Relationship Counseling: What is and is Not Emotional Abuse?

As a couples therapist, I often see spouses that fight constantly. The intensity of the arguing in some cases can often be overwhelming, even frightening.  In couples counseling, we learn to fight effectively and communicate appropriately, ideally with empathy for our partner’s needs and perspective. There is a line, however, between a contentious relationship and emotional abuse. What is the difference between high-conflict martial discord and emotional abuse?

This is an important question to reflect on, as many people might not even realize that they are in an abusive relationship, especially if they grew up in a chaotic childhood environment in which verbal and physical aggression were used to express anger or control others. For such a person, emotional abuse could feel normal, even if it also causes anxiety, depression, and physical illness.

What Is a High-Conflict Couple?

High-conflict couples tend to express strong feelings of anger and hurt by yelling, blaming, occasional name-calling, and engaging in emotionally retaliatory actions, such as suddenly leaving the house for a night without notice. Each partner wants the other to change. Both partners feel that the problems their spouse brings to the relationship are making them, at least at moments, miserable and crazy. For some couples, there are long periods of positive connection and warmth in between angry episodes, while for others it can feel distant and  resentful.

Being a high-conflict couple is far from ideal; even if there are times of positive connection, angry, intense fights can wear away at the good feelings in a relationship. This is especially true if there is disrespect shown toward one another during fights. Most couples in high-conflict relationships would definitely benefit from couples counseling and treatment.

What is Emotional Abuse?

While high-conflict couples fight often, this type of relationship is distinct from an emotionally abusive one. Spouses in high-conflict couples are not generally frightened of each other. They understand that their spouse will not always agree with them, and know that he or she has the right to make some autonomous decisions in the marriage. In most cases, they generally respect each other when they are not fighting. Partners in high-conflict couples do, unfortunately, usually have poor listening skills, a lack of empathic attunement, and an overriding need to be “right.” Emotional abusers can use some of these same poorly adaptive tactics in their relationships, such as yelling and calling names, but the quality of the dynamic between the couple is distinct.

 1. Control, Control, Control

An essential quality of the emotionally abuse relationship is the need for the abuser to control their partner, whether out of insecurity or a fear of abandonment. Most often, this leaks into almost every aspect of the partner’s life. The abusive partner will often control their spouse’s finances, dictate where he or she goes, and decide whether or not their partner is “allowed” to work. The controlling spouse will almost always decide where the couple goes and what they will do, and will lash out or sulk if the spouse does not willingly go along with the agenda or dares to have ideas that are not exactly in line with what the controlling spouse wants.

In the most serious cases, the abusing partner decides unilaterally when the couple will be physically intimate, without any regard to their partner’s feelings or needs. This is often done with verbal cajoling or threats.

2. Unreasonable Restrictions

The abusing partner will put unreasonable restrictions on their partner’s access to friends and family, isolating the spouse from his or her support system. Any pleasurable activity is at risk of be reined in, including engaging in hobbies, how money is spent, or even having a moment of downtime if it is perceived as being “lazy.” Time at work can be restricted as well, if it is getting in the way of the abuser’s plans. The victim must always be on guard; the rules can suddenly change according to the wants and whims of the abuse if they are displeased.

3. Verbal Degradation, Disrespect and Intimidation

The abuser will, unconsciously or consciously, chip away at the self- worth of his or her partner through unwarranted criticism, name-calling, and general put-downs. Emotional abusers are bullies: ideas, suggestions, and opinions are put down and demeaned, small behaviors are chastised or corrected, and any accomplishment is minimized and belittled. The victim is generally talked down to as if he or she were a child, rather than an adult capable of being part of an equal partnership. Throughout the relationship, there is a constant undercurrent of negative messages from the abuser to the abused that he or she is useless, cannot do anything on their own, and would be helpless without the abuser, and therefore have to remain in the relationship.

It is important to remember that although some emotionally abusive relationships have all of these characteristics, most do not have every single example given here. Many individuals who are capable of emotional abuse have positive qualities as well. Emotional abuse can occur on a wide spectrum; if there are issues of control, restriction, or verbal degradation in a relationship, emotional abuse does need to be considered.

If you are dealing with emotional abuse in the Newport Beach, Irvine, or Orange County area and are interested in couples or individual marriage counseling, help is available.  Please contact Jennifer De Francisco, LCSW, at (949) 251-8797.

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Jennifer Defrancisco discusses ‘Sexting vs. Cheating’ on Air Talk

Jennifer De Francisco was recently featured as a guest on Air Talk where she discussed ‘digital infidelity’.

The segment covered whether sexting, a topic of controversy after the recent Anthony Weiner scandal, is more forgivable than physical cheating.

According to a recent survey by Men’s Health, Women’s Health, online retailer Pure Romance and sex advice website ‘Good in Bed’, only 1 in 5 respondents said they would leave their partner if they caught their partners sexting and nearly 1/3 of those said they would not even confront their partner if they caught them sexting.

Listen to the entire interview by clicking on the image below!

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How Childhood Trauma leads to Depression, Anxiety and Alcoholism in Adults

Childhood trauma and emotional loss is the universal template for many of the ills experienced in adulthood, such as addiction, depression, and even a shorted lifespan.  This correlation has been overwhelmingly proven through The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, which has been one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess the association between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being. It reveals staggering proof of the health, social, and economic risks that result from childhood trauma. Those studied (1,700 participants) took the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Inventory to determine their level of traumatic exposure.

What Is Your ACE Inventory Score?

There are 10 types of childhood trauma measured in the ACE Study. Five are related to the child — physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Five are related to other family members: an alcoholic parent, a mother who is the victim of domestic violence, a family member in jail, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and parents who have gone through divorce or separation.

Up to your 18th birthday:

  1.  Did a parent or other adult in the household often: swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? Or …Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt? Yes  
No  If  Yes, enter 1 __
  2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often push, grab, slap, or throw something at you?Or …Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured? Yes
 No   If  Yes, enter 1 __
  3. Did a person at least 5 years older than you ever touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or …Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you? Yes 
 No   If  Yes, enter 1 __
  4. Did you often feel that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or …Did your family not look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other? Yes 
No  If  Yes, enter 1 __
  5. Did you often feel that you did not have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you?  or…Were your parents sometimes too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it? Yes 
No  If Yes, enter 1 __
  6. Were your parents ever divorced or separated? Yes  
No  If Yes, enter 1 __
  7. Was your mother or stepmother often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? Was she very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or…Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife? Yes  No  If Yes, enter 1 __
  8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs? Yes 
No  If  Yes, enter 1 __
  9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a  household member attempt suicide? Yes 
No  If Yes, enter 1 __
  10. Did a household member go to prison? Yes 
No If  Yes, enter 1 __

Now add up your “Yes” answers: ___ This is your ACE Score

As the ACE score increases, so does the individual’s risk of disease, cognitive, social and emotional problems in adult life. With an ACE score of 4 or more, the adverse affects become devastatingly serious.

With a score of 4 or higher, adults are likely to suffer:

  • Hepatitis, 240 percent increase
  • Depression, 460 percent increase
  • Suicide, 1,220 percent increase
  • To be a smoker, 3 times more likely
  • 5 times more likely to be involved in Domestic Violence
  • 8 times more likely to suffer from Alcoholism
  • 8 times more likely to be pregnant as a teenager
  •  390 percent increase in chronic pulmonary lung disease

Why Does Childhood Trauma Continue to Affect Adults so Adversely?

Breakthroughs in neurobiology demonstrate that fear-based childhoods disrupt neurodevelopment, and can actually alter normal brain structure and function.

When children are overloaded with stress hormones, they’re in flight, fright or freeze mode. They have difficulty learning in school. They often cannot trust adults or develop healthy relationships with peers. To relieve their anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, and/or inability to focus, traumatized adults anesthetize themselves with short-term biochemical solutions, such as nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana.  They also engage in risky activities to temporarily flee their anguish — high-risk sports, proliferation of sex partners, and work/over-achievement.

Using drugs, overeating or engaging in risky behavior leads to consequences as a direct result of this behavior. For example, smoking can lead to COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or lung cancer. Overeating can lead to obesity and diabetes.

An elevated ACE score is so insidious because it is not just trauma defined as bad things happening to a person, such as witnessing domestic violence or the suffering of physical abuse that creates problems.  It is the emotional loss combined with traumatic acts that is so devastating. Children are equally hurt by things that should happen but do not as they are by things that should not happen but do. If the parents are not emotionally available, many will not define that as trauma, but it will be for the child. If a mother has postpartum depression, for example, that’s not defined as trauma but it can lead to emotional neglect and that interferes with child brain development.

The affects of childhood trauma are not easy to overcome, but they can be worked through.  Such individuals can have corrective experiences through the therapeutic process that help mitigate the negative effects of childhood abuse, learning to work through guilt, anger, shame, and self-destructive behaviors.

If you are suffering from depression or childhood trauma or are in need of couples counseling or marital counseling in Irvine, Newport Beach, or Orange County, please call me, Jennifer De Francisco, LCSW at (949) 251-8797.


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Understanding the Fear of Success and Self-Sabotage

The fear of failure is an almost universal human anxiety in the modern world. We all, at one point or another, have worried that our actions will disappoint others or ourselves. But the fear of success? Why would someone intentionally (although unconsciously) sabotage what is best for them? Unfortunately, many of us suffer from engaging in self-defeating and self-sabotaging behaviors, patterns that are highly correlated with anxiety, depression, marital problems and social isolation.


On the surface, self-sabotage is counter intuitive and does not make any sense; you desperately want to succeed in your profession, find a loving mate, and become involved in those things that you fulfilling and exciting, right? Unfortunately, at an unconscious level, many of us have conflicting internal desires that lead to self-sabotage.

What is Self-Sabotage?

What is self-sabotage? Self-sabotaging behaviors can range from not returning an important phone call, turning in work assignments late, or continuing to become romantically involved with those that are emotionally unavailable. At its essence, it is engaging in behaviors that are against one’s self-interest, while at the same time not being able to practice self-care and promote one’s well being. What is so troublesome about most self-defeating behavior is that it primarily operates on an unconscious level, making it often very difficult to address.

Punitive Parenting, Rebellion, and the Internal Tyrant

According to psychodynamic theory, some behaviors of self-sabotage are rooted in early childhood experiences. The toddler must learn to control his or her impulses, such as learning “no” and to be potty trained. In the normal developmental stage of the “terrible twos”, the child experiences anger and rage over being controlled. The toddler, if the parenting methods are too punitive and correcting, turns the aggression toward him or herself. In fact, this can create a harsh inner conscience, or superego, that can become a self-punishing personal tyrant. In other words, this is aggression turned inward, leading to self-punishment, depression, and masochist behaviors. In fact, masochism can be viewed as a way to control negative feelings: “Whatever I am feeling, even if it doesn’t feel good, is what I want and seek.”

In the same vein, self-sabotage and a fear of success can also be a form of rebellion against harsh parental expectations. If the parental expectations are too high and exacting, then the child feels angry and controlled. If this is a consistent dynamic between child and parent, the adult child may unconsciously feel that success is submitting to someone else’s wants and requirements. Self-sabotage is a way of punishing the overcritical parent.

Feelings of Low Self-Worth

Regardless of the origin of the behavior, for almost all individuals with self-sabotaging impulses, they overwhelmingly experience feelings of being inadequate, undeserving, and worthless. Unfortunately, any masochistic pleasure experienced unconsciously from self-sabotaging acting out is paid for many, many times over in guilt, envy, anger anxiety, depression and fear.

This undercurrent of worthlessness is apparent in almost everything that they do to better themselves; for example, they do not attempt creative or emotionally risky projects because they are sure their efforts are not going to be good enough, no matter how hard they try. Hence, they are defeated before they have even begun. In a clever way, self-sabotaging saves them psychologically from failure; they did not actually fail since they did not even try and perhaps could, someday, succeed if they actually made an effort-leaving success for their fantasy life and saving some sense of self-worth on a conscious level.

Success Triggers Anxiety

Self-sabotaging behaviors can also be triggered by actually achieving some success, especially professionally. For the self-defeating person, success only leads to anxiety, as others might have start having increased expectations of them, and they are sure that they will ultimately fail and disappoint others. No “success” of theirs is real; they have somehow falsely duped others into thinking that they are performing well—a sort of “smoke and mirrors” trick, and only they know that they cannot really do what is expected of them.

Since fear of success primarily operates on an unconscious level, it is difficult to address without some therapeutic intervention. If you are interested in counseling for self-sabotage, depression, anxiety or couples counseling in the Irvine, Orange County, or the Newport Beach area, please contact me at (949) 251-8797.


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Why Do Some Happy Newlyweds Divorce While Other Couples Stay Happily Married?

Unfortunately, evidence shows that a percentage of couples who are happily married as newlyweds are still getting divorced after several years of marriage. Why are some couples able to create a long-lasting, meaningful marriage while others seem to lose newlywed divorcesatisfaction and contentment over time?

In a longitudinal study between happy newlyweds that eventually divorced after 5 to 10 years of marriage and happy couples that stayed married, the researchers looked for as many possible differences between the two groups to possibly account for why some couples become less satisfied with their marriages over time. In many respects, the two groups were strikingly similar; both groups appeared committed to their marriages and the ideals of marriage, and there were no differences in whether they had cohabitated before marriage or whether they had children. The divorced group was younger, which might indicate less emotional maturity in handling the needs and wants of a spouse.

What appeared to be crucial above all were the deleterious effects of negative marital communication patterns on the couple. Although there appeared to be very little difference in the positive communication styles of all the couples, those that divorced years later had notable differences in their negative communication patterns. Couples who eventually divorced exhibited more anger and contempt for their spouse, and were more likely to blame and invalidate the feelings of their partner. Those that divorced spoke excessively of what they would like to change about their partner, discouraged the expression of feelings, and insisted that their spouse resolve the difficult situation on their own.

It appears that the difference between satisfied couples and young couples that end up divorcing is most related to a lack of support for each other and contemptuous negativity that eventually poisons a meaningful relationship.

Jennifer De Francisco, MPA, MSW, LCSW is a marriage and couples counselor in the Irvine, Newport Beach, and Orange County area. She specializes in relationships, depression, and grief.

Please call her at (949) 251-8797 to schedule an appointment for marriage counseling.

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