Emotional Vs Physical Abuse

We live in a society where the only form of abuse considered worse is physical abuse and everybody just chooses to turn a blind eye on emotional and psychological abuse. I cannot even mention how many times I have heard people complaining that they were being abused in their relationships and I hear people say, “Did it ever get physical?” This goes on to show how ignorant we are as a society to the different forms of abuse that occur.

An unhealthy relationship may involve physical abuse but even if the relationship may never get physically abusive, emotional abuse can escalate over time with devastating consequences, even death. Emotional abuse does not always lead to physical abuse but physical abuse is nearly always preceded and accompanied by emotional abuse.

The reason why we don’t often hear about emotional abuse is probably that many people aren’t sure what emotional abuse actually entails.

Sometimes we are in emotionally abusive relationships without knowing it. We may be the victims or sometimes even the perpetrators without being aware of it. I hope this article will help shed some light on everyone regarding what constitutes emotional abuse.

Since emotions generally fall under the umbrella of psychology, I will use the terms emotional abuse, psychological abuse, and mental abuse interchangeably to refer to the same thing.

What is emotional abuse?

Most of us know what physical abuse is but do we know what emotional abuse is?

Emotional abuse is any form of abusive behavior that is not physical. It is the use of verbal and non-verbal acts which symbolically hurt the other or make them feel threatened or controlled. It is the direct infliction of mental harm.

Emotional abuse is rarely a single event but an ongoing and gradual process that is sustained and repetitive. Even if you’re the most observant person in the world, you may not realize what’s happening until you’re deeply entangled in its web. As a result, the abuse can go unchecked as the relationship progresses, building for months, years, even decades, especially if the abuse is more covert.

Even though it may be accompanied by other kinds of abuse: such as sexual or physical, it doesn’t need to include other kinds of abuse for it to be considered serious. It’s serious enough on its own to be a concern.

Aim of emotional abuse

Regardless of how emotional abuse unfolds, it is meant to;

  • Control and feel superior
  • Diminish another person’s inner self, sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth.
  • Belittle someone and erode their self-esteem. You may lose your self-esteem to the extent that you feel that nobody could ever love you or want to be with you.
  • Make you feel like you’re not good enough
  • Co-dependency

This is how the abuser wins you over. They make you emotionally and mentally weak that you think you can’t survive without them. You center everything on them and even neglect yourself, your friends, and or your family in trying to please them but your efforts are not reciprocated. You suppress your emotions in order to keep peace with the person. You feel responsible for all that goes wrong in a relationship and take the blame for everything. You try to rescue them from themselves and even defend them when others point out what’s happening. You can even feel guilty when you try to stand up for yourself. And lastly, even if you really know you have to save yourself and go, if your abuser tells you that they can’t live without you, you will stay in that toxic relationship. In an emotionally abusive relationship, you may feel that there is no way out or that without your partner you’ll have nothing.

Problems caused by emotional abuse

Emotional abuse may not leave physical marks but can be just as destructive as physical abuse. Physical violence is often seen as being more serious than emotional abuse, but this simply isn’t true.

The scars of emotional abuse are real and long-lasting. It;

  • Makes one emotionally and mentally weak
  • Causes you physical illnesses such as depression and anxiety,
  • Leaves you with emotional scars in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Can lead to fatality in terms of suicide
  • Makes you aggressive
  • Can lead to addiction

Forms of emotional abuse

1. Verbal abuse

Here are some examples:

  • Name-calling. Blatantly calling somebody “stupid,” “a loser,” or other awful words.
  • Character assassination. Using the word “always.” For example, you’re always late, wrong, screwing up, disagreeable, and so on. Basically, this means somebody is incapable of doing good.
  • Yelling. Yelling, screaming, and swearing. This makes somebody feel small and inconsequential.
  • Public embarrassment. Picking fights, exposing secrets, making fun of one’s shortcomings, or belittling them in public.
  • Sarcasm
  • Body Insults. Telling somebody unkind words about their body like, “You are ugly or you have cat eyes.”
  • Belittling one’s intelligence or accomplishments. “The problem is you are not too intelligent or your achievements mean nothing”, or they may even claim responsibility for your success.
  • Put-downs of one’s interests. For example, telling somebody that their hobby/sport is a waste of time.
  • Pushing one’s buttons. Knowing about something that annoys/upsets someone, then bring it up or do it at every given chance to get a reaction from them. Doing something to spite someone and once the trouble starts, it’s the person’s fault.
  • Blaming. This may include turning the tables. Telling people that they cause one’s rage or blaming them for one’s problems. Whatever’s wrong in your life is all their fault. Either you’re not supportive enough, didn’t do enough, or stuck your nose where it didn’t belong.
  • Gaslighting. This involves someone denying something the other knows is true. An abuser will deny that an argument or even an agreement took place. It’s meant to make the other person question their own memory and sanity. The goal is to distort someone’s sense of reality and convince them that they are crazy or incompetent.
  • Guilt-tripping. Saying something like, “You owe me this. Look at all I’ve done for you,” in an attempt to get their way. Can even say you have no sense of humor. For example, abusers make personal jokes about others and if others object, they’ll tell them to lighten up.
  • Projection. For example, accusing you of abuse. They say you’re the one who has anger and control issues and they’re the helpless victim.
  • Trivializing. When you want to talk about your hurt feelings, they accuse you of overreacting and making mountains out of molehills.

2. Controlling

Examples include:

  • Intimidation and Threatening. Threatening to hurt you, themselves, or others if you leave. Hitting or kicking a wall, furniture, doors, shaking a finger or fist at one’s partner. Making threatening gestures or faces. Threatening to destroy or destroying personal property belonging to one’s partner.  Threatening to use physical or sexual aggression against one’s partner. Driving dangerously while one’s partner is in the car with a conscious intentional act to scare or intimidate. Using the partner’s children, friends, family, or pets to threaten them (e.g., threatening to kidnap). Threatening to leave the relationship unless you do what they say.
  • Restricting the other person’s usage of family resources such as a family car or telephone.
  • Not allowing the partner to leave the home alone i.e. preventing the partner from working or attending school or other social gatherings
  • Acting in ways that are aimed at turning other people against the victim. For example interfering with work or other relationships through frequent telephone calls or visits to the workplace in the hopes of getting the partner fired, for example.
  • Preventing another person from socializing with friends and/or seeing his or her family
  • Preventing another person from seeking medical care or other types of help
  • This may include withholding economic resources or affection. Preventing victims from possessing or maintaining any type of financial self-sufficiency or resources and enforcing material dependence of the victim on the abusive partner. The idea is for them to have financial control. They might keep bank accounts in their name only and make you ask for money. You might be expected to account for every penny you spend.
  • Refusing to share in housework or childcare responsibilities with the partner
  • Social Isolation. It focuses on interfering with and destroying or impairing the victim’s support network and making the victim entirely or largely dependent on the abusive partner for information, social interaction, and satisfying emotional needs.
  • Digital spying. Checking another person’s internet history, emails, texts or messages, and call log or even demanding their passwords.
  • Unilateral decision-making. This may involve making decisions that affect either people, the other partner, or the family without consulting the other person. I.e. closing a joint bank account, cancel the other’s doctor’s appointment, or speaking with their boss without asking.
  • Ordering i.e. “Get my dinner on the table now” to “Stop talking over the phone,” orders are expected to be followed despite one’s plans to the contrary.
  • Treating an adult like a child. Telling them what to wear, what and how much to eat, or which friends one can see.
  • Using others. Telling somebody for example “everybody” thinks you’re crazy or “they all say” you’re wrong.

3.   Emotional neglect

Abusers tend to place their own emotional needs ahead of yours. Many abusers will try to come between you and people who are supportive of you to make you more dependent on them so that they can use emotional neglect to make you suffer.

  • Shutting down communication. They’ll ignore your attempts at conversation in person, by text, or by phone.
  • Dehumanizing you. They’ll look away when you’re talking or stare at something else when they speak to you.
  • Withholding affection. They won’t touch you, not even to hold your hand or pat you on the shoulder. They may refuse sexual relations to punish you or to get you to do something.
  • Tuning you out. They’ll wave you off, change the subject, or just plain ignore you when you want to talk about your relationship.
  • Calling you needy. When you’re really down and out and reach out for support, they’ll tell you you’re too needy or the world can’t stop turning for your little problems.
  • Indifference. They see you hurt or crying and do nothing.
  • Disputing your feelings. Whatever you feel, they’ll say you’re wrong to feel that way or that’s not really what you feel at all.
  • Dismissiveness. When you tell them about something that’s important to you and they say it’s nothing or give you negative body language reactions such as rolling eyes or sighing.
  • Walking out. I.e. stomping out of the room in the middle of a heated argument or discussion and leave issues unresolved. Or one may refuse to discuss issues at all.

Closing Thoughts

Emotional abuse, like any other form of cruelty, thrives in the darkness when no one understands, discusses, or recognizes it. Use your newfound knowledge and curiosity to shine the light on the risks and devastation of emotional abuse.

A great place to start is by asking the question, “How does that behavior or action make the other one feel?”

Mental health professionals have long been aware of the toxic consequences that accompany sustained psychological abuse, but nothing much has been done may be partly because emotional abuse may take place over the course of many years leading to chronic erosion of an individual’s sense of self.

Anybody can emotionally abuse you, it doesn’t need to only be your partner. The abuser could be your spouse or other romantic partners. They could be your business partner, parent, or a caretaker, or anyone you have any form of relationship with.

What to do

If you’re feeling that you are being mentally and emotionally abused, trust your instincts. Know that it isn’t right and you don’t have to live this way. Here’s what you can do:

  • Accept that the abuse isn’t your responsibility. Don’t try to reason with your abuser. You may want to help, but it’s unlikely they’ll break this pattern of behavior without professional counseling. That’s their responsibility. It’s important to know that it’s not your fault and it’s never. You have the right to feel safe, respected, and supported in your relationships.
  • Disengage and set personal boundaries. Decide that you won’t respond to abuse or get sucked into arguments. Stick to it. Limit exposure to the abuser as much as you can.
  • Exit the relationship or circumstance. If possible, cut all ties. Make it clear that it’s over and don’t look back. You might also want to find a therapist who can show you a healthy way to move forward.
  • Give yourself time to heal. Reach out to supportive friends and family members. If you’re in school, talk to a teacher or guidance counselor. If you think it will help, find a therapist who can help you in your recovery.
  • Seek Help. Getting support. If you’re experiencing emotional abuse, it’s important that you seek help. There are a number of services you can contact if you need someone to talk to.

Emotional abuse is a form of violence. If you feel that you have been a victim of emotional or psychological abuse, it’s crucial to get help so you can take back your confidence and autonomy.


If you need to speak to a professional counsellor, don’t forget to get in touch with Psyche and Beyond.

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