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What Is Emotional Abuse

Updated: May 23, 2022

Source: Canadian Women’s Foundation

According to the Canadian Department of Justice, “Emotional abuse happens when a person uses words or actions to control, frighten, or isolate someone or take away their self-respect.”

Humiliation and derision

Healthy relationships involve both parties feeling safe, respected, and free to express their thoughts, pursue their interests, and change their appearance without fear of being embarrassed. Emotional abuse can include humiliation in order to dismiss and minimize your own feelings and worth. This could take the form of:

  • Calling you names

  • Making patronizing comments

  • Publicly embarrassing you (including online)

  • Making “jokes” at your expense; which may also include dismissing any hurt feelings you incur as being “unable to take a joke”

  • Belittling your accomplishments

  • Making insults about your appearance

  • Putting down your interests

  • Insulting or trying to control your clothing, hairstyle, or any physical changes

  • Infantilizing you or acting as though they know what’s best for you

  • Deliberately putting you in physically- or emotionally-uncomfortable positions (such as locking you out of your home or making a scene in a social situation)

Gaslighting and manipulation

In a healthy relationship, your feelings, thoughts, and perceptions of reality will be validated. While disagreements arise in all relationships – including healthy ones – your feelings should always be validated regardless of what the other party intended. An emotional abuser may try to erode your faith in your own perceptions and feelings in the following ways:

  • Gaslighting, which “refers to the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings. Targets of gaslighting are manipulated into turning against their cognition, their emotions, and who they fundamentally are as people”

  • Defining and trying to exert how they think you should feel

  • Dismissal of your feelings as “crazy,” “dramatic,” “overreacting,” or “emotional” (sometimes, abusers will use others to validate their point of view and invalidate your belief in yourself: such as, “everyone thinks you’re crazy”)

  • Refusing to take responsibility for their actions or how they made you feel (they may try to frame everything, including your pain, as “your fault”)

Isolation and control

Healthy relationships involve both parties supporting one another in their respective interests, relationships, and goals outside of the relationship. Emotional abusers will often work to make the relationship the most important thing in your life in order to isolate you from things that might threaten their control. This might include:

  • Demanding to know your whereabouts and who you are with all the time

  • Monitoring your communication channels such as text messages or email

  • Using technology or other methods to track your movements

  • Making unilateral decisions for all parties such as changing plans or creating joint bank accounts (more broadly, abusers may seek to control the finances as a form of dominance and to restrict your freedom)

  • Withholding affection as a form of punishment

  • Coercing or intimidating you to spend all your time with them (emotional abusers can often be jealous and try to disguise jealousy or insecurity as love and passion, when it is used as a mechanism to guilt you into spending all your time with them)

  • Isolating you from family, friends, and/or coworkers (emotional abusers often try to ensure they are the main or the only influence in your life)

Erratic or chaotic behavior

You should never fear for the safety of yourself, your loved ones, or the other person in the relationship – even if you leave them. You should never feel as though you must walk on eggshells around the other person in order to protect yourself or those around you; in healthy relationships, both parties feel physically as well as emotionally safe and don’t feel coerced or guilted into remaining in the relationship. Emotional abuse may involve:

  • Threats about your safety, your loved one’s safety, or the safety of the other person should you leave them (emotional abusers may attempt to guilt the other person into staying with them through feigned helplessness, threatening what may happen if you leave, or acting as though you owe them your affection)

  • Blackmail

  • Mood swings or unexpected outbursts

  • Deliberately picking fights

  • Destroying or hiding your belongings (especially those which allow for mobility and independence, such as your car keys, wallet, and phone)

Two Books I Found Extremely Helpful for Understanding the Long Term Consequences of Emotional Abuse

Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books (Sept. 8 2015).

Gabor Mate. When The Body Says No: The Hidden Cost of Stress. Random House of Canada (Feb. 3 2004).

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