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Emotional Abuse

What is it?

Emotional abuse happens when a person uses words or actions to control, frighten, isolate or take away another person's self-respect. Emotional abuse is sometimes called psychological abuse.

What does it look like?

Relationship violence looks and feels different for everyone, only you can decide what is healthy or unhealthy for you.

The following list list is intended to help you recognize warning signs; however, it is not designed to be a complete checklist of warning signs. 1

  • Insults, name calling, constant criticism, swearing or put-downs (alone or with others)
  • Monitoring or controlling communications or activities (e.g. texts, calls)
  • Isolation – limiting contact with friends or family or creating conflict so person will limit contact
  • Threats or implied threats about harm to person, family/friends or pets or destroying belongings
  • Constantly yelling at someone
  • Making fun of someone's faith or religion, not letting a person practice it (spiritual abuse)
  • Controlling what someone wears, where someone goes, who someone can see (in the case of adults)
  • Preventing someone from going out, taking classes or working if the person wants to (in the case of adults)
  • Threatening to have a person deported if the person doesn't behave in a certain way
  • Making threats to harm another person
  • Destroying a person's belongings, hurting a person's pets or threatening to do so
  • Bullying: intimidating or humiliating someone (including on the Internet)

What is the impact?

Emotional abuse can leave a significant impact on your mental and emotional state. It can be very confusing when someone you love chooses to say and do things that are hurtful.

Short-Term Effects of Emotional Abuse 2

  • Surprise and confusion
  • Questioning of one's own memory, "did that really happen?"
  • Anxiety or fear; hypervigilance
  • Shame or guilt
  • Aggression (as a defense to the abuse)
  • Becoming overly passive or compliant
  • Frequent crying
  • Avoidance of eye contact
  • Feeling powerless and defeated as nothing you do ever seems to be right
  • Feeling like you're "walking on eggshells"
  • Feeling manipulated, used and controlled
  • Feeling undesirable

A partner may also find themselves trying to do anything possible to bring the relationship back to the way it was before the abuse.

Long-Term Effects of Emotional Abuse

When emotional abuse has gone on for a long time, it can change how you feel about yourself. Some will feel that they cannot leave their abuser and that they are not worthy of a non-abusive relationship. Adult emotional abuse leads to the victim believing the terrible things that the abuser says about them. Emotional abuse victims often think they're "going crazy."3

Effects of long-term emotional abuse by significant others, boyfriends or girlfriends include:

  • Depression
  • Withdrawal
  • Low self-esteem and self-worth
  • Emotional instability
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Physical pain without cause
  • Suicidal ideation, thoughts or attempts
  • Extreme dependence on the abuser
  • Underachievement
  • Inability to trust
  • Feeling trapped and alone
  • Substance abuse

It is important to remember that emotional abuse is never okay and it is never your fault. It is very normal to want to love and be loved and is very confusing when a partner changes from being loving to being emotionally abusive. There is support available to help you manage the confusion that you may be experiencing and to help you decide what next steps feel right.

If you or someone you know is experiencing emotional abuse please visit the Get Help section for resources.