There’s no medical report. No bruises or black eye or broken bone to signal what’s happening behind closed doors. But that doesn’t mean the abuse is any less damaging.
Verbal, emotional and psychological abuse take many forms—put-downs and power plays, bullying and blaming, trivializing and threatening—but its end game is the same: to dominate and control. While dangerous enough on its own, these forms of abuse and others often escalate into physical violence. Statistics vary widely due to under-reporting, as they do with much research on domestic violence, but according to a study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 95 percent of men who physically abuse their intimate partners also psychologically abuse them.
The effects can be chilling. Several studies have found that psychological abuse can do long-term mental health damage—including depression, suicidical ideation, low-self esteem and trust issues—as well as lead to a variety of diseases with physical symptoms. One study even found that psychological abuse is a stronger predictor than physical abuse of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which affects 7 out of 10 psychologically abused women.
Escalation Red Flags
The increased awareness around psychological abuse has helped many survivors identify problems earlier on, and get help before physical abuse starts. Here are some indications that psychological abuse may take a violent turn in the future:
- Isolating you from friends or family and/or discouraging you to see them.
- Blaming you and others for his behavior; not taking responsibility for his own actions.
- Threatening you with a weapon.
- Pushing, shoving, or cornering you.
- Destroying your property or threatening to hurt or kill your pets.
- Threatening to take away or harm your children.
- Does not respect your boundaries; keeps constant tabs on your activities.
- Displays excessive jealousy or paranoia.
- Pressures you to have sex or use drugs.
- Has a history of abusing others.
- Rages out of control with you but can maintain composure around others.
It can be difficult to prove nonphysical violence in court. That’s why survivors should consider keeping a safe, secret record of what’s going on. Find out more in “Smartphone Apps that Help You Document Abuse” and “Prove Nonphysical Abuse in Court.”
Healthy Boundaries Are Important to Set Early
Just as you can’t blame yourself for your abuser’s behaviors, you also can’t necessarily prevent them. But if you’re starting a new relationship, you can start by seeking and identifying safe people — those who make you a better person just by their presence in your life. These are people who are honest, on your side, and who make you and your feelings a priority.
When you’re ready to enter a relationship with someone you feel is safe, you should set boundaries to establish expectations of mutual respect, identify when lines are being crossed, and spot signs that a partner may turn abusive in the future.
There are five types of personal boundaries:
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Physical: Your body belongs to you. Don’t use sex as currency (or allow your partner to) as a sign of love or “payment” for a nice dinner or gift. And don’t feel pressured to get physical too fast. Your partner should respect your comfort level and timeline.
Emotional: You have the right to have any emotion you want. Don’t let a partner tell you how you should feel.
Material: Set boundaries around sharing your possessions and lending money. You also don’t have to share passwords or access to your social accounts, email, and devices if you’re not comfortable with it.
Spiritual: You are allowed to have your own faith-based beliefs, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to share them with your partner.
Mental: You’re entitled to your own opinions and thoughts. You should have the ability to decide what’s important to you and to speak up for things you believe in.
For more examples of personal boundaries you can set, see “ 29 Types of Personal Boundaries You Can Set.”
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