This Is What Emotional Abuse Looks Like, And You Deserve Better

by Kris Gage
Originally Published: 
Sad and emotionally abused woman leaning her hand on her cheek in black and white
Tharakorn / Getty Images

You deserve better than emotional abuse.

We hear this in the abstract, but we don’t always know how abuse looks.

We have incredibly bad models for relationships. Some of our parents and grandparents fucked it up, and media  —  especially sitcoms, but also comedies — definitely fuck it up. We see couples who are outright dicks to each other, and we think it’s okay. It’s fucking not.

But you deserve better than name-calling and aggression.

Here’s the story of “the only guy I’ve ever kicked out of the bar.” Otherwise known as “the guy who berated his girlfriend for ordering a drink.”

On a particularly busy night, a real shit show of a Saturday with tons of people rolling in already drunk, this group bellies up to the bar. The first dude has got his forearms on the counter like he owns it, but when I ask if he needs anything, he shakes his head “no.”

No problem. I move on, and one of the girls orders a round, which for some reason, infuriates the first dude. “Really?!” He shouts toward her. She stares at him, then nods. I go get the drinks.

When I get back, he’s still at it, now repeatedly yelling “Really? Really?!” at her in that way only the drunk abuser does.

Note: It is always a “drunk abuser” and never an “abusive drunk.” There’s no such thing as an “abusive drunk,” only the drunk abuser. If someone is abusive “only when they drink,” that person is abusive.

He steps it up a notch, shouting: “Go for it, then! Line ‘em up, motherfucker!”

I turn to face him.

Note: Guys, name-calling is never, ever okay. Not in private, and not in public. Not over something serious, and definitely not over ordering a fucking round of drinks. Even if she had literally fucked his actual mother, this scene still would not have been appropriate.

I look at him for signs of humor and see none. I glance at her. Not only is she not laughing, but she is obviously about to cry. The two or three other friends are watching him in stunned silence. She continues to stand there, the drinks untouched, which only prompts him to escalate: “Drink those, motherfucker!”

At this point, I storm out from around the bar and over to him, getting up in his personal space, all but grabbing him by his collar and physically dragging his ass out back. I will go so hard on this asshole.

“That’s enough!” I tell him. “This is not okay, all right?! Either stop, or get the fuck out.”

He stops  —  only long enough to leave, still broody and pissed.

She tabs out, and when I hand her her check, I lean in and say, “Hey, you don’t deserve that. I know it isn’t my place to say, but no matter what happened tonight, you deserve better.”

You deserve better than thinking you deserve this.

An abuser needs your subscription for abuse to work. They need you to believe that you deserve it . Otherwise, you would leave. They’ll play every trick in the book to convince you that it’s you  —  not them  —  who fucked up. If you respond to an emotional play, they’ll get “woe is me” victim on you. If they can intimidate you into it, they will. If they can hold your home or their heart over your head, they will.

They will convince you you deserve this.

But the reality is, even if what they’re saying is true, you deserve a partner who can act and communicate like an adult, who can approach conflict maturely and constructively, leaving your sense of dignity intact. There is absolutely no need to break someone down in order to say to them, “I don’t like what you’re doing,” or “You’re hurting my feelings,” or “I don’t want to drink any more,” or whatever the fuck.

You deserve better than having to rationalize and excuse their behavior.

When we’re in those situations, we don’t see them for what they are. Even if someone else tells us “you deserve better,” part of us is looking away and thinking, “He really is a nice guy,” or “It’s not that bad,” or “It’s only when he drinks,” or “He takes care of so much,” or whatever the fuck.

And the reality is that none of that matters. You can have anything you just listed and still have a partner who isn’t abusive.

You deserve better than having to hang your heart on a few good characteristics.

Here’s something it took me a long time to realize:

An abuser is ALWAYS nice on occasion . They HAVE to be, otherwise you would leave.

Abusers know they have to throw you the occasional bone for you to go on believing “I know they love me” or stir the fire of “But I love them!” They want you hungry and starved for those few gestures of kindness they occasionally show you. They want you hanging on their sporadic nice words, invested in the infrequent displays of love they extend.

And most importantly, they offer kindness as a reward or when they’re “happy with you.” They want you to earn their kindness and have to operate with the understanding that it’s not guaranteed.

You deserve better than having to earn kindness.

Kindness should be the default, not the reward, in a relationship. Compassion and understanding and patience and respectful communication should be the standard.

You deserve better than compromising on basic human decency.

If your partner speaks to strangers with more consideration and compassion than they speak to you, something is incredibly fucked.

Your partner, of all people, should extend basic human decency in the way they enter and exist in your life. Always  —  not when they’re in a good mood, not when they’re having a good day, not just until you fuck up or they’re pissed (or hurt or whatever the fuck), not just something . Fucking always.

You deserve better than any kind of abuse.

In Kay Leigh Hagan’s autobiographical essay A Good Man Is Hard to Bash,” she tells the story of asking her friend “how much” abuse is okay to accept from her emotionally abusive partner.

The friend looks her directly in the eye and tells her:

Kay, in a loving relationship, abuse in unacceptable. You should not have to tolerate any abuse to be loved.


You deserve better than thinking abuse can ever coexist with love.

Let me be very clear: Abuse can never coexist with love. The two literally cannot exist together, if love is genuine.

“Abuse and neglect negate love. Care and affirmation, the opposite of abuse and humiliation, are the foundation of love. No one can rightfully claim to be loving when behaving abusively.” bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions

Take that a step further: No one can claim to be loving when they are abusive.

You deserve better than thinking that they’ll change.

I may have told that guy to “stop or get the fuck out,” and he may cooled off long enough to leave, but people like this never really stop. They only stop long enough to change scenes, or reel you back in, or brood. They never stop deep inside, for good.

You deserve to get the fuck out.

Or better, tell them to get the fuck out. But either way.

You deserve love.

And abuse is never love. Emotional warfare is never love. Manipulation and aggression and name-calling and public berating and any other shitty behavior is never, ever love.

You deserve kindness. You deserve consideration. You deserve basic human decency. These are bare fucking minimums.

And you also deserve love.

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