Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior in relationships that purposefully controls, isolates, and/or punishes, using fear and humiliation. Emotional abuse is as harmful as other types of abuse, such as physical or sexual, but can be harder to recognize and define.1,2
Emotional Abuse Definition
Emotional abuse is when one person in a relationship uses their power in the relationship to shame, blame, criticize, frighten, belittle, or control another person. This may happen through words and/or behaviors. It may start small, and escalate over time. Emotional abuse is highly correlated to other types of abuse, but can also occur as the only form of abuse in the relationship.3
The perpetrator may engage in emotional abuse prior to other types of abuse. This may take place in multiple types of relationships, including with an abusive romantic partner, an abusive parent, or a teacher, coach, or friends.
How Common Is Emotional Abuse?
Emotional abuse is common and most people will experience it in some form in their lifetime. The relationship dynamics where this may take place may vary depending on individual and cultural differences. Emotional abuse can look a lot of different ways and can change over time in a relationship as well as in family dynamics with parents and adult children.
Do Emotional Abusers Become Violent?
Abusers have a variety of manipulation tactics that they use so it is likely that emotional abusers may enact physical abuse at some point. These behaviors are rooted in deep insecurities and a need for control and power over others, and the severity of the abuse may increase over time if abusers are not getting their way.
Examples of Emotional Abuse
There are many varieties of emotional abuse. The purpose of emotional abuse is to control and isolate. Over time, the emotional abuse leads an individual to doubt themselves and to lose self-esteem, which increases the ability of the perpetrator to control.
Examples of emotional abuse include:
- Silent treatment
- Name calling
- Withholding affection
Normal Conflict vs Emotional Abuse
All relationships have conflict, and having healthy conflict can strengthen a relationship and lead to improved communication. People can disagree and resolve conflict without causing a rift in the relationship, and relationships often benefit from a set of guidelines to fighting fairly. Emotional abuse is outside of the realms of typical conflict.
Signs of Emotional Abuse
All relationships have conflict at times. Emotional abuse is far from normal conflict, and involves an imbalance of power and an attempt to control.
Signs you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship include:
You Feel Controlled By Your Partner
Controlling is a common type of emotional abuse. A controlling husband/wife/partner limits the victim’s choice and ability to act independently. The control can be regarding time, money, actions, or abilities.
Examples of controlling behavior that is emotionally abusive include:
- Managing the finances and not allowing access to them
- Setting limits on who you can spend time with, or when/where you can spend time with people
- Tracking your activities, whether on the internet or your location via GPS
- Taking car keys
- Limiting ability to work
Your Partner Constantly Criticizes You
Criticism can be another tactic of emotional abuse. Consistent criticism can erode a person’s confidence and sense of self. Through the criticism, the victim may slowly lose the ability to trust themselves and their sense of what is happening. Emotionally abusive criticism is different from feedback, and it is not constructive.
Examples of emotional abuse related to criticism include:
- Name calling
- Diminishing accomplishments
- Criticizing actions, points of view, or beliefs
- Character attacks
There Are Patterns of Accusing & Denial
Accusing and denial may also be present in emotionally abusive relationships. Accusing refers to alleging that the victim has done something wrong, such as cheating. The accusation serves to put the victim on the defensive, and may even lead them to question themselves. Denying refers to the perpetrator dismissing the validity of their behavior and/or actions.
Examples of this type of emotional abuse include:
- Denying the abuse
- Trivializing the other person’s feelings
- Accusing the victim of false transgressions such as abuse or infidelity
Your Partner Sets Unrealistic Expectations of You
Emotional abusers may have unrealistic expectations of you including:
- Always finding something wrong with you
- Consistently placing their needs ahead of yours
- Not giving you autonomy in any decision or action
- Believing that you should agree with them always
- Continuously making impossible requests of you
Your Partner Uses Emotional Blackmail Against You
Emotional abusers may also emotionally blackmail you. Emotional blackmail is when an abuser attempts to control your thinking and behaviors by appealing to your emotions and manipulating you to behave in a way they want. This can look really subtle, however it can leave you feeling guilty and ashamed of yourself. It can look like guilt-tripping, dissatisfaction, shaming, etc.
Who Is Likely to Be Emotionally Abusive?
People who are likely to be emotionally abusive are those who may have experienced this abuse and may have learned this as a strategy growing up. Others include those who are diagnosed with antisocial personality or narcissistic personality disorder. An inability to have empathy for someone is another correlation, especially since abuse tends to escalate.
Impacts of Emotional Abuse
Experiencing emotional abuse can have serious consequences for the victim/survivor. The effects can range from internal (such as depression) to external (such as difficulties in interpersonal relationships).1 The type of effects depends on many variables, including, but not limited to, the individual’s own constitution and resiliency, the abuse experienced, the victim’s past experiences, and their support system.
Common effects of emotional abuse include:
- Trauma, including relationship PTSD
- Depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns
- Breakdown of relationships with friends and family due to isolation
- Codependency in the relationship
- Problems at work or school due to the stress
- Questioning their own experience and ability to accurately assess
- Trauma bonding, where the perpetrator and victim have an emotional bond
Am I Being Emotionally Abused?
If you are noticing the tactics described above in your relationship, there may be emotional abuse. It is recommended to consult with a mental health professional to gain additional insight and to have an outside opinion. It can be remarkably difficult to recognize the emotional abuse, because you may have been told by your partner, directly or indirectly, that you have poor judgment and cannot be trusted. It is common to enjoy some aspects of the relationship and have fond memories of positive times, which can lead to additional confusion.
Common excuses people make for our abusers include:
- It’s my fault, I did something to deserve this treatment
- They are working on themselves
- I am over-reacting
- They did not mean what they said or did
- They can be so nice at times
- Regardless of the reason, emotional abuse, or any type of abuse, is never okay.
Why Do People Stay in Emotionally Abusive Relationships?
Leaving a relationship is hard, but when you are in any kind of abusive relationship, it can be hard to break the cycle. The cycle of abuse can condition the brightest people to believe the messages that come from their abuser. Abusers are masterful manipulators and will go to the depths of the earth to continue to have access to you to abuse you. It can be hard to leave after feeling worn down, and it can be confusing to know where to start if one is dependent on the abuser for housing or financial support.
Abusers also often threaten their victims if they signal that they want to leave–it can pose life-and-death consequences, so it can seem safer to stay because the fear instilled is very real.
How to Deal With Emotional Abuse
Dealing with emotional abuse, both during and after the relationship, can be tremendously difficult. Emotional abuse can erode your sense of self, making it harder to trust your own judgment. Help from a mental health professional is key.
In a current relationship, there may be rare times where an individual briefly engages in emotional abuse but then is able to acknowledge the abuse and shift their behavior. However, this is the exception and not the rule. For victims of abuse, it may be tempting to believe this is the case, but recurrence of abusive behavior is common.5
Establish & Stick to Firm Boundaries
When you sense that your abuser is going to get angry and you can anticipate that something may happen, stay vigilant. Set boundaries and make sure that you feel safe. When you sense this is happening, plan to have reasons so you can leave the house. Be ready with excuses that will be believed both during the day and at night.
Make Yourself a Priority
Have a safe space you can retreat to. It’s important to feel safe so having a place where you can go, whether it’s in the home or outside the home, is going to be very helpful for you while you maintain your stance. You matter and your feelings matter, so making sure you are honoring yourself is important.
Build a Network of Support
Having friends, a therapist and relatives outside of the immediate family can be very helpful for you as you will need a lot of support when dealing with emotional abuse. People who support you and give you unconditional love is something that will help keep you going and help you take care of yourself.
Don’t Blame Yourself
Give yourself some compassion and grace. Be kind to yourself since the abuser is already being very negative towards you. Being gentle with yourself and cultivating self-love is critical when dealing with emotional abuse.
Create an Exit Plan
Make sure you have a packed bag with the essentials that you can grab and leave the house with, including a key, car keys, clothes, cash, phone numbers, documents, etc. Asking a friend or relative to keep copies of all of these is important as well. Make sure you have access to the location you are fleeing to, whether that is a shelter or a friend’s house (a key hidden in a specific spot) so you are not stuck without a place to go to.
If you fear for your safety, contact a domestic violence hotline or local authorities. You can create a safety plan which can outline a way to minimize harm and leave as safely as possible.6
Find a Therapist for Yourself
When there is active abuse in a relationship, individual therapy is recommended instead of couples therapy. Couples therapy is not recommended because what happens in the therapy room may lead to abuse outside of therapy. For this reason, the therapy cannot be safe or effective. It is recommended that both parties first engage in individual therapy. There are structured programs for perpetrators of abuse that may be of assistance. These can often be found through a local domestic violence program.
Abuse of any form can be tremendously difficult to cope with, and can lead to long-term issues. Finding the right therapist can allow you to explore if what is happening is emotional abuse, and help you to take steps to leave a relationship. You can heal from this experience and develop new ways of being in a relationship.
What Doesn’t Work With Emotional Abuse
What will not work with abusive relationships of any kind is couples therapy, as that can create space for the abuser to learn more information to use against you. It can be really hard to trust in the therapy process if there is trauma associated with therapy. Couples therapy can be effective for those in a relationship where both parties are holding themselves accountable to better conflict management, however the abuser will not take any ownership of their role—which is what makes couples therapy really dangerous emotionally and physically for the abusers victim.
For Further Reading
- The Hotline: Domestic Violence Resources
- Resources by State for Violence Against Women
- National Domestic Violence Hotline’s guide to safety planning