Signs of Emotional Abuse (Definition + Examples)

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Practical Psychology

Did you know that 48% of men and women have experienced at least one psychologically aggressive behavior by an intimate partner in their lifetime? Shocking, isn't it? These numbers aren't just statistics... they represent real people—maybe even someone you know.

Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior where one person systematically controls, belittles, or undermines another, often causing long-lasting psychological harm. Unlike physical abuse, it leaves no visible scars, but the emotional and mental toll can be just as damaging.

Understanding emotional abuse is crucial because it's a hidden epidemic that harms millions of lives every year. Unlike physical abuse, which leaves visible marks, emotional abuse leaves scars on the inside. These invisible wounds can last a lifetime if they're not recognized and healed.

What is Emotional Abuse?

woman in a corner

Emotional abuse is a form of mistreatment where one person uses manipulative tactics to gain power and control over another person.

These behaviors are often systematic and ongoing, leading to long-lasting damage to the victim's emotional and psychological well-being. The abuser's actions may not leave physical marks, but they can leave deep emotional scars that are difficult to heal.

Key Characteristics

Understanding the key characteristics of emotional abuse is crucial for identification and intervention. These signs are often subtle, yet their impact can be devastating:

Bullying: Emotional abuse often begins with bullying tactics. This includes name-calling, belittling, and mocking the victim to erode their self-esteem. It's more than just mean words; it's a consistent pattern that makes the victim feel inferior and worthless. A casual insult becomes emotional abuse when it's repetitive and used as a tool to demean the victim. Bullying behavior usually starts in childhood, but can develop later.

Manipulation: The abuser frequently employs manipulation to gain the upper hand. This can take many forms, including guilt-tripping, emotional blackmail, and playing the victim themselves to divert attention away from their abusive behavior. This manipulation is especially sinister because it causes the victim to question their own judgment and reality.

Undermining: One of the most subtle forms of emotional abuse is undermining. The abuser might constantly criticize the victim's achievements or goals, making them doubt their abilities and worth. Over time, this can lead the victim to give up on their dreams, further entrenching the abuser's control. This is especially common when the abuser feels like they are losing control.

Isolation: Many emotional abusers isolate their victims from their friends and family. By cutting off these support networks, the abuser ensures that the victim is more dependent on them, both emotionally and sometimes even financially. This isolation leaves the victim vulnerable and without external perspectives that could help them recognize the abuse.

Control: Exerting control is at the heart of emotional abuse. The abuser may dictate the victim's actions, choices, and even thoughts. This control could extend to checking their phone, requiring them to report where they are at all times, or making decisions for them without their consent.

Withholding: Sometimes, emotional abuse manifests through the withholding of resources, whether those are emotional or material. This can be in the form of withholding love, affection, attention, or even financial resources as a means of control. The victim may feel like they have to "earn" basic human interactions, further deepening the power imbalance.

How It Differs From Physical Abuse

Emotional abuse and physical abuse often co-occur, but it's essential to recognize that emotional abuse can happen independently of physical violence. The critical difference is that while physical abuse leaves visible signs like bruises or broken bones, emotional abuse leaves invisible wounds on the mind and soul.

These internal scars can affect a person’s mental health, leading to conditions like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A person can suffer from emotional abuse for years without a single physical mark, but the damage to their self-esteem, trust, and overall emotional well-being can be profound and long-lasting.

Understanding emotional abuse is not just about knowing what it is, but also recognizing its pervasive and long-term impact on victims. Often, emotional abuse goes unnoticed because it lacks physical evidence. However, this makes it all the more important to be educated about it, so we can identify the signs and take steps to intervene.

Historical Understanding of Emotional Abuse

The Term: Origins of the Phrase "Emotional Abuse"

The term "emotional abuse" didn't always exist in the way we understand it today. For much of human history, abuse was primarily understood to be physical in nature. It wasn't until the late 20th century that experts began to expand the definition of abuse to include emotional and psychological harm.

Psychologists like Lenore E. Walker, who is famous for the "cycle of abuse" theory, and Patricia Evans, author of "The Verbally Abusive Relationship," have been instrumental in bringing the concept of emotional abuse to mainstream awareness. Their work was groundbreaking because it acknowledged that abuse is not just physical but can also be emotional and psychological.

How Understanding Has Evolved Over Time

In the early to mid-20th century, social attitudes largely dismissed any form of abuse that wasn't physical. However, with the advent of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and subsequent social movements advocating for mental health awareness, the conversation started to change.

Professionals like Dr. Steven Stosny, an expert on emotional abuse, have emphasized how debilitating and damaging emotional abuse can be, equating its long-term effects to those of physical abuse. Over the years, multiple studies, often cited in journals such as the "Journal of Emotional Abuse," have shown the devastating long-term effects of emotional abuse on mental health.

Key Public Cases that Have Shaped Understanding

Several high-profile cases and public stories have played a role in bringing the issue of emotional abuse to the forefront:

  1. Case of Tracy Thurman: Though primarily a case of extreme physical abuse, Tracy Thurman's 1980s story was groundbreaking as it also highlighted the emotional abuse and manipulation tactics used by her husband. This case led to the Thurman Law, which revolutionized police response to domestic violence cases in the United States.
  2. #MeToo Movement: Initiated by Tarana Burke and popularized by celebrities like Alyssa Milano, the #MeToo movement, although initially focused on sexual harassment and assault, has also drawn attention to emotional abuse, particularly in professional settings.
  3. Celebrity Disclosures: Public figures such as Rihanna, Amber Heard, and Johnny Depp have disclosed their experiences with emotional abuse, whether as victims or alleged perpetrators. These stories have ignited public discussions and have played a part in de-stigmatizing the conversation around emotional abuse.
  4. Legal Advances: In recent years, countries like the United Kingdom and Ireland have enacted the "Coercive Control" law that addresses emotional or psychological abuse within intimate relationships. Such legal steps underscore the growing recognition of emotional abuse as a criminal offense.

Contributions of Researchers and Advocacy Groups

Organizations such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) and the American Psychological Association (APA) have been vocal advocates for recognizing emotional abuse as a form of domestic violence.

Research by eminent scholars like Dr. Karyl McBride, who focuses on the impact of narcissistic parents, has helped deepen our understanding of emotional abuse in family settings.

Types of Emotional Abuse

man yelling


Gaslighting is a tactic used to destabilize a person's perception of reality, making them question their feelings, instincts, and sanity. Dr. Robin Stern, who wrote the book "The Gaslight Effect," defines this form of manipulation as a game of mind control and intimidation.

It starts subtly; perhaps your partner denies saying something that you clearly heard. Over time, these denials escalate, and the victim starts to doubt their own memory or judgment. The consequences are severe, ranging from anxiety to severe depression, as victims lose trust in their own intuition.

What makes gaslighting particularly insidious is that it's not easily noticeable; victims often can't tell it's happening until they are deeply enmeshed in an emotionally abusive relationship.

Silent Treatment

The silent treatment goes beyond simple avoidance; it is an act of psychological warfare. Dr. Kipling D. Williams has conducted numerous studies on social ostracism and concludes that being ignored or excluded leads to feelings of unworthiness, anxiety, and depression.

The abuser employing the silent treatment might ignore texts, calls, or direct questions, making the victim feel as though they don't exist. The aim is to make the victim so uncomfortable that they concede to the abuser's demands or apologize, even when they haven't done anything wrong.

Criticism and Degradation

Constant, unconstructive criticism chips away at a person's self-esteem and self-worth over time. Dr. John Gottman, a renowned relationship expert, includes criticism as one of the "Four Horsemen" that can predict the end of a relationship.

The abuser may target the victim's appearance, intelligence, or character in a way that is degrading and demeaning. This ongoing assault can lead to self-doubt, lower self-esteem, and an inability to trust oneself. Victims often start believing they are incompetent or worthless, which further entrenches the power imbalance in the abusive relationship.

Emotional Blackmail

Emotional blackmail is a manipulative tactic that involves threats, intimidation, and sometimes, ultimatums. Dr. Susan Forward defines this in her book "Emotional Blackmail" as a powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us threaten to punish us for not doing what they want.

It usually follows a pattern: a demand, a threat, and then the pressure to comply before facing severe consequences. Victims of emotional blackmail often feel trapped and powerless, as the abuser uses fear and guilt to control their actions.


Blame-shifting is when the abuser turns the table to make the victim feel at fault for their own abusive behavior. Dr. George Simon discusses this extensively in his book "In Sheep's Clothing," explaining that manipulative individuals often use this tactic to escape accountability.

This technique disorients the victim, making them feel like they are the problem, which is a devastating psychological burden to bear. This shifts the focus from the abuser's actions and places it on the victim, creating a confusing emotional environment where the victim may begin to accept the blame for the abuse they are experiencing.

Love-Bombing and Devaluation

Dr. Dale Archer explains love-bombing as a two-step process that manipulative individuals use to gain control.

First, the abuser showers the victim with love and affection to make them feel special and valued. Once the victim is emotionally invested, the abuser suddenly devalues them through criticism, neglect, or outright contempt. This psychological rollercoaster leaves the victim yearning for the affectionate person they first met, making them more susceptible to further abuse and manipulation.

Financial Abuse

Financial abuse, while often overlooked, is a prevalent form of emotional abuse. Dr. Adams from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence suggests that financial abuse is about power and control, where the abuser limits the victim's access to financial resources, making them dependent. This form of abuse can range from controlling all the finances in a relationship to sabotaging the victim’s job opportunities, creating an imbalance of power that makes it difficult for the victim to leave.


Triangulation involves using a third person to create doubts, echo criticisms, or convey information. It is a manipulative tactic aimed at controlling communication between two parties.

Dr. Murray Bowen, a pioneer in family therapy, posited that triangulation disrupts direct communication, causing emotional tension and conflict. The abuser might use friends, family, or even children as pawns in this psychological game to create chaos or pass messages, making it hard for the victim to discern the truth.

Warning Signs of Emotional Abuse

Inconsistency in Behavior

Dr. Rhonda Freeman, a clinical neuropsychologist, notes that inconsistent behavior from the abuser can lead to emotional instability in the victim. One day, the abuser might shower you with love and attention; the next, they could be cold and distant.

This unpredictability keeps the victim off-balance, anxious, and perpetually in the mode of trying to "fix" things. For example, your partner might praise you for cooking a great dinner today but shame you for the same effort tomorrow, claiming you're trying to poison them.

Walking on Eggshells

If you find yourself treading carefully around your partner or friend, editing what you say for fear of setting them off, you're walking on eggshells. Dr. Steven Stosny identifies this emotional vigilance as draining and unhealthy. For example, you might avoid discussing future plans or personal ambitions because you're afraid of your partner's negative reaction or ridicule.

Excessive Control

Emotional abusers often impose an unhealthy amount of control over the lives of their victims. Dr. Darlene Lancer points to this as a red flag, be it controlling what you wear, where you go, or who you meet. An example might include a spouse who demands to approve your clothing choices before you leave the house, claiming they’re doing it for your good.

Withdrawal of Affection

Dr. John Gottman describes this tactic as "emotional withholding," a potent way of keeping the victim compliant. One minute, your partner may be affectionate, and the next, they withdraw emotionally, becoming cold and distant. The uncertainty of when they will be affectionate again keeps you anxious and eager to please them.

Public Humiliation

According to Dr. Ramani Durvasula, demeaning or embarrassing a partner in public is a form of emotional abuse aimed at undermining the victim's self-esteem. For example, an abuser might mock your achievements or opinions in front of friends and family to belittle and control you.

Isolation from Friends and Family

Dr. Craig Malkin emphasizes that isolating the victim from their social network is a classic abuse tactic. Your partner might discourage you from spending time with friends or family, or even portray those people as "bad influences," all to make you more dependent on them. For instance, they may insist on checking your messages and criticize you for talking to friends, claiming that they're only looking out for you.

Constant Monitoring

The persistent checking of your personal devices, like phones or computers, is another significant warning sign. Cybersecurity expert Eva Velasquez highlights this as both a breach of trust and privacy. The abuser might justify this by saying they're checking for your "safety," but it's really a control mechanism. For example, they might demand to have all your passwords and become angry if you change them without telling them.

Subtle Threats or Acts of Intimidation

Dr. Susan Forward explains that intimidation often comes in the form of veiled threats or "jokes." For example, your partner might "jokingly" say they'd kill you if you ever left them. These comments may be framed as humor, but their intent is to instill fear and make you feel unsafe.

The Effects of Emotional Abuse

broken eggshells

Anxiety and Depression

Long-term emotional abuse often leads to anxiety and depression. According to Dr. Sherrie Campbell, an expert in clinical psychology, victims often experience heightened levels of tension and constant feelings of inadequacy. They may suffer from panic attacks or severe anxiety disorders. Depression may manifest as chronic fatigue, loss of interest in activities, and a constant sense of hopelessness.

Example: Victims may start avoiding social situations or work responsibilities due to an overwhelming sense of dread or self-doubt, significantly impacting their quality of life.

Loss of Self-Esteem

Dr. Ramani Durvasula identifies a decline in self-esteem as a significant consequence of emotional abuse. Over time, the constant criticism and belittlement can erode a person’s self-worth, making them feel unimportant or useless.

Example: You may begin to feel as though you're not competent enough to make even the simplest of decisions, constantly second-guessing yourself, which further perpetuates the cycle of abuse.

Emotional and Psychological Scarring

Emotional abuse leaves lasting psychological scars, sometimes even more so than physical abuse. Dr. Steven Stosny indicates that the constant emotional turmoil can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a severe mental health condition that affects a person’s ability to function normally.

Example: The victim may experience flashbacks or nightmares related to the abuse, resulting in disrupted sleep and constant emotional stress.

Physical Health Impacts

It might surprise some people, but emotional abuse can also have severe physical consequences. Dr. Gabor Maté, an expert on the mind-body connection, argues that prolonged emotional stress can lead to physical ailments such as digestive issues, migraines, or even heart problems.

Example: A victim may experience recurring headaches or stomachaches, often triggered by stress, which are actual physiological responses to the ongoing emotional abuse.

Social Isolation

Emotional abuse can drive a wedge between the victim and their social circle. Dr. Craig Malkin suggests that the victim may begin to isolate themselves due to shame or the abuser's direct actions to alienate them from friends and family.

Example: You might find yourself increasingly cut off from loved ones, either because you've been led to believe they're 'against you,' or because you're embarrassed to share what you're going through.

Impact on Future Relationships

Long-term emotional abuse can impact the way victims approach future relationships, often leading to a pattern of unhealthy emotional attachments. Dr. Judith Herman, who specializes in the study of trauma, states that victims may experience difficulties in forming trusting relationships and may even consciously or subconsciously seek out abusive partners.

Example: You may find yourself overly suspicious in new relationships, or conversely, may become overly dependent, perpetuating the cycle of abuse.

Coping Mechanisms and Ways to Seek Help

Recognizing the Abuse

The first step in coping with emotional abuse is recognizing it for what it is. According to psychologist Dr. Susan Weinschenk, many victims live in denial, downplaying the severity of the abuse or blaming themselves. Acknowledging the abuse is essential to breaking the cycle.

Workbook: Journaling about your experiences can help you objectively evaluate the behaviors you're subjected to, thereby allowing you to recognize patterns of abuse.

Creating Emotional Boundaries

Setting emotional boundaries can be challenging but crucial in an abusive environment. Dr. Henry Cloud, an expert on boundaries, advises victims to clearly identify their limits and communicate them firmly yet respectfully to the abuser when possible.

Workbook: Make it clear that certain topics are not open for discussion or criticism, and be prepared to remove yourself from situations where these boundaries are not respected.

Developing a Support Network

Isolation is a common tactic employed by abusers, making it crucial to maintain connections with a support network. Clinical social worker Shannon Thomas emphasizes the importance of staying in touch with friends and family who can offer emotional support.

Workbook: Regularly schedule time to meet or talk with supportive individuals, even if it has to be done in secret due to the abuser's control tactics.

Seeking Professional Help

In some cases, the best course of action is to consult a mental health professional. Dr. Karyl McBride, who specializes in treating emotional abuse, suggests that a trained therapist can provide targeted strategies for coping and eventually escaping the abusive situation.

Workbook: Therapists can offer Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques that can help reframe your understanding of the abuse and improve your coping mechanisms.

Legal Avenues

If the emotional abuse escalates to an extreme level, taking legal action may be necessary. Lawyers specializing in family or domestic abuse cases can guide you through the process of obtaining restraining orders or other legal protections.

Workbook: Document instances of abuse through texts, emails, or recorded conversations as evidence to support your case.

Emergency Services

In extreme cases, it might be necessary to involve emergency services. Safety expert Gavin de Becker, author of "The Gift of Fear," advises that if you ever feel your immediate safety is at risk, don't hesitate to call emergency services.

Workbook: Create a "safety word" with a trusted friend or family member, which you can use to signal that immediate help is needed without alerting the abuser.

Breaking the Cycle

Knowledge is Power

Dr. Lundy Bancroft, an expert on abusive relationships, argues that education is the first step towards breaking free. Understanding the dynamics of emotional abuse can help you realize that the problem isn’t you; it's the abuser's behavior.

Workbook: Reading books, scholarly articles, or even personal accounts of emotional abuse can provide valuable insights and perhaps the affirmation you need to move forward.

Build Financial Independence

Financial control is often a part of the abuse cycle. Financial advisor Suze Orman emphasizes the importance of financial independence, encouraging victims to save money secretly if needed, or to reach out to social services that offer financial assistance.

Workbook: Open a bank account that the abuser doesn't know about and start saving even small amounts to build a financial cushion.

Create a Safe Exit Plan

Leaving an emotionally abusive situation often requires careful planning. Sarah Buel, a family violence expert, recommends constructing a detailed exit plan, including a place to stay, a support network, and a means of transportation.

Workbook: Pre-pack a bag with essential items—identity papers, some clothing, and any medications—and store it with a trusted friend.

Communication Strategies

While not always safe or feasible, communicating your intentions to leave can sometimes be a step towards breaking the cycle. Dr. Robert W. Firestone, a clinical psychologist, suggests using "I" statements to avoid sounding confrontational.

Workbook: Instead of saying, "You're making my life miserable," try, "I feel miserable in this relationship and need to take a step back for my well-being."

Reclaiming Your Identity

Once removed from the abusive environment, Dr. Alexandra Solomon, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University, advises working on self-compassion and self-validation to rebuild self-esteem.

Workbook: Engage in activities that make you feel competent and strong. Reconnect with hobbies and interests that you may have left behind during the abusive relationship.

Seek Ongoing Support

Finally, remember that the path to healing is ongoing and that it's okay to seek long-term support. Psychotherapist Dr. Robyn D'Angelo emphasizes the importance of ongoing therapy or support groups to navigate the complexities of post-abuse life.

Workbook: Regularly attending therapy sessions or support groups like Al-Anon or Codependents Anonymous can offer the sustained emotional support necessary for long-term recovery.


Emotional abuse is a complex and insidious form of manipulation and control that can have far-reaching implications on an individual’s emotional, mental, and even physical well-being. We've delved into what constitutes emotional abuse, drawing from a wealth of expert opinions including psychologists like Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Steven Stosny. We've also looked at its signs and symptoms, as identified by professionals such as Dr. Patricia Evans and Dr. Craig Malkin.

Understanding the damaging effects of emotional abuse is crucial for both victims and those around them. As experts like Dr. Sherrie Campbell and Dr. Gabor Maté point out, the impact is not just emotional but can also manifest in very real physical symptoms, making the need for recognition and intervention even more urgent.

Coping mechanisms and avenues for seeking help are varied, as we've learned from Dr. Susan Weinschenk and Dr. Karyl McBride. From setting emotional boundaries to engaging with professional therapy, there are options for those looking to escape the cycle of abuse. We rounded out our discussion with actionable steps to break free from an abusive environment, citing experts like Dr. Lundy Bancroft and Suze Orman, who offer a roadmap for reclaiming one's life and well-being.

The road to recovery may be long and fraught with challenges, but it is a journey worth embarking upon. It's essential to remember that you are not alone, and help is available. With the right resources and support, it is entirely possible to break free from the chains of emotional abuse and move towards a healthier, happier life.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2023, September). Signs of Emotional Abuse (Definition + Examples). Retrieved from

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