Emotional abuse is a type of intimate partner violence (IPV) where one partner psychologically manipulates another, causing them to feel shame, embarrassment, and/or fear. Although it may seem harsh to label non-physical manipulation a type of violence, it can have devastating psychological side effects just the same as physical violence. If consistent patterns of bullying and abusive behavior are identified, they can cause enduring harm.
Even worse, many victims of emotional abuse relationships do not know they are in one. This is partly because people do not realize that intimate partners are the most likely perpetrators of all types of violence and abuse, not strangers.
Prevalence of Emotional Abuse Between Intimate Partners
Emotional abuse affects people of every gender, culture, race, and sexuality. It is a worldwide phenomenon that is recognized by international and national governmental organizations as violent and threatening to a person’s autonomy and liberty. Although intimate partner violence affects everyone, it affects women disproportionately. This is why authoritative sources like the World Health Organization and United Nations often focus on the term violence against women even while acknowledging that it can also affect men and nonbinary individuals.
Emotional abuse is the most common of all types of intimate partner violence, which is an umbrella term that includes stalking, physical abuse, and sexual coercion. According to a peer-reviewed partner violence study, about 40% of women and 32% of men have experienced aggressive verbal behavior in their relationships. Studies have also shown that younger people are likely to be the targets of emotional abuse and that men’s risks are increasing over time while women’s are decreasing (even though women are more susceptible currently).
Signs of Emotional Abuse
What does emotional abuse from intimate partners look like? The answer can vary from situation to situation, but there are common features that may serve as warning signs.
Rare, isolated incidents can be normal. But repeated and chronic ones are not, and are warning signs that you are in an abusive relationship. The difference between what is considered healthy and abusive depends on frequency, severity, and willingness to change.
Heated Verbal Altercations
When communication with your partner often escalates to aggression, name-calling, or yelling, this can be a clear sign of emotional abuse. The occasional fight may not be a sign of emotional abuse, but an indicator that couples’ therapy may be necessary. But unending verbal aggression can be frightening and a future predictor of physical violence.
Threats and Controlling Behavior
Controlling behavior is a clear sign of emotional abuse, especially when verbal threats and manipulation are involved. One common feature of emotionally abusive marriages and partnerships is economic abuse, which is the controlling of shared finances or resources to inhibit the other partner’s freedom.
Isolation from Friends and Family
Another form of manipulation, when a partner restricts another’s access to spending time with loved ones it is a sign of emotional abuse. Social isolation can include preventing a partner from socializing, insulting friends and family, and closely monitoring a partner’s activities and whereabouts.
Gaslighting is a popular buzzword in popular culture lately, but in practice, it is a very unhealthy form of emotional manipulation. It consists of making a partner believe they are always in the wrong and at worse, makes them question their sanity.
Healthy relationships have clear boundaries and contain clear communication. If you are unable to talk about relationships outside of the relationship or are constantly questioned about your trustworthiness, it may be a sign of emotional abuse.
Blaming, Shaming, and Ignoring
These hurtful emotional practices can cause a partner to be excessively unhappy. If you are constantly blamed for things going wrong, shamed for your appearance or actions, or chronically ignored, these are also signs of emotional manipulation.
Symptoms of Emotional Abuse
Emotional abuse manifests itself both mentally and physically in key ways. These symptoms can either be apparent to the individual victim or friends and family.:
- Increased or new anxiety and depression
- Loss of sense of self and self-loathing
- Disordered eating
- Post-traumatic stress disorder after the end of a relationship
- Several other physical and mental health problems
Therapeutic Interventions for Emotional Abuse
If you are in an identified emotionally abusive relationship, there are several steps you can take to escape it. The first is to acknowledge that you are in one and begin the process of healing. Before seeking professional help, it helps to make a plan: write down your feelings, try to establish clear boundaries, build support networks, avoid engaging, and plan an exit strategy.
Work with a Trusted Mental Health Professional
If both parties in a relationship are showing signs of being emotionally abusive, it is best to seek couples therapy from a licensed couples therapist. But if one partner is a perpetrator and the other the victim, it may be best to seek individualized treatment. Seek out an experienced professional who can help you identify the next steps and begin to heal.