What is emotional abuse and how to identify it

Emotional abuse is the ongoing emotional mistreatment of a person by another. It is sometimes known as psychological abuse and can have a severe impact on a person’s life. It can involve deliberately trying to scare, intimidate, frighten or humiliate an individual.


Emotional abuse allows the perpetrator to gain power and control over someone through their language, behaviours and gestures, which over time erode the person’s sense of self-respect, confidence and self-belief. 

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse can sometimes be hard to identify due to the fact there are no visible physical signs. For those experiencing emotional abuse, the torment can in some cases continue indefinitely. Within relationships, it is usual to have elements of conflict, argue or criticise each other at points so, what are the patterns and features of emotional abuse?

Features and patterns of emotional abuse

The features and patterns of emotional abuse will of course vary depending on the individual experiencing them. Listed below are some of the features of emotionally abusive relationships. This list is by no means extensive and is used to give an idea of what an emotional relationship can look like.

Aggressive behaviours - name-calling belittling, blaming, accusing, shouting or insulting, threatening, or highly critical behaviour. 

Denying abuse - exaggerated sulking, manipulation of your emotions, thoughts or feelings, not listening, withholding information, care or love, distorting your sense of reality, truth or experience (also known as 'gaslighting').

Minimising the abuse - minimising the impact, isolating their victim, offering solutions or giving advice, making them feel stupid or as though they are overreacting to the abuse. 

F.O.G - fear, obligation and guilt; experiencing these three common feelings simultaneously or progressively over time. 

Alienation - the act of cutting off or interfering with an individual’s relationships with others making it hard to form new relationships or maintain the current one.

Baiting - this is a provocative act is used to solicit angry or aggressive responses from the victim.

Belittling, condescending and patronising - these passive-aggressive behaviours are designed to give someone a put-down while at the same time maintaining the façade of friendliness or being reasonable.

Blaming - this practice identifies the victim as the reason for the problems and seeks to blame them for all current difficulties. Often a victim is so weakened by a pattern of abuse that they will fall in line with this altered view of the truth, and begin to blame themselves.

Threats and emotional blackmail - this behaviour seeks to threaten the victim, their friends or even pets with harm if the victim leaves the relationship. The perpetrator will consistently use a system of threats and punishments in an attempt to control, coerce or manipulate their victim to behave how they would like.

Engulfment - this is where a perpetrator will seek to overwhelm their partner with attention or dependency. This comes from imagining that their victim only exists within the confines of their relationship, and is in some ways merely an extension of themselves.

Identifying emotional abuse and its signs

Emotional abuse can sap a person’s confidence making it difficult for them to form or maintain relationships outside of the relationship with their partner. Victims of emotional abuse struggle to feel worthy or valued. Listed below are some of the signs of emotional abuse.

  • Isolating you from seeing friends or family.
  • Threats by the perpetrator that they will hurt themselves if you leave.
  • Telling you that you are selfish for spending time with others.
  • Extreme jealousy (which is different from being in a mutually exclusive or committed relationship).
  • Constant demands to prove you have been faithful. For example, having to show phone records or in-depth questioning about past relationships.
  •  Controlling behaviours, such as needing to respond to messages or calls immediately no matter what you are doing.
  • Feeling agitated, fearful or concerned about upsetting your partner.
  • A lack of respect for your property, clothes or income.
  • A noticeable drop in your self-esteem and confidence.
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Escapist behaviour - constantly researching holidays, looking for a new job or place to live.

Causes of emotional abuse

The causes of emotional abuse or reasons for their origins within a relationship can vary for each individual; however, feelings of powerlessness, hurt, fear or abuse can often be the root cause of these behaviours for both the perpetrator and victim. It can be the case that these underlying issues can be linked with abuse, trauma or traumatic experiences experienced in childhood by either the victim or perpetrator. Often, these are issues that have not been fully processed or understood.

Often, within emotionally abusive relationships, patterns from childhood or our early years can be re-enacted where an individual will take on the role of the parent, and one person takes on the role of the child. Additionally, a perpetrator of emotional abuse in one relationship, may switch roles within another relationship, and be the victim of the abuse. Those in positions of emotional abuse, find it very difficult to manage, understand the cope with their own feelings, and may often blame others for their behaviours, actions or feelings.  

Moving forward and seeking help

Emotional abuse can be highly damaging and can be linked to our earlier experiences and patterns, meaning that the cycles of abuse can be difficult to break. Seeking help is an important step in stopping abuse early before it can become entrenched. A therapist or counsellor will be able to work with you to get to know yourself better, understand your thoughts, feelings and ideas and work with you to build your self-esteem, confidence and self-belief.

The process of seeking help to move on from an emotionally abusive relationship is a long one, and it is not easy. However learning to value yourself and your needs, and starting to feel that you are entitled to respect, care and decency is a good place to start on a road to feeling happier and free from abuse.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London N6 & NW5
Written by Joshua Miles, BA, MSc, BPC, BACP Accredited Psychodynamic Psychotherapist
London N6 & NW5

Joshua is an experienced Integrative Therapist who has worked with people experiencing varying levels of abuse. He has assisted people in recognising abusive patterns of behaviour when they occur & worked with them to understand their feelings, thoughts & ideas. He also works with loneliness, bereavement & depression. He is based in Shoreditch.

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