Barton Goldsmith column: Understanding, dealing with relational abuse

Counseling is a big part of dealing with healing or ending a relationship that has been violent, but safety is always the first concern.

Closeup shot of two unrecognizable people holding hands in comfort
When the person you are closest to gives you no emotional support, it feels as though you have nothing in life to hold on to, and you cannot feel grounded or safe in your relationship.
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There are many types of abuse in relationships, and with covert or passive-aggressive abuse, sometimes it’s actually difficult to know if your partner is being abusive or just behaving badly.

Barton Goldsmith
Barton Goldsmith.
Contributed / Barton Goldsmith

Understanding passive-aggressive behavior will help you recognize it. This is when someone acts out their anger by showing up late, not helping with chores, withholding sex or not talking to you. This is the most common form of emotional abuse, and deep conversation and psychotherapy can help if both partners are willing.\
An overt and more damaging type of emotional abuse is verbal. This is when someone yells and screams, may use foul language, and uses their words to belittle you. Though verbal abuse is not thought to be serious by some, I strongly disagree.

Whoever criticizes, berates or badmouths their partner is actually beating them up — it just doesn’t leave marks you can see. These wounds are deeply felt and may never heal if the behavior continues. The injuries will eventually become too painful to ignore, and the abused partner will withdraw, start fighting back, seek comfort elsewhere, or leave the relationship.

People who put up with emotional abuse lose their self-esteem over time and find it difficult to live a balanced life. When the person you are closest to gives you no emotional support, it feels as though you have nothing in life to hold on to, and you cannot feel grounded or safe in your relationship. Emotional abuse in the home can undermine the entire fabric of a family, teaching children that such behavior is tolerable and acceptable.

Eliminating and healing from verbal abuse requires therapy for the couple and sometimes the entire family. Anger management for the abuser can be helpful, and I recommend deep emotionally focused work to get to the source of the anger. Choosing alternative appropriate behavior is also key, but changing old patterns can be a challenge.


The victim in a verbally abusive relationship needs to learn to set strong boundaries, and may even have to leave the relationship for a while to help the abuser understand the gravity of the problem.

Physical abuse is even more serious. If you are with someone who is violent, or even threatens violence, the first thing you must do is get out. Many victims get so used to the fact that the abuser in their lives gets angry, hits them, and threatens to kill them (or themselves) that they actually become inured to it. If you are in a physically abusive relationship, you need to see that the danger is clear and present.

Counseling is a big part of dealing with healing or ending a relationship that has been violent, but safety is always the first concern. I cannot stress this enough: If your partner has hit you or threatened you with a weapon, you have to leave the house. If you can’t find a shelter or are too embarrassed to go to one, call a friend or a relative. Your place of worship may also be of help. Check into a hotel or find a short-term, corporate apartment. It may even be necessary to sleep in your car for a night.

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All of these options are safer than spending one more night under the same roof with a person capable of hurting you. If there are children, take them with you when you leave. Understand that you can’t let this happen anymore, and it will hurt to leave, but you can do it with heart.

The toll-free phone number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-7233. Abuse is a serious situation, and taking too much time to think about leaving can cost you your life. If the need is there, make the call now.

Abuse only grows over time, and if the behaviors don’t change and the issues go unresolved, your life will become a living hell. Take responsibility for yourself and get the help you need. Or if you know of someone in an abusive relationship, show them this article — by doing so, you may just save a relationship or a life.

Barton Goldsmith, Ph.D. is an award-winning psychotherapist and humanitarian. He is also a columnist, the author of eight books and a blogger for with over 34 million readers. Reach him at

To get help

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 

Crisis Text Line: Text MN to 741741 

More Lifeline resources:

South St. Louis, Lake, Cook and Carlton counties/Fond du Lac Band: 218-623-1800 or 844-772-4742 

North St. Louis County/Bois Forte Band: 218-288-2100 

Itasca County: 218-326-8565 or 211* 

Koochiching County: 800-442-8565 or 211* 

*St. Louis County 211 services are not crisis-related 

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