Emotional abuse is pervasive, insidious, and it’s dangerous. 1 in 5 women and 1 in 8 men will experience emotional abuse in their life. Emotional abuse takes many forms, but what it doesn’t do is scream from the rooftops that it is abuse. The abuser prefers things to be hidden and covert, which is perfect for their often double life.
Abuse is about power and control. Emotional abuse is no different. So long as there is a power differential in your relationship, you will not be equal. More than that, all of this behaviour is confusing. And that’s what keeps you stuck.
Unpredictable behaviour causes you to respond — and that is the feeling of walking on eggshells. You find yourself treading lightly through simmering tension caused by your partner’s unpredictable emotions.
Here’s why walking on eggshells is more than just a feeling; it is a response to purposeful acts of power and control— and why those acts are so dangerous.
Make no mistake, creating tension that leads to walking on eggshells is an abusive tactic. We are not just talking about a trivial personality trait; this is a targeted behaviour aimed at coercive control. The goal here is to have others do what the abuser wants them to do, to be submissive and controlled.
Coercive control aims at keeping you in your place, and it works. Sure enough, find yourself tiptoeing around the house avoiding the outburst – and these outbursts are often your fault.
Walking on eggshells doesn’t occur in isolation. Chances are other behaviours sit nicely alongside this, aimed at control — the silent treatment, name-calling, gaslighting, blame – the whole gamut.
Unpredictable behaviour is scary, intimidating, and often provokes anxiety. This is the aim of the game. Erratic and explosive behaviour aims at ‘power-over’ you while controlling you with fear. This is where that tip-toeing and walking on eggshells feeling comes from.
You try your best to avoid a flare-up, but the reality is you can’t control this as much as you try.
It’s Repetitive. Things Will Never Change
Change comes with taking ownership of problems and wanting outcomes to be different. The danger with emotional abusers is that they:
- Often blame others for their behaviour
- Don’t actually want to change because that makes them feel less in control
- Don’t see there is a problem in the first place
People with emotional dysregulation often blame others for their outbursts. You are the one who causes the problems; you are the scapegoat for poor behaviour.
Scapegoating demonstrates a lack of insight and intention to deflect responsibility, confuse, and hold others accountable for their behaviour. All of this is harmful and toxic.
Let’s not confuse the unwillingness to change with the ability to change
People can absolutely change, but only if they take responsibility and WANT to change. So long as there is no desire to change, this behaviour continues, leaving you to pick up the pieces each and every time.
Denial of any problem will not allow for change. There is no room for growth when there is a failure to acknowledge there is an issue. Self-awareness is lacking — whether conscious or purposeful — and this will never allow intervention or change. The behaviour will keep on coming!
It’s Damaging Your Mental Health
When a negative mood dictates the home, you fear the reactions. These reactions are disproportionate to the situation. This unstable home environment creates challenges for your mental health as you struggle to cope and stay on top of the outbursts.
Your mental health will suffer, your anxiety and panic attacks will increase, and your depression will worsen. You may struggle to regulate your own emotions having a limited capacity to cope and manage stress. Your hypervigilance leaves you constantly feeling on edge and confused, and on guard. There are no predictable reactions, so you are in a constant state of being on guard and being self-protective.
You are being controlled with fear of the unknown. This fear creates anxiety as you wait and wonder if things will erupt. Because your partner has poor emotional regulation, it is only a matter of time until it does.
You are told you are too sensitive, you always stress too much, that their behaviour is “nothing” and you are overreacting
The abuser will minimise their actions and create doubt. You are told you are the one with the problem, and soon you begin to believe it. Their abusive behaviour slowly chipping away at your mental health, coping, and resilience.
You Have Changed Yourself For That Person
If you stay in the relationship, it is you who must change. To survive, you must adapt to the situation. You become passive and agreeable over time because this is safer. Starting to agree with the abuser and you do not speak your mind because this risks increasing the behaviour.
You may overcompensate to try and elevate the mood of the house by being overly happy and cherry. This is a fruitless attempt to shift the person’s mood or prevent an eruption.
You will want to know what is happening, trying to predict the unpredictable. You find yourself continually scanning and checking in on your partner’s mood.
Soon, you will become subservient not to add fuel to the fire. You change your behaviour to mitigate the fact the person has no control over theirs. You take on board the responsibility for keeping the peace.
Arguments that can be resolved quickly can carry on for days or even weeks. After waiting and hoping things will change, it is you who waves the white flag, apologises, and makes attempts to return to some calm.
Where To From Here?
Despite your good intentions, know you cannot change this behaviour with extra love. You cannot love away from the abuse; it just doesn’t work like that for those who choose to abuse others.
And abuse is a choice.
If you are worried about the dynamic of your relationship, know that this behaviour is not ok, and it’s not your fault.
- Seek support from people you trust — family, friends, professional support services.
- Know that this behaviour is pervasive, and the person needs help to change and manage their anger.
- That healthy relationships do not involve power and control.
- Know you cannot change someone else’s behaviour. If you stay in the relationship, you risk changing yourself.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
Statistics are obtained from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and are based on domestic and family violence in Australia.