QUESTION: What qualifies as emotional abuse?


Don: ”You are too sensitive.”* 

If you have heard this response in a relationship, you have been verbally criticized.  When it becomes the dominate pattern in a relationship is considered abusive, by either and often both partners. 

Though the actual list of what people as well as professionals define emotional abuse varies, the descriptions follow the theme of disregarding another person's respect to have their own feelings and point of view valued and considered.

Here some basic examples of what qualifies as emotional abuse:

Put downs/Degrading - insulting, ridiculing, name calling, imitating and infantilizing; behaviour which diminishes the identity, dignity and self-worth of the person.  

Rejecting - refusing to acknowledge a person’s presence, value or worth; communicating to a person that she or he is useless or inferior; devaluing her/his thoughts and feelings. 

Intimidating/terrorizing - inducing terror or extreme fear in a person; coercing by intimidation; placing or threatening to place a person in an unfit or dangerous environment.  

Coercion: the practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats.

Isolating - physical confinement; restricting normal contact with others; limiting freedom within a person’s own environment.  

Denying Emotional Responsiveness - failing to provide care in a sensitive and responsive manner; being detached and uninvolved; interacting only when necessary; ignoring a person’s mental health needs.

Humiliation: make (someone) feel ashamed and foolish by injuring their dignity and self-respect, especially publicly.]

Exploiting - socializing a person into accepting ideas or behavior which oppose legal standards; using a person for advantage or profit; training a child to serve the interests of the abuser and not of the child.  

In facing the difficulties in couple as well as parent-child relationships and doing a personal assessment of yourself and others, it can be help to contrast the above list with this list (Evans 1992) about the “basic needs in relationships” 

 • The need for good will from the others. 

 • The need for emotional support. ~

 • The need to be heard by the other and to be responded to with respect and acceptance

 • The need to have your own view, even if others have a different view. 

 • The need to have your feelings and experience acknowledged as real. 

 • The need to receive a sincere apology for any jokes or actions you find offensive. 

 • The need for clear, honest and informative answers to questions about what affects you. 

 • The need to for freedom from accusation, interrogation and blame.

 • The need to live free from criticism and judgment. 

 • The need to have your work and your interests respected. 

 • The need for encouragement. 

 • The need for freedom from emotional and physical threat. 

 • The need for freedom from from angry outburst and rage. 

 • The need for freedom from labels which devalue you.

 • The need to be respectfully asked rather than ordered.

 • The need to have your final decisions accepted.

 • The need for privacy at times.

*(Patrica Evans, The Verbally Abusive Relationship) 

For a very in-depth informative resource for recognizing and dealing with emotional abuse,

Here is another article and free test on The EMOTIONAL ABUSE TEST. Discover your personal score. Awareness is the compassionate first step to tending to your own words and actions, that can help inform your reaction so you don’t return abusiveness with more abusiveness.

Personal counseling can help recognize overt and subtle forms of emotional abuse and set boundaries where the cycle can stop and new healthier directions can be taken. At the core of all hurt fun outburst or subtle and not-so-subtile hurtful words is a cry for help.  Getting underneath the pattern and addressing the hurt can help curb the urge to strike out in anger.



Don Elium, MA MFT

Walnut Creek, CA

925 256 8282 Phone/Text