Abusive Relationships


Abusive relationships have one thing in common. Contempt for the other person. All abusive relationships – whether romantic or otherwise – will have this characteristic.

How Abusive Relationships Start

Abusive relationships start with personal attacks. When a complaint is treated as a failure of character, then the road to contempt is being laid and will eventually destroy the relationship.

Character assassination, as it is called, makes differences a fault or flaw. When someone engages in a personal attack they are preempting the other person, by deciding for themselves what is “the right way.”

The Four Horsemen Of Abusive Relationships

John Gottman and Nan Silver are credited with the concept of the four horsemen of abusive
relationships. They observed a negative progression in relationships that failed. Although their focus was on marital relationships, you can apply the ideas to other kinds of relationships.

The four horsemen are:

  1. criticism
  2. contempt
  3. defensiveness
  4. stonewalling


Abusive criticism is an escalated form of complaining. It is frequent, global and personal. It is the kind of criticism where the individual cannot do anything right and it is devastating and destructive to the person on the receiving end. It wears down the goodwill in the relationship with demands and expectations. Often this kind of abusive criticism stems from some form of entitlement which means that the person who is criticizing is not really engaged in the relationship but rather engaged with their own idea about the way things “should” be. It is very one-sided.


Contempt is the big killer in a relationship. Contempt is disgust with the other person. Disgust can convey the idea that the other person needs to redeem themselves and may not be able to do so. A person dishing out contempt is saying in effect that they decide the standards of behavior in the relationship. Contempt can be in the form of sarcasm, belittling, criticism, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery and hostile humor. Contempt is a form of aggression and can create fear and pain in another person. It treats the other person in a one-down fashion and is the tactic of individuals who want power over others.


Defensiveness is the easiest idea to grasp because we all know how we want to defend ourselves when under attack. Defensiveness hurts a relationship because it can seem apologetic and makes the attacker right and one up. It treats the attacker as an authority figure which that person is not. It is better to speak about your actions in a self-accepting manner.


Stonewalling occurs when one of the parties withdraws their participation often to avoid compromise, or gives up and starts to exit the relationship emotionally. When stonewalling occurs attempts to repair the relationship may fail and the relationship may end.

Other Signs Of Problems In Abusive Relationships

Other signs of problems in the relationship are:

  • the way the individuals engage. If they initiate conversation in an attacking way, they are starting a conversation by escalating conflict.
  • the severity of the attacks can create “flooding” a feeling of being shell-shocked and wanting to avoid all contact with the other person.
  • failed attempts to repair the relationship. When this occurs, the relationship may have passed a point of no return. Sometimes people just become exhausted.
  • bad memories. If negative experience outweigh good one by a large ratio, then it will be hard to sustain a positive investment in maintaining the relationship.

HSPs And Abusive Relationships

Anyone can find themselves in an abusive relationship. Highly sensitive people do not heal quickly from negative relationships so emotional abuse is a serious problem including a health problem. One of the most important thing HSPs can do for themselves is to be careful about who they allow into their lives. It can make all the difference.