Emotional Abuse Defined

What defines abuse?  How do we know when behavior has moved from the merely selfish to out of bounds?  Abuse is any behavior that is designed to control and subjugate another human being through the use of fear, humiliation, intimidation, guilt, coercion, manipulation etc.   It can be legally defined by the following: The infliction of injury, unreasonable confinement, intimidation or punishment with resulting physical harm, pain or mental anguish and/or the willful deprivation by a caretaker of goods or services, which are necessary to maintain physical or mental health.  http://www.co.berks.pa.us/familycourt/cwp/view.asp?a=1884&q=474050

There are different types of abuse.  In this post, I’m going to discuss psychological abuse.  The other types will follow in subsequent posts.

Psychological Abuse (also known as mental abuse or emotional abuse) occurs when one person controls information available to another person so as to manipulate that person’s sense of reality; what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Within churches, this becomes an even greater power n that certain teachings can take on the power of coming from God Himself and so truly distort reality.  Psychological abuse often contains strong emotionally manipulative content designed to force the victim to comply with the abuser’s wishes.   Like verbal abuse, psychological abuse is often not recognized as abuse early on and can result in serious psychological after effects later on.

Emotional abuse is like brain washing in that it systematically wears away at the victim’s self-confidence, sense of self-worth, trust in their own perceptions, and self-concept. Whether it is done by constant berating and belittling, by intimidation, or under the guise of “guidance,” “teaching”, or “advice,” the results are similar. Eventually, the recipient of the abuse loses all sense of self and remnants of personal value. Teaching women that they are of lesser value than men, are not capable of any real contributions in this life, that they are responsible to their husbands and that their husbands are only responsible to God, that they are not to make any decisions at all or, even more subtle, you can pretend to share in the decision process but your husband has the final say which means women are not really able to make the decisions, all lead to a wearing away of the core of identity for women.  Emotional abuse cuts to the very core of a person, creating scars that may be far deeper and more lasting that physical ones.   

The following is an excerpt from a site which lists particular ways in which emotional abuse is seen:

Abusive Expectations

  • The other person places unreasonable demands on you and wants you to put everything else aside to tend to their needs.
  • It could be a demand for constant attention, or a requirement that you spend all your free time with the person.
  • But no matter how much you give, it’s never enough.
  • You are subjected to constant criticism, and you are constantly berated because you don’t fulfill all this person’s needs.


  • Aggressive forms of abuse include name-calling, accusing, blaming, threatening, and ordering. Aggressing behaviors are generally direct and obvious. The one-up position the abuser assumes by attempting to judge or invalidate the recipient undermines the equality and autonomy that are essential to healthy adult relationships. This parent-child pattern of communication (which is common to all forms of verbal abuse) is most obvious when the abuser takes an aggressive stance.
  • Aggressive abuse can also take a more indirect form and may even be disguised and “helping.” Criticizing, advising, offering solutions, analyzing, proving, and questioning another person may be a sincere attempt to help. In some instances however, these behaviors may be an attempt to belittle, control, or demean rather than help. The underlying judgmental “I know best” tone the abuser takes in these situations is inappropriate and creates unequal footing in peer relationships.

Constant Chaos

  • The other person may deliberately start arguments and be in constant conflict with others.
  • The person may be “addicted to drama” since it creates excitement.


  • Denying a person’s emotional needs, especially when they feel that need the most, and done with the intent of hurting, punishing or humiliating
  • The other person may deny that certain events occurred or that certain things were said. confronts the abuser about an incident of name calling, the abuser may insist, “I never said that,” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” etc. You know differently.
  • The other person may deny your perceptions, memory and very sanity.
  • Withholding is another form of denying. Withholding includes refusing to listen, refusing to communicate, and emotionally withdrawing as punishment. This is sometimes called the “silent treatment.”
  • When the abuser disallows and overrules any viewpoints, perceptions or feelings which differ from their own.
  • Denying can be particularly damaging. In addition to lowering self-esteem and creating conflict, the invalidation of reality, feelings, and experiences can eventually lead you to question and mistrust your own perceptions and emotional experience.
  • Denying and other forms of emotional abuse can cause you to lose confidence in your most valuable survival tool: your own mind.


  • Someone wants to control your every action. They have to have their own way, and will resort to threats to get it.
  • When you allow someone else to dominate you, you can lose respect for yourself.

Emotional Blackmail

  • The other person plays on your fear, guilt, compassion, values, or other “hot buttons” to get what they want.
  • This could include threats to end the relationship, totally reject or abandon you, giving you the the “cold shoulder,” or using other fear tactics to control you.


  • The abuser seeks to distort or undermine the recipient’s perceptions of their world. Invalidating occurs when the abuser refuses or fails to acknowledge reality. For example, if the recipient tells the person they felt hurt by something the abuser did or said, the abuser might say “You are too sensitive. That shouldn’t hurt you.”


  • Minimizing is a less extreme form of denial. When minimizing, the abuser may not deny that a particular event occurred, but they question the recipient’s emotional experience or reaction to an event. Statements such as “You’re too sensitive,” “You’re exaggerating,” or “You’re blowing this out of proportion” all suggest that the recipient’s emotions and perceptions are faulty and not be trusted.
  • Trivializing, which occurs when the abuser suggests that what you have done or communicated is inconsequential or unimportant, is a more subtle form of minimizing.

Unpredictable Responses

  • Drastic mood changes or sudden emotional outbursts. Whenever someone in your life reacts very differently at different times to the same behavior from you, tells you one thing one day and the opposite the next, or likes something you do one day and hates it the next, you are being abused with unpredictable responses.
  • This behavior is damaging because it puts you always on edge. You’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and you can never know what’s expected of you. You must remain hypervigilant, waiting for the other person’s next outburst or change of mood.
  • An alcoholic or drug abuser is likely to act this way. Living with someone like this is tremendously demanding and anxiety provoking, causing the abused person to feel constantly frightened, unsettled and off balance.

Verbal Assaults

·         Berating, belittling, criticizing, name calling, screaming, threatening

·         Excessive blaming, and using sarcasm and humiliation.

·         Blowing your flaws out of proportion and making fun of you in front of others. Over time, this type of abuse erodes your sense of self confidence and self-worth.


Now, the question is, how do you think this relates to the Bible and God’s plan for us?  How does this relate to men and women within the Body of Christ?  What are your thoughts?


http://www.duluth-model.org/documents/PhyVio.pdf; http://www.azleg.state.az.us/ars/13/03623.htm;  http://www.azleg.state.az.us/ars/13/03623.htm; http://www.helpguide.org/mental/domestic_violence_abuse_types_signs_causes_effects.htm; http://www.police.nashville.org/bureaus/investigative/domestic/symptoms.htm; http://www.thewomenscenter.org/content.asp?contentid=220; http://www.womenshealth.gov/violence/types/emotional.cfm


9 thoughts on “Emotional Abuse Defined

  1. Hannah says:

    James 3 speaks of the power of words. If God feels its damaging we need to pay attention to that!

    To many times I see how people mininize things. This is a HUGE area of improvement needed for everyone – faith and secular. Once we start to tackle it we may see a huge difference in the divorce rates everyone screams about! It won’t be easy, but it can be done with God’s help!

  2. We need to be reminded that all abusers should go straight to jail


  3. Katy says:

    I am so hurt by the abuse I have sufferered in the body of christ and have left the institutional church, but still believe in god, I never know where I am with christians they blow hot and cold, many times do not keep their word, frustrate you and keep you waiting, instead of building you up, walk all over you, disregard you and try and get the upper hand, I have been severely damaged and have lost confidence to go out into the world to reach others for Christ and make new friends! How can you build up trust?

  4. Sandy says:

    Hi Katy,

    I understand where you are coming from. I have been there myself and know it’s a difficult place to be. I would recommend you surround yourself with supportive people as much as you can and remember that God’s people do not always reflect His character. A good supportive website for spiritual abuse is Cindy Kunsman’s site: undermuchgrace.blogspot.com. Another fairly new one is no longer quivering. Those would be great places to start. These websites are by and for women who have been spiritually abused. They can give you support and encouragement as you work through this. A good Christian counselor might also help. You can find one in your area by checking the AACC website.

    Again, remember that humans will always fail you but Christ never does. It’s sometimes hard to hold on to that but it is a truth. I’ll be praying for you.


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