Psychological/emotional abuse may be defined as incidents of recurring criticism, denigration, and/or verbal aggression against a person, as well as acts to isolate and/or dominate another person. Psychological/ emotional abuse includes ridicule, stalking, destroying the property of the victim, emotional withdrawal, threats, and restrictive engulfment (i.e., socially isolating the victim from family, friends, and others). The purpose of such behavior is to induce fear and to punish and control the victim.
Research on psychological/emotional abuse may be difficult because the behavior takes many forms, some of which can be quite subtle, making it hard to measure. A relatively benign behavior or statement may become abusive or harmful depending on the context in which it occurs, the perpetrator’s tone of voice, or the perpetrator’s facial expression.
Studies of psychological/emotional abuse indicate that it is more prevalent than either physical or sexual abuse. In random sample surveys of community and university samples, 50% to more than 80% of respondents report having experienced some form of psychological/emotional abuse by an intimate partner in the previous year. Psychological/emotional abuse also frequently accompanies physical abuse in abusive intimate relationships. For example, in one study of physically abused women, more than 50% of respondents reported that they were also subjected to various forms of psychological/emotional abuse, including ridicule and social isolation, at least once a week.
One form of psychological/emotional abuse, stalking, may begin after a victim leaves an abusive partner, but studies show that stalking behavior typically starts while the relationship is still intact. Although celebrity stalking cases involve stalkers unknown to the victims (i.e., strangers), most reported stalking cases involve intimate partners. Stalking includes repeated harassment, surveillance, and vandalism. The victim may be followed, have her or his phone calls monitored, and be subjected to recurring phone calls at home or work. Most ant stalking statutes require that the behavior occur repeatedly and that it induces fear in the victim.
It is commonly believed that psychological/ emotional abuse is not as detrimental to victims as is physical abuse. This belief, however, does not receive empirical support. Research indicates that psychological/emotional abuse may, indeed, have very negative effects on victims independent of the effects of physical abuse. Psychologists argue that the impact of psychological/emotional abuse on victims depends on several factors, including the frequency with which it occurs and the manner in which it is expressed (e.g., in a loving style, “I love you so much, I don’t want anyone else paying attention to you” versus a hostile or hateful style, “You are so ugly and stupid, no one else would pay attention to you”). Victims often report greater harm from psychological/emotional abuse than physical abuse, particularly when the psychological/ emotional abuse is more frequent and intense than physical abuse.
- Arias, I., & Pape, K. T. (1999). Psychological abuse: Implications for adjustment and commitment to leave violent partners. Violence and Victims, 14, 55–67. Mahoney, P., Williams, L. M., & West, C. M. (2001).
- Violence against women by intimate relationship partners. In C. M. Renzetti, J. L. Edleson, & R. K. Bergen (Eds.), Sourcebook on violence against women (pp. 143–192). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Marshall, L. L. (1996). Psychological abuse of women: Six distinct clusters. Journal of Family Violence, 11, 379–409.
- Stark, E. (2007). Coercive control. New York: Oxford University Press.
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