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Home Articles Identifying Abuse What Is Emotional Abuse?

What Is Emotional Abuse?

A comprehensive guide to understanding emotional abuse

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survivor of emotional abuse leaves their abuser

If there’s a weakness that abusers can exploit in a survivor, they’ll find it. One’s emotional stability is just another example. In emotional abuse, an abuser will manipulate a survivor’s feelings in order to control that partner. This tactic is akin to brainwashing or mind control, which we’ve discussed before. A survivor may find themselves deep into a relationship before realizing that their choices—everything from who they can talk to, see and where they can go, to whether or not they’re able to end the relationship— are no longer their own; an abusive partner is making them for him or her. 

It’s a tactic of abuse that is hard to spot and even harder to prove, allowing abusers to get away with it time and time again. 

The Signs of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse can include:

  • Bullying
  • Degradation
  • Name-calling
  • A pattern of lying
  • Gaslighting
  • Coercive control
  • Threats of physical abuse

If you think your partner may be using emotional abuse to control you, ask yourself the following questions. Does your partner….

… put you down, embarrass or shame you?

… call you names?

… accuse you of being unfaithful without basis?

… ignore you?

… demand to know where you are every minute?

… treat you as inferior?

… purposefully embarrass you, often times in front of others?

… not allow you to make decisions?

… rarely validate your opinions?

… threaten you?

… tell you that you’re crazy?

… belittle your accomplishments, aspiration or plans?

… forbid you from talking to or seeing you friends, family or coworkers?

… keep you from sleeping?

… act possessively jealous?

… cheat on you and then blame you for his or her behavior?

… tell you that you will never find anyone better?

… repeatedly point out your mistakes?

… attempt to control what you wear?

…control how you spend money?

… threaten to hurt you, your children, your family or your pets?

Is Emotional Abuse the Same as Verbal or Psychological Abuse?

There are many ways to describe abusers’ tactics. While some survivors, advocates and psychologists may use “emotional abuse,” others may feel more comfortable using “psychological abuse” or even “mental abuse.” These terms can be interchangeable and it’s less important for a survivor to know their definitions than to know the red flags that encompass this type of abuse tactic. 

In some way, shape or form, these terms mean that an abuser is trying to control a partner using emotional ploys—fear, isolation, guilt, shame.

Emotional and verbal abuse share some similarities. The difference between the two, however, is that with verbal abuse, an abuser uses their words, their tone or their volume to control, intimidate or discount someone. They can also manipulate or ignore survivors’ words—turn a fight back around on the survivor to make them believe it was their fault all along. 

Emotional abuse more so describes the use of feelings that an abuser has toward the survivor, or vice versa, in order to achieve that same sense of fear and control. 

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Is Emotional Abuse Always Negative?

So glad you asked. No, emotional abuse can also prey on a survivor’s need for love and affection. An abuser may build up a survivor’s self-esteem through love-bombing, only to then subtly tear it back down and convince the survivor that the abuser is the only one who will ever love the survivor. 

Love-bombing can also look like an abuser who starts off as a near-perfect partner, showering an individual in attention and adoration, resulting in that survivor falling in love hard for this seemingly ideal partner. Then, the abuser begins to control or intimidate or degrade the survivor. Read more about it in “It’s Not Love, It’s Love-Bombing” as well as “From Romance to Isolation: Understanding Grooming.

Can Emotional Abuse Have Long-Term Effects?

Yes. Advocates and psychologists agree that emotional abuse can take a toll on one’s health just as much as physical abuse, especially if left untreated (that is, if a survivor is unable to reach out for help or support from a professional). 

Some of the symptoms of emotional abuse a survivor may experience include:

  • Feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem
  • Inability to trust
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestion issues
  • Insomnia
  • Chronic headaches
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

Emotional Abuse Can Escalate into More Serious Violence

Much like other types of abuse, in between incidents of emotional abuse, an abuser can act like everything’s OK. He or she may be sweet and caring, may shower their partner in gifts, or may even seem to loosen their controlling or jealous behaviors. These periods of normalcy may keep a survivor trapped with an abuser for much longer than is safe, believing that there is hope for the partner to revert to this type of behavior always. 

Unfortunately, advocates warn that this rarely happens. When a partner begins nonphysical forms of abuse, often times, the abuse will escalate. Experts have tried to outline this pattern of escalation and control through various illustrations, including the Power and Control Wheel and the Cycle of Abuse, though some argue these don’t fully encompass the nuances of abuse. 

It’s vital that a survivor be aware of the signs of escalation, and consider speaking to someone who may be able to help them see what level of danger they’re in. To find an advocate near you, visit our Find Help page

For more on the dangers of escalating violence, read:

What Do I Do?

If you believe you’re being emotionally abused, the first thing you’ll want to consider doing is disclosing this to someone, be it a trusted friend, family member or trained advocate at your local domestic violence program who can help you with next steps. 

If you decide to end a relationship with an abusive partner, consider getting an order of protection. Leaving an abuser can potentially be a very dangerous time; make sure that you have a safety plan in place before ending the relationship. A trained advocate can help you with this or check out this safety planning worksheet.

Since emotional abuse is difficult to prove—often, there are not police reports or emergency room records to show abusive incidents occurred—consider creating log of every abusive incident that occurs. In a safe place, write down the date and details of each emotionally abusive occurrence. This may be admissible later in court as evidence. 

You might also think about seeing a therapist who is experienced in domestic violence. A therapist or advocate may be able to testify on your behalf in court. For more on this, read, “How to Prove Nonphysical Abuse in Court.” Also, read, “An Emotional Safety Plan in 4 Steps” which will help you plan for your healing journey after you’re safe. 

We've prepared a toolkit “What Is Emotional Abuse?” to help you understand even more what emotional abuse is so you can better assess your relationship and understand your situation.