Emotional abuse: damage, despair and self-doubt

The most important thing a victim of emotional abuse can do is talk about the problem, in order to make sense of it. Their self-esteem isn’t actually gone; they’ve just lost contact with it

If you feel you can’t be yourself in a relationship, it may be a sign of something more serious than just being with the wrong person.

It might be emotional abuse, also referred to as psychological abuse, which erodes a victim’s confidence and builds up a power imbalance in a relationship.

It wears a person down over time. Eventually, it can cause anxiety, panic attacks, depression, substance abuse, insomnia, asthma or an inability to trust people. Despite the possible symptoms, many people don’t realise they are in an abusive relationship.

“It goes under the radar because it’s not physical,” says Bernadette Ryan, a psychotherapist with Relationships Ireland. “But the scars can run really deep and be hugely damaging. Maybe they’re not in danger of physical harm, but they live in torture.”


When a client comes into counselling, Ryan has to be a detective because victims rarely understand what is happening to them.

“The victims can feel so confused. We all think our lives are what passes for normal, particularly with relationships and families,” she says. “On the outside, a couple can look successful, with great careers, but the victim is going home to hell.”

Eventually, the victim loses all sense of who they are. “Their abuser’s voice takes over, and they can’t speak with their own voice anymore,” says Ryan.

It can happen to anyone

Two in five women have experienced some form of psychological violence by a current or previous partner, according to a recent report by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. The findings were based on interviews with 42,000 women across 28 member states.

In this case, “psychological violence” includes controlling behaviour (for example, trying to keep a victim from seeing friends or visiting family), economic violence (such as forbidding a victim to work outside the home) and blackmail.

Of the 17,000-plus calls answered by domestic violence support service Women’s Aid in 2013, two-thirds related to emotional abuse. Although the majority of victims are women, emotional abuse can happen to anyone.

Margaret Martin, director of Women’s Aid, says: “Domestic violence, in any of its forms, cuts across any category you use to divide people up: age, culture, educational background, social class.

“Emotional abuse can make shadows of the most intelligent women,” she says. “Women in very senior positions at work will feel like frauds because they’ll come home and be treated so poorly.”

According to Don Hennessy of the Cork Marriage Counselling Centre and author of the book How He Gets into Her Head, the one thing all victims have in common is kindness. "They have to be the type of person willing to put another person's needs before their own."

The first thing Hennessy asks someone seeking support at the counselling centre is: are you being blamed for things in your relationship? “And the usual response is, ‘Yes, I’m blamed for everything.’ ”

He says abusers groom their partners to meet their needs from the start of a relationship. They usually have a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy and the ability to manipulate.

Something else abusers tend to be, according to Ryan, is charming. “Friends and family will say, ‘Wow, what an amazing partner.’ When everyone’s telling you he’s fantastic, you think he must be.”

How it starts

Ryan says the relationship usually begins on a high note. “It will start with charm, gifts, putting the person on a pedestal, wanting to know all about them.” But things slowly change.

According to Martin, one of the key facets of emotional abuse is isolation from friends and family. The abuser might also criticise what the victim is especially proud of, such as her parenting. “That, combined with isolation from people who treat you with respect, will erode confidence. Then it becomes part of your normal.”

One of the hallmark signs of a relationship like this is the feeling of walking on eggshells around the abuser.

“Most victims will be forced to take responsibility for the emotional temperature of the relationship. If anything is slightly askew, she will take responsibility and he will blame her. The abuser makes his own behaviour her fault,” Hennessy says.

All of this is to gain control of a victim’s instincts and intuition.

Getting help

Victims often stay in broken relationships because they think they can make it better and hope the abusive behaviour will change.

The most important thing a victim can do initially, according to Martin, is talk to people. “What gets them through it is the support of friends and family. When they begin to talk about it, they start making sense of it.”

And once a woman is safe, “she is more than capable of recovering and living her own life”, says Hennessy. “Their self-esteem isn’t actually gone; they’ve just lost contact with it.”

Women’s Aid national freephone helpline: 1-800-341900. helpline@womensaid.ie Amen confidential helpline for male victims of domestic abuse: 046-9023718.