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Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is a form of assault that is deliberate and manipulative and used as a method of control. The abuser uses intimidation, fear, guilt, and/or threats to frighten and belittle the victim. In intimate relationships, emotional abuse often results in one partner feeling ashamed, afraid, and isolated from friends and family. They may be fearful to talk to anyone about the abuse because their abuser has told them that no one will believe them. Abusers often degrade and humiliate their victims to the point that they are left with little self-esteem. Parents or caregivers who emotionally abuse their children also use similar controlling tactics to gain power over the child. Children who experience emotional abuse may feel that they are responsible for the behavior of their parents and that if only they were more polite, better students, or better children, then their parents would be more loving. 

What "Counts" as Emotional Abuse?

The reality is that emotional abuse is not a clearly defined term, and ultimately, except in severe cases, its recognition may be a judgment call. Abuse is often defines as any behavior that is designed to control and subjugate another human being through the use of fear, humiliation, intimidation, guilt, coercion, or manipulation. Emotional abuse, then, can include anything from verbal insults or threats to put-downs to constant criticism or more subtle tactics, such as repeated disapproval or even the refusal to ever be pleased. This definition makes it clear that emotional abuse may be difficult to identify. If my partner is hard to please, is she abusing me? Maybe she’s just in a bad mood, or even depressed. Maybe it’s my fault I can’t please her! How do I know if I’m being abused--or if I am an abuser?


A few indicators of emotional abuse might include the following:

  • The behavior in question doesn’t stop or even pause when the recipient begins crying or asks for time to cool down. In fact, abuse may escalate as the abused person becomes more and more vulnerable, demeaned, afraid, and upset
  • The behavior is frequent – several times a week or month, as opposed to very rare (once every few years, for instance.)
  • Vulgar language, completely baseless accusations
  • Insulting or demeaning words in front of other people
  • “Arguments” are very one-sided; one person does all the talking, never listening, and is not kind to the other.
  • Threats of violence
  • Blatant cruelty
  • The abuser does not apologize
  • The abuser will not recognize the validity of anything his or her victim says
  • The presence of other forms of abuse – sexual or physical

It is important to note that behavior may be abusive even if none of these factors are present. However, if any of these factors are present on more than the rarest of occasions, emotional abuse may be taking place.


It is also important to know that in some relationships, both people are emotionally abusive to the other, while sometimes the abuse goes mainly one way. Abuse also may wax and wane, being more frequent or intense at some times (perhaps during periods of increased stress) and less so at during other periods.


Emotional Abuse of People with Special Needs

Children and adults with special needs are often the victims of emotional abuse, which can take the form of teasing, mocking and bullying. Schools and communities have services in place to address the issue of bullying, but they are often under-utilized. If you are a victim of bullying, or suspect someone you know with special needs is, contact the school administration or local social services to report the abuse and get help. Counselors and therapists trained in emotional abuse and special needs are available to guide you. No child, or adult, with or without special needs, should suffer emotional abuse. Counseling and therapy can provide resources, tools and skills to protect and empower the individual so that they can live a life free of torment and intimidation.


Therapy for Emotionally Abused Children

Help for emotional abuse is available in many forms. Children who are victims of emotional abuse may benefit from individual therapy that focuses on rebuilding self-esteem and autonomy. By gaining an understanding of what healthy relationships look like, they can begin to appreciate the dysfunctional way in they have been raised. Children who have been traumatized by emotional abuse are often reluctant to share the details of their abuse, and may respond best to treatments that include creative play, such as art therapy, sand therapy of trauma relief therapy


Group and Family Therapies for Intimate Partner Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse often occurs within the confines of intimate partner relationships. Whether physical abuse is present or not, the effects of the emotional abuse can have devastating consequences on the victim. Isolation from friends and family prevents the victim from reaching out for help. But help is available in many forms for people who seek it. Group therapy is a very common mode of treatment for survivors of emotional abuse. Sharing experiences with those who have had similar events occur in their lives creates a form of commonality and acceptance. This type of environment is especially helpful for rebuilding self-esteem and confidence for survivors of abuse. Psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and somatic therapies are all effective forms of treatment for emotional abuse. Journal therapy is another way in which some people find relief from the symptoms of emotional abuse. Some therapists are specially trained to deal exclusively with the symptoms of emotional abuse and can be extremely helpful for people who are recovering from an emotionally abusive situation.


Family therapy is another form of treatment for emotional abuse. Therapists who specialize in abuse situations know how to work with offending members and victims so that both begin to understand their role, responsibility and rights. Offenders can gain skills to address the issues that cause them to abuse, and victims can learn ways to move past the abuse and begin to rebuild their sense of self from the wreckage that the abuse has caused. Regardless of the form of treatment, learning how to develop emotional intelligence, set boundaries and modify behavior are the keys to overcoming the symptoms of abuse or preventing further abuse. 


Medical Disorders Associated with Emotional Abuse

Associated diagnoses might include depression (for both the abuser and the abused) intermittent explosive disorder (for the abuser, if violent behavior occurs), and certain personality disorders, particularly a couple where the abuser is narcissistic or anti-social and the abused person is dependent.


Therapy for a Verbally Abusive and Threatening Relationship - Case Example

Sandy, 24, enters therapy in a state of despair over her relationship with her boyfriend. She reports “we fight all the time,” and expresses confusion about “whose fault it is”. Sandy wants her boyfriend to come for a joint session, but he blames Sandy for their troubles and says she’s “the one who needs help”. He does agree that he will come if the therapist recommends it, but only with the understanding that it is Sandy’s therapy because she’s “the one with the problem,” according to him. Sandy asks the therapist to recommend couples’ sessions. The therapist asks a few questions about their fights, and discovers that Sandy’s boyfriend has been calling Sandy demeaning names, threatening to put her “out on the street,” and disappearing for days without telling her his whereabouts. The therapist identifies these behaviors as emotional abuse, and informs Sandy that couples’ sessions would not be appropriate. Instead, he recommends Sandy continue in individual therapy, where she can work on improving her self-esteem, and make a plan for asserting her needs in the relationship, or leaving if the abuse continues.


Creating Ground Rules in a Mutually Critical Relationship - Case Example

Dave, 42, and his wife, Julie, 40, come in together for marriage counseling. They immediately begin criticizing one another, blaming each other for the troubles in their relationship, and arguing loudly. Both partners insult each other, and neither gives any ground. The therapist sets ground rules for their sessions, teaching them some new communication techniques and stopping them any time they begin to yell. After several weeks, they begin to express deep emotional fears and wounds that cause them both to fear abandonment. This process brings them closer together, and helps them to begin working through their disagreements without abusive language.


Share Your Story About Coping with Emotional Abuse

Have you coped with or healed from emotional abuse? Readers of GoodTherapy.org are invited to share your personal experiences through GoodTherapy.org's Share Your Story. Stories that are accepted for publication will be featured on The Good Therapy Blog.


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Last updated: 09-30-2014


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