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About Abuse

Emotional and Psychological Abuse

Updated: 
September 8, 2021

Is emotional abuse the same as psychological abuse?
What is emotional and psychological abuse?
What are the signs of emotional and psychological abuse?
What are some forms of emotional and psychological abuse?
What are the effects of emotional and psychological abuse?

What can I do if I am a victim of emotional and psychological abuse?

Is emotional abuse the same as psychological abuse?
There is no clear agreement among experts in the field whether there is a meaningful difference between emotional and psychological abuse. There is some research that suggests that there are slight differences between the two. Emotional abuse is believed to be broader and so psychological abuse is often considered to be one form of emotional abuse. Also, psychological abuse involves the use of verbal and social tactics to control someone’s way of thinking, such as “gaslighting,” which is not necessarily the same as other forms of emotional abuse.

However, for the purposes of the following questions, WomensLaw will group the terms together since the behaviors described by both concepts are similar enough that there isn’t a real difference when considering legal remedies for victims of these behaviors.

What is emotional and psychological abuse?
Abuse comes in many different forms. Even when there is no physical violence, abusive language can be very damaging to you and your children. Emotional and psychological abuse are include mostly non-physical behaviors that the abuser uses to control, isolate, or frighten you. Often, the abuser uses it to break down your self-esteem and self-worth in order to create a psychological dependency on him/her. Emotional and psychological abuse are hard forms of abuse to recognize because the abuse is spread throughout your everyday interactions. Unlike physical abuse, there are often no isolated incidents or clear physical evidence to reference.1

1 See The National Domestic Violence Hotline, What is Emotional Abuse page

What are the signs of emotional and psychological abuse?
Emotional and psychological abuse may begin suddenly or it may slowly start to enter into your relationship. Some abusers behave like a good partner in the beginning and start the abuse after the relationship is established. When this shift in behavior occurs, it can leave you feeling shocked, confused, and even embarrassed. However, abuse is never your fault even if the abuser tells you it is or if your family members or friends blame you for “allowing” the abuse. It is often difficult to decide whether or not certain behaviors are emotionally or psychologically abusive, especially if you grew up witnessing abuse. However, as with all other types of domestic violence, the behavior is intended to gain and keep power and control over you. Some signs that a partner is being emotionally and psychologically abusive include:

  • humiliating you in front of others;
  • calling you insulting names, such as “stupid,” “disgusting,” or “worthless”;
  • getting angry in a way that is frightening to you;
  • threatening to hurt you, people you care about, or pets;
  • the abuser threatening to harm him/herself when upset with you;
  • saying things like, “If I can’t have you, then no one can;”
  • deciding things for you that you should decide, like what you wear or eat;
  • acting jealous, including constantly accusing you of cheating;
  • continually pretending to not to understand what you are saying, making you feel stupid, or refusing to listen to your thoughts and opinions;
  • questioning your memory of events or denying that an event happened the way you said it did, even when the abuser knows that you are right;
  • changing the subject whenever you try to start conversations with the abuser and others and questioning your thoughts in a way that makes you feel unworthy; and
  • making your needs or feelings seem unimportant or less important than those of the abuser.1

1 See U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, Office on Women’s Health, Emotional and Verbal Abuse page

What are some forms of emotional and psychological abuse?
Emotional and psychological abuse can involve behaviors or acts towards you or towards others. Below, we discuss both.

Acts towards others:
Abuse of pets

Pets are commonly viewed as family members and treasured companions. The abuser may use the emotional and psychological connection you have with your pets to gain power and control over you by harming or threatening to harm your pet in any of the following ways:

  • harming your pet to get back at you for actions that you may have taken that show self-determination or independence;
  • harming your pet as “punishment” for something that you or your children did;
  • threatening or harming your pet in an attempt to force (coerce) you into doing something; or
  • forcing you or your children to harm or kill your pet or to watch the abuser do it.1

Threats to self-harm
When your partner regularly threatens self-harm when you don’t do what the abuser wants you to do or when you decide to leave the relationship, this is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. The abuser is using your love for him/her to manipulate and control you. When your partner makes these threats, steps you can take to protect yourself include:

  • telling your partner you care about him/her, but sticking to your boundaries – in other words, not necessarily doing whatever the abuser tells you is necessary to do to “prevent” self-harm;
  • not taking responsibility for the abuser’s actions if the abuser does decide to self-harm; and
  • remembering that it is not your responsibility to “make” the abuser not self-harm. For example, the abuser may say, “If you really loved me, you’d stop me from killing myself” but this is part of the manipulation that often comes with emotional abuse.2

Acts towards you:
Isolation

In an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship, the abuser will do many things in an attempt to cut all of the emotional ties you have with other people so that the only one left is the one to the abuser. Some signs of this type of isolation include:

  • preventing or discouraging you from seeing family or friends and making you feel guilty when you do;
  • wanting to know what you’re doing all the time and making you be in constant contact;
  • restricting access to transportation so you can’t leave the home;
  • acting jealous of time spent with your family or friends, often to the point where you will “choose” not to see them anymore so you don’t have to put up with the abuser’s jealousy; and
  • wanting you to ask for permission before doing something or spending time with other people.3

Gaslighting
Gaslighting is a form of emotional and psychological abuse that tends to happen gradually in a relationship. The term “gaslighting” is used to describe a pattern of behavior in which the abuser intentionally denies that acts or events happened in the way that you know that they happened. An abuser will often twist your emotions, words, and experiences and use them against you, which causes you to question your reality, to doubt your own judgment and memory, and to make you feel that you are “going crazy.” Signs that you are experiencing gaslighting include:

  • feeling confused, “crazy,” and constantly second-guessing yourself;
  • constantly questioning if you are being “too sensitive”;
  • having trouble making simple decisions;
  • constantly apologizing to your partner;
  • frequently making excuses for your partner’s behavior;
  • finding yourself withholding information from loved ones;
  • starting to lie to avoid the put-downs or reality twists;
  • feeling as though you can’t do anything right; and
  • wondering if you are a “good enough” partner.4

Ultimately, these behaviors are meant to control, isolate, or frighten you, and while they do not leave physical scars, they can leave long-lasting trauma.5

1 This information was adapted from Pets and Domestic Violence
2 See The National Domestic Violence Hotline, When Your Partner Threatens Suicide page
3 See The National Domestic Violence Hotline, What is Emotional Abuse page
4 See The National Domestic Violence Hotline, What is Gaslighting page
5 See U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, Office on Women’s Health, Emotional and Verbal Abuse page

What are the effects of emotional and psychological abuse?
Emotional and psychological abuse can have severe short- and long-term effects. This type of abuse can affect both your physical and your mental health. You may experience feelings of confusion, anxiety, shame, guilt, frequent crying, over-compliance, powerlessness, and more. You may stay in the relationship and try to bargain with the abuser or try to change the abuser’s behavior, often placing blame on yourself, even though you are not at fault.

If you’re dealing with severe and ongoing emotional abuse, it’s possible to lose your entire sense of self and begin to doubt your self-worth or your abilities, which may make it even harder to leave the relationship. Long-term emotional abuse can also result in several health problems, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, chronic pain, and more.1 It’s important to get emotional support to help you deal with the trauma of emotional and psychological abuse – see What can I do if I am a victim of emotional and psychological abuse? for more information.

1 This information was adapted from U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, Office on Women’s Health, Emotional and Verbal Abuse page and Effects of Violence Against Women page.

What can I do if I am a victim of emotional and psychological abuse?
If you are the victim of emotional and psychological abuse, you may be hesitant to seek help or tell your friends and family because you fear they will not believe you or take you seriously. You may feel shame or confusion as to what is happening. However, seeking help and support is essential to ending an emotionally or psychologically abusive relationship. The effects of these types of abuse are serious and it is common for emotional and psychological abuse to escalate to physical violence. You can go to our National Organizations - Emotional Abuse section for national resources or talk to an advocate or counselor at your local domestic violence organization, listed on our Advocates and Shelters page. Local domestic violence programs often offer free counseling, support groups, and the advocates in these organizations could point you to other local help and support options.

In addition, depending on how domestic violence is defined in your state, the abuser’s behavior can fall under certain crimes or you may qualify for a restraining order. A few states specifically allow someone to get a restraining order based on “coercive control,” which is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. Even in states where emotional abuse is not considered as a reason for a restraining order, it’s possible that certain emotionally abusive acts may, in fact, qualify you for an order. For example, if an abuser threatens you or continually texts or calls you repeatedly without reason to do so, this could be considered enough to grant an order. In our Restraining Orders page, you can chose your state from the drop-down menu and look for the question where we include the legal definition of domestic violence for the purposes of getting a restraining order. Some states also recognize emotionally abusive acts as crimes, such as threats or public disturbances, for example. You can go to our Crimes page to read through the list of common crimes committed by abusers to see if any match up with the abuser’s actions.