Emotional Abuse Tactics


Emotional abuse is a controversial topic because the "red flags" usually listed for it can be interpreted in a variety of ways, which results in people using the term rather loosely, sometimes applying it to romantic disappointments, teen entitlement, or even using it as a justification of their own abusive behavior. For example, I personally heard someone claim emotional abuse because, when she punches her husband (who never raised his hand on her), she sometimes feels ashamed afterwards - ergo he's emotionally abusing her by making her feel badly about herself. As a result of such claims, the concept of abuse can seem confusing, if valid at all, which makes it even harder for survivors to get the support they need. This page does not include all the possible forms emotional abuse can take, it's just an attempt to clarify the concept by listing things that often happen during emotional abuse and rarely happen outside of it.

Threats or blackmail:

These come in a wide variety: one can threaten to disclose private and sensitive information about you, set your house on fire, commit suicide if you leave them, kill you (or your family) if you speak up about what's going on, etc. An interesting twist to this are threats to accuse you of abuse; for example, one 8yo told his babysitter that if she refuses to sing and dance for his entertainment, he'll tell his parents she molested him. With an 8yo child this isn't really emotional abuse (since clearly the adult has more power than the child in the relationship), it's just an attempt at manipulation, but the same technique used by adults can have devastating effects on the victim. Threats to accuse you of rape, violence, child abuse, theft, or any other crime - if you refuse to succumb to abuse - can make you feel hopelessly and helplessly trapped.

Indirect violence

This means violence that isn't directed at you, but that is done in order to intimidate/manipulate you. Common examples are damaging property (e.g. punching holes in walls) and violence towards pets. Watching your favorite possessions be destroyed, or your pets hurt (or even killed) is a traumatic experience, and makes you fear for your safety, since the person is clearly out of control and you can't know who might be their next target. And yet you can't complain of domestic abuse/battery since you were never touched.

Verbal assaults

All people argue sometimes, and we all occasionally say things we might regret later. In some cultures it's socially acceptable (or at least common) for people to raise their voice when excited (happy or angry, regardless), use foul language, etc. That doesn't automatically make them all perpetrators of abuse on each other. In emotional abuse, however, it only goes one way, and is often paired with threats. For example, your wife constantly yells at you and calls you names, while you wouldn't dream of ever responding the same way to her because she would instantly scream domestic violence, get you locked up, divorce you, and take the kids.


I.e. the perp taking control of the aspects of your life that normally you would have the freedom to control yourself, such as monitoring your social interactions, checking your phone, supervising your career, diet, even what outfits you wear or which hygiene products you use. In romantic relationships this is usually rationalized with jealousy, and results in social isolation. In extreme cases this escalates to kidnapping or illegal confinement. For example, Elizabeth Fritzl was locked by her dad in his basement when she turned 18, and was able to escape only 24 years and 7 children later. However, having to fulfill your obligations does not make you a victim of emotional abuse: parents making you do your chores, a landlord making you pay your rent, a boss making you do your job, your husband requesting your participation in parenting your children, or your wife asking you where you’ve been all night, if you show up at 4am.


Includes mocking, ridiculing, public embarrassment, hostile sarcasm, etc. This is different from friendly banter, joking around, harmless teasing, and the like, because during emotional abuse these "jokes" are always at your expense and you don't find them funny. People occasionally make stupid jokes outside of emotional abuse too, but in a healthy relationship you can ask your partner to cut it out, and they will apologize and stop. Perpetrators of emotional abuse, on the contrary, will mock you for being "too sensitive."


The term was coined after the 1944 film "Gaslight" and means a pattern of gradual manipulation of the victim into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity by deliberately twisting or spinning information, selectively omitting it to favor the abuser, or presenting false information. In the film, a husband does it to his wife by framing her for kleptomania and denying things that indeed are real as figments of her imagination, eventually getting her to believe that she's insane. A classic example of gaslighting is rearranging furniture while you're at work and pretending it was always this way when you act surprised. Gaslighting is very hard to resist because it consists of seemingly meaningless things you feel he has no reason to do, so you accept the idea you must be crazy. The reason abusers do this is to make you feel powerless, frightened, and dependent on them.

Shifting sands

This tactic involves constantly changing the rules of the game, so you never know what to expect. The same action can result in drastically different, even opposite responses, and there's no way to predict them, stay on your perp's good side, and avoid getting in trouble. The trick here is that their goal is not to solve problems, but to keep you feeling guilty and walking on eggshells, which is not a normal part of any healthy relationship. Test it out: next time they complain of something you do, attempt to brainstorm solutions. They'll get enraged by your desire to resolve the problem, no suggestion will satisfy them, or, as the last resort, they'll immediately change the subject and find something else to blame you for.

Unfair demands

This means demanding that you fulfill needs that you aren't obligated to fulfill, that are not your responsibility nor your problem. Just because your partner feels they deserve something doesn't mean they're entitled to it every time, and even if they're entitled to the thing they want, doesn't mean that it's something you're responsible to provide for them. For example, when a teenager wants (needs, deserves, etc) an iPhone and her parents refuse to buy it for her - that's not abuse and she has no grounds to call CPS because they are under no obligation to provide her with iPhones. They have to provide food, shelter, clothing, school supplies, and medical care. iPhones are optional. Between romantic partners this can take the form of parentifying, i.e. holding you responsible for their welfare: waking them up on time, reminding them to make dental appointments, bailing them out of jail, etc.

Each of these tactics may sound odd on their own, without context, but they usually come in combinations. For example, your wife jeopardizes your career by constantly showing up at your office and deliberately humiliating you in front of your coworkers ("Honey, you forgot to take your antipsychotics this morning"), demands that you shave her legs for her, or else she'll call the police and tell them you molested her six-year-old last night.