One of the biggest challenges we face as clinicians is getting people to understand emotions are very real but not always reality in regards to what is going on. This is such a challenge, because we live in a culture that teaches: “Have it your way.” “If it feels good, do it.” “If it does not feel good, don’t do it.” We even use it in our daily language, “I don’t feel like going to the gym today.” “I feel like taking a day off.” It is so ingrained in our language we are not aware of it.
I see that addicts and non-addicts, adults, children, male and female all struggle with what I call “emotional addiction.” Emotional Addiction: an individual who chronically allows their negative or positive emotions to dictate and control their actions or behaviors, which may be caused but are not limited to previous life experiences or traumas; while disregarding or discrediting factual information around them.
Words have power and meaning, so we need to be very careful to say what we mean and mean what we say. I have noticed this trend over the last few years with male and female clients as well as group members using the phrase “emotional abuse” in context to what they believe to have suffered as emotional abuse from their partner. I understand emotional trauma, which is real, but when we use the word abuse, I think it immediately inflames and puts it in the ranks of physical or sexual abuse which carries a whole different meaning.
What I understand men and women are generally saying when they say they were emotionally abused by their partner may actually mean a few possible things listed below.
- Their emotions or feelings were never validated by the partner. (For example, neglect)
- They were verbally yelled at, belittled, accused, blamed, and/or criticized.
- They believe their partner manipulated their emotions.
As a clinician, this is classic codependent behavior. The person believes they have no choice over their own thoughts, feelings and behaviors. They do not want to take responsibility for them; however, they want to try and control their partner’s behavior. A person who believes they have suffered emotional abuse vs. emotional trauma keeps them as a victim and justifies them to stay a victim due to this “abuse,” as they believe they have nothing they need to work on or change themselves. They only believe their partner needs to change. The person who uses this phrase generally does so intentionally to get a reaction from the group or a clinician as a way gain empathy and support.
There is a reason PTSD is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, not Post-Abuse Stress Disorder, which for the record is generally very treatable and not a permanent condition like the general public believes. Being victimized by trauma is real and has to be acknowledged in order to become healthy; however, you cannot stay there permanently which many willing choose to do.
Science has shown emotions are very powerful and are connected to memories. In traumatic memories the emotions are so real and burn into the experience of the event, which can taint what actually did or did not occur during the event. Living in a culture that encourages youth to act how you feel can create havoc in personal and professional relationships when they become an adult. They can become easily offended. Allowing your emotions to dictate your behavior or believing someone will never lie to you is a foolish way to live and may keep you at a great disadvantage.
This not only creating problems for couples before recovery but also once in recovery, as the emotional highs are very high and the lows very low. Individuals who have an emotional addiction believe when they feel good and are happy everything is fine and, this is “truth” regardless of the facts. When they feel mad or sad, everything is not good. Things are “wrong.” Things are a “lie.” They begin to avoid painful emotions at all costs. Because it hurts, therefore it is “bad”. They turn the other direction and follow the path-of-least-resistance. When in actuality, facing and feeling the painful emotions is a good and healthy way to experience healing.
For example, a couple comes to Transformed Hearts in a great deal of pain. The problem is quickly identified, and some basic tools are given to help the acute situation. Painful emotions are a great motivator for people to get help in the short term but not the long term. Once the painful emotions are gone, they stop seeking help when no work has yet been accomplished. These couples are externally motivated by their positive or negative emotions which dictates their behavior in the moment.
In some cases, the very next week the couple returns. Good things have happened. Last week, the “spear” was removed from their chest, and they believe good feelings mean they are healthy again. Little do they know, the deeper and harder work needs to be done to get into the wound and painfully remove each splinter one by one that was left behind by the spear. How quickly they have forgotten the enormous amount of pain they were in only a week prior, because good emotions equate that everything is “okay.” When in reality, if the wound remains unattended, it will result in a chronic infection that can kill regardless how good the person is feeling.
Cory Schortzman is an author, speaker, teacher and licensed mental health professional. Since 2008, he has served as the Executive Director of Transformed Hearts Counseling Center in Colorado Springs, CO. He is the founder of SARA, the Sexual Addiction Recovery Association. Cory is passionate about helping couples and individuals overcome sex addiction. He is also passionate about bringing awareness to the public and supporting the elimination of sex and human trafficking. Cory has been married since 1998 to his beautiful wife, Kerry, and lives in Colorado with their four daughters. He and Kerry have been seen on the CBS Early Show, Inside Edition, and ABC Good Morning America, Fox 21 News, and TLC/Discovery discussing the harm of sex addiction and the joys of recovery. He has also been heard on numerous radio programs.
Cory’s books include: Out of the Darkness, Into the Light the Workbook, Into the Light the Steps, Ashes to Beauty the Steps, 301 Dating Ideas, 301 Conversational Ideas, 301 Ways to Say I Love You, 301 Ways to Love Your Children & 301 Recovery Tools & Tips.