Emotional abuse is aimed at obtaining power and control over a partner (or relation) through behaviours which manipulate their emotions and emotional responses, undermining their self-esteem and capacity for independence. It can often occur alongside other forms of abuse including sexual, financial, or physical abuse, but is equally a form of abuse in its own right.
Emotionally abusive behaviours can include:
Rejection or prolonged periods of silence
Constant criticism, name-calling, put-downs, and belittling
Dismissing concerns or denying the validity of experiences (also known as gaslighting)
Intimidation and threats
These behaviours are intended to cause feelings of insecurity, shame, guilt and embarrassment. This can lead the victim to become withdrawn, isolated, and to feel uncertain in themselves and their situation, whilst also becoming increasingly dependent on their abuser for validation and social interaction.
Sometimes people may be reluctant to label their relationship as emotionally abusive because of the assumed subjectivity of their experience and concerns they won't be taken seriously, stigma surrounding the language, or because they are aware that their partner has a difficult past which might predispose them to exhibit these behaviours.
However, being able to explain the causes of emotionally abusive behaviour does not excuse it or mitigate the fact that it is abusive. It is important to trust your response to the situation and how the behaviour of your partner makes you feel. Sometimes people can struggle to identify emotional abuse because the harm caused is largely invisible. Emotional abuse erodes good mental health and diminishes your sense of agency and self-worth. Whilst there may be no outward signs or physical evidence of abuse or mistreatment, the internalised sense of worthlessness, self-doubt and self-loathing that arise from emotional abuse are hugely damaging to an individual's confidence and sense of self, and can lead to anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts.
If you are concerned that you, or someone close to you, is experiencing emotional abuse, here are some actions you can take to support yourself/them to get help:
Talk about it. Break the silence and reach out to a trusted person, share how you're feeling and discuss possible next steps. If you feel isolated from your support network, or don't know who to speak to, you can also call local frontline charities as listed on our country profiles.
Establish boundaries and prioritise yourself. Take the necessary steps to support yourself, for example by eating well, getting enough sleep and spending time outdoors/away from the home environment if possible. Try to stay in touch with how you are feeling, and consider keeping a journal of what you are experiencing, if you feel safe to do so, so that you have a record of events. This can be useful if your abuser attempts to gaslight your experiences, or if you feel inclined to overlook the severity of abusive behaviours after a 'nice' period.
Write a 'Safety Plan'. A safety plan will help to keep you and any dependent safe during future abuse. It will help you to think about how to increase your safety either within the relationship or if you decide to leave. You can read our full article on how to write a safety plan here.
If you decide to leave, develop an exit strategy. Regardless of the nature of your relationship with an emotionally abusive person, you are not obliged to stay with them, to make excuses for their behaviour towards you, or to hold yourself responsible for helping them to change. Speak to a frontline expert to discuss the necessary steps to safely leave the situation. Ideally do this in a private place, for example, a meeting room at work or a community centre.