What Is Emotional Abuse?

When people think of abuse, it tends to be something physical that leaves visible marks. Yet, emotional abuse leaves invisible wounds that are just as damaging. While abuse can happen to anyone, no one deserves to be abused for any reason. Learn more about the signs and effects of emotional abuse, leaving an abusive relationship, and how to begin healing.

Signs Someone is Emotionally Abusing You - Illustration by Shideh Ghandeharizadeh

Verywell / Shideh Ghandeharizadeh

Defining Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse, sometimes called psychological abuse, is a pattern of behaviors where one person subjects another person to nonphysical acts that harm another person's overall ability to function and their mental well-being. These relationships can happen between romantic partners, a parent and child, caretaker and dependent, teacher and student, close friends, or within a professional setting.

While researchers have slightly different definitions of the concept, they have identified a variety of types of emotional abuse, including:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Intimidations and terrorization
  • Humiliation and degradation
  • Exploitation
  • Harassment
  • Rejection and withholding of affection
  • Isolation
  • Excessive control

These types of emotionally abusive behaviors are meant to control and frighten you. While they are nonphysical, they are just as serious. Emotional abuse can be damaging and traumatizing to the person experiencing the abuse.

Signs of Emotional Abuse

Some signs of emotional abuse are obvious, like yelling or name-calling. Other signs are more subtle, such as the other person not wanting you to hang out with friends, or acting extremely jealous. Here are some red flags that signal another person is emotionally abusing you:

  • Name-calling, demeaning, humiliating, shaming, and criticizing you in private or public
  • Controlling and being possessive of you, your time, and actions, including what you wear, your job, and whom you hang out with
  • Making you feel silly and dumb and dismissing how you really feel
  • Questioning what you say and things that you say happened to you (called gaslighting)
  • Acting extremely jealous of the time you spend with friends and family
  • Punishing you by withholding attention or affection
  • Threatening you and people you love, or threatening to hurt themselves to get what they want
  • Wanting you to ask their permission before doing anything or going anywhere
  • Monitoring where you go and what you're doing at all times
  • Constantly accusing or blaming you for their abusive behavior and making you feel guilty
  • Overloading you with compliments or gifts in order to manipulate you later

Experiencing any of these behaviors repeatedly over time instills self-doubt and worthlessness in a person. This wearing down of confidence and self-worth is how the abuser controls and holds power in the relationship.

Power and Control Wheel

Since the 1970s, the "cycle of abuse" theory has been talked about in the courtroom, therapy, and the media. This language is outdated and harmful to the victim because it implies that there are four predictable, repetitive steps in the relationship (tension building, incident, reconciliation, calm) and that a person can know when abuse is about to happen and avoid it.

The theory that abuse in a relationship is a cycle has been used in courts to put blame on the victims. However, abuse is not predictable, and victims are not able to know when to expect incidents or when emotional abuse will escalate to physical violence.

Instead, the National Domestic Violence Hotline uses the Duluth Model of Power and Control developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project to more accurately describe an abusive relationship.

The outer ring of the diagram represents physical and sexual violence. The inner part of the diagram (the spokes of the wheel) describes the more subtle and systematic behaviors that the abuser uses. Emotional abuse is included inside this wheel. These continuous threats, intimidation, and coercion tactics instill fear, while physical and sexual violence holds the wheel together.

Power and Control Wheel by The Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, MN
Copyright by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, 202 East Superior Street, Duluth, Minnesota, 55802, 218-722-2781.

Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs

Effects of Abuse

Over time, emotional abuse can wear down your self-worth, confidence, and mental and emotional strength. You may feel unsure of yourself or start second-guessing yourself constantly. You may start to believe your abuser when they tell you that you are overreacting, being dramatic and emotional, or overly sensitive. You may become emotionally and psychologically dependent on your abuser.

Short-term abuse can lead to difficulties like:

  • Confusion
  • Fear
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Constantly feeling overwhelmed and powerless
  • Low confidence
  • Nightmares
  • Aches
  • Racing heart

Long-term effects may include:

In some instances, emotional abuse can escalate from psychological to physical violence. Typically, when the abuser feels they are losing control in the relationship, they will resort to physical violence to demonstrate what can happen if the other person tries to gain more independence or leave the relationship.

Leaving an Abusive Relationship

Leaving an emotionally abusive relationship isn't easy. There are plenty of obstacles that may prevent a person from leaving an abusive relationship. These include fear of threats and retaliation, financial or housing instability (not having enough money or a home to stay in if they leave), denial, family pressure to stay, or isolation and lack of support. Also, it could be extremely dangerous to the person attempting to leave the relationship as the abuser may do so something extreme in order to exert their power and control.

If you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.

If you need support and resources for yourself or loved one, call, text, or chat with trained staff at the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.

Having a Safety Plan

It's important to have a safety plan when leaving an abusive relationship. This is a personalized, practical plan to improve your safety while experiencing abuse, preparing to leave an abusive situation, or after you leave.

A safety plan provides vital and specific information such as:

  • Where you'll have an accessible phone
  • Whom you'll contact
  • Where you can go in or out of the home
  • Reasons to leave the house
  • How to safely leave the house

If children are involved, your plan can include what they should do during an incident. This plan helps prepare you for high-stress situations to protect yourself or others.

Healing From Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is a type of trauma. Counseling and therapy can help victims process their traumatic experiences and begin the process of healing. Working with mental health professionals, counselors, or advocates can help you acknowledge the abuse, rebuild your sense of self, learn how to develop self-compassion, and recognize what healthy relationships look like.

They can also help you rebuild self-esteem, manage symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, and insomnia, and strategize ways to cope when triggered.

Practicing self-care and self-compassion will also be an important tool in healing from an abusive relationship. Try to limit your stress, eat a well-balanced diet, maintain a regular sleep schedule, and move your body. You can also try meditating, journaling, or other creative outlets like art or music.

As part of your self-care, it will also be important to reconnect with your friends and family. Getting involved in social and pleasurable activities can be an important part of your healing process.

Summary

Emotional abuse can take many forms and is often more subtle than other types of abuse. This type of abuse doesn't leave visible marks but can make a person lose their sense of self-worth. It leads to short and long-term damage on their ability to function, have healthy relationships, and mental well-being. Leaving from emotional abuse is difficult and dangerous, but leaving the relationship can get you on the path to healing.

A Word from Verywell

If you are experiencing emotional abuse, remember that it is never your fault. Nothing you have said or done has caused the abuser to abuse you. Nobody deserves to be emotionally abused. If and when you feel comfortable, speak with a trusted friend, family member, or healthcare professional about your situation for help coming up with a plan and strategy to leave your abuser. If you believe that you are in immediate danger, you should call 9-1-1.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How common is emotional abuse?

    Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive data on how common emotional abuse is. Some literature estimates the prevalence to be 15%–27%. However, research indicates having experienced childhood abuse leads to a higher risk of abusive relationships as an adult, particularly for women.

  • Can emotional abuse turn into physical abuse?

    Yes. It is not uncommon for emotional abuse to escalate to physical abuse, especially if the abuser feels they are losing control in the relationship. The escalation to physical abuse is generally a warning to the other person in the relationship of what could happen if they try to leave. Unfortunately, 75% of serious injuries happen when a person is trying to end an abusive relationship.

  • Can an abusive relationship cause PTSD?

    Abusive relationships are related to PTSD symptoms. Children who experience emotional abuse may develop severe symptoms of PTSD. In abusive intimate relationships, women are twice as likely to develop PTSD when experiencing traumatic events such as abuse.

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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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