The term “domestic violence” tends to bring up sharp images of physical and sexual assault. Granted, these are severe and frighteningly common tragedies (1 in 4 women experience rape or attempted rape during college), but the term doesn’t necessitate physicality. The problem is far more wide-ranging and covert than outright assault, and in the face of the most horrible cases of sexual violence, this fact is sometimes overlooked. Often, domestic violence takes on a more subtle or psychological form: Emotional abuse.
Every couple fights, and
everyone has moments they regret. What distinguishes abuse from
occasional mistakes is the repetition of the hurtful behavior. Ignoring
someone once is one thing; ignoring someone on a regular basis to
deliberately sabotage their self-respect is completely another.
emotional abuse is the systematic use of emotional tactics to
psychologically tear someone apart. These tactics include subtle
diminishing remarks, angry outbursts, cold indifference, withering
sarcasm, impossible demands, stonewalling and manipulation. Such
repeated abuse kills confidence, self-esteem, self-perception, joy and
vitality in the victim. Victims build a prevailing sense of inadequacy
from countless accusations, even blaming themselves for their own pain.
contrast, many abusers have a pathological need for power over another
human being. If their partner opens up emotionally, they may interpret
it as weakness, pride themselves for holding all the emotional cards and
contemptuously get colder. If their partner sparks a conversation, an
abuser may consider it a victory in the competition for attention and
triumphantly shut their abused out. They may also regularly trivialize
and downplay their partner’s accomplishments.
Emotional abuse is
alienating. Clever abusers are personable to outsiders and careful to
only deride their partners behind closed doors, adding to feelings of
imprisonment and confusion. They may also attempt to drive anyone their
partner turns to for companionship away through ridicule or anger.
abuse is unpredictable. One day the abuser is loving, but the next day
they are cruel, leaving their partner “walking on eggshells,” living on
Perhaps the worst part is the fact that emotional abuse is
often starved of evidence. No outward bruises or scars remain, though
victims have described emotional abuse as just as painful as physical
abuse. If the victim is successfully alienated, there aren’t any
Emotional abuse is also often fiercely denied.
Among countless other forms of denial, emotional abuse is commonly
masked behind an attitude of “What’s wrong with you? I don’t know what
you’re talking about! You’re overreacting!” These comments are meant to
make the partner feel guilty or stupid for their own hurt feelings.
Is this really an overreaction? Not if we look at the statistics:
a study of 1,000 women 15 years of age or older by the Women’s College
Hospital in 1995, 39 percent reported being emotionally abused in a
relationship within the past five years. Furthermore, 36 percent were
emotionally abused while growing up and 43 percent had experienced some
form of abuse as adolescents.
According to a 1998 Statistics
Canada study, 35 percent of all women who were married or in common-law
relationships experienced emotional abuse, whereas 29 percent of women
have been physically assaulted by their male partners. The study also
found that emotional abuse is the single greatest predictor of physical
A focus group formed by Education Wife Assault in 1999
found that most women reported emotional abuse affects them as much as
(if not more than) physical violence and attributed long-term problems
with health, self-esteem, depression and anxiety to it.
also victims of emotionally abusive relationships, but significantly
less often than women. Research done by the American Psychological
Association in 1996 has shown that being female is the single largest
risk factor for being a victim of abuse in heterosexual relationships.
someone mired in a toxic relationship, emotional abuse can actually be
incredibly difficult to recognize. Obstacles to its recognition include
the victim distrusting their feelings or perceptions, intermittently
forgetting the abuse while the abuser is friendly, believing their pain
is their fault, feeling invalidated or stupid without any witnesses,
being preoccupied in a career or raising a family or considering the
abuse too insignificant to start an argument over. One of the greatest
difficulties is the painful realization that someone you love and care
about may be more devoted to a pathological power game than
reciprocating your love.
Emotional abuse is devastating to lives,
relationships and families. If you or someone you know is being abused,
it is widely recommended to look for a nurturing, supportive and
qualified professional counselor.