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Are you or is a loved one experiencing emotional abuse? Know what to look for and how to get help.
Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
Emotional abuse is all about control — one person exerting control over the life of another. It can take many shapes and forms, some as subtle as damaging words uttered from one spouse to another, and some as overt as harsh, dominating shouts that are paired with physical abuse.
“Within the context of a relationship, the emotionally abusive person makes verbal attacks to one’s character and person,” says Penny B. Donnenfeld, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in New York City. “Communications from the emotional abuser are insulting, threatening, devaluing, mocking, controlling, critical, and undermining of self-esteem and worth. Often an abuser limits one’s access to friends and family or tries to induce a sense of mistrust in others.”
Since emotional abuse can occur in so many different ways, it’s often difficult for a loved one — or even the abusers themselves — to recognize the signs of emotional abuse. Making things worse is the fact that many victims of emotional abuse become “brainwashed” into believing that the abuser really cares for them.
“Most victims of abuse are ashamed. They may feel that they deserve to be mistreated or that no one understands how hard their boyfriend, husband, or parent tries to take care of them,” says David Sack, MD, the CEO of Promises Treatment Centers in California and the author of many journal articles on depression. “Their abuser has often isolated them through intimidation. They are reluctant to trust others because they fear angering their abuser.”
The Victims of Emotional Abuse
According to Dr. Donnenfeld, children are most frequently the victims of emotional abuse. These children are then more likely to go on to become victims of abuse themselves as adults. “I have also seen emotional abuse in the dating relationships of young teenagers,” says Sheila K. Collins, PhD, a psychotherapist and author of
Stillpoint: The Dance of Self-Caring and Self-Healing. “Here, inexperience and social pressure to be with someone popular may cause young girls to allow themselves to be intimidated and mistreated by their boyfriends.”
Another growing area of emotional abuse is among the elderly, adds Donnenfeld. “In light of the increasing number of people living longer and the percentage of seniors developing dementia or dependent on their children for care, the prevalence of elder emotional abuse is increasing,” she says.
Watch Out for These Signs
The signs of emotional abuse can sometimes be difficult to spot. The most obvious, of course, is if you see or hear one person in a relationship being openly verbally abusive to the other one.
Look for the more subtle signs, too. “The person is often frightened of the abuser or fearful of angering or displeasing the abuser,” says Donnenfeld. “As a result, actions and access are controlled, and the person often seems to have no freedom or capacity to make independent decisions.” She adds that the victim of emotional abuse judges everything according to how the abuser will react to it — whether it’s with approval, disapproval, or rage. The victim may also withdraw from friends and family without warning, often at the request of the abuser.
Keep in mind that you may never witness the abuse within a relationship, but you may notice the effects of emotional abuse in a friend or loved one. “In some situations, the abuse takes place behind closed doors, so then you may observe the victim’s loss of self-confidence, depression, or sleeping or eating disorders,” says Dr. Collins.
How to Help Someone in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship
If you believe that a friend or a loved one is in an emotionally abusive relationship, you can help them to get through the adverse effects of emotional abuse. Here’s how:
- Start with subtlety. “If you are overtly critical of the suspected abuser, it makes it less likely the victim will trust you with her secret,” says Dr. Sack. “Sometimes the best that one can do is to offer a sympathetic ear and an assurance of safety if they ever find themselves needing it.”
- Help them disconnect. “In a romantic relationship where this is happening, recovery involves stepping back enough to question the truths and assumptions that they have,” says Donnenfeld. “This will entail moving away from the abuser and seeking others who can give a more balanced and less personally motivated perspective on the person’s strengths and weaknesses.”
- Suggest they seek help. This is certainly not an easy process, so the person may need therapy to work through their issues and overcome the abuse. “Psychotherapy with a mental health professional is an important component of help to ensure that changes are made in the person’s life to prevent abuse from occurring again,” says Richard Shadick, PhD, a psychologist and director of the Counseling Center at Pace University in New York.
- Seek outside help. If you are concerned for the person’s safety, do not hesitate to seek outside help if needed. “Physical safety is the primary concern. If someone is being physically abused, they should take steps to ensure that they are out of harm’s way by finding a safe place to stay and receive support that they need from a trusted person,” says Shadick. “Once in a safe place, the person should connect with supportive services for abused individuals.”
- Receive continuing care. “It is a difficult process of breaking free,” says Donnenfeld. “The person needs a lot of support and can benefit from being in therapy or part of a support group as well.”
Emotional abuse can be subtle, but once recognized, it can be dealt with in several positive ways.
Learn more in the Everyday Health Emotional Health Center.