• Psychological and emotional abuse is harder to spot, but with the potential to be equally as damaging as physical abuse

  • Therapist Joshua Miles tells us how to identify whether your relationship is psychologically and emotionally abusive

  • If you have suffered emotional abuse, you can find a therapist here

Emotional and psychological abuse could be described as the emotional and psychological mistreatment of one person by another. This covers a wide range of behaviours, patterns and experiences, but could involve deliberately trying to scare, intimidate, frighten or humiliate an individual to gain power and control over them. This often occurs through the use of language, threats, behaviours and gestures. Over time, this can erode a person’s sense of self-respect, confidence and self-belief.

Identifying psychological and emotional abuse in relationships can sometimes be difficult because it can be subtle and have less obvious physical signs. Despite an individual presenting outwardly as relatively normal, internally they may be experiencing a maelstrom of fear and pain.

Spotting the signs

In emotionally and psychologically abusive relationships, the abuser gradually alters their partner's sense of reality, truth and experience. This leads to the victim’s perspective and feelings becoming distorted and damaged which leads to them feeling overwhelmed, valueless and unworthy, and unsure whether an experience is abusive, or normal. Although people may report having had similar experiences with emotional or psychological abuse, it has to be noted, that the impact and effects will vary from person to person.

Here are some of the features of emotionally and psychologically abusive relationships which an individual may experience.

Aggressive behaviour

  • Name calling or insulting
  • Shouting, or throwing or breaking objects
  • Violent, dominating body language, vocal tone or language

Controlling behaviour

  • Withholding information, care or love
  • Demanding a person obeys time boundaries or only go to certain places
  • Financial abuse – monitoring spending, or treating their partner like a child giving and giving an allowance

Jealous and coercive behaviour

  • Accusations of wrong-doing, often abusers will accuse their partner of infidelity – demanding they prove they have been faithful
  • Exaggerated sulking, often lasting for extended periods of time
  • Minimising the impact of the abuse, or saying it is all in their parter's head
  • Blaming their partner for small or seemingly insignificant wrongs

Alienation and isolation

  • Isolating their victim, keeping them away from friends, colleagues or family  
  • Limiting their freedom to form new relationships or maintain current ones
  • Telling their victim that they are selfish for spending time with others, further adding to the sense of isolation or alienation, leading to feelings of guilt and shame

Baiting, blaming and belittling

  • Baiting can solicit angry or aggressive responses from the victim, which in turn creates further anger from the abuser, which in their mind is justified, as their partner started it, and they were defending themselves
  • Blaming the victim for problems and seeks to blame them entirely. Often a victim is so weakened by the process of blame, they will fall in line with this altered view of the truth
  • Belittling, condescending or patronising is designed to put someone down, but also maintain the façade of friendliness or being reasonable

Threats and emotional blackmail

  • Abusers will threaten to hurt the victim, friends or even pets with harm if the victim leaves the relationship, seeks help or tells the authorities
  • An abuser may threaten to tell neighbours, friends or family of their partners secrets, or threaten to post sexually explicit pictures of them online
  • An abuser will seek to overwhelm their partner with attention or dependency from an early stage in the relationship. This facilitates a belief in the victim that they exist only within the confines of their relationship, and that they are an not independent, but merely an extension of their partner

The impact of emotional abuse

  • Feeling agitated, fearful or concerned of upsetting your partner
  • A noticeable drop in self-esteem and confidence
  • Decrease in social activity
  • Lack of communication with family
  • Difficulties in managing conflict or disagreement
  • A sense of being on edge, or worrying you will get in trouble
  • Escapist behaviour, such as increased use of alcohol, drugs or researching holidays

Moving forward and seeking help

Emotional and psychological abuse is highly damaging, and may in some cases be linked to early experiences or relational attachments. This inevitably means it is complex, and the cycles of abuse can be difficult to break.

Seeking help is an important step in stopping abuse early before it can become entrenched. A therapist will be able to work with you to understand yourself, consider your feelings, thoughts and ideas, and work with you to build your self-esteem, confidence and self-belief.

The process of seeking help to move on from an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship is a long one, and is not easy. However learning to value yourself and your needs, and believing that you are entitled to respect, care and decency is a good place to start.

Further reading

How therapy is helping me heal from past abuse

The neuroscience of emotional wellbeing

How to move through trauma

Dissociation: understanding the impact of relational trauma