Mel Schwartz, LCSW

Emotional Nonviolence

young caucasian man 20-25 years old don't want listen to screaming wife, they argue at home, in domestic clothes

I’ve been thinking about “do no harm,” the essence of the Hippocratic Oath, in the context of relationships.

Ideally, our relationships should enhance, not diminish, our lives. The purpose of relationships should be to grow, to thrive, to benefit, to learn, to feel challenged and to enhance us, not harm us.

A Case for Emotional Nonviolence

Recently, I heard a podcast about Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi and their philosophies of nonviolent resistance. Reflecting on nonviolence, I had the thought that nonviolence should go beyond the physical.

After all, verbal violence and emotional violence have a profound impact and they are sadly commonplace and ever prevalent in our relationships.

Physical violence and physical abuse are potentially criminal. We’ve instituted a legal code making these behaviors unacceptable.  And yet, we accept verbal and emotional violence, which foster the slow death of dignity, of the ethic of a relationship, of the very purpose of being in a relationship.

I’m calling it violence rather than the more subjective term abuse.    “Violence” is less grey; it speaks to a disruption of emotional harmony and safety. The consequences of verbal and emotional violence run so deep that words cannot amply capture the indignity and suffering they cause.

When we commit or receive verbal and emotional violence, both parties are harmed. There’s a humiliating of yourself and of the other. The values of love and respect are corroded by such denigrating behavior.

How to Not Be Emotionally Violent

If you’re feeling angry or hurt, try to express what you’re feeling. “I’m feeling so unimportant to you,“ or, “I feel that you always are the priority,” is a healthy response as opposed to an angry reaction like, “You’re a piece of shit you only care about yourself.”

If you can notice an angry or hurt feeling, pause, acknowledge what you’re feeling, and then, communicate your feeling. “I’m feeling so angry. I am feeling so unloved. I am feeling so devalued. Let me tell you why.”

There’s no verbal violence when you speak that way. This requires responding, not reacting.


There’s another kind of violence: Sarcasm, venom, and anger in one’s tone. Remember, when you communicate in that way, you are harming yourself along with the other, because you’re both being overwhelmed with angry feelings. This raises your cortisol levels, your heart rate, your anxiety, and your stress.

Aggressive Gestures

When thinking about emotional violence, don’t disregard the effect of physical gestures. It’s not just what you say. It’s not just the tone of your voice. Pointing fingers at each other or gesticulating angrily provokes more enmity and the ensuing emotional violence spirals you both in a dance of destruction.

Maybe that’s what you experienced as a child from your parents, or you experienced your parents doing it to one another, or other people gesturing that way.

Choose differently; it’s not healthy.

The Silent Treatment

Another form of violence, that may appear nonviolent, is using silence as punishment. When you are upset or angry and default to silence to punish the other person, you’re doing gross harm to yourself and the other.

The purpose of a relationship is to relate. It is to communicate. Silence puts a wall around you, rendering you impenetrable. That is the opposite of relating. This type of silence is controlling and punitive.

We Hurt Ourselves with Emotional Violence Toward Others

When you speak angrily, act angrily, put the other person down, curse at them, you’re exposing yourself to that malevolent energy as well. It is toxic to both their wellbeing and your own..

The premise in all relationships should be “do no harm.” “Do no harm” could mean you may choose not to be in the relationship, but you will do no harm to yourself and the other by belittling, by denigrating, or by cursing as an expression of anger. Mindfulness and awareness require that we be responsive and reflective, that we communicate to the best of our ability, and that we not default to emotional and verbal violence.

Do no harm to yourself and do no harm to others. That’s a spiritual message. It’s a mindfulness message, and it’s a sensible human attitude for all relationships.

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Michele Herbst

Very well said, Mel! If we all become mindful of how we express ourselves, think before we speak,count to 10 , maybe 20, before giving a rebuttal to anger (old fashioned advice),maybe our world will become a more peaceful place and maybe less war, emotional illness and disconnectedness.

Michele Herbst

Thanks for showing us how

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