Home » Blogs » Knotted: The Mother-Daughter Relationship » What is Emotional Abuse Exactly? Taking a Hard Look at a Buzzword

What is Emotional Abuse Exactly? Taking a Hard Look at a Buzzword

For a time, I belonged to a large closed Facebook group dedicated to supporting people who thought they were in various kinds of abusive relationships; I told the administrators who I was and that I was there largely to see, as a writer, what people were most concerned about. I did not post comments. But one of the astonishing revelations was how much of the dialogue was really about validating what constituted abuse in a relationship. That’s the problem with buzzwords, like “emotionally abusive,” “verbally abusive,” “narcissist,” and others; they sometimes lose their meaning when they get tossed about, especially in groups when people are trying to be understanding. This doesn’t mean, course, that emotional or verbal abuse don’t exist; they are very real. But how do you distinguish between a pattern of abuse and just lousy or reactive behavior? Is there a difference?

There is. I’m neither a therapist nor a psychologist but I have spent decades researching the effects of emotional abuse. (For more on that, see my most recent book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.)

To test your own sense of what constitutes emotional abuse, consider the following scenarios:

1.The about-to-be divorced couple is in court waiting for the judges to be seated. They have just settled the terms of divorce and the marriage will be over in a matter of minutes. The wife looks over and notices that the husband is wearing his wedding ring which is unbelievable since she has been trying to get this divorce done for close to two years and he is the plaintiff. She whispers to her attorney who looks over and then whispers back, “Oh my God. How weird.” She asks her attorney to ask his attorney if she can speak to her ex privately; he agrees. He is seated at a table when she walks in and he stands up and reaches out his arms as if to hug her. She cannot believe her eyes; this man has cost her tons of money, unbelievable anguish, worry, and time in his refusal to get divorced in a civilized way. She moves back and says,” Please take off your wedding ring. It’s embarrassing to me that I put that ring on your finger in the first place and now it certainly no longer belongs there.” His face darkens and he moves past her, out the door, saying “I won’t tolerate your abuse.”  She sees him three hours later when she goes back to her former home to start organizing moving what’s left of her belongings; he is still wearing the ring and she calls him out on it again. Once again, he calls her abusive. Is she?

2. Leah and Ray are at a neighbor’s house at a cocktail party with about thirty other people. Ray makes a number of comments about how beautifully the house is decorated, how lovely Gillian the hostess looks, and then, when they get home, he says, “Boy, Gillian certainly throws a great party.” Leah hits the roof and accuses him of abusing her emotionally and making her feel bad about herself. Is he being abusive?

3. Neil is constantly on Robin’s case about how much money she spends on what he considers frivolous items and they argue about it often. They make roughly the same amount but have very different attitudes; Neil is someone intent on saving money for what he calls a “rainy day,” while Robin thinks she can spend what she wishes because it’s hers and she doesn’t need to ask permission. She thinks he’s being abusive when he calls her out but when they argue, she always tells him what a loser he is because he doesn’t bring in the big bucks like his brother and how she shouldn’t never have married someone so marginal. Who’s being abusive?

Be thinking about these scenarios (I will weigh in later) and let’s look at some crucial differences between emotional and verbal abuse and other behaviors.

Arguing per se is not abusive

Marital expert John Gottman is very clear on this; it’s not whether you argue but how you argue that matters. People in intimate or close settings are bound to have all manner of differences of opinion and being able to express those differences openly, being able to compromise and find middle ground, or, occasionally, cede to your partner’s wishes are the working parts of a healthy relationship.

Someone losing his or her temper or getting angry isn’t automatically abusive either. It depends on the circumstances and how often it happens. But you can reasonably expect everyone, including you, to lose control once in a while.

Ending a relationship is not abusive

Yes, that’s right.  Relationships from marriages to friendships to business partnerships end for lots of reasons and deciding that the connection is no longer right for you is completely legitimate and not abusive at all. Yes, people may be hurt by your decision but it’s within your rights to make it.

Criticizing someone is not abusive

Again, in an ongoing relationship—whether it’s intimate or professional—taking issue with someone’s actions or attitude isn’t off-limits unless it’s highly personalized and an attack. Suggesting to someone that there might have been a better way to handle something or to respond to someone isn’t abusive, nor is it abusive to suggest that someone cool down because they’re over-reacting to a situation which isn’t, by its nature, emotionally-charged. Many rejection-sensitive people are quick to label any kind of criticism, no matter how mild, as abusive.

Complimenting or admiring other people is not abusive

Pointing out qualities in other people—from their looks or charm to their success or ability to do something well—and to talk about them as appealing may be annoying to a partner but it’s not abusive. It’s perfectly fine to admire other people even if you’re in a committed relationship or a friendship, as long as you’re not doing it to needle or underscore your partner’s supposed failings. It’s normal to think that an actor or actress is hot, or to comment on your neighbor’s cool.  You are allowed to look and admire.

It’s not abusive to insist that someone hold up his or her part in a joint decision

Here’s where it gets really thorny. Let’s suppose you and the close other have finally hammered out an agreement; the person could be a lover or spouse or friend or neighbor. Let’s start with the friend or neighbor first. Your friend is going through a rough patch in her relationship or marriage, and you have totally been on his or her team, criticizing said significant other at every turn.  But he or she is working at figuring it out and asks you to cease and desist, and you don’t. He or she calls you out on it and you protest, saying you’re being muzzled and that’s abusive. It isn’t; you agreed to stop. Let’s go to the intimate relationship where you had a rough time making an important decision; it might be financial or involving a child or just planning for the future. Let’s say the two of you finally decided to deal with debt and go down to one car to save money. You didn’t want to do that but you agreed. Now, three months in, you’re really feeling hemmed in because you have no way of doing what you want and you’re angry. He or she is holding you to you to the decision you made and you feel that’s controlling and abusive. Is it?

If you decided and chose freely, it isn’t.

What makes emotional and verbal abuse different?

Intention and motivation distinguish abusive behaviors and both verbal and emotional abuse are about control and manipulation which makes them different from blunt talk that is unsettling or behavior that is flat-footed, awkward, and a function of someone reading in and over-reacting or losing it. Emotional and verbal abuse has a method and is highly consistent; it is meant to demean and marginalize. In intimate relationships, the abuser knows you well enough to recognize your vulnerabilities and “buttons;” he or she will go for them and push forward. In a less intimate setting, the abuser will use language that is personalized, demeaning, and makes use of his or her superiority, as well as well as physical signals.

For clarification, let’s bounce off the behaviors I designated as not necessarily being abusive and let’s look at their abusive counterparts.

Arguing is abusive when your partner demeans you, marginalizes you, silences you, stonewalls, and/or gets personal

Abuse includes calling you names, mocking you, telling you to shut up, refusing to answer you, or using the argument as an opportunity to name and list all of your flaws. The argument is motivated by putting you down and keeping you in place.

Threatening to end a relationship if you don’t do x or y is abusive

Capitalizing on what he or she knows about you and your fears is the modus operandi here. This kind of brinksmanship—especially if it happens often—is highly manipulative and meant to make you feel guilty and inadequate.

Ghosting is abusive in a long-term relationship

Ghosting or disappearing without a trace—being unreachable by phone or text or any other way—is not the same as breaking up with someone, especially if the relationship has been a serious one. This behavior is meant to punish you and make you feel powerless; it is abusive.

Making criticism a litany of your character failings or flaws is abusive

John Gottman calls this “kitchen sinking”—as in everything but the kitchen sink—and if every time he or she criticizes you, the person begins with the words “You always” or “You never,”  he or she has crossed over from constructive criticism to abuse. The person will usually mention every misstep and mistake you’ve ever made with the intention of making you feel utterly worthless. Expressing contempt either in words or with physical gestures (eye rolls or laughter, or closing his or her eyes to convey disdain and how unimportant you are) is also abusive. The person intends to demean, not enlighten, you.

Complimenting others to make your partner feel small, ugly, or less than is abusive (as is flirting or coming onto other people)

Drawing comparisons between how you look and act and how utterly fabulous someone else is is mean-spirited and nasty at best and, if a habit, downright abusive. There’s a big difference between commenting on how good Joe looks now that’s he working out and saying “Boy, if you took care of yourself the way Joe does, I’d be so much more turned on.” You can switch up that example by gender too. This is an area where many rejection-sensitive people, especially those who are deeply insecure, often get tripped up. How the thought is expressed and the intention behind the thought both matter.

Let’s go back to the example of Leah and Ray at the cocktail party and Ray’s praise of the hostess. That’s not abusive behavior but it would be if Ray used the comparison to belittle or disparage his wife or if he had flirted with the hostess. Instead, Leah’s response is overly reactive and more projection than anything. To be filed under annoying and perhaps insensitive but not abusive.

Mocking or refusing to honor a commitment made is abusive

All abusive behavior is about power and control and reneging on an agreement made and mocking the person for actually thinking you’d go through with it is abusive, as is calling into question the person’s recollection of the agreement or gaslighting. Saying something like “I only agreed to do this in order to shut you up because I am bored to death of your constant bitching” is abusive, as is denying that you ever agreed in the first place.

Why this matters: singling out emotional and verbal abuse

Again, identifying abusive behavior involves ferreting out intention and motive; it’s important to be able to distinguish behaviors that are awkward and perhaps require an apology from those that really intend to punish and control. Each of us also needs to take responsibility not just for the words that come out of our mouths but for our reactivity as well.

Of the three examples at the beginning, only the last is really emotionally abusive. In the divorce story, it’s the husband who’s playing games by wearing his wedding ring; in the party story, it’s the wife who’s projecting. Feel free to comment and share!



Photograph by Jills. Copyright free.

Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside, 1994.



What is Emotional Abuse Exactly? Taking a Hard Look at a Buzzword

Peg Streep

Peg Streep’s new book, DAUGHTER DETOX: RECOVERING FROM AN UNLOVING MOTHER AND RECLAIMING YOUR LIFE, can be purchased at Amazon. com. The author or co-author of twelve books, she also wrote MEAN MOTHERS: OVERCOMING THE LEGACY OF HURT (William Morrow). She lives in New York City. You can visit her on Facebook or at All posts are copyrighted by Peg Streep. You are more than welcome to share the link but do not copy and paste the text and post elsewhere.

4 comments: View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
, . (2018). What is Emotional Abuse Exactly? Taking a Hard Look at a Buzzword. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 8, 2020, from


Last updated: 18 Sep 2018
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.