What is Emotional Abuse?
Emotional abuse, also known as mental abuse, psychological abuse, and verbal abuse, is a form of psychological harm that occurs when one person subjects another one to harmful, degrading, belittling, and derogatory words and/or actions. Years of being emotionally abused can, as a result, lead to emotional trauma and/or a mental health condition like an anxiety disorder, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Emotional abuse most commonly occurs in teen and adult relationships – i.e. friendships, romantic relationships, co-worker relationships, interactions with strangers, and even in parent-child relationships. When a person is abused or “bullied” by friends or co-workers, it causes him/her to experience high levels of anxiety, depression, and/or self-imposed isolation. Moreover, it causes the abused/bullied person to feel devalued, inept, unimportant, hopeless, and worthless.
It is important to remember that although an emotionally abused person may not display the physical scars of abuse – i.e. bruises, bumps, wounds, etc., the impact is just as, if not more, damaging as the effects of physical abuse. In fact, a recent study suggests that the effects of emotional abuse are on par with the effects of physical abuse in most cases. More specifically, researchers have found that the mindset of those who have been mentally abused resembles the mindset of those who have been physically abused.
Unfortunately, however, emotional abuse usually does not come with an abundance of evidence, if any at all, which means it is often dismissed or ignored. As a result, this abuse victim typically suffers in silence longer than someone who has been physically abused and has visible scars to prove it. Moreover, in many cases, the emotional abuser is highly “likable” to those outside of the relationship. In other words, this perpetrator may come across as kind, considerate, funny, and/or charming to others, while being mean, hateful, and hurtful to the victim in private.
And, according to Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, men are more likely to be aggressive, than women. However, results also suggest that gender is an unreliable predictor of emotional abuse in relationships. More specifically, researchers found that men and women exhibited emotional abuse in relationships at nearly the same frequency, especially when it came to certain traits like jealousy, mood swings, suspicion, and poor self-control – traits that are typically indicative of emotional abuse.
In addition, male study participants, who exhibited these traits, appeared to demonstrate two forms of relationship emotional abuse. The first form was interpersonal aggression or emotional abuse directed at strangers, while the other one was aggression or emotional abuse directed solely at female partners.
On the other hand, females usually only displayed aggression towards their partners and/or children. However, both emotionally abusive males and females, in the study, had incidences of personality disorders – i.e. borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, paranoid personality, and antisocial personality disorder.
Emotional Abuse Therapy
Emotional abuse is challenging to treat unless the victim can distance himself/herself from the abuser or the abuser admits there is a problem and agrees to seek treatment for his/her abusive behavior. However, for this to happen, the abuser must first acknowledge that his/her behavior has hurt someone and that what he/she is doing is wrong. This can be a hard pill for an abuser to swallow – and admit.
What Happens During Emotional Abuse Therapy?
The goal of emotional abuse therapy is to get to the root of the maltreatment.
- When did it start?
- Who is the abuser?
- How long has it been occurring?
- Have you told anyone about it?
- How does it make you feel?
- Have you tried to voice your concerns to your abuser? If so, what was his/her response?
- What usually precipitates the abuse?
- What happens after the onslaught of abusive words and actions?
- Does the emotional abuser ever turn physical/violent? If so, how often does this happen and what precipitates it?
A therapist may begin the therapy process by introducing behavior modification techniques to the victim. The purpose of these techniques is to help the victim identify unhealthy mindsets and behaviors – i.e. making excuses for the abuser, apologizing for the abuser’s hurtful behaviors, keeping the abuse to oneself, etc., so he/she can change them.
If the therapist is also treating the abuser, he/she may help him/her “see” how his/her behavior is unhealthy, abusive, and damaging, acknowledge the need for therapy, and understand the importance of fully committing to the therapy process. In both cases, a therapist will assign both clients “homework,” and help them set realistic goals complete with actionable steps to help them move forward with their lives – together or separately.
What Therapies Are Used to Treat Emotional Abuse?
Well, if the emotional abuse is occurring within a romantic relationship, a therapist may request to see both individuals together in one or more couples therapy sessions. The goal of these sessions is to improve communication and conflict-resolution skills in the relationship. It is also to help the “voiceless” and passive partner be more assertive in what he/she will and will not accept from the more dominant and abusive partner.
Other forms of therapy may include individual psychotherapy, group therapy, and therapy support groups – i.e. survivors support group and domestic violence support groups. The goal of these therapies is to teach the victim what constitutes healthy and unhealthy behaviors in a relationship, friendship, etc. and how to recognize red flags or warning signs as soon as they pop up.
Alternative therapies that can be beneficial for those who have been emotionally abused include music therapy, art therapy, hypnosis, dance therapy, acupuncture, and massage therapy. In some cases, medication may be prescribed to help abuse survivors cope with the trauma they endured.
Should I Hire a Therapist?
Abusers, of any form, rarely stop their abusive behaviors on their own, so if the abuse has been occurring for a while, the victim could probably benefit from talking to a relationship expert (therapist). He/she can help the victim work through his/her conflicting, confusing, and distressing feelings. This expert can also help the victim identify when the problems first occurred, and why he/she keeps allowing his/her partner’s behaviors to continue.
Most of all, a therapist can provide the victim with some much-needed support. In addition, he/she can help the victim communicate more effectively, and develop healthy boundaries in the relationship. Lastly, a couples therapist can help the victim muster the courage to stand up for himself/herself when his/her partner is being emotionally abusive towards him/her.
Keep in mind that a high proportion of abusers have personality disorders. In fact, approximately 80% of male abusers have personality disorders. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that an abuser can change on his/her own – without psychotherapy or a combination therapy plan that includes behavior modification or cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, couples, family, or individual, along with group therapy.
Note: If the victim has left the abusive relationship, it also imperative that he/she seek counseling for emotional abuse. Being a survivor is not enough. The only way the victim can really recover is to acknowledge what happened to him/her, confront any issues associated with this trauma head-on, and take steps to heal from the pain.
A recent study stated that victims of any type of abuse including emotional abuse, are more likely to navigate towards partners and friends, who have abusive personalities, than those who have never been abused. That is why it is important that survivors understand what drew them to the abuser – so they don’t repeat the behavior in the future.
What Should I Look for In a Therapist?
There are several things a victim should look for in a therapist. For instance, he/she should look for a mental health professional, who specializes in emotional abuse, relationship issues, and domestic violence. He/she should also look at the reviews, services, fees, personalities, specialties, etc. for each potential therapist.
- Are the reviews good or bad?
- What do previous clients have to say about the therapist?
- What is the therapist’s rate for service?
- Is it too expensive or very affordable?
- How long has the therapist been practicing?
- Does the therapist have any successful outcomes he/she can share?
- Is the therapist engaged, friendly, and honest?
The good news is emotional abuse therapists are common, so victims will most likely find one that matches his/her expectations and personality. Use the TherapyTribe Directory to find a therapist in your area or an online therapist. The most important thing is that the victim trusts his/her therapist. It doesn’t matter if that connection is formed during a consultation, initial counseling sessions, or phone intakes, therapy will only be successful if the victim feels safe enough to share his/her thoughts, feelings, and beliefs with his/her therapist.
- Meinck, F., Cluver, L. D., Boyes, M. E., & Ndhlovu, L. D. (2015). Risk and protective factors for physical and emotional abuse victimization amongst vulnerable children in South Africa. Child Abuse Review, 24(3), 182–197. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1002/car.2283
- Moffitt, T. E., Poulton, R., & Caspi, A. (2013). Lifelong impact of early self-control. American Scientist, 101(5), 352–359. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a2h&AN=89634639&site=ehost-live
- Keiski, P., Flinck, A., Kaunonen, M., & Paavilainen, E. (2018). Childhood experiences of female family‐violence perpetrators. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 54(2), 251–257. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/ppc.12231
- Benson, K. (2015). Psychopath Free (Expanded Edition): Recovering from emotionally abusive relationships with narcissists, sociopaths, and other toxic people. Library Journal, 140(16), 98. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a2h&AN=109997349&site=ehost-live
- Maxwell, K., Callahan, J., Ruggero, C., & Janis, B. (2016). Breaking the cycle: Association of attending therapy following childhood abuse and subsequent perpetration of violence. Journal of Family Violence, 31(2), 251–258. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s10896-015-9765-z
- Arabi, S. (2018). The differences between abusers with narcissistic personality disorder vs. borderline personality disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-differences-between-abusers-with-narcissistic-personality-disorder-vs-borderline-personality-disorder/