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Hidden Trauma: Understanding the Basics of Emotional Abuse

Emotional Abuse is shockingly widespread. Nearly 49% of Americans are subjected to this form of intimate partner abuse. However, emotional abuse is commonly overlooked and invalidated. Its effects on a survivor, however, can be devastating, long-term, and costly.

emotional abuse

What is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional Abuse is a pattern of continued behaviors that damage a person’s sense of self, agency, security, safety, and personal relationships. Emotional Abuse is not physically violent, however it is often a precursor to (and occurs alongside of) physical and/or sexual abuse. Some survivors of physical abuse have even reported that the emotional abuse which accompanied physical violence both made them stay, and had a longer affect on them.

Emotional abuse includes behaviors such as name-calling, gaslighting, shaming, isolating someone from their friends and family, destroying their property, threatening them, and manipulating them. It can occur in many types of relationships, including intimate, caregiving (to children or the elderly), and workplace relationships.

Emotional abusers can be of any gender, and can abuse someone of any gender. Forms of abuse, however, do follow age- and gender- related patterns. For instance, young women are most likely to experience isolation tactics by an intimate partner, while older women are most likely to have their property destroyed. The gender of an abuser can also affect outside perceptions of severity—some studies found that male abusers were seen as more dangerous or abusive compared to female abusers who engaged in the same behaviors, perhaps because women are presumed to be less physically threatening than men. This disparity in perception can lead to further victim-blaming for those who are being or have been abused by women.

What Does Emotional Abuse Look Like?

Identifying emotional abuse is often the first step to preventing and stopping it. While some of these behaviors are common in healthy interpersonal relationships, they define abusive relationships through high frequency and emotional impact. Below are some questions to ask yourself about your relationship:

Keeping Tabs on You

  • Does your partner require a detailed account of your whereabouts, or check up on you frequently to see where you are or who you are with?

  • Does your partner look through your emails, messages, or social media accounts?

  • Does your partner contact friends and family to verify that you are being truthful?

  • Does your partner prevent you from leaving the house, or guilt you into staying home, if they are not able to go with you?

  • Is your partner unreasonably suspicious that you are cheating on them whenever you are not with them?

Isolating You From Your Support Group

  • Are there friends or family members your partner doesn’t allow you to see?

  • Does seeing certain people cause your partner to Keep Tabs on You more strictly, or guilt/shame you from making plans with them again?

  • Does your partner often tell you that friends or family members have said disparaging things about you, your relationship, or your partner?

  • Have your friends or family members been told by your partner that you have said disparaging things about them, either that you said in confidence or that you never said?

  • Does your partner refuse to spend time with your loved ones for unclear or unfair reasons?

  • Have most of your other relationships suffered since your involvement with your partner?

Shame and Humiliation

  • Does your partner call you names, point out your flaws, or become otherwise verbally aggressive, in private and/or in front of others?

  • Do you often feel degraded or humiliated by your partner in public?

  • Do you frequently feel insulted or hurt by your partner’s attitudes or words about your character, intelligence, appearance, accomplishments, and/or lifestyle? Do they stop making these comments if you say that you are hurt by them?

  • Does your partner’s treatment of you completely change depending on whether other people are around?

Manipulation and Gaslighting

  • Do you feel like your partner’s expectations of you are always changing, and/or you can never do anything right in their eyes?

  • Does the fear of upsetting or ‘setting off’ your partner influence a lot of your decisions?

  • Will there be consequences if you do something wrong in your partner’s eyes—i.e. scolding, the silent treatment, name-calling, withholding, breaking your belongings, etc.?

  • Are you afraid to question or confront your partner’s behavior?

  • Do you always find yourself apologizing when you do confront your partner about the way they’re treating you? Does your partner refuse to take responsibility for their actions?

  • Does your partner invalidate your feelings, question your character, or blame you when you express negative feelings towards their behavior towards you?

  • Does your partner call you “crazy,” “hysterical,” “irrational,” “over-emotional,” etc., when you bring up what seemed like, to you, a reasonable concern?

  • Does your relationship have intense shifts between bliss and constant fighting?

Symbolic Violence

  • Does your partner take out their anger on your property, possessions, or pets when they are mad at you?

  • Do they threaten to hurt you, your loved ones, your pets, your property, your reputation, or themselves because of something you’ve done?

  • Are you afraid your partner will hurt you or someone else when they are upset?

How Do You Stop Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse can have short-term consequences such as confusion, despair, anxiousness, nightmares, unexplained pain, and fear. Long-term consequences include depression, anxiety, PTSD, social withdrawal, substance abuse, and chronic pain.

If you suspect that someone you know is being emotionally abused, you can try to reach out. Because of the patterns of manipulation and isolation many victims of emotional abuse are put through, the person you know might be hesitant to trust you, or they might have limited opportunities to communicate with you. They might not be ready to talk about it or process their situation, but showing that you care and support them can help build them back up.

If you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, there are some steps you can take to get out. Find a therapist who specializes in abuse and trauma. Rebuild your support group by reaching out and telling them what’s been going on. Call a hotline below and talk through your situation. And remember, it’s not your fault.


National Domestic Violence Hotline


National Dating Abuse Helpline


For a more detailed list, visit the NCADV.


1Breiding, M. J., Chen, J. & Black, M. C. (2014). Intimate partner violence in the United States – 2010. Retrieved from cdc_nisvs_ipv_report_2013_v17_single_a.pdf.

2 Karakurt, G., & Silver, K. E. (2013). Emotional abuse in intimate relationships: the role of gender and age. Violence and victims, 28(5), 804–821. Retrieved from

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