Everything to know about emotional abuse, what it is and how you can get help

·5-min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Emotional abuse can be difficult to recognise in relationships, and often any abuse that isn't physical can go unnoticed both by victims and by people outside the relationship. Emotional abuse incorporates various forms of manipulation, including gaslighting and coercive control, which both involve psychologically manipulating the victim.

“Emotional abuse is insidious and relentless – it can distort your reality, confuse your thoughts and change your sense of self,” says Suzanne Jacob, chief executive of UK domestic abuse charity SafeLives. “Its impact is just as devastating as physical abuse.”

While it can still be hard to spot and to prove in court, coercive control was finally recognised as a criminal offence in 2015. In the years since then, there has been much more attention focused on the different forms of emotional abuse, the effect it can have on victims and how difficult it can be to identify.

While there is now more awareness around emotional abuse, Jacob says it still “isn't consistently recognised and responded to”. In fact, SafeLives estimates that 2 million people in the UK experience some form of domestic abuse each year. Jacobs says that the systems in place aren’t always equipped to deal with this offence. “The police and wider criminal justice system still need a much greater understanding of abusive uses of power and control.”

Here’s everything you need to know about emotional abuse, which signs to look out for and how you can get help.

What is emotional abuse?

Adina Claire, Acting Co-CEO of Women’s Aid, describes emotional abuse as, "Any act where your partner controls, bullies or humiliates you."

Claire adds: "This includes gaslighting, where you are manipulated and led to question your own recollection of events; intimidation and threats, where you’re frightened of your partner and feel you have to walk on eggshells; and controlling behaviour, such as being told what to do and where you can and can’t go."

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

What are the signs to look out for?

It can be difficult to identify behaviours that are emotionally abusive. Martin Burrow, a counsellor at Relate, an organisation providing relationship counselling and support, says emotional abuse "can include intimidation and threats, undermining, criticism, being made to feel guilty, telling you what you can and can’t do and controlling a person’s finances.

"People sometimes struggle to recognise emotional abuse but a key thing to consider is how it makes you feel. If your partner consistently makes you feel controlled, like you can’t speak your mind, or like you have to change your actions to accommodate their behaviour, these are all red flags."

What effect does emotional abuse have on the victim?

Like any form of abuse, emotional abuse can have a lasting effect on the person who experiences it, and it is often accompanied by other forms of abuse.

"Emotional abuse underpins almost all abusive behaviour," says Claire, "and can happen in isolation or alongside physical and sexual abuse. Emotional abuse has a major impact on women’s lives, with many survivors experiencing post-traumatic symptoms for years after they’ve left the relationship."

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

"If you are on the receiving end of emotional abuse, it can be incredibly damaging and upsetting," says Burrow. "It can cause low self-esteem, and strips down the autonomy of the victim leaving them to really question everything they do and say."

Does emotional abuse only happen in romantic relationships?

Emotional abuse and other forms of domestic abuse are often only discussed in the context of romantic relationships, but emotional abuse can happen in any relationship you have with another person.

"Emotional abuse is the behaviour of attempting to control another person emotionally," says Burrow. "This can happen in any relationship, whether with a friend, partner, family member or colleague."

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

How is emotional abuse dealt with in the law?

As of 2015, the Serious Crime Act made emotional abuse and coercive control illegal. The law now considers "controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship" as domestic abuse, and it can be punishable by up to five years in prison.

However, this law only covers intimate or family relationships, and doesn't account for friends or colleagues who may be emotionally abusive.

Since coercive control became illegal under the Serious Crime Act, emotional abuse cases have made headlines, such as that of Sally Challen who, after spending a decade in prison for murdering her husband had her conviction quashed, after it was ruled that she was a victim of coercive control, gaslighting and emotional abuse.

According to the ONS, there were 33,954 offences of coercive control reports to police in England and Wales in the year ending March 2021. These reports are on the rise – in the year ending March 2020, there were 24,856, while it was 17,616 in the year ending March 2019.

How to get help for emotional abuse

"If you’re being abused or think you may be being abused but aren’t sure, an important first step is to speak to somebody outside of the relationship who you trust," says Burrow. "This could be a friend, a counsellor or a specialist agency that supports victims. Getting an outside perspective can help you to identify the abuse and access support."

There are plenty of organisations you can reach out to for help, including Relate, Women’s Aid and The Freephone 24-h National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge: 0808 2000 247. Live Fear Free provides support for women in Wales (0808 8010 800). The Men’s Advice Line (0808 8010327) provides support for men.

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