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who suffer from emotional abuse tend to have very low self-esteem, manifest personality changes (such as becoming withdrawn), and may even become anxious, depressed, or suicidal.

A relationship is emotionally abusive when a consistent pattern of abusive words and bullying behaviors wears down an individual’s self-esteem and undermines their mental health.

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, making them doubt their perceptions and reality.

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.

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


  • 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, contempt may create a wall in your relationship if they respond to your needs with mean-spirited sarcasm, disgust, arrogance, or apathy.
    • 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 lecture about the other person’s behavior to clarify 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 both parties must be 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 be rejected or a lack of concern for their 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 abuse and unhappiness, making the cycle of mental abuse much more 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 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

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The Cycle of Emotional Abuse

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

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 include 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 will work out.

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.

How To Break Emotional Abuse Cycle?

Emotional abuse victims have been through traumatic and confusing experiences. Some people continue to encounter abuse frequently due to situations that are tough to navigate. The nature of abuse preys on these unfortunate circumstances, which results in a never-ending cycle of emotional abuse that breeds more abuse. One must also escape that downward, self-repeating spiral to escape an unhealthy relationship. But that’s much easier said than done. Here are five practical ways to break the cycle of emotional abuse.

Recommending the best approach or defense to break the emotional abuse cycle is complex. There is no easy solution, especially when the partner has destructive or aggressive inclinations (such as temper tantrums or destroying property) or violent tendencies. Here are some tips on how to break the emotional abuse cycle.

Understand the emotional abuse cycle for what it is

  • Emotional assault is frequently undetectable. Because of this, it’s so simple to ignore, brush aside, or further downplay. You must be able to spot when the cycle is occurring to end it.

Think about how the cycle of emotional abuse impacts you

  • Understanding the effects of emotional abuse can open your eyes to new possibilities for ending the pattern. After all, it’s simple for survivors to deny their suffering, leading you to believe that it wasn’t that horrible occasionally. However, research indicates that physical abuse’s repercussions are just as profound.

Prioritize yourself as you break the cycle of emotional abuse

  • You must prioritize your needs to break out from an abusive pattern. Following emotional abuse that has left you feeling injured, making this change can be difficult. Most likely, your abuser made you feel terrible forever, wanting to put yourself first. You might have always put them ahead of you because they thought any other behavior was selfish.

When attempting to break free from the cycle of emotional abuse, seek support

  • It can be incredibly isolating to face abuse. As was already established, those who abuse others emotionally frequently isolate their victims. To better manage their victims, they do this. These abusers know that if you informed your loved ones what happened, they would support you. As a result, they isolate you from the people who are important to you and give you negative notions about them.

Change how you interact with the abuser

  • Your process of ending the cycle should ideally involve keeping a distance from the abuser. Sadly, that ideal circumstance doesn’t always exist. You need to communicate with them occasionally. Sometimes the abuser will continue to bother you after you leave. There’s even a chance that you won’t be able to leave the space that you share with the abuser just yet.

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 severe that they interfere with your daily functioning [4].

Emotional Abuse
The victim of alcoholic mental abuse can become a mental abuser. Often abusers have been abused and continue the cycle.

Can You Get PTSD From Emotional Abuse?

PTSD can develop from emotional abuse. This is because emotional abuse is often not a single event but a recurring cycle of behavior. PTSD from emotional abuse often does not follow the standard cycle but instead falls into the “complex PTSD,” or PTSD that stems from multiple traumatic instances rather than just one. 

PTSD from emotional abuse often requires far more thorough treatment, as the person is not working to recover from a single event but from what can be a lifetime of emotional abuse PTSD. Each mental abuse trauma a person has endured must be processed and healed from, so recovery can not only require an extensive period of therapy but can require you to create solid and firm boundaries regarding your relationships with family, as a family is often the source of emotional abuse. 

Many individuals close to you and your partner will be unable to see the emotional abuse and may not understand your perspective. Compounding trauma is not impossible to recover from but does demand a lot of introspection, rewiring, and healing. For this reason, if possible, individuals are encouraged to remove themselves from the source of the emotional abuse during treatment, to make sure harmful thought patterns and experiences do not hinder the healing process.

PTSD Signs From Emotional Abuse

PTSD can develop after a frightening or shocking event. Your psychiatrist may make a PTSD diagnosis if you experience high stress or fear over a long period. These feelings are usually so severe that they interfere with your daily functioning. PTSD from emotional abuse symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

Other signs and symptoms of PTSD may 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 the following:

  • 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, 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, insulting, or swearing at you.

Rejection – Constantly rejecting your thoughts, ideas, and opinions.

Gaslighting – Making you doubt your own feelings and thoughts, and even your sanity, by manipulating the truth

Put-downs – 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.

Isolation – 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.

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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:

1. 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.

2. Stand up to the abuser 

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

3. 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.

4. Change the subject or use humor to distract from the situation

5. 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. 

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Emotional Abuse FAQs

How long does it take to heal from emotional abuse?

It can take time to heal from an emotionally abusive relationship. But you can also use strategies on your own to regain your footing.

Can you have PTSD from emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse can lead to C-PTSD, a type of PTSD that involves ongoing trauma. C-PTSD shows many of the same symptoms as PTSD, although its symptoms and causes can differ. PTSD emotional abuse treatment should be tailored to the situation to address the ongoing trauma the person experienced from emotional abuse.

What are the 5 cycles of emotional abuse?

The five cycles codified—are enmeshment, extreme overprotection and overindulgence, complete neglect, rage, and rejection/abandonment.

How to heal from PTSD from emotional abuse?

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is used to help a person in recovering from PTSD from emotional abuse by learning about symptoms, identifying triggers, and helping develop skills and strategies to manage symptoms. In addition, psychotherapy may target symptoms directly or help a person manage social, family, or job-related problems.

What are signs of PTSD from emotional abuse?

5 Signs of Emotional Abuse

  • They are Hyper-Critical or Judgmental Towards You. …
  • They Ignore Boundaries or Invade Your Privacy. …
  • They are Possessive and/or Controlling. …
  • They are Manipulative. …
  • They Often Dismiss You and Your Feelings.
Can verbal abuse cause PTSD?

Verbal abuse falls under the category of violence. Verbal abuse involves one person humiliating and assaulting another individual verbally. PTSD from verbal abuse is complicated. However, it exists. Verbal abuse can cause PTSD. Verbal abuse PTSD exists.

Can gaslighting cause PTSD?

Gaslighting may lead a person to develop mental health concerns. The constant self-doubt and confusion can contribute to anxiety. A person’s hopelessness and low self-esteem may lead to depression.

What is emotional abuse CPTSD?

CPTSD from emotional abuse. Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) is a condition that results from chronic or long-term exposure to emotional trauma over which a victim has little or no control and from which it is little or no hope of escape, such as in cases of domestic emotional, physical or sexual abuse childhood emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

What is the relationship between PTSD and emotional abuse?

PTSD can develop from emotional abuse. This is because emotional abuse is often not a single event but a recurring cycle of behavior. PTSD from emotional abuse often does not follow the standard cycle but instead falls into the “complex PTSD,” or PTSD that stems from multiple traumatic instances rather than just one.

What are the mental abuse PTSD symptoms?

PTSD is always due to a traumatic event. It is a severe condition, and an official diagnosis of psychological trauma can be debilitating for the people it affects.

You can also develop mental abuse PTSD symptoms from emotional and mental abuse. Because abuse is often not a single event but a recurring cycle of behavior, PTSD from mental abuse can be very difficult to deal with without professional help.

What are the types of mental abuse?

The nature of mental abuse can vary across different types of relationships. Intimate partner abuse and child abuse are among the most common.

What are the causes of emotional abuse?
  • Relationship problems.
  • Family arguments.
  • Money problems or unemployment.
  • Mental health issues.
  • Poverty.
  • Addiction to drugs or alcohol.
  • Domestic abuse.
What is mental and emotional abuse?

Mental and Emotional Abuse (also called domestic violence, family violence, domestic emotional abuse, and intimate partner violence) – the deliberate and unethical misuse of power – encompasses various behaviors and situations.

What are the types of emotional abuse by partner?

Partner abuse in relationships can come in many forms, including physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional.

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[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