Tactic #6 — Emotional Unkindness & Violation of Trust

This is the sixth of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel – Emotional unkindness & violation of trust.

What is emotional unkindness?

Emotional unkindness entails DOING something unkind and the ABSENCE of, or FAILURE to do something kind.

Emotional unkindness is a failure to provide for emotional needs such as encouragement, understanding, respect and compassion. It includes ignoring you when you start a conversation, showing you none or very little attention and no empathy. It entails rejection, silent treatment and withdrawing. Emotional unkindness entails an absence of concern or care at times when you would most expect it – such as when you’re sick, in hospital, recovering from giving birth to a baby, or when you’re worn out and need a break.

Emotional unkindness also includes refusing to share responsibility for your children’s care and development, threatening to abandon you if he doesn’t get his way, making it emotionally difficult if you want to leave the house or leave the relationship, complaining whenever you ask for any kind of support, or making promises but not keeping them, saying ‘yes’ to doing something then ‘forgetting’, or it entails helping but with conditions attached.

When emotional kindness is turned on its head into an abusive manipulative tactic the result is a violation of trust.

Anyone can be emotionally unkind on occasion whether it’s done ignorantly or purposefully. There isn’t really a problem to write about if the unkind person takes responsibility for their behaviours and makes valid attempts to change. But the problem I’m addressing here is quite different – it’s about when an intimate partner withholds love, care, concern, attention and encouragement – on an ongoing regular basis.

Red flags that there’s a major problem become glaringly obvious when:

  • all your attempts at getting your partner to take responsibility for his unkind neglectful behaviours fall on deaf ears
  • he denies that he’s done anything harmful
  • he minimises your experience
  • he turns the situation about face and blames you

If this is the case, you need to listen to your gut instinct, admit to yourself that what you are experiencing is what you are experiencing! Otherwise you’re in danger of making one excuse after another for your partner’s emotional unkindness and violation of trust. You’re in danger of staying in a relationship in which his behaviours get worse and worse over time, and the long-term effects on you will get worse and worse. Stories from thousands of women show this to be true.

Here are some experiences that women shared with me during interviews I conducted for my Masters research.

Acts like she doesn’t matter

Pauline said, “I actually have a tattoo on my hand which Chris never knew I had. Not only did he really not take a good look at me, he never really acknowledged or thought, I actually had a personality and emotional side. It was just like he would look at me and see the word ‘wife’. In all those years of knowing me, he never knew me, so the true me was never shown. And because I didn’t express myself as I would today, speaking up, also he never really took the time to find out.”

Teresa’s partner, Patrick acted like she didn’t matter by showing “indifference if he was cross with me and be really cold and hard. He’d be indifferent to everything and ignore what I said and not show any sign at all that he’d heard anything I’d said or done for him. I’d increase my efforts to be nice and to do the right thing so that he’d notice me again and be nice to me, and I’d be back in his good books.”

Donna said, “I lost so much of myself, my freedom, everything, but I poured it back into the garden and even that got destroyed. I wasn’t even allowed to be upset because the pigs destroyed my gardens. That was just me being a bitch wife.” In response, Donna said she “Just quietly died inside. You didn’t respond to Frank, whatever he said happened. However he wanted it to be, that’s how it was, what I thought didn’t count.”

Donna talked about tending to her garden as her passion and solace from abuse. But when she got sick, although Frank could easily afford to hire a gardener he refused to and he also begrudged her the money to water her plants. She said, “When I got too sick to garden the whole garden turned into a jungle and so for about the last 12 months before I left, I didn’t used to go out to that part of the house anymore coz it just used to break my heart seeing all my years of beautiful work turned into a jungle and nobody cared, it didn’t matter but it mattered to me.”

Shows no empathy

Elsie said Leon, “had no empathy for my feelings, it didn’t matter at all.”

Teresa said, “I’d try and increase his level of empathy when there wasn’t any, when there was that indifference by trying to explain things in a different way, or do things differently or, to try and get a response from him but it didn’t make any difference so I just tried harder.”

On the other hand Raewyn responded to Brian’s lack of empathy by putting her focus into the children. She said, “I was just so happy with my children I didn’t need him any more. I used to just forget that he gave very little, touched very little.”

Gives then takes it away

Pauline said, “Chris did up a car with a mate and he gave it to me for Christmas. Well I didn’t have my licence. He sold it the following February (laugh). So I never got to drive my car. He did it up and it was all a big show, like, ‘I got my wife a car for Christmas’. It wasn’t until after I had my second child I got my licence. . . I look back and think things were just given and taken. Things were slowly taken away and I didn’t think a lot about it.”

Acts cruelly, then says she is too sensitive and cannot take a joke

Teresa said, “Once, I’d been out and I had stayed at a friend’s for tea and had got back later than he thought and he was cross about it and I apologised and tried to smooth things over. And it’s the nastiest thing anyone has ever done to me – he said and I thought it was okay – and he came out of the kitchen and he said ‘Would you like me to make you a cup of tea, would you like a cup of tea?’ and I said ‘That would be really nice, thank you darling.’ He went out to the kitchen and the jug boiled and he came back in with a cup and I was sitting on the couch and he got right up to me, then he went like that (acted out throwing a cup of tea in my face) and it was an empty cup and he planned it as a trick and it was just awful, it was just pre-meditated nastiness. And he was like, ‘It was just a joke, you’ve got no sense of humour, you can’t take a joke.’ But it was horrible and he used to do that sort thing.”

Makes promises but doesn’t carry them out

Teresa said Patrick would agree with something she wanted, “and then he just wouldn’t do anything. Little things, he was prepared to pay attention to, little wants, needs and wishes but big ones he’d just disregard, it was as if you hadn’t said anything at all.” I’d tried and there was nothing else I could do … sometimes I’d have one more try in saying something or doing something but it wouldn’t make any difference, so it was just the way it was.”

Susan spent most of her days crying because of the things Anthony had done. She said, “He didn’t run me down. I think it’s the things he did that didn’t bring me up. If I asked him to do something, it would never get done. If I said ‘Can we go somewhere?’ we’d never go. He didn’t do anything to build my self esteem. I thought for a long time he was easy going coz I didn’t have to cook him a good meal every night. He was quite happy with hamburgers, baked beans on toast or toasted sandwiches. I felt that’s really really nice coz there are people who won’t accept takeaways. If I didn’t clean up the house he didn’t tell me I was messy. He definitely neglected my emotional side.”

Withholds care, respect, approval, affection and support

Victoria said Graham “never really seemed to give a horse’s patoot that I may be upset about something. I tried not to think about it. I just got on with it. Life doesn’t become about trying to resolve anything, life becomes about surviving it. So you don’t try to actively do anything about anything because that just tells you there’s a problem, you don’t need to think about that right now, you just need to survive. If it’s going to cause you distress and upset the house, don’t bother, just survive it. And survive’s usually done by avoiding.”

Raewyn said, “I don’t think I ever heard Brian once say he loved me. He didn’t touch me a lot, he didn’t cuddle me a lot, in fact hardly ever. When we made up we might have had a cuddle, that was usually me initiating it. He would come home from work say and just get his book out, sit at the table and read. And that used to piss me off, because the children would be there and he’d just ignore them. There was that neglect as well where he would just do his own thing. He’d do his own thing all the time, his art, fishing, bike racing, so really there was very little attention given to me, very little. The only time was when he wanted sex then he’d be a little bit nice to me have sex and then that would be it and he wouldn’t be nice to me again until he wanted sex.” As a result, Raewyn said she, “learnt pretty quickly not have any wants, needs and wishes. I expected nothing from him pretty quickly in the marriage, oh except the money.”

Helps other people but not her

Karen said, “I couldn’t understand that if we broke a window in the house and I’d say, ‘hey could you fix the window?’ that Felix would get his back up and if he had been thinking about fixing the window that afternoon it would be completely out of the question now because I’d asked him to do it. What he would do would be he’d get his window making equipment and he’d go around the whanau (family) and ask if anybody needed any bloody windows fixing. Go and fix an entire community’s windows, and come home and look at me and say, ‘so there!’ I couldn’t understand it (laughter).”

Karen went on to say that Felix, “was so much more caring and tolerant and understanding of people other than of me. There was another solo mother and he’d say to her, ‘You’re looking tired, I’ll make you a cup of tea, have you had a break? Perhaps we can organise it so you can have a spa’. He’d be really caring to people outside of the home. I wanted him to listen to me and hear me. Saying, ‘I don’t want you to brush me off like that’, saying, ‘I’m here, I’m a person, the children are here, they’re real, there is a bond here, there is responsibility here, please be aware of it because you can’t just brush it away. I want you to offer me some support, because at the moment you’re taxing me more than you’re supporting me.’”

Donna said Frank, “would kill a beast and he’d have steak for breakfast and steak for lunch and steak for tea, give his friends steak because he was a great ‘I am’ and he was God in their world. My boys were only allowed to eat the mince and the sausages so they had to do the work on the farm and then he started ripping them off. They weren’t allowed to eat steaks.”

Ignores her need for assistance when she’s tired, overworked, or sick

Pauline said, “After my fifth baby I had a cancerous lump on my arm and I was breastfeeding her and once they found what it was, I had to go in straight away and have surgery. The operation to get this lump out was quite long so they did a big cut, and I’m all bandaged up and they said, ‘You won’t be able to use your arm for a few weeks, don’t go lifting or anything.’ I had this young baby, she was about three months old, and I thought, ‘how am I going to lift her out of her cot and feed her and change her and bath her?’ And my husband came and got me, I had the surgery and went home. All my children were at home and he went out. I sat down on the couch, he handed me my daughter and I started breastfeeding her and he said, ‘Well I’m off.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ I was still under anaesthetic and we had stairs in the house.I remember not arguing but saying, ‘What? No, you can’t go out.’ But he went anyway.”

Sally said that in the last year of her relationship with Dylan when “my back was so sore and my health was so bad with these constant viruses, I felt desperate for help. I knew that Dylan wouldn’t let me. I just felt this intense rage inside of me because I was so sick, so I just phoned and made an appointment with a chiropractor. I knew Dylan wouldn’t let me spend the money on my health so I went behind his back and made the appointment and went anyway.”

Susan said, “When I was sick Anthony went off for the weekend with his family. I was so sick, I couldn’t even get out of bed. I only had our first child. I was grossly sick. I said, ‘Why don’t you please stay at home?’ ‘No, see ya.’ And he was gone. That’s what he was like and he’s always been like that. He didn’t care how I felt. Generally I cried about it.”

Susan went on to say that, “When I had our first child, I was really upset because I didn’t feel I had any security at all. It was an emergency birth. Anthony wouldn’t come to the hospital. He was out drinking with his mates. When I had her, he wouldn’t take any time off work to pick me up from hospital. My mum did it.”

Possessive jealousy used as excuse for deliberate emotional unkindness

Karen said Felix’s “jealousy started really really soon after I met him if I met somebody, gave them a peck on the cheek, all hell would break loose, there’d be two or three days of absolute hell. So I learnt not to express any affection to anybody, not to look at anybody. When my first baby was born, about the first time I went out with him after that I got a babysitter, but he made sure he told me it’s not going to be any fun for you anyway because you know that so and so …. Then he sat in the back row just glowering. I started dancing, he basically just came and got me, grabbed me by the arm, put a nice smile on his face and started to escort me away, pushed me into the car, and on the way home threw me out of the car. I had to walk well over an hour home in the middle of the night in winter wearing high-heeled shoes with a bloody baby waiting at home for me. He didn’t come back and get me. Just little things like that made me really careful not to fuck up.”

Exploits her intimate disclosures and uses them as ammunition

Karen said, “I don’t think Felix could ever really dominate. He listened to me very carefully for long periods of time to get to know me and I felt very secure in that initially and in those tender moments when he would listen and reflect back, I don’t know whether he was consciously building up ammunition, but when he felt the need he would grab those things and humiliate me with them.” Karen said she found right from the start that it was difficult sharing with Felix “because it would come back as a weapon. So I didn’t feel as if I could talk to him. He didn’t know I was sick with eating disorders, I couldn’t trust him with that. He thought everything was hunky dory.”

When Elizabeth went through a traumatic time while being counselled about sexual abuse perpetrated by her father when she was a child, David used this as an opportunity to tell her how ‘bad’ she was. Sally had a similar experience with Dylan. After nearly seven years of feeling used and never getting Dylan to take responsibility for his neglect and dismissive behaviours she went to the doctor, was put on anti-depressants. Then Dylan deflected responsibility further by arguing that her depression was the cause of the relationship issues.

Elsie said, “I trusted Leon not at all. If he ever found out anything about me, he just used it to give me a good psychological kick whenever he could as often and as much as he could. So I never ever trusted him at all.”

Dismisses her if she’s upset or asks for emotional support

Pauline said, “I had a miscarriage and while I was pregnant he wanted to abort the baby. He came home one night from work and he said, ‘I’ve decided’. He’d gone to work and he decided that I was having an abortion, and he went back downstairs to the kitchen and I was sitting in the bed reading and it was like, ‘arsehole!’ The abortion thing was huge because he actually knew I was anti-abortion. As fate would have it, that night I started bleeding. I lost the baby and he put me on the steps of Accident & Emergency (A & E) the next day and drove away. I came back very late that night, and he was just a total bastard over the whole thing.”

Subsequently, Pauline “got really really low, very depressed and he would come home from work and he started to not even say hello and I never forgave him for how he acted when I lost the baby. I think that was a huge factor in my shift in deciding to leave him. But I’ve never been able to pinpoint exactly when I decided ‘that’s it.’ I never forgave him for it, or the way he treated me afterwards. I finally accepted whatever I was going to face in the future if I left would be better than now.”

Pauline said, “I would be in tears after the miscarriage and he would just look through me and walk off.” Pauline remembered being incredibly surprised when the nurse in A & E showed concern for her wellbeing. Pauline handed them the note from the doctor, and remembered “the nurse saying to me, ‘Are you okay, do you need anything? Come in straight away.’ I was thinking, ‘Wow, oh that’s nice. That’s nice, someone’s asking how I am’.”

Violates Trust

Pauline said she, “ended up not trusting Chris several years before we separated. I didn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. I started marriage absolutely trusting him with my whole life and once I had that miscarriage I didn’t ever trust him again. To cope with this loss of trust, Pauline said she, “Did a lot of self talk. He’d say something or whatever he did, and rather than say it out loud I’d think in my mind ‘Oh yeah you prick. Fuck off to bed.’ But I would never say it out loud.”

Takes no responsibility for being caring – the focus of attention has to be on him

Victoria had asthma and had a really severe asthma attack one day. She called the ambulance when Graham was at work. She said, “We had no phone, we couldn’t afford one because the debts were too high. I managed to ring at the neighbour’s house and the ambulance came and got me. Graham pulled up in the driveway and I was in the back of the ambulance being nebulised and I was scared as scared as scared. So the ambulance people said to him we’re taking her through to the hospital. So he went round to my girlfriend’s for a cup of tea and thought she might like to come up to the hospital with him. I’m in this ambulance, and he went round to her place! It was like ‘for Christ’s sake!’” Victoria went on to say that although Graham “never stopped me from getting medical treatment, he was just a little bizarre when I got it. My impression of it was that it wasn’t about him really.”

Elsie said, “Leon took no responsibility for anything, like to be caring wasn’t his responsibility, to be there at any particular time when you think a normal person would be, that wasn’t anything that he believed was his responsibility. He was only there for the things that he wanted, for the play things that he did.”

Emotional unkindess is debilitating for men and women

It is often shocking for women when their partner repeatedly neglects them emotionally. But gender socialisation is full of messages about how to be a man and how to be a woman. Unfortunately, men experience social pressure to suppress expressions of love, care and empathy – in fact many men are bullied for doing so. On the other hand women experience the opposite pressure – that it is the woman’s role to do the emotional work in relationship – and for this women are applauded. This rigid socialisation not only harms women, it harms men.

At the individual level, women who experience ongoing emotional unkindness and violation of trust by a partner who refuses to take responsibility and make changes that lead to a close, constructive, caring connection, should continue to take steps to keep safe and, if possible, seriously consider doing what it takes to empower themselves to regain any lost self-determination and self-worth and follow their personal values, which may be quite different from what rigid gender socialisation is asking of women.

At the social level, everything we do influences our social and cultural norms, therefore individuals throughout every arena of our society can challenge gender socialisation that suppresses half of our humanity and speak out loud for a just society that honours men and women for living authentically – which requires courage to challenge social norms that work against kindness and trusting relations.

Watch out for blogs on the following control tactics:

One-Sided power games
Mind games
Inappropriate restrictions
Over-protection and ‘caring’
Degradation & suppression of potential
Separation abuse
Using social institutions & social prejudices
Denial, minimising, blaming
Using the children
Economic abuse
Sexual abuse
Symbolic aggression
Domestic slavery
Physical violence
Cyber Abuse

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Meet the Author

Clare Murphy PhD is the founder of SpeakOutLoud. Her website is dedicated to providing in-depth research about coercive control and psychological abuse. Clare mentors, supervises and trains professionals to recognise and work safely with domestic violence. She offers one-on-one counselling and consultation to those who are ready to make sense of coercive control and abuse, and to Grow and Flourish Beyond Trauma.