Emotional abuse is abuse: How to recognize the signs and get help

·5 min read

If you or someone you know is experiencing relationship abuse in any form, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for free, confidential support 24/7/365. Text START to 88788, call 1-800-799-SAFE(7233) or chat online at TheHotline.org.

In the recent hit Netflix series “Maid,” the main character, Alex, flees with her child in the middle of the night after her partner wakes up in a rage, smashes dishes around her and punches a hole in the wall near her head.

But Alex has a hard time thinking of herself as a domestic violence victim because she has never been hit.

“I am not abused,” she insists to a case worker even as she picks glass out of her hair and admits her boyfriend scares her.

Emotional abuse is abuse, psychologists and organizations that help domestic violence survivors say, but many people in abusive relationships may have trouble convincing themselves and others that they’re being mistreated when they have no bruises or other visible signs of physical harm.

“It can be extremely, extremely damaging and in an ongoing way,” Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College and host of the “How Can I Help?” podcast, told TODAY.

“It can completely undermine a person’s sense of self, self-worth and can cause terrible depression, anxiety disorder.”

Abuse comes in many forms — apparent or invisible, emotional, financial or physical — and every form of abuse is dangerous and causes serious consequences for those impacted, said Crystal Justice, chief external affairs officer for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Gaslighting someone or undermining their sense of self-worth is abuse. Isolating someone from their family, friends and support systems is abuse. Limiting their access to finances or preventing them from working is abuse,” she said.

“No one deserves abuse — ever.”

Survivors experiencing lesser-known forms of abuse, such as emotional or financial abuse, may be less likely to reach out for support, Justice said.

But high-profile cases in the news such as the killing of Gabby Petito in August — considered by some prosecutors to be “America’s domestic abuse reckoning” — and depictions of abuse on film or television, including “Maid,” may have more people recognizing the warning signs in their own relationships and asking for help.

Released in October, National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, “Maid” went on to become one of Netflix’s most-watched limited series.

October was also when the National Domestic Violence Hotline experienced one of the highest contact volumes for a single month in its 25-year history, Justice said. The organization partnered with Netflix to make sure the content in “Maid” was survivor-centered and that viewers had resources.

The spike in calls came after a year of concerns about the rise in domestic violence incidents during the pandemic.

Warning signs

Psychologists describe emotional abuse as nonphysical behavior designed to subdue, punish or isolate another person through the use of humiliation or fear.

It can include repeated extreme criticism, name calling, telling the victim they’re worthless, dependent or in danger, Saltz said. Gaslighting, where the abuser implies “What you see as reality isn’t reality — I say what reality is,” can undermine a person’s ability to trust themselves, she added.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that intimate partner violence isn’t only about physical or sexual violence, but also includes psychological aggression, defined as “the use of verbal and non-verbal communication with the intent to harm another partner mentally or emotionally and/or to exert control over another partner.”

More than 43 million women and 38 million men have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime, the agency noted.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a list of common signs of abusive behavior in a partner. Even one or two of these behaviors is a red flag, it warned:

  • Telling you that you never do anything right.

  • Intimidating you through threatening looks or actions.

  • Controlling finances in the household without discussion.

  • Insulting, demeaning or shaming you, especially in front of other people.

  • Insulting your parenting or threatening to harm or take away your children or pets.

  • Destroying your belongings or your home.

Psychological abuse causes long-term damage to a person’s mental health, with victims often experiencing depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation, low self-esteem and difficulty trusting others, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence warned.

Another point of concern: Emotional abuse can be a prelude to physical or sexual abuse.

“Before they bite, they bark. Before they hit you, they hit near you. Next time, it was going to be your face,” another domestic abuse survivor tells Alex in “Maid” when she again mentions her partner punched the wall near her head, but never physically assaulted her.

“Abuse may start as subtle, continual behaviors over time that escalate. This is one reason that some survivors may not realize they are in an abusive relationship until they have been in it for a while,” Justice noted.

How to get help

“Love is respect,” a project of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, suggests survivors document emotionally abusive incidents by keeping a journal where they write down what their partner said, how it made them feel and when it happened. If furniture was overturned, items were thrown or a wall was punched, they should describe the scene and take photos of the damage.

For many emotional abuse survivors, the first step to getting help is recognizing what’s happening: “They think, ‘Well, I’m not being hit, so is this really abuse?’ So it is the recognition that it is,” Saltz said.

Sometimes couples can go into therapy and discuss what's going on, but if the emotional abuse is in the form of threat, it may be better to seek safe shelter and exit, she noted.

Justice wanted survivors to know that there is still hope, even during particularly challenging times, urging anyone needing support to contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Every relationship is different and domestic violence doesn’t always look the same, but many of the people at higher risk of domestic violence are people of color, immigrants, Indigenous people and people who are disabled, she added.

“We know that survivors are extremely strong and resourceful. We are amazed every day by their bravery,” Justice said. “We are here for them.”

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