When we think about abuse, most of us think about physical abuse, where there are often outward signs such as recurrent injuries that help us recognize that someone is in trouble. Physical abuse is the most obvious, but it is not the only type of abuse.
What is emotional abuse?
Emotional abuse is much more difficult to detect, both for the recipient and for family and friends outside the relationship. This type of abuse may begin gradually, often with the abused not realizing it is happening while the frequency and degree of assault increases. The behavior is sometimes disguised as love and concern for the other party.
Emotional abuse is a form of manipulation using fear, guilt, and shame to maintain control in a relationship. There are a variety of reasons a person may become an abuser; often it is the result of some form of trauma or abuse they experienced or witnessed when they were young, although it may also be the result of mental illness.
Emotional abuse can occur in any type of relationship – parent to child, partner to partner or spouse to spouse, child to parent, caregiver to elderly or disabled, or even employer to employee. Many of the actions are the same regardless of the relationship, although the delivery may be different. It can occur regardless of race, single or dual parent households, or socio-economic status.
Five signals of emotional abuse
Demean: This may include verbal attacks, criticism, belittling, name-calling, yelling/swearing, humiliation, teasing about things the recipient can’t control (looks, intelligence), or gaslighting. Gaslighting is the attempt to make someone question their sanity – any sort of mind-game meant to make the recipient second-guess themselves and feel off-balance.
These actions may take place in private initially, but over time, as the abuser is more emboldened they may begin to do it in front of other people.
Detachment: With detachment, the abuser may refuse to touch or pay attention to the other person, or they may physically or emotionally abandon them. For example, in a parent to child situation, the parent may refuse to attend or acknowledge ongoing events that are important to the child.
Intimidation/Fear: Threats of violence to someone/something of importance, verbal threats, doing something “for their own good,” or that something the recipient did caused them to act out, and unreasonable demands, are all examples of intimidation. This could be anything from threatening to harm a beloved pet to the destruction of something of special sentimental value to the abused.
Isolation: Restricting the recipients’ ability to see, talk to, or spend time with friends and family, kicking teens out of the home, or leaving children alone for long periods of time are examples of isolation. This isolation can result in the loss of a support system for the abused as social relationships dissolve. It can also result in the abused feeling alone in life as though there isn’t anyone they can turn to for help, support, or understanding.
Exploitation: Especially prevalent in the emotional abuse of a child, this refers to placing more responsibility on the abused than they can handle or then is fair. Requiring a child to work to support the family at a young age or a spouse to keep the house spotless are examples of this.
Corruption: Encouraging and rewarding bad behavior such as inappropriate sexual activity, cruelty to others, the use of drugs or alcohol, criminal activities, or self-harm are examples of corruption.
In normal relationships, any of these indicators may happen occasionally. But if the action is repeated regularly for more than a few weeks, it is considered abusive.
Physical, sexual, and financial abuse may all occur in combination with emotional abuse.
Effects of emotional abuse
In all forms, emotional abuse conditions the recipient to feel as though they are unloveable, foolish, confused, and powerless. In parents who are abused, it creates feelings of guilt because they feel as though they didn’t do something right in raising their abusive child. In children who are abused, it can create distrust of others in positions of power. Long-term effects of emotional abuse are as powerful as those of physical abuse.
What to do if you’re in an abusive relationship
In her article entitled 10 Signs You’re Ready to Leave Your Abusive Relationship: A Therapist Explains, the author quotes Sheela Mackintosh-Stewart who says that “Disengagement from an abuser is the moment when an abuse sufferer starts to ‘change from thought to action.’”
If you suspect that you or a loved one are being emotionally abused, get help. Encourage them to reach out to friends, family, a therapist, or a support organization. There are many professional groups in place to assist the abused. Some of those resources include:
Child Protective Services
Adult Protective Services
Child Help National Child Abuse Hotline – 800-422-4453
National Domestic Abuse Hotline – TheHotline.org / 800-799-7233
Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 800-273-8255