What is Emotional Abuse?

Continuing the cultural discussion about what defines emotional abuse.

Posted Dec 01, 2015

Source: elenathewise/BigStock

Most people have an understanding of the concept of physical abuse.  They see the battered woman or the beaten child and consider those situations horrific examples of physical abuse.  Most people also have an understanding of the concept of sexual abuse.  They see the rape victim or children caught in sex trafficking and categorize those situations as unacceptable examples of sexual abuse. 

Some lines of physical and sexual behavior are clear and definitive, yet other lines may be blurred.  What about the parent who spanks a child for misbehaving?  In some circles, such behavior is acceptable, even encouraged, yet in others such behavior is considered barbaric. What about the spouse who barters sex for other items in the marriage?  In some sectors, such behavior is considered normal, yet in others such behavior is considered manipulative and exploitive.  Within that continuum, how do you define what is and is not abusive?

In the case of physical and sexual abuse, though the lines may be blurred in some situations, over the past centuries and more recent decades, society has continued to refine what is and is not acceptable behavior.  Physical abuse and sexual abuse, as concepts, are part of the cultural landscape.  The concept of emotional abuse, however, has not advanced as far or been on the cultural consciousness as long.  For many, emotional abuse remains a much murkier concept.

Defining emotional abuse is important.  As a culture, we need to continue the conversation about emotional abuse, in general, and what constitutes emotional abuse, specifically.  Let’s contribute to that cultural conversation by discussing emotional abuse in regard to relationship dependency.  Emotional abuse in our culture is pervasive and damaging, and it’s as relevant a topic as physical and sexual abuse. 

Emotional abuse undercuts a person’s foundational self-confidence and love of self and replaces them with confusion about self-worth, value, justice, mercy, and love.  So what constitutes emotional abuse?  Further, when and how are emotions abused?  How can we quantify the damage when attitudes do the wounding or when actions leave no physical trace? 

As a clinician, I have come to recognize the pervasive damage to the mind, soul, and spirit of a person who experiences emotional abuse.  Emotional abuse almost always accompanies physical or sexual abuse, but emotional abuse can occur without anyone lifting a finger.  Emotional abuse can be an aggressive yell or passive silence.  It is often created through a covert absence of something good instead of the overt presence of something bad. 

Because we live in a broken world in which people do not—and cannot—always govern their own actions or words, emotional abuse is far too common.  When a father hauls off and slugs a defiant child, using adult strength, energy, and anger to inflict damage, we readily condemn such behavior as physical abuse.  But what about the father who uses adult sarcasm from a position of influence and authority to belittle, demean, and ridicule a defiant child?  No punch is thrown; no eye is blackened or lip split.  Yet that child has sustained an emotional and relational injury. 

Emotional injuries are sustained in relationship, even among those of us who should know better.  All people, unfortunately, have the capacity to be unkind.  But when is the line crossed between acts of unkindness and emotional abuse?  When does unkindness devolve into cruelty and the intent to harm?  Before we link the damage of emotional abuse to the characteristics of relational dependency, we first need to explain our corner of this cultural conversation by offering a definition of emotional abuse. 

Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.

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