Most people know what physical abuse is, but when it comes to emotional abuse, people tend to think there’s much more of a ‘grey area’.
They might know it has something to do with treating your partner badly – name calling or making them feel small – but not be clear on what’s actually classed as emotional abuse, or whether it’s really as serious as other types.
But if you’re on the receiving end, it can be just as damaging and upsetting – and this is reflected in the law. The Serious Crime Act 2015 makes behaviour that is ‘controlling or coercive” towards another person in an intimate or family relationship’ punishable by a prison term of up to five years.
What is emotional abuse?
There are a variety of types of behaviour that could be classed as emotional abuse. These include:
Intimidation and threats.
This could be things like shouting, acting aggressively or just generally making you feel scared. This is often done as a way of making a person feel small and stopping them from standing up for themselves.
This could be things like namecalling or making lots of unpleasant or sarcastic comments. This can really lower a person’s self-esteem and self-confidence.
This might include things like dismissing your opinion. It can also involve making you doubt your own opinion by acting as if you're being oversensitive if you do complain, disputing your version of events or by suddenly being really nice to you after being cruel.
Being made to feel guilty.
This can range from outright emotional blackmail (threats to kill oneself or lots of emotional outbursts) to sulking all the time or giving you the silent treatment as a way of manipulating you.
This can be withholding money, not involving you in finances or even preventing you from getting a job. This could be done as a way of stopping you from feeling independent and that you’re able to make your own choices.
Telling you what you can and can’t do.
As the examples above make clear, emotional abuse is generally about control. Sometimes this is explicit. Does your partner tell you when and where you can go out, or even stop you from seeing certain people? Do they try to control how you dress or how you style your hair?
How do you know if you are being abused?
Sometimes, people wonder whether ‘abuse’ is the right term to describe any relationship difficulties they’re going through. They may feel like their partner shouts at them a lot or makes them feel bad, but think ‘abuse’ would be too ‘dramatic’ a word to use.
But the point about whether the behaviour is abusive, is how it makes you feel. If your partner’s behaviour makes you feel small, controlled or as if you’re unable to talk about what’s wrong, it’s abusive. If you feel like your partner is stopping you from being able to express yourself, it’s abusive. If you feel you have to change your actions to accommodate your partner’s behaviour, it’s abusive.
There may be many reasons for partners behaving in this way. They may have grown up in a family environment where there was lots of shouting or sarcasm or been in relationships in the past that made them feel insecure. Sometimes in couple counselling, we are able to consider those behaviours and the impact on your relationship. But while this might help us to understand, it can never be used as an excuse – so whether it’s on purpose or not, it isn’t OK. If you feel like you’re being subjected to abusive behaviour, remember you deserve to have a voice, and you don’t deserve to be made to feel scared or small.
What to do if you are being abused
One of the most helpful first steps if you feel you’re in an abusive relationship is to speak to someone outside of it.
If you can talk to someone who isn’t involved, they might be able to lend you a little perspective. This can be particularly useful if you’re not sure where you stand – sometimes, behaviour we’ve become used to can seem quite clearly unreasonable to an objective outsider.
If you think you or someone you know is being abused, contact the free 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247.