & Gidycz, 1985; Koss & Oros, 1982; Marshall, 1992a, 1992b; Molina & Basinait-Smith, 1998; Pan, Neidig, & O'Leary,1994; Shepard & Campbell, 1992; Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000; Walker, 1984; Wingood & DiClimente, 1997).

Stalking. (also known clinically as obsessional following. This type of behavior also can be directed toward people with whom the perpetrator has not been romantically involved and can involve motives other than sexual or "amorous" ones -- notably anger, hostility, paranoia, and delusion. See Mindy Mechanic’s article on Stalking [Link] for additional information on this problem). Stalking has been defined variously as: ". . .knowingly and repeatedly following, harassing, or threatening. . . [another person]" (Fremouw, Westrup, & Pennypacker, 1997, p. 667); "unsolicited and unwelcome behavior [that is] initiated by the defendant against the complainant, [that is] at minimum alarming, annoying, or harassing, [and that involves] two or more incidents of such behavior. . ." (Harmon, Rosner, & Owens, 1998, p. 240); ". . . a course of conduct directed at a specific person that involves repeated visual or physical proximity; nonconsensual communication; verbal, written, or implied threats; or a combination thereof that would cause fear in a reasonable person (with repeated meaning on two or more occasions)" (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000); and "the willful, malicious, and repeated following and harassing of another person that threatens his or her safety" and "an abnormal or long term pattern of threat and harassment directed toward a specific individual" (Meloy & Gothard, 1995, pp. 258 & 259).

As a form of intimate partner abuse, stalking is frequently associated with separation or the end of a romantic relationship. However, some of the behaviors classified under the emotional abuse, economic abuse, and social isolation categories listed above that occur in both intact and ended relationships qualify as stalking behaviors as well. Walker and Meloy (1998) have suggested that, with regard to intact intimate romantic relationships, stalking is an "extreme form of typical behavior between a couple [that has escalated to the point of] monitoring, surveillance, and overpossessiveness, and [that] induces fear" (p. 140). Results from the National Violence Against Women Survey (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998) indicate that many women who are stalked by intimate partners (36%) are stalked by their partners both during and after their relationships end.

Stalking includes, but is not limited to, behaviors such as:
Secretly following and/or spying on the partner Appearing in places the partner frequents and waiting for the partner to catch a glimpse of him or her
Hiring someone else to follow or spy on the partner Threatening to damage or destroy the partner's personal property
Verbally threatening the partner (implicitly or explicitly) through telephone calls or messages on telephone answering machines, written or electronic correspondence, or in person Damaging or destroying the partner's personal property
Sending cards, letters, gifts or other packages, etc. to the partner's home or office or leaving such things at the partner's home, office or on or in the partner’s vehicle inappropriately (i.e., inappropriately given the status of the relationship) Stealing from the partner
  Accosting the partner or someone close to the partner

How to Keep Someone From Belittling You
There's nothing worse than to be put down and belittled by someone. It's even worse to not have a comeback remark ready for launch. It's hard to understand why someone would think it's ok to make someone else feel small and worthless but there are ways to arm yourself to counteract and protect yourself from this kind of ugly behavior.
  1. Know that you're worth something and put the belittling comment in perspective. Look at where the remark is coming from and consider that the person belittling you has more problems than you do and is probably pretty insecure and feeling inferior themselves.
  2. Work on your confidence and always remain calm when someone is trying to put you down. If you can't think of a good comeback, follow President Abraham Lincoln's advice when he stated, "It's better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."
  3. If someone is belittling you, you don't owe them anything. You don't need to explain yourself, defend yourself, or waste your precious time interacting with them. You can simply walk away from a person trying to belittle you. If you can't think of a quick way to defend yourself with a good comeback remark, then walk away.
  4. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." She was absolutely right. Only you can allow someone to make you feel inferior and worthless. Who are they to decide you aren't worth anything? You are putting way too much importance on what they think which they certainly don't deserve. You decide who's opinions are worthy enough for you to consider.
  5. Surround yourself with people who are positive and uplift you, not put you down. Life is short, so don't waste a minute of it around people who belittle you. Who Belittle Others Are Only Belittling Themselves
We all know someone with very low self-esteem.  It may not be as apparent as the person that dines alone, or the one that slinks away in a corner at the office functions.  The average person with low self-esteem is the one that is loud, outgoing and comedic.  That person needs attention, is seeking self-gratification and they are trying to find their own value in comparison to that of someone else.  This is a general description of a person with low self-esteem. Not everyone who happens to be outgoing and extroverted have low self-esteem.

How do you know the difference? In all simplicity, low self-esteem is evident in the person that belittles.  That person uses belittling others to make him or herself feel good about themselves.  Negativity is apparent in all of their thoughts and actions.  The infestation of negativity exists and becomes who that person is.  This person may be a hurting person, one that was belittled as a child, one that is not the most attractive or one that is in or has been in a controlling relationship where they are not or were not allowed to make decisions or to experience personal growth.  The use of belittling is a device that has been conjured up to help this person replenish, restore, and inflate their ego.

To belittle is not a thought, it is an automatic reaction. The belittler cannot see the positive in a person.  They look for the negative aspects and weaknesses of others.  Their primary goal is to accentuate the flaws of a person.  In doing so, they feel that this makes them look better.  In doing so they have temporary self-gratification and pleasure.

It is interesting to note that a person who belittles is usually aware of their wit and will employ it as a tactic at the appropriate times to accomplish what they desire.  When provoked, the belittling feature is engaged and deployed to destroy and hurt the provoker.  The attack can cover a multitude of things from disparaging remarks about a person’s physical characteristics to racism, sexism, and socialism, just to name a few.

Not many people who practice belittling go without consequences to their behavior.  They miss out on the positive aspects of life.  Because they try their hardest to flaunt the negative characteristics of others, the opposite reaction occurs.  Instead of the focus being on the person that they are attacking, the focus turns to the belittler and the focus is a negative focus.  They appear to others as mean and unkind.  They now carry a “callous” and “uncaring” sign that they have chosen to wear and that all will read. That Will Improve Marriage
Happily ever after is not a fairy tale. There are couples that have been married happily for years. So what keeps these marriages going strong until death? I don’t believe it is just one factor that keeps couples together forever. I think it is several contributing factors all rolled into one that work together and here they are.


  1. Commitment
    The most important and number one element for making marriage work is commitment. There is no doubt in my mind that being fully devoted to your marriage is a significant factor in its longevity. Couples that are committed are more apt to work through their differences and find compromising solutions. They are more aware of the blessings that marriage can bring and I believe because of their commitment they are more tolerant of each other’s flaws. Couples who are committed tend to accept each other for who they are rather than try and change one another.
  2. Respect
    The second most important factor contributing to a healthy, fruitful, and abundant marriage is respect for each other’s position in the home. For an example, I respect my husband and his position. I surrender to him in those particular areas where I should because I respect his judgment and guidance. I realize this is how he shows his love for his family. I have full confidence in my husband that he will lead his family in the way he should under the direction of Jesus Christ.

    My husband respects my position. If my husband did not respect me, he wouldn’t care what I did with my life; therefore he would not be protecting me the way he is supposed to according to God. This is how spiritual headship in marriage works. We have to allow our husbands to be the masculine influence in the home, because that is what works! I have three teenage sons and I want their dad to be the man around our home. What kind of an influence would we be showing our three sons, if their dad cringed with fear, while I constantly bossed him and belittled him?

    I have done my research, a domineering and bossy wife and mother is not good for a young boys growing up years. It challenges their identity and later when they are older, they think they have failed as young men and they get ideas that are not of God. A man’s position of spiritual influence and authority in the home is how he shows his undying love for his wife and family. That is the way a man can truly show his love, so let him do it!

    I am fortunate enough to not have to go out of the home to work because my daily responsibilities are in the home. From home schooling two of my sons to cooking meals, from cleaning our home to gardening, from writing projects to updating our marriage ministry, and taking care of everything in between, I can honestly say my life and marriage is fully blessed.

    What would happen if my husband belittled my cooking, or chastised me about the way I cleaned the home, or didn’t like how I expressed myself on paper? I would not be blessed anymore because my self worth would be getting attacked. A man should never treat his wife this way! A husband who treats his wife in this manner won’t have a very happy marriage.

    In the same way, what if I scoffed at my husband’s judgment and guidance over his family? Now that wouldn’t be good, would it? Or what if I constantly berated him about the way he dresses or disciplines the children? Wouldn’t that be disrespectful? Of course it would. These kinds of attitudes will literally tear a person down and it will eventually break the marriage apart!
  3. Submission
    So with that said, my last contributing factor for a happily ever after marriage is acceptance of each other, which is actually another form of submission. When we allow each to do what each does best we are actually submitting to each other, which is scriptural. Be loving and tolerant of each other is what God wants us to do.

    Husband’s, pay attention and watch how you treat your wife. Be gentle with her, always grateful that God blessed you with the woman you married. She needs your support and love everyday. Make time for her. If there is something special you would like for dinner, let her know, but don’t put down her cooking, or belittle her calling with the Lord. Let her be.

    Wife’s, pay attention and watch how you treat your husband. Surrender to his influential position that God gave him and let him “be” the man of his home. Remember when a man protects you from harm, and tells you what is best for you, it probably is not selfish control, but his way of showing how much he loves you. Don’t belittle him with harsh words of criticism or treat him like one of the children. A husbands calling is to love his family, so let him do that, and your marriage will be happily forever after.

Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at  MetroSexual LA

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