Emotional and psychological abuse

Australian and international studies demonstrate the prevalence of emotional and psychological abuse as a form of domestic and family violence that may be part of a broader and complex pattern of abusive behaviours experienced by a victim which may be understood as coercive control.

Emotional or psychological abuse may include verbal, non-verbal or physical acts by the perpetrator that are intended to exercise dominance, control or coercion over the victim; degrade the victim’s emotional or cognitive abilities or sense of self-worth; or induce feelings of fear and intimidation in the victim.

Verbal attacks by the perpetrator may involve jealous control, ridicule, put-downs, name calling and humiliation, and may be focused on the victim’s intelligence, sexuality, appearance, capacity as a parent or intimate partner, and unfavourable comparisons with others. For example in a criminal case the male perpetrator’s abuse of his female intimate partner included: ‘insisting that she sleep outside the house, and without access to amenities such as a toilet; insisting that the children refer to her by demeaning names such as “slut”, “whore”, “moll”, and not “mother”, or “mum”; insisting the children not show affection for her; and generally treating her in a humiliating and abusive manner, including attempting to persuade her to engage in a sexual act with a dog.’

Non-verbal and physical acts of emotional or psychological abuse by the perpetrator may also involve:

Research indicates that threats of physical violence, restrictions on the victim’s freedoms and damage to the victim’s personal property are strong predictors of actual violence causing severe injury or death.

Past perceptions of emotional or psychological abuse as having fewer, less severe and more transient consequences than physical violence have been superseded by a growing understanding of its impacts on victims including increased rates of serious or chronic illness, disability or impairment, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, misuse of alcohol and drugs, dysfunctional parenting and long-term low self-esteem.

In many cases victims describe the cumulative daily emotional or psychological abuse as having a more debilitating effect on their self-esteem and ability to cope with their situation than the physical violence they have also experienced. Victims also report that threats of violence can be as effective as actual violence for the control they exercise and fear they induce, often preventing the victim from leaving the abusive relationship.

Emotional and psychological abuse may be one aspect of a complex pattern of behaviours engaged in by perpetrators in order to control another person, sometimes referred to as coercive control.