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¿Qué es realmente el abuso emocional?

Updated: Jun 27

5 Points to Consider

When we suspect someone is in an unhealthy relationship, the first question we often ask is: "Did it ever get physical?" While addressing physical abuse is crucial, the problem arises when this is the only question we ask. By not exploring other forms of abuse, we imply that physical violence is the sole indicator of a harmful relationship. Worse, we convey the message that anything else happening "isn't as bad."

" 13 reasons why, 2017, Netflix"

This is a significant problem because emotional abuse can be just as devastating. Even if the relationship never becomes physically abusive, emotional abuse can intensify over time and have devastating consequences, even death. While emotional abuse doesn't always lead to physical abuse, physical abuse in relationships is almost always preceded and accompanied by emotional abuse.

Why don't we hear more about emotional abuse? Besides the common misconception that it isn't as severe, many people simply aren't sure what emotional abuse truly entails. My goal here is to help you understand what emotional abuse really means and why it is so dangerous, so you are better equipped to start the conversation. Because if we want to stop it, we first need to know what we're up against.

Defining Emotional Abuse

Understanding emotional abuse is complicated for several reasons. One is that there are several terms used interchangeably to refer to the same type of abuse, including emotional/psychological abuse and mental abuse. To simplify, we will use “emotional abuse” going forward.

"Euphoria,, 2019, HBO"

Another complication is that there is no universally accepted definition of emotional abuse. Everyone seems to have a slightly different version. We have identified several common elements that make up the most widely accepted definitions and combined them to create the following description:

Emotional abuse is any abusive behavior that is not physical. It can include verbal aggression, intimidation, manipulation, and humiliation, and generally develops as a pattern of behavior over time. Its aim is to diminish another person's sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth, often resulting in anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts or behaviors, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Each part of the definition presents its own complications to fully understand the reality of emotional abuse. Let’s break down what this really means, piece by piece.

Breaking Down Emotional Abuse

1.-“Any abusive behavior that is not physical”

This is quite broad, isn’t it? Emotional abuse is hard to grasp because it encompasses so much. Here is a non-exhaustive list of potentially emotionally abusive behaviors:

  • Intimidation

  • Manipulation

  • Blaming

  • Shaming

  • Insults

  • Humiliation

  • Sarcasm

  • Infantilization

  • Silent treatment

  • Trivializing

  • Triangulation

  • Sabotage

  • Gaslighting

  • Scapegoating

  • Blame-shifting

  • Projection

  • Ranking and comparing

  • Arbitrary and unpredictable inconsistency

  • Threats of harm

  • Enforced isolation

We say "potentially" abusive because some of these behaviors can occur in healthy contexts. For example, sarcasm and infantilizing speech can be harmless in some situations. However, in the context of emotional abuse, where the intention is malicious, these behaviors can be extremely cutting.

2.- “Can include verbal aggression, intimidation, manipulation, and humiliation”

The key word here is "can." The list of emotional abuse tactics is incredibly long and context-dependent. The particular combination of behaviors, how they manifest, and with what intensity can also vary greatly from one relationship to another.

3.- “A pattern of behavior over time”

Emotional abuse is rarely a one-time event. It occurs as a sustained and repetitive pattern of behavior. This particular characteristic of emotional abuse helps explain why it is so complicated and dangerous. It can be so gradual that you don’t realize what is happening until you are deeply entangled in its web.

4.- “Aims to diminish another person’s sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth”

Regardless of how emotional abuse develops, experts agree that it has devastating effects on those subjected to it. Unfortunately, these effects are largely invisible, making it difficult for most people to understand the real risks and damage of emotional abuse.     "You, 2018, Netflix"

5.- “Results in anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts or behaviors, and PTSD”

Because emotional abuse is essentially invisible, pointing to it as the cause of its destructive effects is another type of challenge and frustration. In cases of extreme emotional abuse, there are no visible bruises or cuts to point to. Instead, emotional abuse often looks like a person suffering from painful but common afflictions like anxiety or depression.


I hope this explanation about emotional abuse is as comprehensive as possible, though I recognize it may still have gaps. Think of it as a springboard for future conversations and exploration, rather than an all-encompassing definition. Emotional abuse, like any other form of cruelty, thrives in darkness when no one understands, discusses, or acknowledges it. Use your new knowledge and curiosity to shed light on the risks and devastation that emotional abuse brings. A good starting point is to ask questions like "How does that behavior or action make you feel?" or "Has it ever become emotionally abusive?"

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