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  • Natasha J. Thomas, MD

Understanding Emotional Abuse in Intimate Relationships

Updated: May 12, 2021

I start most of my therapy sessions the same way - I ask how a person is doing. I ask twice. I ask in the waiting room, just as a greeting. And I ask again in the therapy room, knowing the real answer may be much more than a smile and a polite response. But there are times when the small-talk waiting room greeting isn't necessary. A person's eyes say a lot.

Lately, I've noticed more and more women with hollow eyes in the waiting room. When we finally get into my office, they sit in a chair or the couch and hang their heads.

"Dr. Thomas, I just can't take this any more."

I ask what they mean. Often they can't answer. I ask what's happened. They slowly start to share story after story of how they feel their spouse is humiliating them, controlling them, and actively seeking to destroy their spirits - with insults, looks, condescension and ploys to undermine their independence and power.

Current statistics estimate that nearly half of ALL men and women in the United States will be victim to psychological aggression by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime. These women I describe above are unfortunately living that reality now. Today's post is specifically dedicated to those ladies, and to any of my readers who find themselves in a similar position. Emotional abuse can lead to feelings of shame, guilt and bewilderment in the victim, especially because the abuser's behavior may seem so different from the early days of romance in the relationship.


What is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse (also called verbal abuse) can be insidious and confusing because there are no physical bruises or broken bones. However, for many, physical violence begins with emotional abuse. And either way, both are extremely psychologically damaging.

You are likely living in an emotionally abusive relationship if your spouse or partner has gradually or suddenly started to:

  • Attempt to threaten, scare or control you by demanding to know your whereabouts at all times, separating you from family or friends, or preventing you from getting medical care. They may also attempt to control your finances, what you eat, your passwords, etc.

  • Attempt to undermine or humiliate you by calling you names or hurling insults at you, especially in front of other people.

  • Threaten to harm you, your pets, your loved ones or themselves, if you leave them.

Emotional abuse can cause you to lose your confidence, begin to question yourself and decisions, and can make you feel worthless, weak, and unwanted.


"Leaving an abusive relationship is process,

not an event."


This blog post is not meant to be an exhaustive explanation of all the features and dynamics of abusive relationships, but it is focused on directing you to local and national resources. If you are in an abusive relationship of any kind, and are planning to leave, please know it is not something to do without extensive planning, including safety strategy.


Below is a list of resources. They are all websites. Please avoid using a home or shared device to review these resources. If you cannot safely review these resources, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. Though it may help to clear your search history, computer searches can never truly be erased.


*Click on the pink links to access the sites listed.*

Facts, Figures, Strategy and Support

  • Office on Women's Health - for emotional and verbal abuse description and resources

  • National Domestic Violence Hotline - for multifaceted resources and blogs on domestic violence and safety planning.

  • The National Dating Abuse Helpline - aims to "engage, educate and empower young people to prevent and end abusive relationships."

  • The National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life -

Financial Freedom Resources for Domestic Violence Survivors


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