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What is Emotional Abuse?

“The scars you can’t see are the hardest to heal.” Astrid Alauda

Are you in an emotionally abusive relationship? Emotional (or psychological) abuse differs from physical abuse in the sense there are no outward signs, thus, making it more difficult to recognize. In this post we will unpack what emotional abuse DOES NOT look like and what it DOES look like, how to move toward a more positive and healthy relationship and lastly, resources that can be utilized if you or someone you know needs additional support.

It is important to understand the behavior that lies within the normal range (baseline) of relationships. If you’ve suffered from an emotionally abusive individual, you can probably remember the moment you realized you were a victim. According to Andrea Mathews in her 2016 Psychology Today post, emotional abuse is not: breaking up with an individual, arguing with an individual, reacting out of hurt to something someone said, to speak your mind with blunt honesty, to yell at the individual (this is different from screaming at someone hysterically in an emotional verbal assault or yelling at the first and only response—both can be considered emotional abuse). All these behaviors are normal expressions of emotions and a catalyst to sit down, when both parties are calm, and discuss the situation and come to a solution. The key difference is…emotional abuse is an attempt to control the other person; the weapon of choice is his/her emotion.

According to Beverly Engel (2015), emotional abuse is “any nonphysical behavior or attitude that is designed to control, intimidate, subjugate, demean, punish, or isolate another person through the use of degradation, humiliation, or fear. The behavior can range from humiliation and degradation, discounting and negating, domination and control, judging and criticizing, accusing and blaming, trivial and unreasonable demands or expectations, emotional distancing and the silent treatment.” Emotional abuse can also take the form of more subtle forms of behavior, such as withholding attention or affection; disapproving, dismissive, contemptuous, or condescending looks, comments, and behavior; sulking and pouting; projection and/or accusations; subtle threats of abandonment (either physical or emotional). Engel also states some types of physical behavior can be considered emotional abuse. These behaviors are called symbolic violence and they include: slamming doors, kicking a wall, throwing dishes or other objects, driving recklessly with the victim in the car, and threatening to destroy items the victim values.

Do you know someone who uses shaming and blaming with sarcastic verbalizations, someone who refuses to accept their part in the situation, someone who refuses to communicate at all?

Once emotional abuse becomes a consistent aspect of any relationship, it is difficult to move past the fear, anger, guilt and shame that accompanies it. Engel states, “Emotional abuse cuts to the very core of individuals, often creating scars that may be longer lasting than physical ones.” The abusive behaviors and attitudes slowly eat away a victim’s self-esteem until he or she is incapable of judging a situation realistically. At this point, the victim begins to wonder if he or she is losing their mind and because he or she is so beaten down, they begin to blame themselves for the abuse.

Among sexual abuse, domestic violence, and emotional abuse, the latter is the least understood. Because of this lack of knowledge, few individuals are cognizant of how suffering emotional abuse as a child impacts the trajectory of their current and future relationships. Without stopping this cycle of abuse, the next generation will continue to pass along this abusive communication and behavior to the next generation. Engel reports from her continued work in this area, many individuals do not deliberately set out to control, manipulate, or destroy their relationships, and most were either emotionally, physically, or sexually abused themselves as children. Help must encompass all individuals, the victims as well as the abusers.

According to the 2018 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), an estimated 47% of men and women will be victims of psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime. The NISVS states intimate partner violence (IPV), often called domestic violence, is generally described as abuse within the context of an intimate partner relationship, where one partner asserts power and control over the other. IPV can include physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, as well as economic coercion. The NISVS was developed by the CDC to collect data on these important public health problems and enhance violence prevention efforts.

Let’s be clear, emotional abuse is a serious pattern of abuse in which the primary effort is to control someone by playing with their emotions. This can and does happen in all relationship—partner to partner, mother/father to daughter/son, sister to brother and vice versa, friend to friend, employer to employee, etc. Abuse does not discriminate; it affects people of every socioeconomic level, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, etc. Some groups of people are affected more than others. For example, the 2018 NISVS reported from their most recent data that women of multiple ethnicities and American Indian and Alaska Native women experience the highest percentage of intimate partner victimization.

Okay, you realize you are in a relationship of someone who is emotionally abusive. Now what?

  1. The first step is to recognize you are in an unhealthy relationship.
  2. Make your mental and physical health a priority. Make sure your basic needs are being met.
  3. Set boundaries. This is easier said than done, but you must set clear expectations and what will happen if those expectations are not met. You must make sure you can follow through with the boundaries you are setting. It’s not helpful if you make boundaries that you cannot keep.
  4. Understand, it is not your fault. You did not do anything for the abuse to happen. Each individual is in charge of their own actions and behavior; you cannot control anyone else but yourself.
  5. If you must have an interaction with an abusive individual, do it in a public place. Let someone you trust know where you are going and have a way to leave the situation if it begins to escalate.
  6. Share your story with an individual(s) you can trust. If you do not have someone you can talk to, seek out a professional.
  7. Unfortunately, if you determine the situation is not going to get any better and you are putting yourself at risk, it might be time to develop an exit plan.

Here are some additional resources for further reading:

  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline 800-799-7233. All calls are free, confidential and available in more than 200 languages.
  • — serves anyone, in any type of crisis, providing access to free, 24/7 support and information via a medium people already use and trust: text.
  • The Emotionally Abusive Relationship, by Beverly Engel
  • Gaslighting, by Stephanie Sarkis
  • Healing from Hidden Abuseby Shannon Thomas
  • Emotional Blackmail, by Susan Forward

Alison Curtis provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our Sterling, VA office. Call or email today to schedule your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Alison.