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Emotional Abuse

What Is Emotional Abuse?

One definition of emotional abuse is any act including isolation, confinement, verbal assault, intimidation, humiliation, infantilization, or any other treatment which may reduce the sense of dignity, identity, and self-worth.

Emotional abuse is also known as psychological abuse or mental abuse or as chronic verbal aggression. Individuals who suffer from emotional abuse tend to have very low self-esteem, manifest personality changes (such as becoming withdrawn), and may even become anxious, depressed, or suicidal.

In general, a relationship is emotionally abusive when a consistent pattern of abusive words and bullying behaviors wear down an individual’s self-esteem and undermine their mental health.

What’s more, emotional or mental abuse, while most common in dating and married relationships, can happen in any relationship, including among family members, friends, and co-workers.

Emotional abuse is one of the most complex forms of abuse to recognize. It can be subtle and insidious or manipulative and overt. Either way, it chips away at the victim’s self-esteem, and they start to doubt their perceptions and reality.

Emotional Abuse
Emotional abuse is a set of behaviors that undermine, undervalue, and harm the victim. The effects can be long-lasting and can influence addiction.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) [1], Younger men reported experiencing higher levels of emotional abuse, which declined with age. Older females reported experiencing less emotional abuse than older males. Overall, emotional abuse was more common in younger people. Younger women experienced higher rates of isolation, and women’s overall experience of property damage was higher than that of men and increased with age.

Relationship Between Emotional Abuse and Addiction

Emotional abuse and substance abuse have a close and complicated relationship, with emotional abuse making substance abuse more likely and substance abuse making emotional abuse more likely. 

Getting out of an emotionally abusive relationship isn’t easy, and when you add substance abuse or drug addiction into the mix, it becomes more complex. Often, family and friends have difficulty understanding why those involved continue to endure emotionally abusive relationships and stay trapped in a life bound by addiction

Unfortunately, emotional abuse is frequently a contributor to substance abuse. For example, an emotionally abusive partner may manipulate their partner into staying with them by aiding in and enabling their drug addiction.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) [2] , in 2018, an estimated 47.6 million adults in the U.S. had any mental illness in the past year, representing 19.1 percent of the adult population. Evidence-based prevention can prevent substance misuse and the development of substance use and mental disorders such as PTSD, resulting from emotional abuse.

Signs and Examples of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse centers around control, manipulation, isolation, and demeaning or threatening behavior. Signs of emotional abuse include:


  • Your partner may seem overly-invested in your social life, or guard your day-to-day routines without acknowledging your desires. You don’t have the freedom to make your own decisions (either subtly or overtly). Even small comments that weaken your independence are a means of control. Examples are:
    • Making demands or orders and expecting them to be fulfilled
    • Making all decisions, even canceling another’s plans without asking
    • Continually monitoring another person’s whereabouts
    • Insisting on regular calls, texts, or pictures detailing where the person is, and even showing up to these places to make sure they are not lying
    • Exerting financial control over the other, such as by keeping accounts in their name or only giving the other person an allowance


  • It’s quite normal for partners to raise their voices every now and then, but it’s not normal when disagreements always escalate into shouting. It’s especially concerning if you feel afraid. Not only does yelling make a productive conversation nearly impossible, but it also creates an imbalance of power—only the loudest person is heard. Examples are:
    • Yelling, which is frequently a scare tactic and can be a way for an abusive person to let the other know who is in control


  • When one person feels contempt for the other, it’s not easy for either individual to express their feelings. In healthy relationships, there’s an expectation that your partner will be respectful and listen (even if they can’t give you what you need). However, if they respond to your needs with mean-spirited sarcasm, disgust, arrogance, or apathy, then contempt may create a wall in your relationship.
    • Treating the person as though they are a child, including telling them what to eat, what to wear, or where they can go.
    • The abusive person may give lectures about the other person’s behavior, in a way to make it clear that the other person is inferior.

Excessive Defensiveness

  • When you steadily feel like you have to defend yourself, there’s less room for positive communication. So it’s important that both parties are able to talk honestly—and openly—with each other to resolve problems. Extreme defensiveness can feel like you’re in a battle where your shield is constantly up.
    • Telling you that your opinions, ideas, values, and thoughts are stupid, illogical, or “do not make sense”
    • Talking down to you or being condescending
    • Using sarcasm when interacting with you
    • Acting like they are always right, know what is best, and are smarter


  • If your partner is bullying or threatening you in any way, you may feel like you’re in danger. Such statements can include threats of physical harm or suicide, blackmail, or other intimidating comments. Still, they often share the same intent: To back victims into a corner (and prevent them from leaving).
    • Starting arguments for the sake of arguing
    • Making confusing and contradictory statements (sometimes called “crazy-making”)
    • Having drastic mood changes or sudden emotional outbursts


  • Stonewalling occurs when one partner declines to communicate or talk. If your partner shuts down uncomfortable talks, it can feel like abandonment. On the other hand, their refusal to discuss problems may come across as rejection or a lack of concern for your emotions.
    • Abusive people may leave a situation rather than resolve it. In a disagreement at home, for example, they may remark about how the other is “crazy.” This can put all the blame on the other person and make them feel ashamed while also never solving the issue.


  • Victims are often made to believe that they cause and therefore deserve their own abuse and unhappiness, making the cycle much difficult to break. The shame can exacerbate this that many victims feel for letting their abuse continue.
    • Jealousy can be an abuse tactic. The abusive person may regularly confront the other for talking to or “flirting with” other people. They may accuse the other person of cheating on them regularly.
    • The abusive person may try to turn the tables on the other person by blaming them for the issues the abusive person has not dealt with. They may even accuse the other person of being the abusive one in the relationship.
    • The abusive person typically knows how to get the other one angry. They may irritate them until the person becomes upset, and then blame them for getting upset.


  • A form of emotional manipulation, gaslighting causes victims to question their judgment, memories, and sanity. If you find that your concerns (and even memories) are frequently dismissed as false, stupid, or crazy, you may be experiencing gaslighting.
    • Accusing you of being “too sensitive,” “too emotional,” or “crazy”
    • Suggesting that your perceptions are wrong or that you cannot be trusted by saying things like “you’re blowing this out of proportion” or “you exaggerate”
    • Accusing you of being selfish, needy, or materialistic if you express your wants or needs (the expectation is that you should not have any wants or needs)


  • Emotional abuse is pervasive, affecting all areas of life. Most prominently is its toll on victims’ relationships with friends and family. Abusers often convince their partners that no one cares. This alienation can cause victims to feel like they’re on an island, removed from loved ones and past versions of themselves.
    • Controlling who you see or spend time with including friends and family
    • Monitoring you digitally including text messages, social media, and email
    • Taking or hiding your car keys
    • Treating you like a possession or property


  • If a relationship is continually interrupted by mood swings, it can indicate abuse. Many individuals experience natural ups and downs, but it’s a dilemma when it harms one’s partner. Volatile abusers often shower their victims with affection and gifts after an outburst, only to become angry again soon after.
    • Giving excessive gifts with the implication that these gifts may disappear at any time, or as a reminder of what they would lose if they left the relationship
    • Acting two faced, such as being charming in public but completely changing the minute they get home

The Cycle of Emotional Abuse

Part of the reason so many victims decide to stay with their abusers is because there is a cycle of emotional abuse. Because of how it works, it’s easy to think that these recurring events will finally stop. The cycle of emotional abuse is composed of four stages.

Stage 1: Building of Tension

Usually, emotional abusers hurt their victims because they are in a stressful situation. These stressors can make the problem feel tenser. Potential stressors include physical illness, fatigue, trouble at work, or family issues.

The abuser will start showing signs of anger, paranoia, injustice, and powerlessness in response to these stressors.

The victims may find themselves feeling guarded and anxious. They are afraid that abuse is about to happen, whether it’s physical. or emotional

Stage 2: Abuse Incident

The second step of the cycle of abuse is the abuse incident itself. This can vary, including sexual or physical violence, emotional manipulation, attempts to control the victim’s behavior, name-calling or insults, or threats of property destruction or harm.

Stage 3: Reconciliation

After the abuse has happened, you will both enter the reconciliation phase. Usually, you enter a honeymoon period, brought on by your abuser, giving you gifts, loving gestures, and kindness to move past the abuse.

Because your brain usually releases dopamine and oxytocin when this occurs, you’re likely to want to stay. You’ll feel more bonded and like your relationship is going to work out after all.

Emotional Abuse
 Women who suffered emotional abuse were more likely to drink alcohol versus women who were not abused. Emotional abuse causes trauma which can lead to destructive tendencies

Stage 4: Calm

To move forward after the abuse, both people involved need to explain why it happened. Unfortunately, the abusive partner is likely to apologize to minimize your perception of their responsibility for what happened.

Some of the ways they might establish this period of calm are by:

  • Using outside factors as a reason for their behavior
  • Apologizing but blaming others at the same time
  • Denying or minimizing the abuse itself
  • Saying it’s your fault because you provoked them

Once this period of calm starts, it’s natural to pretend that the abuse was an exception. Sometimes, you might not even think it happened, especially if you’re being emotionally manipulated to think it didn’t.

You might even have been manipulated to think it’s your fault, in which case you can’t blame the abuser for it. Unfortunately, in abusive conditions, this calm doesn’t last forever. Once more external stressors come in, they can set off your partner again.

PTSD from Emotional Abuse 

Emotional abuse doesn’t always lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), however, it can. Women who suffered emotional abuse were more likely to drink alcohol versus women who were not abused. Emotional abuse causes trauma which can lead to destructive tendencies.

PTSD can develop after a shocking or frightening event. Your doctor (psychologist and psychiatrist) may make a PTSD diagnosis if you experience high levels of stress or fear over a long period of time. These emotions or feelings are usually so serious that they interfere with your daily functioning [4].

Other symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Insomnia
  • Angry outbursts
  • Being easily startled
  • Negative thoughts
  • Nightmares
  • Reliving the trauma (flashbacks) and experiencing physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat

You may be more likely to develop PTSD if you have:

  • Been through traumatic events before, especially in childhood
  • A history of mental illness or substance use
  • No support system

PTSD is often treated with therapy and antidepressants.

Effects of Emotional abuse

Staying in a verbally or emotionally abusive relationship can have long-lasting effects on your mental and physical well-being, including leading to depression, chronic pain, or anxiety [3].

You may also:

  • Feel powerless and hopeless
  • Question your memory of events: “Did that really happen?” 
  • Change your behavior for fear of upsetting your partner or act more aggressive or more passive than you would be otherwise
  • Feel ashamed or guilty
  • Feel unwanted
  • Feel constantly afraid of upsetting your partner
  • Feel manipulated, used, and controlled

Your partner’s behavior may leave you feeling like you need to do anything possible to restore peace and end the abuse. This can feel overwhelming and stressful.

Types of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse can involve any of the following:

Verbal abuse

  • Yelling at you, insulting you or swearing at you.


  • Constantly rejecting your thoughts, ideas and opinions.


  • Making you doubt your own feelings and thoughts, and even your sanity, by manipulating the truth. 


  • Calling you names or telling you that you’re stupid, publicly embarrassing you, blaming you for everything. Public humiliation is also a form of social abuse.

Causing fear

  • Making you feel afraid, intimidated or threatened.


  • Limiting your freedom of movement, stopping you from contacting other people (such as friends or family). It may also include stopping you from doing the things you normally do – social activities, sports, school or work. Isolating someone overlaps with social abuse.

Financial abuse

  • Financial abuse is another form of domestic violence.

Bullying and intimidation

  • Purposely and repeatedly saying or doing things that are intended to hurt you.

Tips in Coping with Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse doesn’t have to go unchallenged and coping with emotional abuse is more than just learning to “live with it.” 

Emotional abusers are just like bullies on the playground and just like bullies, their abuse can be handled.

Use these techniques when coping with emotional abuse:

Understand the abuser 

  • While it can seem counterintuitive to have compassion for the abuser, sometimes changing the way you view the abuser can give you insight into coping with the abuse. Often abusers are anxious, insecure, or depressed and remembering that may help you to keep the abuse in its proper context – the abuse isn’t about you, it’s about them.

Stand up to the abuser 

  • Emotional abusers don’t like being challenged and may back down if you question their abusive tactics.

Find positive ways to interact with the abuser 

  • If you can neutrally handle the abuser, you may be able to see the positive in the abuser and find new ways to interact with him or her that is positive. This is mostly seen in workplace environments.

Change the subject or use humor to distract from the situation

Never support acts of emotional abuse of others

Emotional Abuse and Addiction Treatment

Abusive relationships are often more damaging and complex than some people realize. Mental and emotional abuse leaves no visible scars of pain but can have lasting effects on the victim. Therefore, it is important to seek help to overcome abuse; if illicit substances are part of the equation, treatment can help address the present addiction. 

People who have abused prescription or illicit substances or have taken on drinking to lessen the effects of emotional abuse are more vulnerable to dysfunction. Finding a therapist while being treated for substance use can build effective remedies for recovery. 12-Step groups allow for safe spaces of support and community.

Getting treatment for substance abuse as a coping mechanism doesn’t have to be a shameful act. Victims of abusers are no weaker or unworthy than those who have not been abused. 

Find the Right Treatment Plan at We Level Up NJ

emotional abuse
Start the road to recovery today!

We Level Up NJ provides emotional abuse treatment and substance abuse treatment for successful recovery. If you think that you’re suffering from emotional abuse and you’ve tried to quit alcohol or substance use in the past but ended up using again, that’s a clear sign you need professional help. Make this your opportunity to reclaim your life. Call today to speak with one of our treatment specialists.


[1] NCBI –

[2] SAMHSA –

[3] Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services –

[4] NIMH –

[5] We Level UpTrauma Treatment

[6] We Level UpTrauma and Addiction

[7] We Level UpPTSD Treatment