Psychological Abuse

What is psychological abuse?

The Istanbul Convention defines psychological abuse as violence that serious impairs a person’s psychological integrity through coercion or threats. Psychological abuse means the use of non-physical actions, including words, for the purpose of manipulating, hurting, weakening, or frightening the victim, which has a detrimental impact on their wellbeing. To distinguish psychological abuse from its physical counterpart, this article will adopt the second definition throughout.

The expressions ‘psychological’ and ‘emotional’ have often been used interchangeably however there is an important distinction; psychological is associated with maltreatment that impacts on the mind and mental health, weakening a person’s judgement and thinking, whereas emotional is linked to emotions and wellbeing. Psychological abuse undermines the security of the victim’s own logic, and reasoning. In short, the abuser makes the victim feel as if they are losing their mind.

Examples of Psychological Abuse

  • Manipulation of the mind. A typical example of this is gaslighting, namely, to make you question your memory, feelings, judgment, or sanity. It can involve a campaign of instilling an alternative version of events in your mind, causing you to wilfully ignore even the most obvious counterevidence. They might try to make you seem irrational to other people and yourself. They might behave differently in public and in private, which can confuse the victim and cause them to doubt their perceptions. Very commonly, they disguise their abuse with notions of love and affection, such as telling you to let him manage your finance because it is a man’s job.

  • An abuser might target your vulnerabilities like sexuality, gender identity, immigration status or mental disabilities. For example, an abuser might threaten to 'out' you to other people in an effort to gain control, or they might also threaten to take away your citizenship or use your immigration status against you. If you have a disability, an abuser might perpetuate abuse with threats of institutionalisation.

  • Psychological abuse might overlap with other types of abuse, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse. For example, an abuser might persuade you to take part in sexual activities to "prove your love" to them. They might threaten to physically hurt you, your loved ones or themselves if you leave them.

  • Other examples include belting you, putting you down, insulting you, ridiculing, imitating your behaviour, targeting your job, political opinion or religion, playing down the abuse, denying the abuse is happening, giving you the silent treatment, victim-blaming, counter-accusing and making you responsible for their emotional state, making unreasonable demands for attention, isolating you from other people including your family and friends, controlling studies, work, where you go and what you wear.

  • They might take advantage of the fact that you have children together by trying to turn your children against you, or constantly criticising your parenting skills.

What is the impact of psychological abuse?

Psychological abuse can be as harmful to the victim as physical violence, and victims can still be at high risk of homicide even when there are no incidents of physical violence. It can have a severe and devastating impact on victims’ mental and emotional health, impacting the person’s ability to work, socialise, parent and generally function day-to-day. Long-term, psychological abuse created issues with confidence, trust, relationships, finances and employment problems.

Practitioners describe severe and devastating impacts on victims’ mental and emotional health including high levels of anxiety and depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts including overdoses and self-harm, diminished self-esteem, low confidence, and an eroded sense of self.

Key statistics:

  1. 1 in 3 women have experienced psychological abuse by a current or previous intimate partner [1]. However, 31% of survivors did not access any service for support around psychological violence.[2]

  2. 42% of survivors never experienced physical assault causing bruising or cuts, and 76% of survivors never experienced physical assault causing broken bones or serious injury.[3]

  3. 96% of survivors said their partner was charming and affectionate at the beginning. [4]

  4. After an abusive incident, 80% of survivors said their partner promised to change, saying they recognised their issues; 85% said they loved them, missed them, or couldn’t live without them; 90% said their partner communicated with them as if nothing had happened.[5]

  5. 62% of survivors reported that, at some point in their relationship, their partners had used technology (e.g., social media, tracking devices) to abuse, harass or stalk them. [6]

  6. 90% reported feeling their self-esteem or self-worth was low; 88% feeling confused, anxious or under pressure; 88% feeling exhausted, worn down, lack of motivation; 88% feeling emotionally withdrawn or shut down, and 84% feeling lonely and isolated. 47% of survivors reported having suicidal thoughts [7].

It is important to understand that leaving an abuser is dangerous and if you suspect someone is experiencing psychological abuse you should not pressure them to leave their abuser before they are ready or before they have an adequate safety plan in place. In an emergency call 999 if you are in the UK, or your national emergency number. If you are experiencing abuse, you are not alone and there are several frontline services available that can provide guidance on how to safely manage your individual situation. Read our advice on how to create a safety plan here.

By Haocheng Fang, Thrive Research Hub Member