We hear the term emotional abuse tossed about quite a bit these days. Lest we make it a dumping ground for every negative emotional encounter, let’s be clear on what is and is not emotional abuse. 

First, let’s talk about what emotional abuse is not. It is not emotionally abusive to break up with a partner. It is not emotionally abusive to argue with your partner. It is not emotionally abusive when someone reacts to what you have done by feeling hurt. People react out of their own perceptions, so their reactions do not define your behavior. It is also not emotional abuse to speak one’s mind with blunt honesty. Perhaps the statement lacks tact, but it is not emotionally abusive. Again, just because someone reacts to what has been said with hurt does not mean that one has been emotionally abused. 

It is not emotionally abusive to yell at your partner — although this one can get blurry. So let’s stop and talk about it for a moment. Everyone yells sometimes. Everyone. Frankly, I would be more concerned about someone who could never let himself yell than I am about someone who sometimes raises his voice to higher and louder octaves in order to express his emotions. Something that everyone does cannot be considered emotionally abusive.

But screaming at someone hysterically in an emotional verbal assault is considered to be emotional abuse. Yelling as the first and only response might also ultimately be called emotionally abusive as well. But when a husband and wife, or parent and child, occasionally yell at each other, this is a normal expression of emotion. Once the emotion has been expressed, it probably would be a good idea to sit down and talk it out to find a solution to the problem.      

Emotional abuse is an attempt to control, in just the same way that physical abuse is an attempt to control another person. The only difference is that the emotional abuser does not use physical hitting, kicking, pinching, grabbing, pushing, or other physical forms of harm. Rather the perpetrator of emotional abuse uses emotion as his or her weapon of choice. 

Commonly, the perpetrator of emotional abuse does not know that she is being abusive. Rather, she may be aware that she feels insecure about whether or not her partner loves her, so she feels compelled to accuse him of cheating, blame him for her unhappiness, or constantly check his voice and text messages, etc. The accusations, the blame, and the constant checking up are forms of emotional abuse. 

He may think that he knows what’s best for his partner or what looks correct to the outside world, so he constantly tries to control her every move, criticizing her harshly when she doesn’t do something his way or threatening her when she seems to go outside the lines. He may verbally attack her when she argues with him because her arguing is convincing evidence to him that he is not in control of her. He may criticize her talking, her walking, her dressing, her interactions with others, and her style of living and coping with his attempt to gain and keep control over her. 

Here’s an example: Mary constantly criticizes Tim in hopes that by putting him down, she will be able to control his behavior. She belittles him when they are alone, and she puts him down in front of others. When he tries to speak up for himself or call her on her behavior, she attempts to make him feel like he is crazy, like everyone knows he’s crazy, and like no one would ever take him seriously (aka gaslighting).

She blames him for her unhappiness frequently, holding him responsible for how she feels. She takes little to no responsibility for her own choices and behavior. She uses a double-standard when it comes to her own behavior, not holding herself accountable when she does the same exact things for which she criticizes him. She calls him stupid, inept, dumb, and other like names frequently. When he speaks to her relatives or friends, she rolls her eyes in an attempt to manipulate them into disrespecting him. She frequently treats him with disdain and even disgust. She threatens to leave him or to stop speaking to him frequently.

She refuses to show him affection, giving affection only when he does exactly what she wants. She is especially cold, even nonverbal, when she is mad at him. Sometimes she goes days or even weeks without speaking to him. Mary also goes to other family members and friends of Tim’s to talk to them about Tim, thus isolating Tim from those who would be supportive and could let him know that he is being abused. Mary is showing a distinct pattern of emotional abuse that comes at Tim from several different directions: 

  1. Constant criticism or attempts to manipulate and control
  2. Shaming and blaming with hostile sarcasm or outright verbal assault
  3. The use of shaming and belittling language
  4. Verbal abuse — name-calling 
  5. Withholding affection as punishment.
  6. Punishment and threats of punishment
  7. Refusal to accept her part in the dynamic
  8. Mind games, such as gaslighting, when it comes to accepting personal responsibility for her own happiness.
  9. Refusing to communicate at all
  10. Isolating him from supportive friends and family

The emotional abuse cycle follows the same pattern as that of physical abuse — once the victim of emotional abuse figures out what’s going on and starts thinking about leaving or seriously calls the abuser on his actions, the abuser will suddenly become very apologetic and romantic, trying to woo her back into the fold. He will buy flowers, cook suppers, tend to the children, or whatever else he has to do to make her believe that what she thinks she saw, what she believes to be true, is actually false.

No, he is a perfectly good partner, and there is absolutely no reason for her to be thinking about leaving. But as soon as she comes back around and begins to trust that he will no longer emotionally abuse her, he starts back up with the same abusive patterns. Now, it is harder for her to leave, because she has begun to believe in him again. 

Emotional abuse is a painful and serious pattern of abuse in which the primary effort is to control someone by playing with their emotions. And we can dumb down the implications of emotional abuse by mislabeling minor interactional issues as emotional abuse.

This article can also be found on Psychologytoday.com in the blog entitled: Traversing the Inner Terrain, by Andrea Mathews.