Emotional abuse is a highly effective means of establishing a power imbalance within a relationship. It is often unseen and intangible to those outside the abusive relationship. However, emotional abuse is no less harmful than physical abuse and it can often include threats of physical and sexual violence.
Emotional abuse includes being put down and constantly criticised; being controlled and monitored using technology; threats from the abuser to kill themselves, the victim or their family. Other examples of emotional abuse include property being destroyed; being referred to using derogatory language; being trapped or physically restrained by the abuser. Another common example is the constant presence of the abuser so that the victim never has any privacy or time to themselves.
The most common form of abuse that women call the 24hr National Freephone Helpline in relation to is emotional abuse. In 2019, we heard 12,742 disclosures of emotional abuse. The emotional abuse experienced includes: being threatened with violence, being stalked both physically and online, being humiliated with posts or threats to post intimate content online, and being isolated from friends and family. Some women tell us that they fear for their lives because abusers have threatened them with guns, knives and with injury. They have also had property stolen or broken, children abducted, and passports stolen so the woman and her children cannot leave the country.
Within this figure, we also noted 539 disclosures of digital abuse and stalking, 671 threats to kill the woman and 268 threats to harm the children, her family or to self-harm. We also heard 4,515 disclosures of emotional abuse against children. Exposure to domestic violence is recognised as a form of emotional abuse as acknowledged by the Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children.
In our new 2020 research, we found that 1 in 5 young women (aged 18 to 25) suffer intimate relationship abuse. The most common form of abuse they experienced is emotional abuse with 9 out of 10 of these young women reporting that they had been subjected to it. The young people in the focus groups felt that emotional abuse was the foundation for all abuse within intimate relationships. It was defined by the groups as a kind of abuse that is easy to perpetrate but difficult to recognise and identify.
‘Words can be unsaid by sweeter words. Things can be said in the heat of the moment, but you can molly coddle them with something nice and it can be forgotten’ - Evie, no experience of abuse, personally or otherwise
The groups saw emotional abuse as difficult to reach out and seek assistance for due to what they feel is a lack of clarity around what constitutes as abuse and the availability of legal recourse and protection from the law when it comes to emotional abuse being limited. It’s clear that while some awareness of emotional abuse exists, better education is required to enable its detection amongst young people and more encouragement to reach out and seek support.
Emotional abuse can have serious long-terms impacts on the person being subjected to it. It affects a person’s mental health and general wellbeing. It also has a big impact on their self-worth, personal value and personal relationships as well as the level of trust they place in others.
Read more about the different forms that domestic abuse can take here.