What Is Psychological Abuse?

One of our main initiatives at Her Voice in the Darkness is to bring greater awareness to the psychological abuse that is pervasive throughout our society. However, this type of abuse is not mentioned much in today’s culture, so if you haven’t seen the TV show Maid, you might be a bit confused. Psychological abuse can be hard to identify at times, especially to those observing the abusive relationship from the outside as some of the behaviors are only displayed behind closed doors. As such, it is our goal to help define psychological abuse so that you are better able to distinguish unhealthy patterns in your relationships as well as the relationships around you. 

Psychological abuse can be defined as when a controlling partner holds superiority and power over their partner and uses their beliefs to demand that their expectations be met (Abuse Refuge Org, 2022). This type of abuse is multifaceted and can look different in each situation. However, it often targets one’s feelings, sense of self and well-being, thoughts, and perceptions. In addition, psychological abuse can be perpetuated by both males and females and is not limited to intimate relationships. While the effects may not be visibly evident, the effects are often more harmful than physical abuse as psychological abuse targets the person’s identity, leading to self-doubt and a skewed sense of reality. Several types of abuse are included in the definition of psychological abuse: verbal abuse and emotional abuse. 

Verbal abuse is the use of words to bring harm, whether through written or spoken communication (No More, 2022). It is used in a deliberate effort to gain control and maintain power in a relationship. These are just some examples of verbal abuse that are used to bully, intimidate, humiliate, and decrease the victim’s self-identity and sense of safety: 

  • Calling names, insulting, or constantly criticizing
  • Isolating or controlling through words
  • Harassing in person, on the phone, or through text communication
  • Humiliating or embarrassing in public
  • Being consistently jealous, potentially making accusations of cheating
  • Blaming others for the abuser’s own harmful behavior
  • Telling someone that they deserve mistreatment or are undeserving of love
  • Beginning harmful rumors
  • Threatening to divulge secrets, personal information, photos, or videos
  • Threatening violence
  • Shaming one’s body
  • Gaslighting (Psychological manipulation to the point that the individual questions their own sanity)

In addition to verbal abuse, emotional abuse is a large aspect of psychological abuse. This type of abuse is defined as “Any nonphysical behavior [or attitude] that is designed to control, intimidate, subjugate, demean, punish, or isolate another person through the use of degradation, humiliation, or fear” (Engel, 2002, pp. 10-11). Its subtle use is just starting to be recognized as abuse; however, society often tries to deny the existence of emotional abuse while few clinicians focus on its presence. Here are a few signs of emotional abuse in relationships (Engel, 2002; Hawkins, 2017): 

  • Humiliating or degrading
  • Discounting
  • Dominating or controlling
  • Judging or criticizing
  • Blaming
  • Making unimportant and unreasonable demands or expectations
  • Distancing oneself emotionally or using the silent treatment
  • Isolating 
  • Provoking or using sarcasm
  • Being overly jealous

Here are some additional signs that may be more subtle but still are evidence of emotional abuse (Engel, 2002):

  • Withholding affection or attention
  • Being dismissive or disapproving
  • Having condescending looks, words, or behaviors
  • Pouting or sulking
  • Making accusations
  • Making subtle threats of physical and/or emotional abandonment

In addition to behaviors, emotional abuse can also include harmful attitudes, such as those listed below (Engel, 2002):

  • Believing that others should follow your commands
  • Being oblivious to the feelings of others
  • Blatantly ignoring the feelings of others
  • Believing that you are superior to everyone
  • Believing that you are always right

Symbolic violence is another form of emotional abuse which involves violence not directed at the individual but still used for the purpose of gaining power and control. Here are some examples of these intimidating behaviors (Engel, 2002):

  • Slamming doors
  • Kicking walls
  • Throwing objects
  • Driving recklessly with the victim in the car
  • Destroying or threatening to destroy the victim’s possessions

Overall, psychological abuse can occur in many different forms and in many different settings. However, the focus is less on the number of behaviors displayed by the abuser and more on the impact of the behaviors in the relationship. If you believe that some of these behaviors occur in your relationship, please see our next blog post on How Do I Know If This Is Psychological Abuse? Just remember: you are not alone in this battle. We are here to support you. 


Abuse Refuge Org. (2022). “What is psychological abuse?” Abuse Refuge Org. https://abuserefuge.org/psychological-abuses/ 

Engel, B. (2002). The emotionally abusive relationship; How to stop being abused and how to stop abusing. Wiley. 

Hawkins, D. (2017). When loving him is hurting you; Hope and help for women dealing with narcissism and emotional abuse. Harvest House Publishers.

No More. (2022). “What is verbal abuse?” No More Verbal Abuse. https://www.nomoreverbalabuse.org/what-is-verbal-abuse