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The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) published in 2020 by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated that 1 in 11 adults aged 18 to 74 years experienced emotional abuse before the age of 16 years, which is 3.8 million people. This includes perpetrators aged 16 years or over only. The abuse was most commonly perpetrated by the child’s parent(s); around 5 in 10 were abused by their mother, and around 4 in 10 were abused by their father.
The charity Safe Lives undertook research on psychological violence as part of the “Issues Affecting Women” programme. Nearly half (49%) of those surveyed experienced psychological abuse regularly. Practitioners responding to domestic abuse confirmed this regularity, with nearly three-quarters of practitioners saying that psychological violence was always or often reported to them when discussing domestic abuse.
At the beginning of their relationships, 96% of survivors said their partner was charming and affectionate, 93% said they expressed love for them very quickly and 92% wanted to spend a lot of time together. Abusive behaviour is interspersed with warmth and kindness, slowly desensitising the victim to the behaviour.
Perpetrators use a wide range of hidden tactics to maintain control and brainwash their victims, presenting insults as a joke, gaslighting, and presenting different versions of events. Nearly half (48%) of survivors reported regularly being told they were mentally unstable, and over half regularly experienced control over who they could speak to, meet socially or spend time with.
Perpetrators take advantage of victims’ vulnerabilities; those with mental health illnesses were threatened with being sectioned, whereas those with precarious immigration status reported citizenship being used to keep them dependent upon their abuser.
What is emotional abuse?
Emotional abuse is sometimes referred to as mental or psychological abuse. Safe Lives define emotional abuse as “when a person repeatedly uses non-physical actions to purposefully hurt, scare, or manipulate someone else, influence or distort their thoughts and actions, and change their sense of who they are.” We understand this to mean that emotional abuse is when a perpetrator uses their own emotions, and plays on the emotions of their victim, to psychologically damage, threaten or intimidate in order to control them.
In general, any form of relationship is emotionally abusive when there is a consistent pattern of abusive words and bullying behaviours that wear down a person’s self-esteem and undermine their mental health. Emotional abuse involves controlling another person by using emotions to criticise, embarrass, shame, blame, or otherwise manipulate them. Whilst most common in dating and married relationships, mental or emotional abuse can occur in any relationship, including among friends, family members, and in the workplace.
Types of emotional abuse
Emotional abuse is generally about control. Sometimes this is explicit; other times it is more subtle and insidious.
Some examples of the types of emotional abuse can include:
- Criticism – This could be things such as name-calling or making lots of unpleasant or sarcastic comments. This can really lower a person’s self-esteem and self-confidence.
- Jealousy – This can be when someone accuses you of flirting or cheating, or says that you would spend all your time with them if you truly loved them.
- Being made to feel guilty – This can range from outright emotional blackmail such as lots of emotional outbursts to sulking all the time or giving the person the silent treatment as a way of manipulating them. It can include making unreasonable demands such as expecting a person to drop everything to spend time with them or doing something for the abuser, for example “If you cared for me you would…”
- Undermining – This might include things such as dismissing the person’s opinion or blaming and scapegoating them. It can also involve making them doubt their own opinion by acting as if they are being oversensitive if they do complain, disputing their version of events or by suddenly being really nice to the person after being cruel.
- Gaslighting – This is a very subtle form of psychological abuse and manipulation which can destroy a victim’s confidence, leaving them feeling extremely vulnerable. It can make survivors doubt themselves, their memories and their judgement, and it has a devastating impact on their mental health and wellbeing.
- Intimidation and threats – This could be things like shouting, acting aggressively or just generally making a person feel scared. This is often done as a way of making a person feel small and stopping them from standing up for themselves.
- Economic abuse – This can be withholding money, not involving the person in finances or even preventing them from getting a job. This could be done as a way of stopping them from feeling independent and that they are able to make their own choices.
- Isolating – This can be not allowing the person to have friends or contact with family members. Not recognising a person’s own individuality or trying to control their lives.
- Absence – Not being around for the person or persistently ignoring them, threats of abandonment, never saying anything kind, never expressing positive feelings or congratulating a person on successes.
Emotional abuse doesn’t have to happen regularly. It can be a one-time occurrence, or it may happen several times. Someone may experience emotional abuse throughout an entire relationship with someone or it may develop over time.
Who can be at risk of emotional abuse?
Anyone of any age, any gender and from any background can be at risk of emotional abuse. But some people are more vulnerable than others. This might be where there is an imbalance of power or socioeconomic status or where there are mental health or learning/social development issues.
Other factors might include, but are not limited to:
- Relationship characteristics.
- Family situations.
- Substance abuse.
- A history of abuse or neglect as a child.
- Inadequate parenting skills.
- Social attitudes.
- Social isolation.
- Lack of social support.
Emotional abuse doesn’t have to come from a parent or partner, it can also come from children, adult children, employers, peers, colleagues, caregivers, family and friends. People who are likely to be emotionally abusive are those who may have experienced this abuse and may have learned this as a strategy growing up. Others may have an inability to have empathy for someone, especially since abuse tends to escalate.
What are the signs of emotional abuse?
It can be difficult to know when you are experiencing emotional abuse or to recognise when it is happening to someone else. Emotional abuse occurs when someone uses words and non-violent behaviours to exert power and control over someone.
Abusive patterns work over time by affecting a person’s thoughts and emotions, wearing them down. It is not always easy to spot signs of emotional abuse. The point about whether the behaviour is abusive is how it makes someone feel. You can learn to recognise abusive behaviours in others such as those described above, but if you are experiencing emotional abuse, you may notice your own behaviour changes, too.
The signs of emotional abuse can be different for people of different ages, but may include someone:
- Making unreasonable demands such as expecting you to drop everything to spend time with them.
- Not allowing you to have a different opinion from them.
- Being charming one minute and abusive the next.
- Dismissing what you say as fiction or a lie.
- Refusing to accept how you feel about a situation.
- Accusing you of exaggerating everything.
- Playing mind games and making you doubt your judgement.
- Telling you that you are needy or selfish when you tell them your wants or needs.
- Constantly picking faults in your appearance or pointing out your flaws.
- Humiliating you in public or in private and making out that it isn’t a big deal.
- Treating you like you are inferior or stupid.
- Belittling you with how they speak to you.
- Controlling who you see and when.
- Tracking you electronically such as with a GPS on your car or on apps like ‘Find my friends’.
- Jealous and possessive, using their jealousy and/or paranoia as a sign of love.
- Controlling your money, or making sure you are dependent on them for everyday things.
- Controlling your access to medicine, devices or care that you need.
Impacts of emotional abuse
Many people can go into denial when realising that they are or may be in an emotionally abusive situation. It can be a shock and most people will hope that they are wrong. This realisation can have the effect of feeling ashamed, confused, fearful and hopeless. Emotional abuse often leads you to develop a negative self-image and poor confidence.
As a victim of this type of abuse you may feel or experience:
- Low self-esteem, becoming self-critical or feeling worthless.
- Fear, walking on eggshells or avoiding saying or doing things that could cause a reaction.
- Adapting to other people’s expectations such as changing appearance or interests despite personal preferences.
- Feeling small or controlled, unable to express yourself.
- Feelings of powerlessness or hopelessness.
- Developing trust issues.
- It is common to enjoy some aspects of the relationship and have fond memories of positive times, which can lead to additional confusion.
Some physical effects of the abuse can include, but are not limited to:
- Becoming overly compliant or defensive.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Extreme emotions.
- Sleep problems.
- Weight fluctuation, weight loss or obesity.
- Health problems, such as ulcers or skin conditions.
- Abusing substances such as alcohol or drugs.
- Suicidal thoughts or behaviours.
- Withdrawing socially.
- Destructive or anti-social behaviours.
Dealing with emotional abuse
If you are noticing the tactics described above in any relationships that you may have, there may be emotional abuse. Leaving any type of relationship is hard, but when you are in any kind of abusive relationship, it can be hard to break the cycle. The cycle of abuse can condition the brightest people to believe the messages that come from their abuser.
Abusers are masterful manipulators and will go to great lengths to continue to have access to you to abuse you. It can be hard to leave after feeling worn down, and it can be confusing to know where to start particularly if you are dependent on the abuser for your job or housing or financial support. Abusers also often threaten their victims both mentally and physically if they signal that they want to leave, so it can seem safer to stay in the situation because the fear instilled is very real.
Dealing with emotional abuse, both during and after the relationship, can be tremendously difficult as the abuse can erode your sense of self, making it harder to trust your own judgement. Having friends, family, a GP or even a therapist can be very helpful for you as you will need a lot of support when dealing with emotional abuse.
Allowing abuse damages your self-esteem so it is important to confront it. That doesn’t mean to fight and argue, it means standing your ground and speaking up for yourself clearly and calmly and having boundaries to protect your mind, emotions and body. Be assertive – this takes learning and practice to avoid being passive or aggressive. To respond effectively to emotional abuse requires support. Without it, you may languish in self-doubt and succumb to abusive disinformation and denigration. It is challenging to change your reactions, let alone those of anyone else.
It is about taking back your power. You don’t have to continue to give up your power. You can control the conversation. You can control what you expose yourself to. You are not obligated to listen to someone berate you. You do not need to answer unreasonable questions or demands. You can be kind and firm without accommodating inappropriate behaviour.
You can tell someone not to speak to you in a certain way or remind them that you see things differently. Exit when needed. You can end a conversation or phone call, or physically leave if things escalate, become critical, unproductive, or are upsetting. Expect push-back when you start to stand up for yourself. This is another reason why support is essential, as you will need courage and consistency.
None of this is easy to do. Dealing with an emotionally abusive relationship can be very emotional, intimidating and challenging. The more consistent you are, the easier it will get.
If you are supporting someone who is in an emotionally abusive situation or relationship, the key thing that you can do is to listen. Give the person experiencing emotional abuse space to share their story. It may be difficult, but do not jump in with advice, your personal thoughts or emotions. When listening to a story that’s difficult to hear, check in to make sure you are actively listening by paraphrasing or repeating what you have heard.
Don’t shame, judge, or critique the person. It is natural to have a lot of questions but be aware of your tone and phrasing. The person sharing with you is experiencing a lot in the situation or relationship and most likely already feels a mix of emotions, including guilt and shame. Try not to add to that. Remember, emotional abuse is complicated and confusing.
Believe someone if they tell you they are experiencing emotional abuse; abusers are often very skilled at creating a front, so it may be hard to believe that they are capable of abuse. This doubt is a tool used to exercise control. Believing someone when they tell you they were abused not only supports them but can also serve to loosen the control exercised over them by the person who is hurting them.
If you notice that someone appears to be being emotionally abused, it is okay to voice any concerns you may have, but be sure to take a non-judgemental position. Communicate that you are coming from a place of compassion. Don’t pressure them or force your opinions or views. Help by supporting the person who is experiencing emotional abuse to make choices that are right for them. You can offer resources and be there to listen and validate their feelings, but know that you can’t force change.
Being supportive can be emotionally draining on you. This is known as compassion fatigue, so to prevent this from happening ensure that you practise self-care.
How to heal from emotional abuse
It is common for people to experience a range of emotions as they heal from abuse of any kind. The healing process can widely vary from person to person, and there is no one right way to heal, as everyone’s feelings and emotions are valid. It is not unusual for someone to have mood swings, feeling positive and confident one day, and anxious and sad the next.
Although it can be challenging, several strategies can help someone to recover from an emotionally abusive situation or relationship.
Healing after emotional abuse can be a long and difficult process. Understanding what emotional abuse is and recognising the signs makes it possible to see that behaviours you once saw and accepted as normal were actually abusive. Deepening your understanding of emotional abuse will ultimately help you understand what healthy relationships should look like, allowing you to build better connections with others in the future.
While it is normal for someone to blame themselves for the emotional abuse that they have experienced, you should remember that none of it is your fault. Emotional abusers might try to make you believe that you deserve mistreatment, but that is never true. Your emotional abuser is the one responsible for their actions, not you.
Most people in abusive situations and relationships tend to ignore their own needs in order to focus on what the emotional abuser wants. There is nothing wrong with trying to make other people happy, but be aware if you have developed a pattern of always putting someone else first at the expense of your own needs and wants.
Try to create a support system of friends, family or professionals such as your GP or a therapist who can help you to work to rebuild relationships or to make new connections. Positive relationships with others can help you to learn to trust again.
There are a variety of organisations and services that may be able to offer you support for emotional abuse or offer support to those who are concerned about someone who may be experiencing emotional abuse.
- Your GP or NHS 111.
- Victim Support/You & Co – you can contact your nearest Victim Support office, call the 24/7 Supportline, contact them via live chat, or if you are 16 or older, you can create a My Support Space account. This is a free, safe and secure online space where you can work through interactive guides to help you move forward.
- The Mix– information and support for under 25s on a whole range of issues. Get confidential help by email, text, webchat or phone 0808 808 4994.
- Childline – 24-hour support for young people, both on the phone and through online chats and message boards, on physical, sexual and emotional abuse and a range of other issues 0800 1111.
- Citizens Advice Adviceline 0800 144 8848.
- Crisis Text Line UK Text 85258.
- Women’s Aid National Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0808 2000 247; the Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327.
- Samaritans 116 123 (freephone) firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Hourglass offers a helpline, text line, information and advice for older people who have experienced abuse. Also supports those concerned about an older person, such as families, carers or practitioners: 0808 808 8141.
- For any workplace emotionally abusive relationships, in the first instance speak with the HR department in your organisation. You could also contact your trade union representative or speak to ACAS Helpline on 0300 123 1100.
All relationships have conflict, and having healthy conflict can strengthen any relationship and lead to improved communication. People can disagree and resolve conflict without causing a rift in the relationship. However, emotional abuse is outside of the realms of typical conflict. Emotional abuse is never OK.