What is Psychological Abuse?

Often when we talk about abuse occurring within relationships, we describe physical violence inflicted on a partner. However, gender-based violence takes many forms, some of which can be harder to recognize. Psychological abuse can cause long-lasting trauma that is just as severe as the trauma associated with physical abuse. Psychological abuse, however, can be harder to name, both as someone experiencing the abuse or as someone witnessing it.

According to a Public Health Agency of Canada report on psychological abuse, psychological abuse can be defined as “the systemic destruction of a person’s self-esteem and/or sense of safety, often occurring in relationships where there are differences in power and control”. Psychological abuse also goes by other names, including emotional abuse, verbal abuse, mental cruelty, intimate terrorism and psychological aggression.

According to researchers, the behaviours of psychological abuse can be broken down into two main categories: neglectful and deliberate tactics. Neglectful tactics involve the withholding of normal human interaction or refusing to validate the victim’s feelings, whereas deliberate tactics represent more aggressive attempts to control a victim. Here are some examples of neglectful and deliberate tactics:

Neglectful tactics:

  • Denying emotional responsiveness
  • Discounting or invalidating a person’s emotions
  • Denying that abuse has taken place
  • Minimizing or trivializing a person’s reaction
  • Refusing to acknowledge a person’s value or worth

Deliberate tactics:

  • Accusing, blaming, or jealous control
  • Criticizing behaviour and ridiculing traits
  • Degrading, insulting, swearing at or yelling at a person
  • Repeatedly contacting, following, or watching a person
  • Inducing terror or extreme fear in a person through coercion or intimidation
  • Isolating a person, restricting their contact with others, depriving them access to transportation, etc.

Psychological abuse can occur in all types of relationships, and is experienced more frequently by older adults, Indigenous populations, disabled people, and people facing cultural or language barriers. Although psychological abuse represents a wide spectrum of behaviours, it can have a severe emotional impact on survivors, and efforts to end gender-based violence must acknowledge and include the experience of psychological abuse. 

For more information and resources about psychological abuse, read the Public Health Agency of Canada’s 2012 discussion paper on the topic.

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