Hidden Hurt Domestic Abuse Information

Emotional Abuse


Many forms of abuse are obviously cruel. Emotional abuse is more subtle. Quite often such abuse goes unseen, as even the victim does not recognize that she is being abused. Although emotional abuse does not leave black eyes or visible bruises, it is often more seriously damaging to your self-esteem.

I thought Domestic Violence always meant that someone had to be beating someone else up. I never realised the daily belittleling, shouting, demands and isolating were all part of the same problem ...

Emotional abuse is cruel and scars your soul. Physical or sexual abuse is always accompanied and often follows emotional abuse, i.e. emotional battering is used to wear the victim down - often over a long period of time - to undermine her self-concept until she is willing to take responsibility for her abuser's actions and behaviour towards her or simply accept it.

He would move things around, switch the heating on when I thought I’d put it off. I thought I was going insane. (Allison's Story)

There are many categories of emotional/psychological abuse. They encompass a variety of behaviors that will be easily recognisable by those experiencing them, and often remain completely unnoticed by others. They include isolation, crazy-making, verbal abuse, belittleling and other humiliating or degrading behaviours.

Maybe the easiest way to spot emotional abuse is less by the behaviour, and more by the effect. Emotional and psychological abuse has much the same intention as physical abuse and threats: to control and dominate. If you feel as though you, your feelings, your needs, your opinions are being devalued, are given no importance or credence, then chances are you are experiencing emotional abuse. Sadie expresses this lack of appreciation for her needs very well:

"Our family life revolved around what Pat wanted, how he wanted it and when he wanted it. Our three kids’ needs and wants came next, and I came last. Dead last. My needs basically never got addressed because I wasn’t important, and since I wasn’t important, they weren’t important." (Sadie's Story)

The ultimate result of emotional and psychological abuse is that the victim ends up believing that she is going crazy, that her own needs and opinions are of no value. It is a subtle form of control and domination which leaves no visible marks, but has a profound effect on the emotional and mental wellbeing of the victim.

""I want us to be happy." Those are Lauren’s own words. For there to be an ‘us’, we both need a voice. I needed to matter too. "What’s that supposed to mean?" or "You’re telling me...." I felt like I was being analyzed, interpreted, manipulated, lead to a witness stand confession and forced into another apology for something I didn’t really say or do. I heaped anger on me for feeling beaten down and damned to silence by the very person I wanted to spend a life with."(Donald's Story)

Part of the problem of mental abuse is that it is so often not recognised: neither by outsiders, not by the victim. It gradually erodes the individual over months or even years. If and when you do realize that you are being mistreated and try to stand your ground, chances are that the abuse will escalate. Many people have found to their detriment that once the emotional abuse is no longer effective, physical violence follows. Again Sadie expresses this very clearly in her story, when after 20 years of being in an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship she makes a conscious decision not to tolerate it:

"I began fighting back. Instead of backing down right away and jumping to do his commands, I began standing my ground and arguing back if I felt that he was being unreasonable, but that just made him even angrier and nastier and more intimidating and threatening to the point where I was afraid that I was going to get hit." (Sadie's Story)

More often than not it is the emotionally abusive behaviour which leads to so many of the characteristics which abuse victims share - the lack of self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence, the depression and anxiety, the feelings of guilt and of 'not being good enough'. Many victims find that it is less painful to build an emotional wall around themselves, leaving the impression that they don't care or have tough skins. This can only work for so long - sooner or later the subdued feelings and emotions demand to be addressed, if not consciously, then in ill health.

The Freedom Programme© in the UK is particularly good at showing up all the myriads of ways in which emotional abuse is used within abusive relationship, also explaining which belief systems drive such behaviour and why we fall for it and don't recognise it as abuse. To find out more, check out the Freedom Programme.

Isolation within an Abusive Relationship

The abuser will control whom the victim sees, where she goes, whom she speaks to and what she does. This can take the form of simply not allowing her to use the phone, have her friends round or visit her family, or ensuring it simply isn't worth it by being in a bad mood because she left some housework undone, making her feel guilty that she was out enjoying herself while he worked, or even encouraging her - theoretically - to make friends, and then discounting them or complaining that she cares more for her friends/family/hobby than she does him or is neglecting him. Some abusers may move home frequently to prevent their victim from building a social support network.

Many abusers justify their control over their victim by stating that it is proof of their love, or that they worry about their safety when out, etc. In reality however, the abuser needs to isolate their victim to feel secure themselves, they feel as though any relationship, be it family, friend or colleague, will undermine their authority over and take their partner away from them, i.e. poses a threat. The effect of this isolation is that the victim feels very alone in his/her struggle, doesn't have anyone with whom to do a 'reality check', and is ultimately more dependant on the abuser for all social needs.

Forms of Isolation can include:

  • checking up on you
  • accusing you of unfaithfulness
  • moving to an isolated area
  • ensuring you lack transport or a telephone
  • making your friends or family feel uncomfortable when visiting so that they cease
  • punishing you for being 10 minutes late home from work by complaining, bad moods, criticism or physical abuse
  • not allowing you to leave the house on your own or taking away your passport
  • demanding a report on your actions and conversations
  • preventing you from working
  • not allowing any activity which excludes him
  • finding fault with your friends/family
  • insisting on taking you to and collecting you from work

In extreme cases the victim may be reduced to episodes of literally becoming a prisoner, being locked in a room and denied basic necessities, such as warmth, food, toilet or washing facilities. Other family members or the perpetrators friends can also be used to 'keep an eye on' the victim, acting effectively as prison guards.

Verbal Abuse

When thinking of Verbal Abuse we tend to envisage the abuser hurling insulting names at the victim, and while this obviously does happen, there are many more forms than name-calling.

The abuser may use critical, insulting or humiliating remarks (e.g. you've got a mind like muck; you're stupid; etc.), he may withhold conversation and refuse to discuss issues, or she may keep you up all night insisting on talking when you need sleep. Verbal abuse undermines your sense of worth, your self-concept (i.e. who you think you are) by discounting your ideals, opinions or beliefs.

When things went his way he was wonderful. When they didn't, well, he snapped at me and blamed me whether it was my fault or not. If I got upset or challenged him, he'd get even angrier and then bellow and threaten until I backed down. (from Sadie's Story )

Verbal abuse can include:

  • yelling or shouting at you
  • making threats
  • insulting you or your family
  • being sarcastic or mocking about or criticising your interests, opinions or beliefs
  • humiliating you either in private or in company
  • sneering, growling, name-calling
  • withholding approval, appreciation, or conversation
  • refusing to discuss issues which are important to you
  • laughing or making fun of you inappropriately
  • leaving nasty messages
  • accusing you of unfaithfulness, not trying hard enough or purposely doing something to annoy
  • blaming you for his failures or other forms of abuse

All of these abusive behaviors prohibit normal, healthy interaction between two adults as well as a lack of respect for individual thoughts, feelings, and opinions. A healthy, mutual interaction and conversation between two persons respects and promotes the right of each partner to their own individual thoughts, perceptions and values.

See Verbal Abuse for more information.


Return from Emotional Abuse to Types of Abuse

Related Pages:

Verbal Abuse
Sadie's Story
Allison's Story
Victim Characteristics

Recommended Reading:

According to therapist Engel "even the most loving person" is capable of emotional abuse-that is, "any non-physical behavior designed to control, intimidate, subjugate, demean, punish, or isolate." In a reasoned, sensible tone, she encourages readers to become responsible for their behavior and for changing it. Identified are ten "patterns of abuse" (verbal assault, character assassination, etc.), different kinds of abusive relationships, action steps for cessation, and suggestions for recovery. Engel clearly shows how this type of abuse, either intentional or unconscious leads to low self-esteem and misery for one or both partners. Engel also looks at the difficult relationships where one partner suffers from Personality Disorder. A difficult and draining yet important read for those who suspect that their relationship has entered abusive territory, this book is highly recommended.

To order in the US: The Emotionally Abusive Relationship: How to Stop Being Abused and How to Stop Abusing (Paperback or Kindle version avaialble - and well worth buying the kindle to be able to start reading immediately!)

To order in the UK: The Emotionally Abusive Relationship: How to Stop Being Abused and How to Stop Abusing

Many people suffer verbal and emotional abuse in secret for years, not really understanding what is happening or why they feel so rotten. Nor do they realize how easily such seemingly mild forms of abuse can be the precursor to physical violence. This book by Patricia Evans helps the victim understand how to recognize abuse, validates the victim's perception of what is happening and offers solid suggestions as to what to do to control abuse and to protect oneself :

To order in the US: The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to recognize it and how to respond

To order in the UK: The Verbally Abusive Relationship, Expanded Third Edition

Living with the Dominator by Pat Craven is the book to accompany the Freedom Programme in the UK. This book should be compulsory in schools - the information is so clear and so obvious and such an eye-opener! After studying domestic violence issues for years, this is the one book which finally enabled me to click it all into place and answer all my whys. Just read it:

To order in the US: Living With the Dominator (Kindle version only - and well worth buying a Kindle just to get this book!)

To order in the UK: Living with the Dominator: A Book About the Freedom Programme: 1

Lundy Bancroft has written what is probably the most comprehensive and readable book on domestic violence, the beliefs of the abuser and the dynamics of abuse. This truly is a MUST READ for anyone seriously trying to understand domestic abuse and how to cope with an abusive relationship:

To order in the US: Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men

To order in the UK: Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men




UK National Domestic Violence Freephone number 0808 2000 247

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