Coming to grips with the slippery Concept of Psychoemotional Abuse

As we continue to turn our attention to preventing and addressing family and domestic violence, we are identifying areas where our understanding is still limited. Robust policy and practice interventions require a solid foundation of definitions, concepts and frameworks based on evidence. Dr Peter Streker writes here of the need to understand psychological and emotional abuse better, a theme explored more fully in his book I Wish that He Hit Me: Working with psychological and emotional abuse.

In many ways, psychological and emotional abuse forms the scaffolding of violent strategies. When somebody has been physically or sexually assaulted, it is almost certain that they have been psychologically and emotionally assaulted as well.

Psychological and emotional forms of violence are central components of grooming, cajoling and setting up the pre-conditions for physical and sexual violence. They are also used to amplify intensity during physical aspects of violent acts and prolong pressure and intimidation on victims and their supporters long after these acts have finished.   Psychological and emotional tactics are also employed to blame victims for attacks and minimise, rationalise and excuse perpetrators’ behaviour.[i] Some exclusively use these powerful tactics because they may leave little trace and do not attract the same legal or social sanctions as other forms of violence.

The frequently horrific impact of psychological and emotional abuse has also become clearer over recent years, with one researcher comparing the cumulative list of difficulties found in children who experienced emotional abuse with a table of contents in a psychiatrists’ textbook.[ii] While it is very difficult to disentangle the effects of the various forms of abuse as they often occur concurrently, many researchers have suggested that people subjected to psychological and emotional abuse generally stay in abusive relationships longer than survivors of physical or sexual abuse.[iii]   This longer exposure can dramatically shape their long-term impacts as it can gradually normalise abuse, isolate them from support, diminish their self-perception and manipulate their tolerance for more extreme abuse.

The execution of psychological and emotional abuse is less dependent on the exploitation of advantages over other peoples’ size, strength or age and is less constrained by the dimensions of time and space. Memories can be dredged to inspire guilt and atrocities can be predicted to arouse fear.[iv] Physical and cyber stalking and threats can occur long after relationships have formally ended.

What is less clear is the concept itself.   Can the terms psychological abuse and emotional abuse be used interchangeably or are they fundamentally different? Has psychological or emotional abuse occurred if you either put another person down, but they were not offended; or if they were offended, but you meant no harm? How can professionals implement effective policy and interventions that involve this important component of violence, if they are not sure what it means?

Some Practical Steps Forward

In practice, psychological and emotional abuses are not only interchangeable, they are co-dependent, as psychological and emotional processes and responses are intertwined. I coined the hybrid term psychoemotional abuse in my book to reflect this.

It is very difficult to arrive at a precise, all-encompassing definition of psychoemotional abuse as the acts take many forms, are applied through many motives, degrees of intensity and are tricky to disentangle from persuasive, but respectful communication methods.   Some incidents are quick and isolated. Others are part of a punishing, pre-meditated campaign. Some perpetrators are deliberately cruel. Others genuinely believe they are merely expressing love, care or humour.

Slipping Backwards

Sometimes professionals’ attempts at developing a clearer understanding of psychoemotional abuse have inadvertently created further harm. For example, researchers typically used three criteria to determine whether psychoemotional abuse has occurred:

  1. There should be a pattern of abusive behaviour;
  2. The perpetrator should demonstrate intent to harm; and
  3. The victim should perceive harm.

Unfortunately, the use of these criteria alone excuses many acts of psychoemotional abuse and leaves recipients more vulnerable. The first criterion excuses the many single acts of psychoemotional abuse in a way that would never be used to pardon single acts of physical or sexual abuse. People may also suffer from the aggregated single acts of many people using similar themes, such as race or gender[v].

Relying on the abuser’s disclosure of intent is also fraught with danger, as they may simply lie. Even if they are genuinely well-intended or ignorant, their behaviour can devastate others. Few car drivers intend to crash into others, but that makes little difference to the damage they wreak.

It is also possible that recipients of some forms of psychoemotional abuse may not detect it or have been conditioned to perceive their treatment as normal. Subtle abuse may gradually erode the confidence and security of the other person over time – psychoemotional death by one thousand cuts.   Some internalise responsibility for the abuse (ie. there is something wrong with me) when covert tactics are used. If the survivor’s perception of harm was relied on to determine the existence of abuse, subtle and potentially more sinister forms of psychoemotional abuse are likely to be missed - particularly if the survivors were isolated from reliable, alternative views.   If they have been traumatised, it is possible that their capacity to accurately report the incident and its impact could be impaired.

If the definition is at least partly dependent on the survivor’s response, then people who are able to withstand the abuse absorb the offensive behaviour and absolve the abusers from responsibility for their actions. This effectively blames victims, as any damage that occurs is accounted for by their personal weakness or inadequacies, rather than perpetrators’ actions.

Stepping Forward Again

Many professionals may work effectively to raise awareness of psychoemotional abuse and help survivors with broad definitions of psychoemotional abuse such as:

a process where one or more people, via a wide range of means (e.g., verbal, the enactment of legislation or policy), use primarily psychological or emotional processes to overpower another and gain advantage from the other’s subordinate position (ie. the psychoemotional hit). The aftermath of the process (ie. the psychoemotional bruise) should be described by other concepts such as anxiety. [vi]

However, this may not be adequate for others, such as legal professionals and academics, who need to make precise, consistent assessments. A new robust model is required that uses several criteria to grade the severity of psychoemotionally abusive acts along a continuum, like categories of physical assaults. This model may clarify whether some forms of psychoemotional violence should be criminalised, as they are in France.

The prevention of psychoemotional violence also requires more community awareness of its impact, more effective bystander action and a deeper understanding of how the various motives behind psychoemotional violence intersect with underlying sociocultural drivers of violence, such as gender inequity and violence-promoting norms.


[i]  Streker, P. (2013). I wish that he hit me: Working with psychological and emotional abuse. Saarbrucken, Germany: Lambert Academic Publishing

[ii] Glaser, D. (2002) Emotional abuse and neglect (psychological maltreatment): A conceptual framework. In ‘Child Abuse and Neglect’, 26(6-7) p679-714

[iii] Arias, I. and Pape, K.T. (1999) Psychological Abuse: Implications for Adjustment and Commitment to Leave Violent Partners. In ‘Violence & Victims’, 14(1), p 55-67

[iv] Streker, P. ibid

[v] Streker, P. ibid

[vi] Streker. P. ibid

Posted by Kathy Landvogt