Emotional Abuse: Everything from Fast Facts, Symptoms, and How to Help

Original post – JANUARY 3, 2019

Abuse doesn’t just come in a physical form. Emotional abuse is one of the biggest red flags of an unhealthy relationship.
Know the signs and get help!

Abuse doesn’t just come in a physical form. Emotional abuse is one of the biggest red flags of an unhealthy relationship. In fact, it is sometimes even more dangerous than physical abuse, because it can be harder to detect. Plus, the two can be related – emotional abuse can act as a precursor to physical abuse or occur concurrently to other types of mistreatment.

No matter what your situation, it is not ok to experience emotional abuse in your relationship. The most important thing to know if you are being abused is that it’s not your fault.

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse, also known as psychological abuse, is controlling another person’s actions and behaviors through verbal and emotional manipulation.

While no official definition exists (yet), the One Love Foundation defines emotional abuse as:

“Any abusive behavior that isn’t physical, which may include verbal aggression, intimidation, manipulation, and humiliation, which most often unfolds as a pattern of behavior over time that aims to diminish another person’s sense of identity, dignity and self worth, and which often results in anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts or behaviors, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

No matter what your situation, it is not ok to experience emotional abuse in your relationship. The most important thing to know if you are being abused is that it’s not your fault.

Signs of emotional abuse

We all treat our loved ones badly sometimes. We might argue with a partner, be upset at something our parents did, or saying something that hurts our friend’s feelings. These behaviors are all normal, and usually, get worked out when everyone involved gets to a cool calm.

Emotional abuse occurs when these behaviors are used to create a power imbalance in a relationship. Although there is no formal definition outlining the signs of emotional abuse, the Australian Institute of Family Studies identifies five behaviors that can cause this imbalance:

  1. Rejection: withholding affection or refusing to show affection
  2. Isolation: preventing the person from participating in normal opportunities for social interaction
  3. Terrorizing: threatening the person with some sort of punishment, or deliberately developing a climate of fear
  4. Ignoring: being purposefully psychologically unavailable or failing to respond to the other person’s behaviors
  5. Corrupting: developing false social values in the other person that reinforce maladaptive behaviors, such as aggression, criminal acts or substance abuse.

These are just five general categories; the truth is emotional abuse can manifest in a lot of different ways. It might be emotional abuse if someone in your life is:

  1. Constantly criticizing what you do, say, or look like
  2. Shaming or blaming you for your behavior, either subtly or implicitly
  3. Calling you names
  4. Humiliating you at home and in public
  5. Threatening you or those you care about if you don’t do what they want
  6. Threatening to hurt themselves if you don’t do what they want
  7. Using ultimatums to get you to do or say what they want
  8. Withholding communication or affection from you if you don’t do what they want (e.g., giving you the silent treatment)
  9. Logging into your email, phone, or social media profiles without your permission
  10. Discouraging you from spending time with other people, going to work or school, or other necessary appointments
  11. Controlling your finances or other assets
  12. Deflecting blame or their responsibility for any of the above actions, leaving you to feel like you’re the one at fault (aka, gaslighting)


Gaslighting is a method of control that causes the victim to question their sanity, memory, or feelings through actions like:

  • Denying previous abusive behavior ever happened
  • Calling the victim crazy or too sensitive
  • Accusing the victim of “revisionist history” and describing the event completely differently

The abuser uses these tactics to make the other person stay in the relationship by making the other person dependent.

Emotional abuse facts

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:

  • Approximately 50% of people have experienced emotional abuse in a relationship
  • Around 18% of women have had a romantic partner try to keep them from family or friends
  • 7 out of 10 women experiencing emotional abuse show signs of depression or PTSD
  • 4 out of 10 men reported experiencing some sort of coercive control by an intimate partner

Effects of emotional abuse

Research from the journal Child Abuse and Neglect profiled a sample of 668 middle-class females, 53% of whom reported childhood abuse. The results indicated that childhood abuse resulted in:

  • More hospitalizations for illnesses
  • A greater number of physical and psychological problems
  • Lower ratings of overall health

In the shorter term, effects of emotional abuse can include:

  • Feeling like you’re not good enough
  • Fear of your partner, family member, or friend abandoning you
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Confusion in or isolation from other relationships
  • Feeling fear, shame, loneliness, or guilt
  • Nightmares
  • Difficulty with concentrating

How to break the cycle of abuse

Emotional abuse can be all-consuming. You might not be able to make a change today, but what change would you like to see in your life? Take a moment to think about that, to picture it. You might love the person who is abusive and don’t want to give up, but know that you deserve better. Here are some steps to take when you’re ready:

Find your support network

Our emotional abuse conversations are more likely than others to involve a discussion of a texter’s support network. We often ask texters, “Who else in your life have you shared this with — family, friends, someone else?” You don’t have to go through this alone. If you can’t talk to someone in your family or friend group, there are support groups — both in person and online.

If you’ve been socially isolated from others, reconnecting with friends is another way of reestablishing your own agency after breaking off an emotionally abusive relationship. If you’re not able to call or go out with friends in your city, consider taking a class to meet new people.

Take care of yourself physically

Studies have shown that the endorphins released during physical activity are beneficial to mental health and mood. But beyond that there are chemicals stimulated that improve your thinking and judgment skills, which can be important if someone is trying to psychologically manipulate you.

Get enough (quality) sleep

Getting an adequate amount of sleep each night is key to staying healthy both physically and mentally. For most people, between seven and ten hours is necessary to achieve enough quality sleep. Try to go to bed at the same time each night if possible, and consider setting a bedtime routine to get into the mindset of rest versus hustle.  

Find professional help if you need it

There are therapists and counselors who specialize in emotional, mental, psychological, and verbal abuse — as well as childhood abuse or relationship abuse. Consider finding a specialist to work with, especially if you feel that you are experiencing other side effects like PTSD, substance abuse, anxiety, or depression.

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