Emotional abuse: the invisible bruise

“If it isn’t physical then it isn’t abuse.” Wrong. Abuse is defined as ‘any action that intentionally harms or injures another person’. Emotional abuse is an action, and although it may not leave a literal bruise or wound, the psychological damage is just as devastating.

Abusers have one sole aim: control. This is usually an unconscious aim, as they tend to be psychologically damaged people themselves, coming from unstable, abusive or neglected backgrounds. Controlling another person often helps them feel a sense of stability or power that they inherently lack.

People who have been subject to abuse in a relationship often feel it is their fault, that they are somehow responsible for the situation. This is because abusive relationships can be very distorting. The abuser is often very skilled at manipulation and eroding self-esteem.

Odd as it may seem, the abuser will claim and portray themselves as the victim. This is the classic scenario, whereby the abused partner becomes the ‘unstable one’ and the one who is to blame for events. The abuser may deny the abuse has even taken place and the abused partner can come to question their own reality, start behaving uncharacteristically and feel like they are ‘going mad’.

The abuser is usually also very charming, articulate and socially adept because they need to control a version of reality which relies on them being seen as the ‘innocent party’.


The abuser relies on mixed messages to control the situation i.e. doing one thing but saying the opposite. They may question the abused partner’s judgements and manipulate them by responding with lies. It is a type of brain-washing; a steady process of indoctrinating the person into believing they are the guilty party and their viewpoints are wrong or hurtful or at fault. It is further complicated by the abuser often believing they are a victim of their own lives and circumstances; in other words having ‘victim mentality’. This makes the abused partner feel even more responsible, that they are somehow contributing to the situation.

Projective identification is a psychological term, which can be linked to this very powerful mind game. In this process, the abuser energetically projects all the ‘dark’ and shameful parts of their unconscious onto the abused partner. The partner’s sense of self then becomes invaded, distorted and confused and they may begin to identify with the abuser’s projections. This is also a process known as ‘gas-lighting‘.

This can be accompanied by a host of other controlling behaviour on behalf of the abuser which can include isolating the abused partner from their friends and family, placing restrictions on what they do and how they act, suffocating ‘over-protection’ and ‘over-caring’ behaviour, ‘acting out’ with drink, drugs or self-harm, ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ mood swings and accusations, sexual aggression or threats of physical abuse. However, to the outside world the abuser is usually also very charming, articulate and socially adept because they need to control a version of reality which relies on them being seen as the ‘innocent party’. You can see how the abused partner can begin to question their reality.

There is a great deal of mythology around emotional abuse, which needs to be addressed. Emotional abusers can be men or women. Young or old. Straight or gay. Abuse is not defined by gender or sexuality; it is defined by control and invasion of boundaries.

The old adage ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me’ cannot be further from the truth. If you had a broken leg, you would go to A&E and be treated accordingly; you wouldn’t be expected to walk normally and carry on. Emotional abuse is that invisible broken leg and it requires the same urgency, attention, support and healing.

Useful links:
Speak Out Loud
Speak Out Project
Living With abuse