Emotional Abuse Help Guide

Emotional abuse (also called psychological abuse) is all too often seen as less important or less serious than physical abuse. This happens for a number of reasons. Firstly, emotional abuse leaves no physical scars and so is harder to recognize. You get sympathy for a black eye or broken arm, but if you are hurting on the inside passers by and even close family members may not notice. Emotional abuse is every bit as serious a problem as physical abuse. In fact, its consequences can be deeper and more wide reaching. Almost always, the effects of emotional abuse can take longer to heal than all but the very worst of physical injuries.

Emotional abuse can occur in a variety of contexts. It can occur between couples, and can take the form of a man emotionally abusing a woman or the other way around. It can also occur between homosexual couples, or between family members. Then it can also be seen in the workplace, where a boss of colleague can abuse another, in schools (both by teachers and or peers), in residential homes for the elderly or the disabled and any other situations where people interact on a regular basis.


What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse can be difficult to understand, but in reality it is any type of abuse that affects a person emotionally. It may or may not be coupled with physical, sexual or financial abuse. Emotional abuse may involve name calling and other forms of verbal abuse, belittling, manipulating or intimidating. An abusive partner or person may seem to never be happy with what you do or say, no matter how hard you try. Emotional abuse is so dangerous because it can cause real damage to the psyche. Depression and other mental illnesses can follow as a victim’s self confidence vanishes leaving them confused, frightened and unable to distinguish the truth from fiction. A person who is constantly told that they are not good enough, wrong, stupid, fat, lazy or similar, comes, over time, to believe their abuser’s remarks. As emotional abusers frequently use their abuse to isolate the victim from family and friends, the effects of the abuse deepen as the support network disappears. Once this type of destruction of confidence and personality has taken hold, victims are less likely to be able to recognize the abuse for what it is and to seek help or to report it.

Emotional abuse takes various forms. To better see exactly what emotional abuse is, it may be helpful to look at three types of abusive behavior within this category.

Emotional abuse is similar but not the same as verbal abuse.


Forms of abuse that come under this category include threatening, ordering, name calling, belittling and accusing. Aggressive emotional abuse is perhaps easier to spot and qualify than the less obvious forms. An outsider who witnesses this type of abuse will probably see it for exactly what it is, but the victim may be so destroyed by continual abuse that she herself can not. However, many abusers keep this type of emotional abuse behind closed doors, so outsiders will rarely get to see what is actually going on.

Aggressive abuse seeks to belittle and demean the victim as a means of controlling their actions and feelings. The relationship between the couple degenerates as the abuser takes the power position of a parent and treats the victim more like a child who doesn’t have the ability to make decisions for herself.

Aggressive emotional abuse can also involve less obvious abuse. An abuser may couch their comments as ‘helping’ or ‘advising’ the victim. So, instead of shouting insults, the abuser more subtly infers that the victim is failing in some way, and ‘teaches’ her how to improve. While there are many situations where advice can be given with good intent and without harmful results, this can also be a deeply damaging form of abuse if it takes place constantly and leads to the victim coming to believe the abuser’s stance. If you feel you are being judged all the time and found wanting in a relationship, it points to subtle emotional abuse.


Denying is a  very common pattern of emotional abuse. An abuser not only denies his abuse to the victim, claiming that he never said the words she sees as hurtful, but also is often in denial himself. He can become so used to verbally or emotionally abusing the victim that the abuser simply no longer registers his own behavior…or simply does not want to confront it and recognize that he is the one with the problem.

Withholding is another way in which an abuser in denial may emotionally harm his victim. He inflicts ‘punishment’ on the victim by withdrawing conversation, emotion or companionship. He may also withhold physical comforts such as food, warmth or precious objects. Withholding is perhaps best seen as a more sinister version of  ‘the silent treatment’ that regularly occurs between rowing couples. However, when this takes place in a normal relationship it is short term and has happened for a reason, in emotional abuse it can be more protracted and harmful.
Finally, countering may take place. This is when an abuser counters an idea or opinion that his victim may have, refusing to accept any viewpoint that is different from his own.


The third form of emotional abuse commonly seen is minimizing. It is similar to denial, but more subtle. Rather than deny that an abusive event or conversation ever took place, the abuser will claim that his words were misinterpreted by his victim. He may tell her she is too sensitive, or took his words the wrong way. He may even claim that he was ‘just joking’. This can be very destructive for the victim as it is yet another way of throwing her into confusion and disbelief of her own perceptions.


Even more subtle but still dangerous is trivializing. This occurs when an abusive person tells his victim that what they think and feel are unimportant.

Understanding emotional abuse

Emotional abuse can be self perpetuating. A person who has grown up in an emotionally abusive household is more likely than a person who has had an emotionally healthy upbringing to become either an abuser or a victim of emotional abuse.

The first situation can occur because a child from an emotionally abusive family has simply no understanding of what constitutes healthy relationships. He has had no role model other than an abusive one, so when he begins to forge adult relationships of his own he applies the only rules of behavior that he knows. He does not recognize or regret his actions because he sees them as normal.

The second situation occurs for similar reasons. A child who has been emotionally abused or seen another family member abused is at greater risk of being a victim of emotional abuse in later life. Once more, she has had no ‘template’ of healthy interaction to follow, and is more likely to accept abuse herself. She is also at risk of becoming a victim as her self confidence has already been reduced and her personality become vulnerable. It could also be that she actively seeks out a relationship with an abusive person, finding a mistaken kind of comfort in the familiar. If a person has always been controlled by another, she may have no inner strength developed to make her own decisions and seek direction at all times from her partner.

Victims of emotional abuse commonly feel angry, bewildered, powerless, hurt and frightened. Perhaps strangely, abusers also frequently feel the same emotions and this is what drives them to abuse. If a person feels powerless, he attempts to gain power through emotional abuse. If he has lost self confidence though his own emotionally abusive upbringing, he may seek to redress the balance by exerting control over his partner in order to validate himself.

Whether you are being emotionally abused or are emotionally abusive towards someone in your life, it’s helpful to take a look at the pattern of your relationships with family and friends as well as with your intimate partner. Often, a hierarchy of relationships can be established, and things can become complicated and difficult to understand. For example, you may find that you are the victim of your partner’s emotional abuse yet you find yourself behaving in an emotionally abusive fashion towards another member of your circle. This can often be seen in schoolyard bullying. A child who is emotionally abused at home becomes a bully towards another child at school in an attempt to regain the power and self confidence that has been knocked out of him within his family. If you can see clearly the pattern of behavior throughout your relationships you have a better ground for recovery.

Equally it’s important to see the ways that you might be contributing to your partner’s abuse of you. If you constantly tell yourself that you are worthless or stupid, you are reinforcing the abuse and validating it. You should understand that emotional abuse is not justified, ever. Your rights, as a human being, as outlined by Patricia Evans in her study of verbal and emotional abuse in 1992 are that:

  • You have the right to goodwill from your partner, as he does from you.
  • You have the right to emotional support.
  • You have the right to be listened to by your partner and responded to with courtesy.
  • You have the right to hold your own opinions, whether or not these are the same as or different from your partner’s.
  • You have the right to have your feelings and experiences accepted as real.
  • You have the right to receive a sincere apology for remarks or jokes that you find offensive.
  • .You have the right to receive clear and informative answers to questions about anything that is legitimately your concern.
  • You have the right to live your life free from blame and insults.
  • You have the right to live your life free from constant criticism and judgement.
  • You have the right to have your work, interests and thoughts treated with respect.
  • You have the right to receive encouragement from your partner.
  • You have the right to live free from intimidation or threats, both emotional and physical.
  • You have the right to live free from rage and verbal outbursts.
  • You have the right not to be called names that devalue you.
  • You have the right to be asked respectfully and not ordered to do things.

Facts about abuse

  • Emotional abuse can lead to physical abuse.
  • Emotional abuse is every bit as real and destructive as physical abuse.
  • Emotional abuse is about one person trying to control another.
  • Emotional abuse is the fault of the abuser, not the victim.
  • A child who grows up in an emotionally abusive environment is likely to perpetuate the behavior in adulthood if it is not addressed.
  • Emotional abuse can be stopped and an abuser can learn to change. However, this is just as difficult as changing from being physically abusive and almost always requires professional help.
  • A person who is habitually emotionally abusive can only change if they accept full responsibility for the problem. If your abusive partner continues to place some of the blame on you he is not committed to change.
  • It can be harder for a person to leave an emotionally abusive relationship than one which is physically abusive.
  • There is help available for those who are suffering emotional abuse. Many domestic violence helplines can advise and support even if there is no physical abuse threatened or taking place.
  • Men can be the victims of emotional abuse just as can women.
  • Emotional abuse often increases over time.
  • Emotional abuse can have serious, long term effects.
  • Emotional abuse attacks and destroys a person’s self confidence and core beliefs.

Types of Abuse

Not all abuse is emotional. Here is a recap of some of the categories of abuse (see our article on what is abuse for the definitions)

  • Physical Abuse
  • Emotional Abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Stalking
  • Financial abuse (If you suffer from financial abuse, seek out some financial help)

What can you do if you are suffering from abuse?

There are plenty of things that you can do if you are suffering from emotional abuse.
Firstly, you need to really accept that you are not to blame. The fault lies firmly and squarely with your abuser. However, you may subconsciously be encouraging the abuse, so try to be positive in your thinking about yourself.

  • You may feel able to begin by talking to your abuser. If you have the confidence to do this, it’s a good idea to spend some time planning what you are going to say and consider in advance what sort of responses you are going to have to deal with. A confronted abuser is likely to be in denial, and will argue strongly that the abuse is your fault not theirs. Being ready for these responses enables you to stand firm and to reiterate what you know is right. If necessary, say your piece and then ask the abusive person to take time to go away and think about what you have said. This can take the ‘self defense’ reaction out of the equation. However, it is also necessary to understand that there are no quick fixes. An abusive person needs time to change and the process is always painful and requires commitment.
  • You can obtain help from domestic violence helplines and websites. You do not have to be suffering physical attacks to enlist help from these sources. Emotional and verbal abuse is just as dangerous as physical abuse, and the help is offered to sufferers of all kinds of domestic abuse.
  • If you are being abused in the workplace, you can enlist the help of colleagues, speak to a superior or take the problem to an official tribunal. You can also decide to leave the abusive work environment and find another job.
  • If you are being verbally or emotionally abused at school, you have similar options. A strong support group  of peers can help greatly. If this is not available to you, try talking to a teacher or to your parents or other trusted adults in your circle. There are also anti bullying organisations and hotlines that can offer experienced and expert help and advice. Remember: You are not the first or only person to have experienced verbal abuse even if you feel isolated. Help is there for you. Don’t be afraid to call for help. You will be taken seriously.
  • If you are suffering from any kind of abuse you can always go to talk to your family doctor or social worker, who should be able to recommend sources of help or prescribe counselling where necessary.

Treatments for victims of domestic abuse often involve counselling to help them to recover their self confidence. Mental health professionals are trained to help you find the right treatment. Peer groups of sufferers are also very helpful, allowing victims to share experiences and help each other. Writing down your experiences and feelings can also be cathartic, as can joining internet groups of fellow sufferers.

What to do if you suspect someone you know is being emotionally abused

The type of action that you should take varies according to the individual circumstances. If the victim is a child and the abuse is taking place at school, your first port of call should be the head teacher or a teacher with direct responsibility for that child, such as a class teacher or student mentor. However, if you suspect that a child is being verbally abused within his family, it is a little more complex. If you have a very strong relationship with a close family member, it may be possible to moot the topic, but families can be complicated and defensive for a number of reasons. It may be better to take advice from the professionals through helplines or your family doctor.
If the abused person is a friend, and the abuse is taking place within a marriage or an  intimate relationship, you can try getting them to talk to you about the problem. If they do so, listen and offer support. Don’t be judgmental, it isn’t helpful for the victim to hear you say that if you were being treated like that you would leave…she may not feel strong enough to do so for a number of reasons. Respect her opinions and feelings. You can offer physical support, such as a safe place to stay should she decide to leave the abusive partner. You could also provide her with contacts for organisations that could help and let her use your telephone or computer to make contact in safety.

Resources for victims of emotional abuse

Gaining a good understanding of emotional abuse is useful. Suggested reading is:

  • Engle, Beverly, M.F.C.C.The Emotionally Abused Woman: Overcoming Destructive Patterns and Reclaiming Yourself. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1992.
    Evans, Patricia.The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to Respond.Holbrook, Massachusetts: Bob Adams, Inc., 1992.

To find counselling and support

The list below is not comprehensive, but provides links to known available help. For local help, internet search your state, province or county. These organisations should not ask for money in return for help. If any do, search again for charities and organisations that offer the help for free. In general, domestic violence agencies and helplines are happy to offer help for victims of emotional abuse of all types whether or not it involves physical violence or threats of violence.

Resources for victims of abuse (general)



  • http://www.samaritans.org/talk_to_someone.aspx  The Samaritans helpline will answer calls and provide support to anyone in crisis or who is considering committing suicide.
  • Voice UK: Helpline 0808 802 8686
    Telephone support and information for adults and children with learning disabilities who have been abused, and for their families and carers.
  • Mind (National Association for Mental Health): 0845 766 0163
  • SupportLine: 01708 765200, email [email protected]– Telephone Helpline providing confidential emotional support to children, young adults and adults on any issue. Aimed at those who are isolated, vulnerable, at risk groups and victims of any form of abuse
  • Childline: 0800 1111www.childline.org.uk – Free national helpline for children and young people in danger and distress. Also booklets on bullying
  • Kidscape Campaign for Children’s Safety: Admin 020 7730 3300Helpline 08451 205 204, www.kidscape.org.uk – Telephone helpline providing support for parents and produce free parents guides on issues relating to bullying. Also run one day courses for children who have been severely bullied.
  • Worldwide:
  • http://www.befrienders.org/ Befrienders network operates worlwide to help those in crisis. The link allows you to find your nearest service.

Resources for victims of domestic abuse (including elder and spousal abuse):



  • Aanchal: 0845 451 2547 (serves London area)
    24 hour telephone helpline and services for Asian women who have experienced domestic violence, emotional support, group work and counselling.
  • SupportLine: 01708 765200
    email [email protected]
    Telephone Helpline providing confidential emotional support to Children, Young Adults and Adults on any issue including domestic violence.
  • Freephone 24 Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline: 0808 2000 247
  • www.womensaid.org.uk
  • Action on Elder Abuse: 0808 808 8141
  • Broken Rainbow: 0300 999 5428
    Support for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people suffering domestic violence.
  • The Freedom Programme: 01547 520228
    A 12 week rolling programme for women who wish to learn about the reality of domestic violence and abuse.
  • Hidden Hurt: 

    Abuse Information and Support Site.
  • Jewish Women’s Aid: 0808 801 0500
    Services for Jewish women experiencing domestic violence.
  • Rights of Women – 020 7251 6577
    Telephone legal advice service for women.
    Sexual Violence Legal AdviceLine: 020 7251 8887 (phone) or 020 7490 2562 (textphone)
     Mondays 11am-1pm and Tuesdays 10am-12 noon.
  • Scottish Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 027 1234
    24 hour Helpline providing information and support for those affected by domestic abuse.
  • Southall Black Sisters: 020 8571 9595
    Advice, information and emotional support for black and Asian women.
  • Wales Domestic Abuse: Helpline 0808 80 10 800 
    24 hour helpline free and confidential for anybody experiencing or concerned about someone experiencing domestic abuse (women, men and children).
  • Victim Support Helpline: 0845 30 30 900
  • Worldwide:
  • http://www.hotpeachpages.net/  Worldwide help for victims of domestic abuse.

Emotional abuse is included as a form of domestic violence by both the UK and US governments, and your concerns will be taken seriously. Ask for help, don’t wait until the situation worsens.

  • Kaylee

    It frustrates me a bit that you’re portraying abuse as if women are the only people who can be abused and that men are the only ones who can abuse people, it’s a two way street. Please update this and fix it

  • LM

    I’ve been stalked by a man who I met online and never even met. I only entertained him because I dropped him for someone else initially as I wasn’t interested and felt guilty about it – had no interest in him. He seemed nice at first, but then switched. I had more important things to worry about and focus on which I usually do and ignored the warning signs. He’s been stalking me via Jonathan Cainer’s horoscopes (…) which lie and put crazy ideas in his head like me being interested in him when I’m not and never was. He was stalking me and posting delusional things on Twitter, writing cryptic messages in Tweets and Favourited things relating to rubbish he’d read. And just because I wasn’t interested he started abusing me and my family, posting vile comments and jokes about my mum dying who’s in care with early onset dementia, my dad, myself and anyone else I knew. Threatened to physically hurt me. Said I was unattractive when I couldn’t be further out of his league if I tried. Tried to inflict “deep” psychological damage through making suggestive and completely false accusations and notions he’d dreamed up because he’s so mentally unstable; so completely insane and jealous at being who he is: a nasty, bitter b*stard with nothing going for him, least of all insight, intelligence, attractiveness and rational judgement. And he thinks he’s being clever when I just don’t care about him which is the most annoying thing of all. Wasted so much of my precious time – time I’m spending with my dying mother – trying to get rid of his ugly, delusional self. Hacked my Twitter account and stalked, abused and harassed me for months. Got his friends to do the same. Sitting behind a computer and cowardly dishing out abuse because his pride was hurt at being rejected. He’s low-class, unattractive and unintelligent (despite thinking himself smart and attractive) and lacks all perspective and self-insight. Disgusting, repugnant, scum. He must feel so proud. Completely insane and unable to accept reality. Typical stalker profile.

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