What's Emotional Abuse?

By: Sarah Fader

Updated September 10, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include sexual assault & violence which could potentially be triggering.

If you or someone you know is living in an abusive relationship, it is normal to feel overwhelmed and unsure of how to handle the situation. There are different types of abuse, such as emotional abuse, and they are all serious. No matter what you have done or may have been accused of doing at any point in your life, you do not deserve to be abused. It is never your fault if someone else chooses to behave in an abusive manner toward you. It is possible to recognize symptoms of emotional abuse and to learn ways to end the cycle.

Domestic Violence Defined

Domestic violence, also referred to as intimate partner violence, domestic abuse, spousal abuse, intimate partner abuse, or dating violence, is any behavior that results in the maltreatment of one partner in a relationship by another one.  Domestic violence or abuse can happen in any type of relationship and among people from various backgrounds and with different cultural and societal belief systems.

Any form of domestic violence is serious. If you are experiencing abuse in any form, it is important to reach out for help and support and to get to a place of safety.  Some examples of types of domestic violence include:

Physical

Any attack or assault on a person that causes physical harm or injury or the risk of harm or injury is considered physical.  Hitting, slapping, kicking, throwing things, or grabbing a person without their permission are examples of physical abuse. 

Sexual

Behavior that involves any forcible act of sexual nature is sexual abuse.  Fondling without permission, sexually harassing, forcing sexual intercourse or other sexual acts fall into this category of abuse. Marriage or a committed relationship does not give someone the right to demand or force sex. 

Financial

Financial abuse may involve withholding money or refusing a partner the right to work and earn money independently. Depriving a person of financial support or of the things that financial support offers (clothes, food, shelter) are financial abuse.  Financial abuse is a common tool that emotionally abusive spouses or partners use to keep get and maintain control over a partner.  Without a way to support themselves financially, the people being abused are less likely to leave an emotionally abusive relationship.  Unfortunately, even those who have access to some money (theirs or borrowed) may remain in a relationship because of the abuse that they have suffered. 

Spiritual

Any behavior that causes a disturbance in the way you feel about yourself or hinders the way you like to do things is spiritual abuse.  It may involve a partner making rules about your right to practice religious beliefs or to practice culturally held values and morals. It may also be that the partner is attempting to force their own beliefs on you or use their beliefs as an excuse to treat you poorly.

Technological

If your partner makes phone calls or sends text messages to you constantly, changes or demands to know passwords to your email and social media accounts, monitors your social media activity, or uses GPS tracking to follow your activities, this is technological abuse.  Making fake social media profiles to attempt to trick you or catch you doing things they do not want you to or using social media to harass or threaten you is also technological abuse.

Verbal

Verbal aggression is when someone uses their words to hurt another person. Verbal abuse includes name-calling, criticism, blaming, accusing, and talking to someone in a condescending way.   Someone who is verbally or emotionally abusive may threaten the partner but may not actually do anything to them.  Nevertheless, the fear of being harmed can have effects that are just as detrimental. 

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is defined as any act that subjects someone to behavior that could result in psychological trauma, resulting in anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or that causes them to live in fear.  Perpetrators of emotional abuse may use insults, humiliation, or fear tactics to manipulate or control others. Although emotional abuse may occur in the absence of other forms of abuse, if other types of abuse are occurring, emotional abuse will likely be happening as well.  

Signs of Emotional Abuse

Survivors of psychological or emotional abuse tend to isolate themselves from others. While abuse may take on many forms, some of the most common signs of emotional abuse include:

Character assassination: This kind of behavior typically implies that you “just can’t measure up.”  An abuser may make statements that insinuate you are incapable of performing any task as well as others, accuse you of being late all the time, or not knowing how to do simple things.

Public embarrassment: People who commit emotional abuse often make a public spectacle of you and may ridicule you for what they believe are your shortcomings in front of others. 

No regard for your thoughts or feelings:  An abuser may imply that the movies you like to watch or the hobbies you enjoy are stupid or a waste of time.  They may accuse you of “not having what it takes” to accomplish something important to you.  Below the surface of it all, when an abuser uses tactics like this, it is usually because they feel insecure and incapable, but instead of acknowledging that, they project those emotions or feelings onto you.

Denial: They may deny hurting you and tell you that you're "losing your mind" or "making it up." Because of this, you may start to believe that your emotions or feelings are invalid - that's a terrible feeling, and it's not true.

Giving you orders: Abusers often use controlling words or behavior to manipulate or scare others.  Expecting you to follow their orders as if you belong to them is a common sign of abuse.

Treating you as a child: Controlling the type of clothes you wear, what you eat, or who your friends are is a sign of emotional abuse. 

Unpredictable behavior: You may be subjected to uncontrollable rage followed by being showered with affection or gifts. Happiness and joy may be quickly replaced with uncertainty and the feeling of being on edge all the time with emotional abuse.

Jealousy: Abusers often accuse others of cheating or flirting with someone else, although they know it is not true.

Guilt-tripping: Survivors of emotional abuse often feel like they owe their abusers something. You may be told, “I’ve done so much for you and you can’t even do this one little thing for me??”

Withholding: Emotional abuse may involve withholding love, affection, sex as a form of punishment or control.

Name-calling: Abusers may call their partner names that are blatantly hurtful such as “crazy” or “loser.”  On the other hand, they may use “pet names” or nicknames that cause hurt or embarrassment.  Miss Piggy and Chubby Pumpkin are examples. 

Insisting on constant communication: Emotional abusers often want to know where someone is at all times. They may call or text several times during the day, stop by unexpectedly or take your keys to keep you from leaving. 

Emotional Abuse: Gaslighting

Gaslighting is an extreme form of emotional abuse that involves the act of manipulating someone with the use of psychological efforts. People who gaslight cause others to question their own thoughts, memories, or facts related to an event that they know happened. 

Gaslighting may occur in different forms, but they all employ some sense of an attempt to psychologically control someone. Projection is a common tactic gaslighters use in emotional abuse.  It is the act of accusing someone else of having shortcomings or faults that one sees in themselves. For example, if a gaslighter is cheating in a relationship, they may accuse you of being unfaithful. This is a ploy gaslighters often use to take the focus off themselves and their poor behavior.

anyone can experience emotional abuse and it can make you feel crazy even if you aren't

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The Cycle of Abuse

The emotional abuse cycle refers to the pattern of behavior, or cycle of behavior, that generally occurs in an emotionally abusive relationship. Below is an image detailing the stages of emotional abuse periods: honeymoon, tension building, incident, reconciliation, then calm. This cycle will often repeat itself throughout the relationship of emotional abuse. 

Source: wikipedia.org

Behavior Patterns

Abusers often have distinct personality and behavior patterns. People who commit emotional abuse often exhibit self-centered behaviors and lack empathy. Once you have been exposed to these traits, you may be able to recognize them in future relationships before emotional abuse begins.

Some abusers may feel like they have no control over their own lives, which results in a strong desire for asserting control over others. You can watch for the following signs to determine whether a person is a risk for coercive behaviors or emotional abuse. Knowing these patterns may help you keep yourself safe from emotional abuse in the future.

  • The person seems insecure or uncomfortable around others.
  • They are paranoid about people's motivations, constantly looking for insults or hidden agendas where there are not any.
  • Overreacts about simple situations or seems edgy or uptight.
  • Has overbearing parents or has family members that have taken care of everything for them, past an appropriate age to do so.
  • Expresses road rage and thinks other drivers are "morons."
  • Brags or boasts.
  • Overly needy, constantly requiring emotional support.
  • Unreasonable resentment of past partners and blaming failed relationships on the other person, constantly bring up their continued anger or grievances over the former partner.
  • Plays the sad puppy, looking for your pity, and bemoaning how poorly they have been treated in the past.
  • Acts pushy in conversations, by not letting others having an opinion, always getting in the last word, and arguing over petty issues that do not seem worth arguing about.
  • Pressures you to do things you do not want to.
  • Makes decisions for you, without consulting you.
  • Invades your privacy, always being nosey about where you are, what you are doing, or who you're with.
  • Behaves possessively over you.
  • Lies about small things that it would be easy, to tell the truth about.
  • Disregards the boundaries you have set.
  • You have heard accounts of other angry, violent, or emotionally abusive episodes from other people who know them.

If you see multiple patterns on this list in a person, you are at risk of abuse.

Signs That Someone Is Being Abused 

If you suspect someone you know is receiving emotional abuse, it is important to reach out and offer support (preferably when the suspected abuser is not around).  The following are symptoms that may indicate the presence of abuse:

  • They Are Distant from their Loved Ones

  • They Seem to Always Feel a Need to Apologize to You

  • They Need Permission Before Doing Things They Want to Do

  • Anxiety or Depression

  • They May Tell You About the Abuse

Breaking Free From Abuse

Being a survivor of emotional abuse or control can feel overwhelming. You may feel like there is no way out. The first step in recovery is acknowledging that there is a problem. Seeking the help of a counselor or other mental health professional can offer you an opportunity to discuss your emotions or feelings and to develop a plan to get you to safety. 

Set boundaries: Even if an abuser does not like or chooses not to respect boundaries you set, set them anyway.  Establish in your own mind the things that you are willing to tolerate and the things you are not.  Make your intentions and the consequences of overstepping your boundaries clear. When you do this, it is important to enforce the consequences if/when the abuser tries to manipulate you.

Practice self-care: Anyone who wants to be physically or mentally well needs to learn how to make themselves a priority.  This is especially true if you are the survivor of abuse. Taking the focus off your abuser and focusing on your wants and needs can help you begin to feel a sense of balance and wellness. Get plenty of rest and sleep.  Eat well-balanced healthy meals and exercise.  

Avoid arguments: Even if you are right and the abuser knows you are right, it is highly unlikely that they will ever admit it.  Do not waste your time trying to argue with them or defend yourself from their accusations.  Unfortunately, an emotionally abusive person may take anything you say and turn it against you, including the truth. 

Build a support system: Talk to a trusted friend or family member about what you are going through.  One thing that many abusers count on is the fact that their targets may not confide in what is going on to others.  In many cases, people receiving emotional abuse feel so emotionally downtrodden that they do not think others will believe them. They will! Talk to someone who can offer you emotional support and encouragement so that you can draw strength for the journey of healing. 

Therapy Can Help

Whether you choose to talk to a local counselor, visit a community mental health center, or engage in online counseling, you can learn effective ways to cope with the effects of emotional abuse.  Online counseling options, such as the services provided by BetterHelp, focus on providing mental health care that is accessible – all you need is an internet connection.

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