Have you ever wondered, “What is emotional abuse?” This type of abuse can be very pervasive, and it is still a fairly new area of study because earlier generations did not consider that their words or non-violent actions could qualify as abuse.

There is an important distinction between an emotional abuser, and someone doing or saying something emotionally abusive. An abuser will perpetually hurt, undermine, or seek to gain a manipulative upper hand over others – whereas the majority of people will have the capacity to say or do something that is emotionally abusive in an isolated situation or circumstance without being a habitual abuser.

As human beings, we all will sin and fall short of our calling, but we can repent and seek reconciliation, which is key to our growth and healing. That being said, there are a group of people who will continue to hurt people and destroy intimacy with other people – whether on purpose or not – and they will rarely change their behavior for the better.

Emotional abuse can affect any relationship. It can impact your romantic relationship, your connection with your family, your friends, or your coworkers. It can really show up anywhere human beings are interacting. Wherever two are more humans are, there is always the potential to abuse or be abused.

What is Emotional Abuse?

If this is such an invasive issue, how can you spot it? The signs of emotional abuse will vary, but not drastically – depending on the nature of the relationship. As we begin to examine this form of abuse be sure to note the specific context in which you can relate to the abuse. And be willing to see any abusive behavior within your own actions.


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Neglect as Abuse

When a parent chooses to be absent from a child’s life, it constitutes emotional abuse. If someone chooses to emotionally withdraw from engaging a child or a significant other’s life, then this is also emotional abuse. If a parent only provides for the physical needs but then chooses to focus on other areas of life rather than the child, then this too is emotional abuse through neglect.

What becomes clear is that when a caregiver or partner neglects one or more needs of their child or partner, then they are doing them emotional harm. The reason this considered neglect is because with relationships come unspoken expectations.

Being a parent or committing to a partner is signing up to be an involved and active contributor to the care of another emotionally, financially, physically, or otherwise. Thus, to not contribute to this person fully is neglecting the relationship you have chosen to be a part of.

Verbal Emotional Abuse

Have you ever met someone who refuses to acknowledge your opinion, but forces you to accept theirs. Or what about someone who uses the uses the absence of words, or interaction, to control or punish you?

Maybe you are not surprised that these types of emotional abuse are perpetrated through words or lack thereof. Other types of emotional abuse are people who cannot be wrong and must have the last word. Or the person who judges your behavior to try and control you with the guilt they put over you for not living how they want you to live. All of these tactics of emotional abuse successfully rob you of your self-worth and uniqueness.

In fact, one of the most common and unnoticed forms of emotional abuse is sarcasm. Many people do not consider sarcasm to be emotional abuse because anything funny must be acceptable, right? It’s just a joke. Unfortunately, no.

Consider a sarcastic comment you have either said or heard. Did they support you or build you up? Or were they intended to break you or another down? If you are honest, you will see that sarcasm is a negative form of communication, specifically intended to harm others, not to build them up. It is a form of abuse disguised as humor.

Another common form of emotional abuse comes in the form of a prepared sermon. When someone comes to you with a predetermined speech, including any responses to any rebuttals you might have, in order to control you by revealing your errors and fault. Rather than come to you asking questions and seeking understanding about what happened, they come to condemn you.

Maybe one of the most painful types of verbal emotional abuse is someone says that they’ve forgiven you, but continue to drag up old conflicts in an attempt to shame you into a subservient position.

Another form of emotional abuse is screaming and name-calling. The essence of emotional abuse is language that belittles someone and displays the “superiority” of the abuser.

Emotional Abuse through Behavior

While physical abuse is necessarily emotionally abusive, emotional abuse is rarely physical. Let’s consider how emotional abuse can occur through different behaviors. The use of fear tactics or intimidation to control someone is emotional abuse.

Or if the abuser is unpredictable and regularly swings from one extreme to another, thereby removing any sense of safety and consistency, then that too is emotional abuse. Sometimes this type of abuser will appear as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In public, they are likable and charismatic, but when they get home, they are a totally different person. This too is a form of emotional abuse.

One of the most common forms of emotional abuse is favoritism. When children, friends, family members, or anyone for that matter are measured against each other in order to tear one person down and build another, then this is emotional abuse.

A lesser known form of emotional abuse is when a parent reverses roles with a child. This can happen when a parent relationally takes on the role of a child or elevates a child’s role to that of a surrogate spouse.

Dr. Kenneth Adams has an amazing book on this idea titled, Silently Seduced. In the book, he discusses emotional, or covert incest, in which a parent meets their emotional needs with a child instead of their significant other. What can appear to simply be a close relationship between parent and child can have long-lasting negative effects as the child grows up.

This sort of problem may emerge late, even after you’re already married as you begin to notice the difficult dynamic that exists between your spouse and one of their parents. If their relationship is coming in between you and your spouse, there is a problem.

One of the last forms is somebody who makes empty promises. Is this really considered emotional abuse? Well, yes. Empty promises create a lack of security. If you can’t trust your family or friends, then trust will be weakened, and you may struggle to trust between people in general. Over time you may even lose the ability to hope because all you’ve experienced is disappointment, eventually leading someone to question whether they deserve good things at all.

The examples of emotional abuse are many and varied. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a good start to get you thinking and to start identifying potential places of emotional abuse in your own life.

The Effects of Emotional Abuse on Relationships

Having discussed how emotional abuse can happen, let’s talk about its repercussions in different areas of your life. Have you ever noticed a lack of meaningful, intimate relationships in your life? If so, you may have learned to keep your distance from people because you don’t trust anyone to be emotionally safe. Keeping your distance is a way to feel comfortable and not risk being vulnerable, but also cuts you off from meaningful relationships.

Another product of emotional abuse is codependency. Codependency is when someone needs to receive consist validation of their value from other people. This is often tied to not having received proper validation as a child.

Enabling is another product of emotional abuse. If someone has such a need to be needed, they may choose to put up with inappropriate or unhealthy behavior, if it means they feel purposeful. Typically, if a client comes in and is participating in a possibly abusive relationship, then it signals that they may have received the message that they don’t deserve to be treated with respect somewhere in their past.

Finally, another potential result springing from emotional abuse is withdrawal. Some people feel like they aren’t even able to manage their relationships and retreat, choosing to isolate from other people. Likely this person has endured emotional verbal abuse and is triggered by real friendships leading them to pull away entirely.

Whether you find yourself desperate for a relationship, even at the cost of your dignity, or have withdrawn from people entirely, it is likely due to distorted beliefs rooted in your past of emotional abuse.

What Does the Bible Say About Emotional Abuse?

While the Bible may not directly address emotional abuse, it certainly covers many related issues and principles to live by that foster healthy relationships.

Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.Eph. 6:4

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud 5 or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. 6 It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. 7 Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. – 1 Cor 13:4-7

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. Let there be no sexual immorality, impurity, or greed among you. Such sins have no place among God’s people. Obscene stories, foolish talk, and coarse jokes—these are not for you. Instead, let there be thankfulness to God. – Eph. 5:1-4

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. – Prov. 15:1

An unfriendly person pursues selfish ends and against all sound judgment starts quarrels. Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions. When wickedness comes, so does contempt, and with shame comes reproach. The words of the mouth are deep waters, but the fountain of wisdom is a rushing stream…The lips of fools bring them strife, and their mouths invite a beating. The mouths of fools are their undoing, and their lips are a snare to their very lives. The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts. – Prov. 18:1-4 & 6-8

From the passages above, it is clear that God feels strongly about how we speak to and treat others. He wants us to be kind and treat others with dignity.

If you are wrestling with the impact of emotional abuse in your life and want to recover, please reach out to Santa Monica Christian counseling. By facing the distortion emotional abuse has caused on your mind and relationships, a trained counselor can help you rebuild you understanding what is appropriate behavior and strengthen your own identity.

It has long been said that hurt people hurt people, and brokenness begets brokenness. You are not to blame for experiencing emotional abuse, however, you are responsible to seek change and growth and not give in to its ill effects. Please reach out Santa Monica Christian counseling today, so we can help you make changes for a better tomorrow.

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