What is emotional abuse?

If being around your partner or a family member makes you feel scared, confused and unlike yourself, or if you doubt yourself when you're talking with them, you may be experiencing emotional abuse. An emotional abuser’s goal is to undermine another person’s feelings of self-worth and independence. In an emotionally abusive relationship, you may feel that there is no way out or that without your partner you’ll have nothing. Emotional abuse is a form of domestic and family violence and can occur to anyone at any time in their life - as a child, a teenager or an adult.

If you feel you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship, whether with an intimate partner or with a family member, there are a number of things you can do to get support. It’s important to know that if you’ve been affected by emotional abuse, it’s not your fault and it’s never acceptable. You have the right to feel safe, respected and supported in your relationships.

This can help if your partner or family member:

  • Makes you feel like you’re not good enough

  • Makes you question yourself and your understanding of things

  • Constantly threatens to leave you unless you do what they say

  • Threatens to hurt you, themselves or others (including your pets) if you leave.

What is emotional abuse resize

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse can feel as destructive and damaging as physical abuse, and can severely impact your mental health. It’s often used as a way to maintain power and control over someone.

Emotional abuse may be accompanied by other kinds of abuse: sexual, financial or physical. However, it doesn’t need to include other kinds of abuse to count as abuse; it’s serious enough on its own to be a concern. Sometimes it might feel hard to define what emotional abuse is. The points below can help you to understand what emotional abuse looks like, how it affects you and what signs to look out for if you're worried about someone else.

Types of emotional abuse

Emotional abuse can involve any of the following:

  • Verbal abuse: yelling at you, insulting you or swearing at you.

  • Rejection: constantly rejecting your thoughts, ideas and opinions.

  • Gaslighting: making you doubt your own feelings and thoughts, and even your sanity, by manipulating the truth. For more information on how gaslighting works, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

  • Social abuse: seeking to harm your other relationships or reputation, sharing photos of you without permission, and monitoring your activities (both in person and online).

  • Put-downs: calling you names or telling you that you’re stupid, publicly embarrassing you, blaming you for everything. Public humiliation is also a form of social abuse.

  • Causing fear: making you feel afraid, intimidated or threatened.

  • Isolation: limiting your freedom of movement, stopping you from contacting other people (such as friends or family). It may also include stopping you from doing the things you normally do – social activities, sports, school or work. Isolating someone overlaps with social abuse.

  • Financial abuse: controlling or withholding your money, preventing you from working or studying, stealing from you. Financial abuse is another form of domestic violence.

  • Bullying and intimidation: purposely and repeatedly saying or doing things that are intended to hurt you.

Symptoms of emotional abuse

Physical violence is often seen as being more serious than emotional abuse, but this simply isn’t true. The scars of emotional abuse are real and long-lasting.

Emotional abuse can have a range of impacts both mentally and physically, including:

  • Negatively affecting your self-esteem and confidence

  • Leaving you feeling depressed, anxious, worthless or even suicidal

  • Making you feel like you have no control

  • Making it difficult for you to trust others

  • Withdrawing from your normal activities and relationships

  • Difficulties managing your emotions and feeling your behaviour moves between extremes, including having outbursts or becoming passive and quiet

  • Sleep disturbances

Signs someone else is experiencing emotional abuse

You may be worried that a friend or someone in your family is experiencing emotional abuse. As emotional abuse often happens in private, it can be difficult to see if it's happening for someone else. If you suspect someone you know is in an emotionally abusive relationship, some key things to look out for might include:

  • You notice their partner or family member talks down about them or intentionally shares embarrassing or upsetting things about them (including photos)

  • They have become increasingly insecure

  • They apologise frequently about things that are not their fault

  • They do no want to talk about their relationship, even when you express concern

  • Their partner or family member is constantly checking where they are and who they're with

  • They act differently after receiving a message or call from their partner or family member

  • They seem more withdrawn and you find it hard to lock in time to see them

Getting support

If you’re experiencing emotional abuse, it’s important that you seek help. There are a number of services you can contact if you need someone to talk to.

Check out Domestic violence and what you can do about it for information on things to consider when dealing with domestic violence, including where to go to make sure you’re safe, and the kinds of support you can access: legal, financial and medical.

Most importantly, if you feel afraid or believe you might be in danger, contact the emergency services (000) immediately.

Want to chat with a peer worker who can listen to you and support you? Book a free, text-based session with ReachOut PeerChat.

You can also use ReachOut NextStep, an anonymous online tool that will recommend relevant support options for you.

What can I do now?

  • Learn more about different types of abuse.