Emotional abuse happens when someone uses emotions to control someone else.1 Emotions are used to blame, criticize, embarrass or shame the other person. Unlike physical abuse, emotional abuse is not always visible to people outside of the relationship in which it occurs.
A relationship is often considered emotionally abusive when there is a consistent pattern of bullying behavior and abusive words that have a detrimental and harmful impact on the victim’s self-esteem and overall mental health.2 Emotional abuse can occur in a variety of relationships, including marriages and dating. However, a relationship does not have to be romantic for emotional abuse to be a concern.
It can occur in relationships between friends, family, and co-workers as well. It is important to note that emotional abuse is a form of domestic violence, and anyone, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, faith, class, or age, can be a victim.
Emotional abuse can often be difficult to recognize. It is not as overt as physical forms of domestic violence or even forms of financial abuse. There are various types of emotional abuse one may experience. Each is different in subtle ways, but all can impact one’s mental and emotional health in harmful ways leading to emotional challenges, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Verbal abuse is the most common form of emotional abuse and one of the more challenging to notice. It does not have to be overt. Statements or even threats can be voiced in a loving, quiet, or indirect way. They may also be hidden in jokes or sarcasm. However, verbal abuse may also be clear and out in the open. Threats (instilling fear), name-calling, put-downs, rejection, intimidation, and bullying are all forms of verbal abuse.
Gaslighting is another form of emotional abuse. It is a form of manipulation an abuser uses to gain power over their victim. Gaslighting is a type of brainwashing that makes victims question their reality. Gaslighting involves denying truths and facts and distorting truths about the reality that surrounds a victim.3
In time, the victim begins to believe in this alternate reality. Isolation is also a part of gaslighting and a form of emotional abuse. Someone who is convinced they are doing things wrong (such as being a poor parent or incapable of managing the household finances) may feel they have no choice but to isolate themselves away from others to not hurt them- even though they are being victimized.
Trauma bonding or a trauma bond is the emotional attachment that develops out of a pattern of long-term abuse. Many abusive relationships begin with kindness and affection. It is a normal part of human nature to develop close relationships with those who show kindness. Early on, a partner will be affectionate and provide assurances of love.
In time, their abusive character will show, and they will speak or act aggressively. Although this aspect may initially be painful and surprising, it often makes their victim think back to the past when things were good. An abusive partner will offer assurances that “it will never happen again,” and their victim will stay. Trauma bonding essentially trains a domestic violence victim to believe their partner can change.
When someone is the victim of severe emotional abuse, their mental health may rapidly decline. The signs of emotional abuse are often invisible. The abusive character of the abuser is hidden behind the front they present to the world. Consequently, the only people who are aware of the relationship issues are the abuser and the victim.4
Emotional abuse will inevitably destroy a victim’s self-esteem. With time, this form of domestic violence can significantly impact a victim’s mental health. They will eventually start to believe the terrible things their abuser says to and about them. Once this happens, most victims do not know how to escape their relationship.
The isolation that comes with emotional abuse and other forms of domestic violence also leads to growing mental health struggles. Symptoms of new or worsening mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, are not uncommon in abusive relationships. Unfortunately, these challenges may last far beyond someone finding freedom from the relationship.
The first step, and likely the most challenging, is recognizing the relationship problem. It is vital to see that there is a pattern of abuse before you can find ways to move forward. It is essential to reach out to a friend, loved one, or a community agency to report what you are feeling and experiencing.
Next, it is essential to put yourself first. Many victims of domestic violence place so much importance on pleasing those around them, including their abuser, that they forget to focus on self-care. Putting a focus on self-care can help to reduce some of the stressors you experience. It is also essential to establish boundaries.
Make it clear to your abuser that you are no longer willing to be a victim. Set boundaries for hurtful behavior (such as you will leave the room if they call you names), and be sure to follow through on them.
It is also important to avoid engaging with an abusive person. If they try to start an argument or acts out in a rage, do not try to fix it or apologize for things you did not do. If you can, walk away and seek a safe space away from the emotional hurt. Another tip for dealing with emotional abuse is to create an exit plan.
If you know in your heart that your abuser has no intention of changing, it is time to leave. Each situation is unique, and it is essential to take these steps carefully not to put yourself in further danger. Talk to someone you trust about your plan and seek help if you need to.
Healing from emotional abuse takes time. It is helpful to have a strong support network of family and peers who understand what you are going through and what you have been through. This group will help you feel less lonely and provide a source of emotional support as you work towards freedom. Mental health struggles commonly co-occur with emotional abuse.
Seeking professional help in the form of therapy can help you work through the symptoms you experience and provide a safe, trusted source to open up to. Finally, if you are in danger, call 9-1-1 for help leaving your environment. There are many support networks and hotlines available to provide immediate assistance.