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Emotional Abuse

What Is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior in which the perpetrator insults, humiliates, and generally instills fear in an individual in order to control them. The individual's reality may become distorted as they internalize the abuse as their own failings.

Research suggests that between 50 and 80 percent of adults may experience emotional abuse in their lifetime, although the concept is difficult to reliably measure. Emotional abuse is designated as an adverse childhood experience, one experienced by 11 percent of children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An isolated occurrence doesn’t necessarily qualify as emotional abuse, but a pattern of behavior typically does. Such mistreatment can occur in a range of interpersonal contexts, including a parental relationship, a romantic relationship, or a professional relationship. People who suffer emotional abuse can experience short-term difficulties such as confusion, fear, difficulty concentrating, and low confidence, as well as nightmares, aches, and a racing heart. Long-term repercussions may include anxiety, chronic pain, insomnia, and social withdrawal.

Leaving an abusive relationship is challenging but completely possible. Victims must come to recognize that reasoning with an abuser is not effective and that the individual will probably never change. To begin to heal, experts advise those leaving an emotionally abusive relationship to seek support from one’s social circle, and a therapist if needed.

What Are the Warning Signs of Emotional Abuse?

Perpetrators of emotional abuse consistently criticize, shame, and humiliate in order to gain control and power in a relationship. They may yell at their victim, call them names, or level baseless accusations against them. They may act jealous and possessive, monitoring the person’s whereabouts and communication by checking their phone.

An emotional abuser may gaslight their victim into believing that their unhappiness is their own fault. And they often seek to isolate their victim from friends and family, to prevent the person from getting a reality check or broader perspective.

Abusers are often skilled manipulators, so those suffering abuse may not recognize the harmful patterns. These patterns occur consistently and often relent only when the victim understands the partner’s manipulative behavior and threatens to leave. (If the victim decides to stay in the relationship, the abuse will eventually resume.)

Emotional abuse and physical abuse sometimes co-occur, but not always. Emotional abuse, however, often precedes physical abuse, which only begins after a perpetrator's emotional assault tactics fail to control a person’s behavior.

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