Emotional Abuse: Facts, Symptoms, How to Handle, and How to Help
Abuse doesn’t just come in a physical form — and emotional and verbal abuse can carry just as much damage and lasting effects. Emotional abuse may also be a precursor to physical abuse or go hand-in-hand with other forms of harm and mistreatment and is a major sign of an unhealthy 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 or classified as verbal abuse, is controlling another person’s actions and behaviors through verbal and emotional manipulation (as opposed to physical forms of harm as the tool of 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).”
Signs of emotional abuse
The parameters of emotional abuse — compared against simply arguing with your partner, being upset at something your parent did, or saying something that hurts your friend’s feelings (even if you yell it). These behaviors are all normal, and usually worked out when everyone involved gets to a cool calm.
So how do we define emotional abuse? Jeffrey A. Lieberman, the director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, describes it as “a pervasive imbalance of power in a relationship.” The Australian Institute of Family Studies identifies 5 “behavioral forms” that can cause this imbalance of power:
This can play out in a number of different ways. It might be emotional abuse if someone in your life is:
Constantly criticizing what you do, say, or look like
Shaming or blaming you for your behavior, either subtly or implicitly
Calling you names — even when you ask them to stop
Humiliating you at home and in public
Threatening you or those you care for if you don’t do what they want
Threatening to hurt themself if you don’t do what they want
Using ultimatums to get you to do or say what they want
On the flip side, withholding communication or affection from you if you don’t do what they want (e.g., giving you the silent treatment)
Logging into your email, phone, or social media profiles without your permission
Discouraging you from spending time with other people, going to work or school, or other necessary appointments
Controlling your finances or other assets
Deflecting blame or their responsibility for any of the above actions, leaving you to feel like you’re the one at fault (aka, gaslighting)
What is gaslighting?
Abuse is about maintaining power, so gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that allows the abuser to maintain power. Gaslighting 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
Through these forms of control, you’re more likely to stay in the relationship because you’re uncertain of your own selective memory.
Emotional abuse facts and trends
We recently expanded our mandated reporting policy to be inclusive of emotional abuse. (Note: when it becomes relevant, a texter is informed that their Crisis Counselor is a mandated reporter.) Based on our data, we’ve identified that emotional abuse is…
More likely to occur for texters who identify as Native American, Alaskan Native, Asian or Asian-American, trans, or agender.
Most likely to occur on weekends and in winter.
The 15 most common words that texters use in conversations around emotional abuse:
Effects of emotional abuse
As early as the 1990s, studies examined the long-term effects of children who were emotionally abused. A 1993 study for the journal Child Abuse and Neglect profiled a sample of 668 middle-class females, 53% of whom reported childhood abuse (physical, emotional, sexual, or any combination thereof). The results indicated of this sample group 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 or psychological abuse can include:
Feeling like you’re not good enough
Afraid of your partner, family member, or friend abandoning you
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Confusion in other relationships or isolation from other relationships
Feeling fear, shame, loneliness, or guilt
Nightmares, tension, or 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 verbally 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 text 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
The benefits of exercise are far-reaching for someone coming out of a crisis. 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. Exercise will also improve your sleep, which brings us to…
Get enough (quality) sleep
7 to 10 hours of sleep each night is key to staying healthy both physically and mentally, helping with overall mood and judgment. 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 misuse, anxiety, isolation, or depression.
How to help
If you’re concerned that someone you know may be in an emotionally abusive relationship, take your concerns seriously. You can:
Encourage them to reach out for help, including contacting Crisis Text Line at 741741 in the United States or 686868 in Canada.
Text Crisis Text Line on their behalf at 741741 (in the United States) or 686868 (in Canada)
If you believe the person is at critical and immediate risk, call 911.
Interested in helping people in abusive relationships? Learn more about becoming a volunteer Crisis Counselor with Crisis Text Line.