Fort Refuge - Abuse Survivors Support Group

Emotional Abuse


You need power only when you want to do something harmful,
otherwise love is enough to get everything done...
~ Charlie Chaplin

Abuse is a situation where you're violated and simultaneously trapped, without options to escape. Emotional abuse means that this violation isn't physical, sexual, or religious in nature. It can occur between romantic partners of any gender (though women are statistically more likely to be the perpetrators of it), parents and children (both ways, if the child is over 18), teachers and students, coworkers, or even strangers online (i.e. cyberbullying). Like any other form of abuse, emotional abuse is a serious psychological trauma, often resulting in long-term consequences, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, depression, low self esteem, social withdrawal, etc. However, it's a controversial topic because emotional abuse can take many forms, leaves no hard evidence and thus is hard to prosecute, and the self-help descriptions of it are blurry, non-definitive, and therefore subject to personal interpretations. This results in confusion, false claims, and social stigmas, making it hard for victims/survivors to get the support they need. It feels like something is deeply wrong, but you can't put your finger on it, it's some nameless monster in your closet, sucking the life out of you, yet invisible to others, and passing through your fingers when you try to grab it.

Andrew Vachss defined emotional abuse as "the systematic diminishment of another. It may be intentional or subconscious (or both), but it is always a course of conduct, not a single event." For example, if 7yo Ashley wet her bed, her foster mom made her repeat "I'm a filthy pig, and I wet my bed. I'm sorry I made the house smell like piss," and sleep on soiled sheets for up to a month. While legal definitions depend on jurisdiction and change over time, from a moral/ethical/psychological standpoint treating a child this way is a crime, and the fact that the violation wasn't sexual or physical doesn't make it OK or "not as bad."

Interestingly, emotional abuse is usually present along with any other form of abuse, because it's impossible to violate anyone without first establishing and enforcing an overall atmosphere of fear, shame, and secrecy - which most abuse survivors can relate to and which is the definition of emotional abuse. Without such an atmosphere, the target simply cannot be intimidated into suffering in silence while they are being beaten, raped, or violated in some other way. This means, on the one hand, that many abuse survivors share this common experience, and on the other hand - that emotional abuse is often a prelude to other forms of abuse, such as child sexual abuse or domestic violence.

The topic of emotional abuse is controversial because of numerous false accusations, which trivialize and confuse the issue. For example, some people complain of emotional abuse when they're simply disappointed by their relationship: their boyfriend cheated on them, their mom wants them to move out and get their own place, a friend isn't returning their emails, their husband refuses to hear how their day was, their wife talks non-stop while they want to watch a football game, etc. These things stink, but not getting your needs met doesn't automatically make you a victim and your partner an abuser. There's no need to label relationship grievances as emotional abuse to justify your right to leave; you have this right regardless, and so does your partner.

To add to the confusion, some people accuse their partners of emotional abuse only to vindicate their own inappropriate behavior. For example, "he called me a bitch because I poisoned his dog, "bitch" is abusive language, so I'm a victim of emotional abuse, deserve sympathy and support, and he deserves to be labeled as an abuser, and maybe I can get him locked up for domestic violence too, because last year he kicked me in his sleep." While "bitch" is technically abusive language, poisoning his dog wasn't an act of kindness either, and he had every right to call the police on her. "Blaming the victim" is a big no-no in survivor communities, but it can be tricky to pick a side, if both parties are contributing to the problem. That makes both of them simultaneously victims and perpetrators, and bashing him for calling her names is just as pointless as bashing her for poisoning his dog. In such cases of dysfunctional relationships, where both parties feel mistreated by each other, both of them deserve help, support, and sympathy - and both need to take responsibility for their actions.

If you're not sure if you're being abused or not, see our list of emotional abuse tactics (includes examples and explanations, good read), or just put yourself in your partner's shoes: if the tables were turned and you did to them what they have done to you, would it be fair to call you an abuse perpetrator?

It is more shameful to distrust our friends than to be deceived by them.
~ Confucius
This page was last updated on November 21st, 2015
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