What is emotional abuse?

It can be difficult to know when we are the victims of emotional abuse. Physical and verbal abuse can be easy to identify, but emotional abuse is more insidious. Often, victims don’t realise that the treatment they are receiving is abusive.

Sometimes, emotional abuse looks a lot like verbal abuse, with one person belittling, demeaning, or insulting the other, but it can also be more subtle. Emotional abuse can be defined as any nonphysical behaviour that is designed to control, intimidate, punish, subjugate, or isolate another person. This can include degradation, humiliation, or fear.

Some common elements of emotional abuse include:

  • “the silent treatment”
  • judgment and criticism
  • accusations and blame
  • demands and ultimatums
  • unreasonable control
  • withholding attention or affection
  • sulking
  • isolating
  • dismissive comments
  • creating chaos and conflict


Many of these are unpleasant but normal behaviours in the day-to-day stress of relationships. An occasional sulk isn’t inherently abusive. However, these behaviours become abusive when they are constant, consistent, and/or excessive. Another key is the distinctiveness of the behaviour. If other people don’t treat you in the same manner, it’s usually a sign that you aren’t being shown the respect you deserve.

Some common examples of emotionally abusive behaviour include:

  • restricting access to money
  • isolating the victim from their family and friends
  • deciding who their victim is “allowed” to see and when
  • jealous comments, turning normal questions such as “why are you home so late?” or “who were you talking to at the party?” into accusations
  • constant criticism of the victim’s appearance, behaviour, or personality
  • keeping tabs on their victim with endless texts, phone calls, and emails
  • dismissing their victim’s comments
  • ignoring their victim’s presence
  • blaming their own failings or disappointments on their victim
  • picking fights or petty arguments
  • making decisions – from making an expensive purchase to ordering lunch – without considering or consulting their victim

Although emotional abuse may not include physical abuse, it may include a form of behaviour called symbolic violence. The emotionally abusive person may not physically harm their victim, but use violent behaviours to frighten and intimidate them. This may include throwing chairs, breaking (or threatening to break) objects precious to their victim, slamming doors, kicking walls, or physically dominating their victim.

An added problem for identifying emotional abuse when it occurs is that victims tend to have a higher than average rate of alexithymia, or difficulty in identifying and describing emotions[i]. Thus, they may be more likely to accept unfair treatment, as they don’t realise how wrong it is.

People who have experienced abusive relationships in the past, particularly in their childhood, have a tendency to find themselves in similarly abusive relationships. Sometimes this is because their past experiences normalised abusive behaviour and influenced their own assumptions about relationships. Other times, it’s because of a subconscious hope that they can “fix” the broken patterns of the past. Relationship therapist Beverly Engel calls this “the repetition compulsion”[ii].

If you are experiencing emotional abuse or think you may be engaging in emotionally abusive behaviour yourself, our team can support you in changing this pattern. If you or someone you know is in immediate crisis due to emotional or other forms of abuse, you can call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) for information and support.

[i] Goldsmith, R. E., & Freyd, J. F. (2005). Effects of emotional abuse in family and work environments. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 5(1).

[ii] Engel, B. (2002). The emotionally abusive relationship. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.