Emotional abuse exposed


When people usually think about abuse, they think about physical violence. However, abuse can come with invisible scars rather than physical scars. Emotional abuse is one of the hardest to prove forms of abuse with victims suffering in silence and not realising that the are being perpetrated.

Emotional abuse is emerging and gaining more attention as more victims are speaking out. Emotional abuse is when a person is repeatedly exposed or subjected to words, actions and behaviour that are intended to control or limit them through emotional harm or fear. The victim (or recipient of emotional abuse) is subjected to manipulation, isolation and/or intimidation.

Many forms of domestic violence and abuse often come in multiple forms within the relationship. The different forms of domestic violence include physical, verbal, psychological/mental, emotional, social, financial and sexual. In partnered relationships or couples, emotional abuse is often coupled with physical or sexual abuse(^^). Verbal abuse at the core is a form of emotionally abusive behaviour.

Staggering statistics were released from the 2012 ABS Personal Safety Survey (PSS) which highlighted the effects of emotional abuse. The 2012 PSS found that overall, women were more likely to have experienced emotional abuse by a partner than men, with one in four (25%) women and one in seven (14%) men having experienced emotional abuse by a partner since the age of 15 (2.1 million women and 1.2 million men) by a current or previous partner (^^).


When people speak about emotional abuse many people don’t know what it means or what it looks like. To assist, here are some examples of emotionally abusive behaviours, which include:

• stopping or trying to stop their partner from contacting or seeing family or friends

• constant insults aimed at making their partner feel ashamed, belittled or humiliated

• monitoring their partner’s whereabouts and/or installing surveillance devices to track their movements

• lying to their child/children with the intent of turning them against their partner

• controlling their partner’s access to employment, study or household money

• depriving their partner of their basic needs such as food or sleep

• threats of harm against themselves, others or pets.

As with many forms of abuse, the effects trickle in slowly and are subtle.

If you are being emotionally abused by your spouse (or perpetrator), you may:

  1. Be subjected to continuous blame for everything that goes wrong
  2. Receive make-up gifts from your spouse
  3. Have a lack of control over your resources (say money, banking accounts)
  4. Exposed to constant criticism
  5. Have high demands from the spouse
  6. Notice disloyalty from the spouse
  7. Have trust issues and jealousy from the spouse
  8. Have to adhere to excessive rules
  9. Fear for you and/or your loved-ones’ life or wellbeing
  10. Find yourself being gaslighted
  11. Feel guilt and a sadness of never doing or being better
  12. Grudges that are held against you for a long time
  13. Isolation and being kept from your friends, family and loved one
  14. Having a score kept against you
  15. Notice lies from your spouse
  16. Be manipulated by your spouse
  17. Be the recipient of name calling
  18. Be labelled
  19. Be neglected by your spouse
  20. Not receive reciprocation for the effort that you give to your spouse
  21. Be subjected to passive-aggressive behaviour
  22. Have to seek permission before doing or acting
  23. Witness rage and remorse from your spouse
  24. Notice a lack of responsibility of the emotions and reactions of your spouse
  25. Be threatened as a way of making you do what they want
  26. Receive ultimatums if you don’t do what they want
  27. Be subjected to the ‘silent treatment’

Some of the above behaviours, may happen as a one-off and in isolation. While it isn’t nice, it doesn’t constitute emotional abuse. The above behaviours may happen in combination and most certainly persistently.


Sadly, parents are often knowingly or unconsciously displaying behaviours to their children that can be or is considered emotional abuse.

One study conducted by Schaefer (^^^) sought to determine which specific parental verbal utterances were generally perceived as psychologically harmful. A sample of 151 local mental health professionals and parents (120 women, 31 men) completed a questionnaire which described 18 categories of parental verbalisations commonly associated with psychological maltreatment in the literature.

In parenting, some examples of parental emotional abuse to children include:

  1. rejection or withdrawal of love
  2. verbal putdowns
  3. expecting perfectionism
  4. negative prediction (e.g. ‘you’ll never amount to anything’)
  5. negative comparison (e.g. ‘Why can’t you be more like your sister?’)
  6. scapegoating
  7. shaming the child, especially in front of others
  8. cursing or swearing at the child
  9. giving threats or threatening the child
  10. guilt trips (e.g. ‘How could you do that after all I’ve done for you?’).

Shafer’s study (^^^) study indicated that emotionally abusive parents showed poorer coping skills, poorer child management strategies and more difficulty in forming and maintaining relationships. These parents also reported more deviant behaviour in their children displayed than parents in the control group.


It is understood that emotional abuse can stay with a person for a lifetime. When treating someone suffering from emotional abuse, it is a matter of identifying what emotional abuse is, finding some acceptance from what has happened, and finding a strategy for coping with it.

  1. CREATE A SUPPORT TEAM. The abused person needs an appropriate support team. An independent adult that they can talk to whom isn’t inflammatory, supportive and encourages the individual to use their learned strategies. The team may include best friends, non-abusive partners, friends and counsellor/therapist.
  2. WORK ON THE ‘SELF.’ The abused individual (be it child or adult) needs support to create a positive and helpful self-identity and self-confidence.
  3. MANAGE TRIGGERS. Often individuals are triggered in new relationships when their new partners say or do something that reminds them of the past – rather than reacting in the way that they may in their previous relationship, it is important to stop, become aware of the current surroundings, remain present and note that the intention from your loved one is not the same as your previous abuser.


Sadly, emotional abuse may be present within a marriage or relationship (be it between adults or adult and child). However, upon separation, emotional abuse can either present for the first time or escalate. More often than not, within divorce, the most common victims of emotional abuse are the children who are used a ‘pawns’ in the game of divorce.

With a heightened understanding, you may realise that some of your behaviours could be considered emotionally abusive and either be more conscious of your behaviour to auto-correct or seek further support from a professional. Equally, knowing more about emotional abuse, you may observe of the emotionally abusive behaviour of others, be in a position to highlight the negative behaviour and support any emotionally abused victims.

Learn more about abuse, the different forms and how to manage your situation with the HOW TO BEST SEPARATE Domestic Violence (2nd Edition) E-book.


^ http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0main+features602014

^^ http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/4102.0Media%20Release52014?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=4102.0&issue=2014&num=&view=

^^^ https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/emotional-abuse-hidden-form-maltreatment#typ

Related articles:

Creating Boundaries for your emotional wellbeing

Grief in Divorce


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