Black and white image of a young woman crying useful to illustrate stress, depression or domestic violence

Understanding emotional abuse

Domestic and family violence can take many forms, including financial, physical, sexual, spiritual, verbal. One common, and often unrecognised, form of domestic violence is emotional abuse (also known as psychological abuse). Emotional abuse is as an ongoing pattern of behaviour intended to cause emotional harm, through manipulation, isolation or intimidation.

Emotional abuse can occur in different types of relationships- including adult to child, peer to peer, or even in workplace relationships. In the case of intimate partner relationships, emotional abuse affects one in four Australian women, and one in seven men.


Signs of emotional abuse

Below are some of the signs of emotional abuse common within an intimate partner relationship (or even with an ex-partner). Many emotionally abusive relationships do not include physical violence, however some physically violent relationships may begin with emotional abuse.

  • Constant criticism of a partner’s actions or opinions
  • Yelling and name calling: it’s normal for people in relationships to raise their voice or yell every now and then, but ongoing and repeated verbal abuse is a cause for concern
  • Intentionally embarrassing the other person or belittling them in public
  • “Gaslighting” – whereby a partner is manipulated into questioning their own sanity or perceptions
  • Constantly making the other partner feel scared or unsafe
  • Ongoing mood swings where a partner is nice one minute and mean the next, making the other person feel like they are “walking on eggshells”
  • Withholding affection or attention as a bargaining tool, or out of anger
  • Ongoing control of what a person wears, or constant criticism of physical appearance.


How friends and family can help

It’s important to address emotional abuse as it can have long term impact on those affected, including ongoing loss of confidence and trust.

If you think someone you know may be experiencing emotional or psychological abuse, you can help in a number of different ways:

  • If you think a family member or friend is being isolated through emotional abuse, you can try to reach out to them and keep regular contact
  • Let the person know you are there to listen, and validate their concerns
  • It’s important that you don’t force the conversation – if they don’t want to talk, you can still let them know you are concerned
  • Assure the person they are not to blame, and that emotional abuse has long term effects, even when not coupled with physical abuse
  • Make sure you let them decide the next steps, as they need to feel in control of their choices
  • If you are worried about the safety of the person experiencing abuse, you can suggest they have a safety plan in place, and help them find assistance to develop one
  • There are a number of free options for information and support that can help you or the person you are worried about
  • Encourage them to seek professional support from a social worker or counsellor.


Further reading


If you’re experiencing family or domestic violence you can call MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78, access online counselling or visit 1800RESPECT.