Emotional and Psychological Abuse (2023)

Is emotional abuse the same as psychological abuse?
What is emotional and psychological abuse?
What are the signs of emotional and psychological abuse?
What are some forms of emotional and psychological abuse?
What are the effects of emotional and psychological abuse?

What can I do if I am a victim of emotional and psychological abuse?

Is emotional abuse the same as psychological abuse?
There is no clear agreement among experts in the field whether there is a meaningful difference between emotional and psychological abuse. There is some research that suggests that there are slight differences between the two. Emotional abuse is believed to be broader and so psychological abuse is often considered to be one form of emotional abuse. Also, psychological abuse involves the use of verbal and social tactics to control someone’s way of thinking, such as “gaslighting,” which is not necessarily the same as other forms of emotional abuse.

However, for the purposes of the following questions, WomensLaw will group the terms together since the behaviors described by both concepts are similar enough that there isn’t a real difference when considering legal remedies for victims of these behaviors.

What is emotional and psychological abuse?
Abuse comes in many different forms. Even when there is no physical violence, abusive language can be very damaging to you and your children. Emotional and psychological abuse are include mostly non-physical behaviors that the abuser uses to control, isolate, or frighten you. Often, the abuser uses it to break down your self-esteem and self-worth in order to create a psychological dependency on him/her. Emotional and psychological abuse are hard forms of abuse to recognize because the abuse is spread throughout your everyday interactions. Unlike physical abuse, there are often no isolated incidents or clear physical evidence to reference.1

1 See The National Domestic Violence Hotline, What is Emotional Abuse page

What are the signs of emotional and psychological abuse?
Emotional and psychological abuse may begin suddenly or it may slowly start to enter into your relationship. Some abusers behave like a good partner in the beginning and start the abuse after the relationship is established. When this shift in behavior occurs, it can leave you feeling shocked, confused, and even embarrassed. However, abuse is never your fault even if the abuser tells you it is or if your family members or friends blame you for “allowing” the abuse. It is often difficult to decide whether or not certain behaviors are emotionally or psychologically abusive, especially if you grew up witnessing abuse. However, as with all other types of domestic violence, the behavior is intended to gain and keep power and control over you. Some signs that a partner is being emotionally and psychologically abusive include:

  • humiliating you in front of others;
  • calling you insulting names, such as “stupid,” “disgusting,” or “worthless”;
  • getting angry in a way that is frightening to you;
  • threatening to hurt you, people you care about, or pets;
  • the abuser threatening to harm him/herself when upset with you;
  • saying things like, “If I can’t have you, then no one can;”
  • deciding things for you that you should decide, like what you wear or eat;
  • acting jealous, including constantly accusing you of cheating;
  • continually pretending to not to understand what you are saying, making you feel stupid, or refusing to listen to your thoughts and opinions;
  • questioning your memory of events or denying that an event happened the way you said it did, even when the abuser knows that you are right;
  • changing the subject whenever you try to start conversations with the abuser and others and questioning your thoughts in a way that makes you feel unworthy; and
  • making your needs or feelings seem unimportant or less important than those of the abuser.1

1 See U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, Office on Women’s Health, Emotional and Verbal Abuse page

What are some forms of emotional and psychological abuse?
Emotional and psychological abuse can involve behaviors or acts towards you or towards others. Below, we discuss both.

Acts towards others:
Abuse of pets

Pets are commonly viewed as family members and treasured companions. The abuser may use the emotional and psychological connection you have with your pets to gain power and control over you by harming or threatening to harm your pet in any of the following ways:

  • harming your pet to get back at you for actions that you may have taken that show self-determination or independence;
  • harming your pet as “punishment” for something that you or your children did;
  • threatening or harming your pet in an attempt to force (coerce) you into doing something; or
  • forcing you or your children to harm or kill your pet or to watch the abuser do it.1

Threats to self-harm
When your partner regularly threatens self-harm when you don’t do what the abuser wants you to do or when you decide to leave the relationship, this is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. The abuser is using your love for him/her to manipulate and control you. When your partner makes these threats, steps you can take to protect yourself include:

  • telling your partner you care about him/her, but sticking to your boundaries – in other words, not necessarily doing whatever the abuser tells you is necessary to do to “prevent” self-harm;
  • not taking responsibility for the abuser’s actions if the abuser does decide to self-harm; and
  • remembering that it is not your responsibility to “make” the abuser not self-harm. For example, the abuser may say, “If you really loved me, you’d stop me from killing myself” but this is part of the manipulation that often comes with emotional abuse.2

Acts towards you:

In an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship, the abuser will do many things in an attempt to cut all of the emotional ties you have with other people so that the only one left is the one to the abuser. Some signs of this type of isolation include:

  • preventing or discouraging you from seeing family or friends and making you feel guilty when you do;
  • wanting to know what you’re doing all the time and making you be in constant contact;
  • restricting access to transportation so you can’t leave the home;
  • acting jealous of time spent with your family or friends, often to the point where you will “choose” not to see them anymore so you don’t have to put up with the abuser’s jealousy; and
  • wanting you to ask for permission before doing something or spending time with other people.3

Gaslighting is a form of emotional and psychological abuse that tends to happen gradually in a relationship. The term “gaslighting” is used to describe a pattern of behavior in which the abuser intentionally denies that acts or events happened in the way that you know that they happened. An abuser will often twist your emotions, words, and experiences and use them against you, which causes you to question your reality, to doubt your own judgment and memory, and to make you feel that you are “going crazy.” Signs that you are experiencing gaslighting include:

  • feeling confused, “crazy,” and constantly second-guessing yourself;
  • constantly questioning if you are being “too sensitive”;
  • having trouble making simple decisions;
  • constantly apologizing to your partner;
  • frequently making excuses for your partner’s behavior;
  • finding yourself withholding information from loved ones;
  • starting to lie to avoid the put-downs or reality twists;
  • feeling as though you can’t do anything right; and
  • wondering if you are a “good enough” partner.4

Ultimately, these behaviors are meant to control, isolate, or frighten you, and while they do not leave physical scars, they can leave long-lasting trauma.5

1 This information was adapted from Pets and Domestic Violence
2 See The National Domestic Violence Hotline, When Your Partner Threatens Suicide page
3 See The National Domestic Violence Hotline, What is Emotional Abuse page
4 See The National Domestic Violence Hotline, What is Gaslighting page
5 See U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, Office on Women’s Health, Emotional and Verbal Abuse page

What are the effects of emotional and psychological abuse?
Emotional and psychological abuse can have severe short- and long-term effects. This type of abuse can affect both your physical and your mental health. You may experience feelings of confusion, anxiety, shame, guilt, frequent crying, over-compliance, powerlessness, and more. You may stay in the relationship and try to bargain with the abuser or try to change the abuser’s behavior, often placing blame on yourself, even though you are not at fault.

If you’re dealing with severe and ongoing emotional abuse, it’s possible to lose your entire sense of self and begin to doubt your self-worth or your abilities, which may make it even harder to leave the relationship. Long-term emotional abuse can also result in several health problems, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, chronic pain, and more.1 It’s important to get emotional support to help you deal with the trauma of emotional and psychological abuse – see What can I do if I am a victim of emotional and psychological abuse? for more information.

1 This information was adapted from U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, Office on Women’s Health, Emotional and Verbal Abuse page and Effects of Violence Against Women page.

What can I do if I am a victim of emotional and psychological abuse?
If you are the victim of emotional and psychological abuse, you may be hesitant to seek help or tell your friends and family because you fear they will not believe you or take you seriously. You may feel shame or confusion as to what is happening. However, seeking help and support is essential to ending an emotionally or psychologically abusive relationship. The effects of these types of abuse are serious and it is common for emotional and psychological abuse to escalate to physical violence. You can go to our National Organizations - Emotional Abuse section for national resources or talk to an advocate or counselor at your local domestic violence organization, listed on our Advocates and Shelters page. Local domestic violence programs often offer free counseling, support groups, and the advocates in these organizations could point you to other local help and support options.

In addition, depending on how domestic violence is defined in your state, the abuser’s behavior can fall under certain crimes or you may qualify for a restraining order. A few states specifically allow someone to get a restraining order based on “coercive control,” which is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. Even in states where emotional abuse is not considered as a reason for a restraining order, it’s possible that certain emotionally abusive acts may, in fact, qualify you for an order. For example, if an abuser threatens you or continually texts or calls you repeatedly without reason to do so, this could be considered enough to grant an order. In our Restraining Orders page, you can chose your state from the drop-down menu and look for the question where we include the legal definition of domestic violence for the purposes of getting a restraining order. Some states also recognize emotionally abusive acts as crimes, such as threats or public disturbances, for example. You can go to our Crimes page to read through the list of common crimes committed by abusers to see if any match up with the abuser’s actions.

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What is the definition of emotional psychological abuse? ›

Emotional abuse is any type of abuse that involves the continual emotional mistreatment of a child. It's sometimes called psychological abuse. Emotional abuse can involve deliberately trying to scare, humiliate, isolate or ignore a child.

What is the difference between psychological and emotional abuse? ›

Many tactics of psychological abuse are also classified as emotional abuse, and vice versa. However, the distinguishing factor between the two is psychological abuse's stronger effects on a victim's mental capacity. While emotional abuse affects what people feel, psychological abuse affects what people think.

What are the 5 signs of emotional abuse? ›

5 Signs of Emotional Abuse
  • They are Hyper-Critical or Judgmental Towards You. ...
  • They Ignore Boundaries or Invade Your Privacy. ...
  • They are Possessive and/or Controlling. ...
  • They are Manipulative. ...
  • They Often Dismiss You and Your Feelings.
May 23, 2017

What is an example of psychological abuse? ›

Psychological abuse can include someone regularly: Embarrassing you in public or in front of family, friends, support workers or people you work with. Calling you names. Threatening to harm you, your pets, children, or other people who are important to you.

What are at least 3 examples of mental abuse? ›

Mental abuse can be described as acts that can cause someone to feel insulted or demeaned or wear down someone's self-esteem. Examples include making unreasonable demands, being overly critical, wanting a partner to sacrifice needs for others, and causing them to doubt their perception (gaslighting).

What does emotional abuse trauma look like? ›

Frequent crying, anxiety, confusion, guilt, and shame are just some of the feelings commonly felt by those who've been emotionally abused. And if left untreated, PTSD can also trigger the patient to develop other mental health issues, such as anxiety disorder, depression, etc.

What does emotional abuse do to a woman? ›

Staying in an emotionally or verbally abusive relationship can have long-lasting effects on your physical and mental health, including leading to chronic pain, depression, or anxiety. Read more about the effects on your health. You may also: Question your memory of events: “Did that really happen?” (See Gaslighting.)

What are the characteristics of psychological abuse? ›

Psychological abuse is usually associated with obscenities, negative voice tones, exploitation, encouraging corruption and delinquent behavior, excessive teasing, harmful threats, ridicule, or derogatory statements about the victim or people whom the victim likes.

What qualifies as narcissistic abuse? ›

Narcissistic abuse refers to the emotional, physical, sexual, or financial forms of abuse that a narcissist inflicts on others. This abuse can range from mild putdowns to severe, life-threatening violence. If you're in a relationship with a narcissist, you may frequently feel angry, confused, or alone.

What are 6 behaviors that indicate emotional abuse? ›

Examples include intimidation, coercion, ridiculing, harassment, treating an adult like a child, isolating an adult from family, friends, or regular activity, use of silence to control behavior, and yelling or swearing which results in mental distress. Signs of emotional abuse.

Which are the 3 main warning signs that someone may be an abuser? ›

Warning Signs of an Abusive Person
  • Jealousy and Possessiveness. Wants to be with you constantly. ...
  • Controlling Behavior. ...
  • Quick Involvement. ...
  • Unrealistic Expectations. ...
  • Isolation. ...
  • Blames Others for Problems. ...
  • Blames Others for Feelings. ...
  • Hypersensitivity.

How do victims of emotional abuse behave? ›

Recognizing the signs of emotional abuse

withholding affection as a punishment. calling someone names, insulting them, and continually criticizing them. trapping a partner at home or preventing them from leaving. threatening to hurt children, pets, or other members of a partner's family.

What are two types of psychological abuse? ›

Emotional and verbal abuse.

What are two indicators of psychological emotional abuse? ›

The following indicators may indicate emotional abuse:
  • avoiding home (particularly if the abuser is in the family home)
  • running away or continually staying at friend's houses.
  • fear of the dark, not wanting to go to bed, bedwetting or nightmares.
  • lying or stealing.
  • lack of trust in adults.

What is the most common type of emotional abuse? ›

Verbal abuse is the most common form of emotional abuse. Things may be said in a loving, quiet voice, or be indirect—even concealed as a joke. Confronting an abuser often takes the support and validation of a group, therapist, or counselor.

How do you know you were mentally abused? ›

The abuser always blames their problems on you and accuses you of doing everything wrong. They don't accept any responsibility for the consequences of their actions or words and constantly use you as a scapegoat.

What does mental abuse do to the brain? ›

Emotional abuse is linked to thinning of certain areas of the brain that help you manage emotions and be self-aware — especially the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe. Epigenetic changes and depression. Research from 2018 has connected childhood abuse to epigenetic brain changes that may cause depression.

What mental illness do abusers have? ›

The results of this research show that do- mestic abusers tend to obtain high points for some types of personality disorders, especially narcissistic, antisocial and bor- derline disorders. They also present symptoms of depressive disorders and consumption of drugs and alcohol.

Can emotional abuse traumatize you? ›

Emotional abuse can lead to C-PTSD, a type of PTSD that involves ongoing trauma. C-PTSD shows many of the same symptoms as PTSD, although its symptoms and causes can differ. Treatment should be tailored to the situation to address the ongoing trauma the person experienced from emotional abuse.

What happens after years of emotional abuse? ›

Long-term emotional abuse can also result in several health problems, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, chronic pain, and more.

How do you know if you're emotionally traumatized? ›

Emotional trauma is recognizable by a persistent sense of unsafety and other challenging emotions such as fear and/or anxiety. It is often accompanied by other physical symptoms as well, such as chronic insomnia, nightmares, and other health issues.

Is emotional abuse manipulation? ›

A manipulative relationship happens when one person uses emotional and verbal coercion — tactics such as threats, criticism, and lying — to control the other person. It can also include physical violence. Manipulation isn't just unfair or mean: it's abuse.

Can emotional abuse change your personality? ›

In fact, according to one study, severe emotional abuse can be as damaging as physical abuse and contribute to depression and low self-esteem. The study also suggested that emotional abuse may contribute to the development of chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Do people who are emotionally abusive know they are? ›

Do people know when they are being emotionally abusive? Oftentimes, people in emotionally abusive relationships don't understand that they are being abused because there's no violence involved. Many will dismiss or downplay emotional abuse because they don't think it's as bad as physical abuse, but this is a mistake.

What is the personality of an abuser? ›

An abuser often denies the existence or minimizes the seriousness of the violence and its effect on the victim and other family members. An abuser objectifies the victim and often sees them as their property or sexual objects. An abuser has low self-esteem and feels powerless and ineffective in the world.

Why do people become emotionally abusive? ›

The feeling of being powerful and in control gives some abusers immense pleasure. Abusers may also derive pleasure from seeing you suffer. Narcissists, psychopaths, and sadists may be drawn to emotional abuse because of the pleasure they take in having power over others or seeing them suffer (Brogaard, 2020).

What is a narcissistic rage episode? ›

An episode of narcissistic rage derives from a threat to a person's sense of self and is characterized by intense anger. 1 In a relationship, for example, this could manifest in physical or verbal abuse, manipulation, or passive-aggressive behavior.

What does a victim of narcissistic abuse look like? ›

As a result, victims become depressed, anxious, lack confidence and they may hide from the spotlight and allow their abusers to steal the show again and again. Realize that your abuser is not undercutting your gifts because they truly believe you are inferior; it is because those gifts threaten their control over you.

What are four signs of emotional abuse? ›

4 Signs of Emotional Abuse
  • Humiliation. An abuser may constantly humiliate someone else, alone or in front of other people, says Engel. ...
  • Emotional Blackmail. Emotional blackmail is when the abuser threatens to withhold something from the victim unless the victim gives in to their demands. ...
  • Gaslighting. ...
  • Invasion of Property.
May 19, 2022

What are some examples of mental and emotional abuse? ›

Examples might include:
  • Jealousy. They accuse you of flirting or cheating, or say you'd spend all your time with them if you truly loved them.
  • Using guilt. ...
  • Unrealistic expectations. ...
  • Goading and blaming. ...
  • Denying the abuse. ...
  • Trivializing. ...
  • Blaming you for their problems. ...
  • Destroying and denying.
Jan 28, 2022

What is a trauma bonded relationship? ›

A trauma bond is a connection between an abusive person and the individual they abuse. It is reflective of an attachment created by repeating physical or emotional trauma with positive reinforcement. It can be hard to spot and even harder to break free from.

What type of abuse is most difficult to identify? ›

Emotional abuse often coexists with other forms of abuse, and it is the most difficult to identify. Many of its potential consequences, such as learning and speech problems and delays in physical development, can also occur in children who are not being emotionally abused.

What is the cycle of an abuser? ›

The cycle of abuse often goes through four main stages: tension, incident, reconciliation, and calm. Abusive behaviors may escalate from cycle to cycle, although this isn't always the case.

What 3 types of abuse should always be reported? ›

Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse are some of the most known types of abuse: Physical abuse is when someone hurts another person's body. It includes hitting, shaking, burning, pinching, biting, choking, throwing, beating, and other actions that cause physical injury, leave marks, or cause pain.

What are psychological abuse methods? ›

12 Types of Emotional Abuse That Aren't Physical Violence
  • 1. “ Overprotection” ...
  • Gaslighting. This one is a doozy. ...
  • Name-calling. Name-calling is a pretty obvious one, but is still worth mentioning. ...
  • Gradual Isolation. ...
  • Cold-shouldering. ...
  • Guilt-tripping. ...
  • Coercive Sex. ...
  • Damage to property.
Mar 13, 2021

What is one of the characteristics of psychological emotional abuse? ›

Emotional abuse involves attempts to frighten, control, or isolate you. This type of abuse doesn't involve physical violence, though it might involve threats of violence directed toward you or your loved ones. It's characterized by a person's words, actions, and the consistency of these behaviors.

What are three warning signs of emotional abuse? ›

What Are the Early Warning Signs of Emotional Abuse to Look for?
  • Feel insecure and have low self-esteem.
  • Appear depressed or anxious.
  • Be withdrawn even in the presence of others.
  • No longer go out and socialize as they used to.
  • Miss work or other events and responsibilities.
Nov 15, 2018

What are signs of narcissistic abuse? ›

Signs of Narcissistic Abuse
  • Signs of narcissistic abuse include:
  • Love-bombing. It's not unusual for people with NPD to shower you with compliments and affection. ...
  • Gaslighting. ...
  • Ignoring boundaries. ...
  • Projecting. ...
  • Nitpicking. ...
  • Some common examples of narcissistic abuse include: ...
  • Anxiety and depression.
Sep 29, 2022

How do victims of emotional abuse act? ›

Emotional and psychological abuse can have severe short- and long-term effects. This type of abuse can affect both your physical and your mental health. You may experience feelings of confusion, anxiety, shame, guilt, frequent crying, over-compliance, powerlessness, and more.

What are psychological abuse techniques? ›

Common tactics include insults, threats, coercion, and criticism. Another common technique is gaslighting, in which one person convinces the other to doubt their own memories. Emotional abuse can overlap with physical and sexual abuse, or it can appear on its own.


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