On this page, we have framed the information about emotional abuse into a scenario involving a romantic relationship, which is why you will see the use of the word ‘partner’. However, emotional abuse can occur between friends, colleagues and family members too and the information in this article still applies.
Emotional abuse can be very difficult to identify. Both the perpetrator of emotional abuse and the victim may be unaware of the severity of what they are doing / experiencing. Emotional abuse is sustained harmful behaviour within a relationship, where one partner seeks control and the other feels intimidated and regulates their behaviour to maintain peace within the relationship. We can all have arguments within our relationships, about how we like things done for example, and become frustrated when our needs aren’t met. However, if a person is continually worried about and even afraid of their partner’s reactions, then this may be a sign of an emotionally abusive relationship.
Emotionally abusive people feel like victims and therefore feel justified in victimising others. People who are emotionally abusive tend to be insecure and anxious in temperament. A predisposition to thinking something bad will happen or something will go wrong is a common trait and one that may be traced back to childhood. People who act in an emotionally abusive way tend to not deal well with failure or criticism.
Even when an emotionally abusive partner is aware that they are to blame for a particular situation, they are likely to blame their partner: ‘You push my buttons’; ‘I’m only human, how could I act differently after what you did?’; You’re overreacting’. They may use various tactics to control their partner, such as:
They may be very co-dependent, and not treat their partner as an individual, rather just as an extension of themselves. An emotionally abusive person may also put unreasonable demands on their partner and continually criticise them.
Coercive control, which is a form of psychological abuse, is a criminal offence in England and Wales.
On top of the obvious impact on your daily life, such as being upset, having arguments and dealing with criticism, one of the most harmful effects of emotional abuse is the changes in behaviour you might make as you adapt to limit the amount of upset caused. You may find yourself walking on eggshells and feeling constantly anxious about telling your partner something or worried about certain scenarios. You may find that you avoid social events with your partner as you are nervous about how you will be made to look. You may start keeping things from your partner to avoid potential upset, and consequently may feel guilty or like you are leading a double life. You may find yourself continually second guessing yourself as you have become unsure if you thoughts, feelings and behaviours are warranted. You may be riddled with self-doubt and feel unhealthily dependent on your partner.
Emotionally abuse can even be more psychologically harmful than physical abuse. As it usually happens every day, especially if it is happening within a romantic relationship, the frequency of emotional abuse makes it extremely psychologically damaging and the victims tend to blame themselves. As emotional abuse is often quite subtle, many victims are so quick to blame themselves that they don’t even stop to think that the criticism they just received was unjustified. Victims of emotional abuse are vulnerable to depression, emotional instability, and physical pain without cause. Those who have had an emotionally abusive relationship may even suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. For instance, 72% of women who were physically abused by their husbands reported psychological abuse to be more destructive. Similarly, another study showed that psychological abuse was more strongly connected to anxiety and depression than physical abuse (1).
If you find yourself exhibiting any of these behaviours it is important that you look after yourself and try to consider taking action to leave the relationship. Talk to a friend about what is going on if you can and remember that you do not deserve to feel embarrassed or ashamed of yourself or your situation. It can be very difficult to reach out for help, especially if your self-worth has been gravely damaged, but you do deserve help from friends and professionals.
Therapist Jo Mercer, who specialises in working with emotional and psychological abuse survivors, explains more in this video
A therapist or counsellor can help with many of the effects of emotional abuse, such as low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and PTSD. They could also help you gather more self-awareness so that you can identify patterns of behaviour in your past and present situation that may be harmful to your sense of self and mental health. In this way a therapist or counsellor can help you escape from a cycle of feeling powerless.
Even acknowledging that a relationship was / is abusive is a huge step. A therapist or counsellor can help you take the next positive steps towards feeling more secure, confident and content.
Welldoing.org therapist Joshua Miles explains: "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."
Therapy is a safe, confidential space where you do not need to feel afraid of judgment or of doing or saying things wrong. The therapeutic relationship between you and your therapist or counsellor can become an important model for relationships outside of therapy, characterised by respect, consideration and healthy boundaries.
(1) Rauer, A. J., Kelly, R. J., Buckhalt, J. A., & El-Sheikh, M. (2010). Sleeping with one eye open: Marital abuse as an antecedent of poor sleep. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(6), 667–677. https://doi-org.uoro.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/a0021354
Last updated on 19 January 2021