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What Is Emotional Abuse?

How can you recognize it?
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Emotional abuse can be difficult to recognize in relationships, and often any abuse that isn't physical can go unnoticed both by victims and by people outside the relationship. Emotional abuse incorporates various forms of manipulation, including gaslighting and coercive control, which both involve psychologically manipulating the victim. While it can still be really hard to spot and to prove in court, coercive control was finally recognized as a criminal offence in 2015.

In recent years there has been much more attention focused on the different forms of emotional abuse, the effect it can have on victims and how hard it can be to spot. Here's everything you need to know about emotional abuse, which signs to look out for and how you can get help.

What is emotional abuse?

Adina Claire, Acting Co-CEO of Women’s Aid, describes emotional abuse as, "Any act where your partner controls, bullies or humiliates you."

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Adina adds, "This includes gaslighting, where you are manipulated and led to question your own recollection of events; intimidation and threats, where you’re frightened of your partner and feel you have to walk on eggshells; and controlling behavior, such as being told what to do and where you can and can’t go."

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What are the signs to look out for?

It can be difficult to identify behaviours that are emotionally abusive. Martin Burrow, a counselor at Relate, an organization providing relationship counseling and support, says emotional abuse "can include intimidation and threats, undermining, criticism, being made to feel guilty, telling you what you can and can’t do and controlling a person’s finances.

"People sometimes struggle to recognize emotional abuse but a key thing to consider is how it makes you feel. If your partner consistently makes you feel controlled, like you can’t speak your mind, or like you have to change your actions to accommodate their behavior, these are all red flags."

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What effect does emotional abuse have on the victim?

Like any form of abuse, emotional abuse can have a lasting effect on the person who experiences it, and it is often accompanied by other forms of abuse.

"Emotional abuse underpins almost all abusive behavior," says Adina, "and can happen in isolation or alongside physical and sexual abuse. Emotional abuse has a major impact on women’s lives, with many survivors experiencing post-traumatic symptoms for years after they’ve left the relationship."

"If you are on the receiving end of emotional abuse, it can be incredibly damaging and upsetting," says Martin. "It can cause low self-esteem, and strips down the autonomy of the victim leaving them to really question everything they do and say."

Does emotional abuse only happen in romantic relationships?

Emotional abuse and other forms of domestic abuse are often only discussed in the context of romantic relationships, but emotional abuse can happen in any relationship you have with another person.

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"Emotional abuse is the behavior of attempting to control another person emotionally," says Martin. "This can happen in any relationship, whether with a friend, partner, family member or colleague."

How to get help for emotional abuse?

"If you’re being abused or think you may be being abused but aren’t sure, an important first step is to speak to somebody outside of the relationship who you trust," says Martin. "This could be a friend, a counsellor or a specialist agency that supports victims. Getting an outside perspective can help you to identify the abuse and access support."


This article originally appeared on Minor edits have been made by the editors.