Emotional Abuse

Sad girl on phone

Emotional abuse is a form of deliberate manipulation that is used, often by a parent or romantic partner, to maintain control. This type of abuse may include verbal attacks, humiliation, verbal or physical rejection of one's presence or conversation, intimidation, bullying, and isolation. In many cases of abuse, especially intimate partner violence, couples therapy is not recommended because it often only brings further abuse on the victim. However, individuals experiencing emotional abuse, or any other type of abuse, may find the help of a therapist to be beneficial.

Understanding Emotional Abuse

Abuse is often defined 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 may include verbal insults, threats, put-downs, constant criticism, or more subtle tactics such as frequently voiced disapproval or gaslighting. In intimate relationships, emotional abuse often results in one partner feeling ashamed, fearful, and isolated from friends and family. He or she may not discuss the abuse for fear of being disbelieved. 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 better students or better children, then their parents would be more loving.

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Because emotional abuse is not clearly defined and refers to a broad range of behaviors, it can often be difficult to identify, especially by outsiders, if it is not blatant. Some people may also frequently excuse a partner or parent's abuse, allowing for bad moods, bad days, conditions such as stress or depression, and so on. They may also believe that they deserve the abuse, especially criticism or disapproval, for what they believe to be their own problems, as those who are abusive often leave the ones they abuse with diminished self-esteem. Sometimes a person may not realize he or she is being abused, especially when tactics such as gaslighting are used. An outsider may never be aware of the abuse but may see signs of it in the person being abused.

A person's behavior may fall into the category of emotional abuse when:

  • The behavior in question does not stop or even pause when the recipient begins crying or asks for time to cool down. In fact, abuse may escalate as the recipient of the abuse becomes more vulnerable and upset.
  • The behavior is frequent, occurring several times in a month or less.
  • Vulgar language, insults, and demeaning language are used or baseless accusations are made.
  • “Arguments” are one-sided: one person does all the talking, never listens, and is not kind to the other.
  • Threats of violence are made.
  • The person who is abusive does not apologize.
  • The person who is abusive will not recognize the validity of anything his or her victim says.
  • Sexual or physical abuse is also present.

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

In some relationships, partners might emotionally abuse each other, while in others, the abuse goes mainly one way. Abuse may also wax and wane, being more frequent or intense at some times (perhaps during periods of increased stress) and less intense during other periods.

Children and adults with special needs can be particularly vulnerable to emotional abuse, which can include teasing, mocking, bullying, and neglect, as they may be easier to intimidate into silence and therefore less likely to report the abuse.

Conditions Associated with Emotional Abuse

A person who is emotionally abused may develop sleep issues, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive habits, depression, or anxiety and may also abuse drugs and alcohol, engage in self-harm, or have thoughts of suicide. Those who were emotionally abused in childhood are also more likely to be abused by an intimate partner.

Depression, stress, poor parenting or caregiving skills, conditions such as narcissism or depression, or alcohol and drug abuse may all lead a person to become abusive. It is possible to seek therapy to treat abusive tendencies and behavior, but only if a person truly wants to change.

Types of Therapy for Emotional Abuse

Whether physical abuse is present or not, the effects of emotional abuse between intimate partners can have significant consequences on the victim. The abuser may isolate a partner from friends and family to prevent him or her from reaching out for help, and the person being abused may be reluctant to seek help for fear of repercussions. However, when a victim of abuse enters therapy, he or she may often be able to regain enough of the autonomy and self-esteem stripped by the abusive partner to feel able to leave the relationship, and a therapist can help provide details on safe methods to do so. Some therapists have specialized training in the fields of domestic violence and abuse and can be helpful to people who are recovering from an emotionally abusive situation. A family therapist can also be helpful, especially when a parent has been emotionally abusive, as family therapists are trained to have a deep understanding of family relationships.

Group therapy is a common type of treatment for survivors of emotional abuse. Sharing experiences with those who have had similar events occur in their lives often creates a positive and helpful environment for survivors of abuse to rebuild self-esteem and confidence. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help people process their feelings regarding traumatic occurrences, and somatic experiencing, which focuses on physical sensations rather than thoughts and memories, are both effective forms of treatment for emotional abuse, especially when used together. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) can be helpful at unlocking memories blocked in one's mind so that healing can begin. Some people also use journal therapy to help cope with the effects of abuse.

Family therapy or couples therapy can also help treat emotional abuse, but only when the abuser is prepared to admit that he or she has a problem and is ready to work on it. A person who is abusive will typically not be successful in therapy unless he or she is able to take this step. Therapists who specialize in abuse situations know how to work with offending members and victims so that both begin to understand their roles, responsibilities, and rights. In instances where couples therapy is not recommended, a therapist can work with the victim of emotional abuse to explore potential options and help the individual develop a plan to leave the abuser, if necessary.

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 parent-child relationships look like, they can also begin to understand the dysfunction in their own parent-child bond. 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, or trauma relief therapy. Schools and communities have services in place to address the issue of bullying, but these services are often under-utilized. Victims of bullying, or those who suspect bullying, can contact school administrators or social services to report the abuse.

In therapy, abusers can begin to address the issues that cause them to abuse, and victims can learn ways to cope with effects of the abuse and begin to rebuild a sense of self. Regardless of the form of treatment, developing emotional intelligence, setting boundaries, and modifying abusive behavior are all steps that family members or partners in a relationship can take in therapy. Again, when a person who is abusive is not ready to admit to their behavior and change it, family or couples therapy is not recommended.

Coping with the Effects of Emotional Abuse

Recovering from the trauma of abuse, especially trauma that may have occurred continuously over a long period of time, can be a difficult and lengthy process. Therapy may be beneficial throughout the healing process, which may also be easier with support from family and friends. Maintaining a daily routine, including leisure and other enjoyable activities, can also be a way to cope. If a partner who was emotionally abusive limited one's activities or friendships, engaging in chosen pastimes and seeing friends may be a helpful method of regaining feelings of autonomy. Techniques that enhance emotional intelligence may also be helpful during the recovery process, and maintaining good physical health by sleeping well, eating well, and exercising can help a person feel more able to face the often challenging process of recovery and be better able to cope with any mental or physical health issues that may have developed as a result of the abuse.

Case Examples

  • Therapy for a verbally abusive and threatening relationship: Priya, 24, enters therapy due to stress and a low mood regarding her relationship with her live-in boyfriend. She reports that they fight often, but she expresses confusion over who is at fault. She wants her boyfriend to come for a joint session, but he blames Priya for their troubles, saying that she is the one who needs help. He agrees to attend a session if the therapist recommends it, but only with the understanding that it is Priya’s therapy, because she is "the one with the problems," as he puts it. Priya asks the therapist to recommend a couples session, but before doing so, the therapist asks a few questions about their fights and discovers that Priya’s boyfriend has been calling her demeaning names, telling her he can kick her out of their apartment at any time, and disappearing for days without telling her of his whereabouts. The therapist identifies these behaviors as emotional abuse and informs Priya that couples therapy is not appropriate for their situation. The therapist instead recommends that she 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: Giles, 42, and his wife, Juliet, 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 establishes rules for their sessions, teaching them some new communication techniques and stopping them any time they begin to shout at each other. After several weeks, Giles and Juliet both begin to express a deep emotional fear of abandonment, and the therapist also helps each of them to uncover instances of abuse in their pasts. This process brings them closer together and helps them begin working through their disagreements without abusive language.
  • Emotionally abusive behavior between friends: Emilia, 12, is referred to the school counselor because her teacher has noticed that she seems disengaged in the classroom and reports that she may be "having trouble getting along with the other students." The counselor asks Emilia how she likes her classroom and if everything is going well. Although Emilia seems unwilling to speak at first, she finally tells the counselor that her best friend since the first grade, Marie, no longer wants to be friends with her and that many of the other students in the class do not seem to like her, either. The counselor asks why Marie does not want to be Emilia's friend any longer, and Emilia explains that Marie has told her she is "too ugly and uncool" to be her best friend. She also admits that Marie is often verbally unkind to her, insulting her clothing and hairstyles in front of other classmates, and that she has hidden her belongings in the past. The counselor speaks to Emilia's teacher, and they set aside a day to devote to lessons on friendships, bullying, and good peer relationships, and she also speaks to Marie in a separate counseling session. The counselor sees Emilia twice more, until Emilia reports that her classroom relationships have improved and that Marie has been somewhat nicer, and she encourages Emilia to return with any further issues.


  1. Bernstein, D. P., PhD. (2002). Cognitive therapy of personality disorders in patients with histories of emotional abuse or neglect. Psychiatric Annals, 32(10), 618-628. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/217052371?accountid=1229
  2. Emotional Abuse. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.americanhumane.org/children/stop-child-abuse/fact-sheets/emotional-abuse.html.
  3. Emotional abuse: Signs, symptoms and effects. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/child-abuse-and-neglect/emotional-abuse/emotional-abuse-signs-symptoms-effects.
  4. Shaw, J. (2005). Lacanian demand and the tactics of emotional abuse. Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society, 10(2), 186-196. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.pcs.2100038
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Last updated: 07-03-2015

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