What Is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse, otherwise referred to as psychological abuse, is a form of abuse in which the perpetrator causes their victim (s) psychological trauma. Such trauma may lead to mental health conditions such as chronic depression, ACD (Acute Stress Disorder),PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder),etc.

Emotionally abusive behaviors may include some or all of the following: insults, groundless accusations, bullying, various forms of humiliation and manipulation. The abuser’s main goal is to instill fear in their victim in order to control them.

An isolated incident does not necessarily qualify as emotional abuse, while behavior patterns persisting through time usually do.

Abuse can occur in relationships between parents and children, romantic relationships, friendships, and professional relationships. Individuals who have been victims of emotional abuse may experience fear, confusion, nightmares, low self-esteem, anxiety, and a strong desire to retreat from society.

Psychological abuse, especially in romantic relationships, might not be easy to recognize because often most of it happens behind closed doors. This kind of abuse can also take many forms - for instance, there are abusers who manipulate their romantic partners into thinking that their abusive behavior is romantic (example: “I am so jealous only because I really love you” or “I don’t want you to be friends with X, Y, Z for your own good”).

If you suspect you or someone you know might be a victim of emotional abuse, this Emotional Abuse Test can answer your questions.

How Psychological Abuse Affects Adults

Several studies have revealed that the consequences of emotional abuse are as severe as those of physical abuse. The only difference is that a person who has endured emotional abuse does not have physical bruises. Other people cannot see the victim's wounds unless that individual finds the courage to share it with someone they trust.

Psychological abuse can affect both the mental and physical health of an individual who has suffered from it. This type of abuse can have severe effects - in some people, short-term, in others, long-term. Victims of emotional abuse often feel bad about themselves; they experience shame, guilt, anxiety, powerlessness, and hopelessness. Physical negative effects of the abuse may include muscle tension and frequent crying. Emotional abuse also increases the risk of an individual developing an addiction to alcohol and/or drugs.

And the longer the abuse goes on, the more prolonged these harmful effects become.

It is very confusing to be in an emotionally abusive relationship because one minute the person has a strong desire to leave and the next minute they feel paralyzed by fear and thus unable to take action. It often happens when the victim is financially dependent on their abusive partner. If the victim has kids, they often prefer to stay in their abusive relationship/marriage for years with the excuse that they are doing it “for the sake of the children”. However, this is very wrong. Speaking of children, research has shown that in the majority of cases, if someone is abusive to their spouse, they will also abuse their children when they become a parent.

What Are Some Signs of Parental Emotional Abuse?

A parent is psychologically abusing their child if they are constantly displaying the following behaviors:

  • Ignoring and/or rejecting the child;
  • Never showing them affection;
  • Telling the little one that they are unwanted;
  • Confining the child from positive experiences;
  • Yelling at the child, calling them names, threatening them;
  • Belittling, criticizing, shaming, scapegoating, humiliating the child;
  • Telling the little one other children are better than them;
  • Engaging the child in degrading, illicit, or criminal acts.

Child-to-parent emotional abuse exists too. In most cases, it happens in adolescence, usually as a teenager’s reaction to parental abuse. If parents are not abusive, but their adolescent child is, sometimes it may mean that the teenager picked up these behaviors from other family members.

How Emotional Abuse Affects Children

If a child has been or is being emotionally abused, they may:

  • Have developmental delays;
  • Suffer from anxiety, eating disorders, and/or have trouble sleeping;
  • Have physical health problems, such as skin conditions or ulcers;
  • Withdraw from social life;
  • Become overly defensive or, on the contrary, compliant;
  • Display destructive, self-destructive, anti-social, or suicidal behaviors.

Needless to say, psychological abuse may have very serious effects on children and adolescents. Besides the above-mentioned problems, having experienced emotional abuse in childhood may also cause a person other challenges, such as, for example, attachment issues as an adult.

What Are the Main Signs of Emotional Abuse in Relationships Between Adults?

  • Constant criticism, arguments, yelling, name-calling;
  • Ignoring boundaries, not giving personal space (example: “I want you to spend all of your time with me”);
  • Excessive jealousy and possessiveness;
  • False accusations - of the other person cheating, lying, being too needy, clingy, selfish, materialistic, etc.;
  • Isolating the individual from their family and friends;
  • Gaslighting (phrases like “You are exaggerating”, claiming that some things “have never happened”, or even something like “You're out of your mind”);
  • Mockery, ridicule, dark sarcasm;
  • Various forms of humiliation in private or in public;
  • Punishment by silent treatments, withholding affection and/or sex;
  • Emotional blackmail (phrases like “If you don’t do what I want, I’m filing for a divorce” or “If you leave me I’ll kill myself”);
  • Too much control (the abuser wants to know how the victim spends their money, who they spend their time with, or prohibits them to work or go out at all);
  • Making the victim responsible for their feelings (example: the abuser says “You're making me angry” instead of “I am angry”);
  • Subtle or even overt threats of physical violence.

However, in some cases, emotional abusers do not threaten overtly or monitor the victim too closely. Some perpetrators use subtler tactics that may include the following:

  • Regularly judging their partner’s, coworker’s, or friend’s perspective without trying to understand it;
  • Questioning or ridiculing their choices and goals;
  • Constantly correcting them;
  • Disregarding the other individual's opinion;
  • Unwillingness to make compromises with the other person.

How Easy is It to Recognize the Abuse?

Unfortunately, for many individuals out there involved in a relationship that could be considered abusive, emotional abuse can be very challenging to recognize because the aggressors know very well how to manipulate people. The perpetrators often do anything they can to control their victims by making them question themselves, doubt their own experiences, or even feel ashamed and guilty for what has happened/is happening. As a result, people who experience psychological abuse often suffer silently in confusion, not knowing what to do for months, years, or even decades.

Remember that knowledge is power. That is exactly why understanding how unhealthy the cycle of emotional abuse is can empower a person to recognize emotional abuse easily and start fighting against it.

If individual spots any of the above-mentioned signs within their familial or professional relationship, they can and should seek help whenever they are ready. Only the victim of emotional abuse themselves can decide when to take action and what course of action best suits them. In any case, it is essential to share their feelings and thoughts with a therapist or just with someone they trust. It can be anybody who can help them retake control over their life, build back up their inner resilience and a sense of self.

Healing and Recovery

Recovering from emotional abuse may take time. It is crucial for the victim to prioritize their self-care and get support. Here is what can help a person heal and recover from psychological abuse: 

  • Getting as much rest as possible;
  • Eating healthy (and without overeating);
  • Looking for ways to relax, such as meditation, walks in nature, yoga, listening to music;
  • Reaching out for help from trusted family members and/or a mental health counselor;
  • Learning how to set healthy boundaries between you and other people;
  • Starting a new hobby or volunteering;
  • Socializing with friends or coworkers.

If you practice the strategies suggested in this article or share them with someone you know who might be a victim of psychological abuse, we are sure that very soon, you or your friend/family member will start their healing journey.