Effects of Emotional Abuse

18 Nov 2010

The effects of emotional abuse may not be immediately obvious to the naked eye.

The effects of physical domestic violence are easily recognizable.  But the effects of emotional abuse are easily missable; by the victim, but also by friends, family and even health professionals around the victim.

Why is this the case?

Awareness of emotional abuse, and the significance of emotional abuse, still lag way behind that of domestic violence.  Too many people still subscribe to the idiotic old saying that: “Sticks and bones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

If only!

Think about it for a moment.  If someone says something hurtful to you, once or twice, it may not hurt you.  But if someone who you feel close to – someone you really love and have invested in emotionally – tells you again and again that you are ugly, stupid, worthless, unlovable, a lousy partner, a lousy parent and a lousy human being, you will end up believing it.

The trauma of being spoken to like that by someone you love, and the constant repetition, mean you will inevitably be brainwashed into believing what an abusive partner tells you.

What else is brainwashing but “Indoctrination that forces people to abandon their beliefs in favor of another set of beliefs.. brainwashing attempts, through prolonged stress, to break down an individual’s physical and mental defences”? (Science Dictionary)    In this case, the other set of fixed beliefs are all about the abuser being wonderful, and so necessary a part of the victim’s life, that without him, she cannot survive.

But the process of brainwashing has to be gradual.  Were it not gradual, of course the victim would wake up to it and walk away. So the abuser starts slowly, and takes two steps forward and one step back, until he is sure that his victim doesn’t have the strength to leave.  At the start, he will say hurtful things, apologise, and then, at a later date, repeat all the same hurtful things, and throw a few more in, for a good measure.

Because it is a gradual process, the effects of emotional abuse can be difficult to pinpoint.  To the outside world, the victim just starts to look depressed, withdrawn, lacking in confidence, and less able to ‘cope’ with Life.

So what are the specific effects of emotional abuse?  They include:

  • Depersonalization: the victim increasingly loses sight of her own identity and reality.  She can be highly competent in the outside world, yet believe that she is the total incompetent an abusive partner tells her that she is.
  • Isolation: she will become less and less available, physically and emotionally to family and friends.
  • Depression: that is the label that health professionals will, most likely, attach to her.  In fact, she is suffering with corrosive despair and hopelessness.
  • Self-loathing: her self-worth – which may have been fragile in the first place – has been shot to pieces by her partner’s constant verbal assaults.
  • Demotivation: her energy, drive, and enthusiasm have all been crushed by living in an emotional war zone.
  • Anxiety: she is (almost) pathologically anxious not to offend.

How do you recognize the effects of emotional abuse?

  • The victim seems very emotionally ‘flat’, or lifeless.  She lacks enthusiasm, vitality, and laughter.
  • She is emotionally withdrawn and defensive.  She is unlikely to share much personal information, and will probably say very little about her partner.  You will get the feeling that she is always holding back.
  • She is terrified of upsetting you, or anyone else.
  • She always assumes that everything is her fault.
  • She always puts herself down, and labels herself.  She says: “I’m this, I’m that”…  In the absence of a strong sense of who she truly is, she has to describe herself in terms of labels.
  • She lives in a hostile world where bad things happen most of the time.
  • She is always anxious and watchful, never relaxed.
  • She constantly apologizes for anything and everything.

It’s very easy to judge victims of emotional abuse, and domestic violence, generally.  It’s much more comfortable to say: “How could they let that happen to them?” than it is to extend compassion to them.  It is easy to overlook the fact that nobody becomes a victim of emotional abuse willingly because they are ‘stupid’.

Women who do become victims of emotional abuse are no weaker, or less worthy than anyone else.  They may be more vulnerable, owing to their upbringing or circumstances.  But, if you take nothing else from this article, please take this: when you see an emotionally abused woman, what you see is not the person that this woman truly is.  What you see are the effects of emotional abuse.


Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.

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