Signs of Emotional Abuse: How to Respond

Many people in the United States will have experienced emotional abuse or know someone who has endured it. Although emotional abuse is something that people are often reluctant to talk about, it really is quite pervasive.

In the past, the things that are now considered to be emotionally abusive would never have been recognized as being problematic, but now the emotional impact of words and actions are much better understood.

It’s important to draw a distinction between someone who is an emotional abuser and a person who says or does emotionally abusive things. To be clear, an emotional abuser intentionally and continually seeks to hurt, undermine or manipulate other people.

By contrast, everyone has the ability to say or do something that can be considered to be emotionally abusive in a certain situation – but unless they do this continually, this is not the same as being an emotional abuser.

While, as human beings, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, a majority of people will repent of their actions and seek to repair the damage done. However, a minority fall into a category of people who repeatedly hurt others and deliberately destroy relationships with people. Unfortunately, these types of people are rarely able to change for the better.

Emotional abuse can happen in a range of different relationships: romantic, parental, siblings, friendships, colleagues, and in church communities. It is not limited to specific demographics or locations – potentially anyone can either abuse or be abused emotionally.

Signs of Emotional Abuse

The exact signs of emotional abuse vary from person to person, but there are common characteristics for each of the types of relationship context the abuse occurs. It can be helpful for you to consider which of these types of abuse you most relate to, as well as to reflect on whether you may have used these behaviors yourself in your relationships.

Neglect as a Type of Abuse

Parents who are physically neglectful of their children, through withholding interaction, for example, are being emotionally abusive. It is also possible for people to neglect their children and other family members emotionally, by refusing to engage in any way with them. Additionally, parents who are providing for the physical needs of children but prioritizing other areas of their own lives can be considered to be neglectful.

Ultimately, when a caregiver or partner neglects to meet the needs of the other person, they are doing emotional harm. It is considered to be neglectful to fail to meet needs because there are general expectations associated with being a parent or being in a romantic relationship.

When you decide to become a parent or enter into a serious relationship, you are signing up for the responsibilities that come along with those things, and to be an active participant in the relationship. Failure to meet those responsibilities and expectations for care, whether that care is physical, emotional or financial, constitutes neglect.

Verbal Emotional Abuse

There are a number of ways in which someone can be verbally emotionally abusive. For example, a person may continually refuse to accept or consider your opinion and actually force you to accept their opinion. Another example might be a person who refuses to speak to you or interact with you in any way as a form of punishment or control.

People who always insist that they are right, those who have to have the last word, and those who judge you and others harshly, causing you to feel guilt and shame are also being emotionally abusive. Some methods of emotional abuse are more obvious than others.

It is the tactics being used that make these things examples of verbal emotional abuse. Verbal emotional abuse can have a significant impact on your self-worth and sense of uniqueness. A more surprising example of verbal emotional abuse is sarcasm. People are less likely to view sarcasm as emotional abuse since it’s common and many in our society see it as permissible as long as it’s funny.

However, when we stop to think about the sarcastic comments that we either make ourselves or receive from others, it becomes clear that sarcasm, regardless of humorous intent, can really hurt people’s feelings. Ultimately, sarcasm belittles others while masquerading as humor.

Verbal emotional abuse can take the form of a person who is always being prepared to preach to you about the faults and errors in the way that you live your life and attempting to control you. Even when this is done with good intentions, it lacks grace and understanding and doesn’t help you resolve issues.

Another common type of verbal emotional abuse is the person who insists that they have forgiven you for something – but then takes every possible opportunity to bring up the past grievances so as to shame you and make you feel guilty. At the heart of all these examples of verbal emotional abuse is the use of language to control and belittle others.

Emotional Abuse Via Behavior

While physical abuse generally tends to be also emotionally abusive, emotional abuse is not necessarily physical. There are different ways in which emotional abuse can take place through actions and behaviors. For example, people who intimidate others and incite fear as a means of control are being emotionally abusive.

People with unpredictable moods that tend to swing from extremes can be considered to be emotionally abusive since the people around them often struggle to feel safe. A more extreme example might be the Jekyll and Hyde personality – people who have a charismatic public ‘side’ to their personality but are very different (and emotionally abusive) at home. It’s hard to know where you stand with both of these types of people.

Favoritism is another means by which a person can be behaviorally abusive. Favoritism is where a person has a ‘favorite’ and uses their favorite as a measure for other people’s accomplishments. Favoritism has a profound impact on someone’s self-esteem and self-worth.

In family situations, favoritism is a common problem. Another family-related example of behavioral emotional abuse is role-reversal, where parents expect their children to assume a parental role while the parent takes on the role of a child.

A severe example of role reversal is emotional or covert incest, which was identified by Dr. Kenneth Adams in the book Silently Seduced. This happens when a parent who feels neglected by the other parent uses the children as substitutes for their partner.

This type of emotional abuse can have profound and long-lasting negative effects on children – and the dysfunction may continue well into adulthood. Christian counsellors are often consulted by people who are concerned by the unhealthy relationship that their spouse has with a parent, and which consequently is affecting the marital relationship.

People who constantly make promises that turn out to be empty may also be considered to be guilty of emotional abuse. Empty promises result in a loss of security and trust and may impact on the victim’s ability to experience hope. That’s because when you experience constant disappointment, you can begin to question whether good things will ever happen.

The Effects of Emotional Abuse on Relationships

Now that you understand more about the types of emotional abuse and their signs, we need to consider how emotional abuse impacts people’s lives.

If you’ve been the victim of emotional abuse at some point in your life, you may find that you struggle with intimate relationships. This is because emotional abuse tells us that other people are not emotionally safe, and as a defense mechanism you may distance yourself from others or avoid being in any way vulnerable around people.

Another example of the impact of emotional abuse is known as co-dependency. This leads to people continually seeking validation and approval from their significant others. Their entire sense of self-worth is dependent upon another person – this is often the result of emotional neglect in childhood.

Enabling behaviors can also be caused by emotional abuse in the past. For example, someone who has a history of being emotionally abused will enable other people to behave in ways that are unhealthy or inappropriate just in order to feel needed or wanted. Often, people who come to therapy because of their engagement in abusive relationships have received a message in the past that they deserve to be abused.

People who isolate themselves completely from others have frequently been the victim of emotional abuse. On the other end of that spectrum, victims of emotional abuse may also crave relationships (due to neglect in the past) to such an extent that they will endure anything, and do anything that they’re asked to do, perhaps to avoid abandonment.

What Does the Bible Have to Say About Emotional Abuse?

Although the Bible does not specifically address emotional abuse by name, there are plenty of examples in Scripture of God’s view of emotional abuse:

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord. – Ephesians 6:4

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. – Ephesians 5:1-4

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

He who isolates himself pursues selfish desires; he rebels against all sound judgment. A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in airing his opinions. With a wicked man comes contempt as well, and shame is accompanied by disgrace. The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters; the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook. A fool’s lips bring strife, and his mouth invites a beating. A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul. A gossip’s words are like choice morsels, and they sink into the inmost being. – Proverbs 18:1-4 & 6-8

It is clear from these verses that God is particularly concerned with the way that we interact with others, and how we use our speech and the intentions within our hearts as part of our daily interactions. There is much wisdom to be gleaned about emotional abuse from these verses.

Many people experience emotional abuse and suffer the long-term effects in their lives. However, it is possible to heal from the impact of emotional abuse, and a San Diego Christian counselor can help you start your journey towards healing.

A Christian counselor can give you the tools that you need to challenge the distorted beliefs that result from emotionally abusive relationships. Working together, it is then possible to build a much healthier belief system and develop your sense of identity.

It is an unfortunate truth that hurt people hurt people. When you have been hurt or broken by past abuse, it can lead to long-term problems not only for you but for the significant others in your lives. You can hurt people without intending to when you have distorted beliefs about what is, and isn’t, acceptable.

The emotional abuse that you experienced was not your fault, and you did not deserve it, but it’s important that you seek help in order to heal from the effects – both for your emotional wellbeing and for the wellbeing of your loved ones. Reach out now so that you can begin the process of change.

“Downcast,” courtesy of Avenue G, Flickr Creative Commons, CC0 License; “Victim”, Courtesy of Zach Guinta,, CC0 License; “Blindfolded”, Courtesy of Oscar Keys,, CC0 License; “Open Bible”, Courtesy of Aaron Burden,, CC0 License