Updated: Oct 16, 2021
By: Logan Cohen, Professional Therapist & Life Coach
Physical violence is painful, but it is also obvious. There is frequently a mark leftover on the skin—whether as a scratch, bruise, or cut—to remind a victim of the domestic violence.
Not all forms of domestic violence include physical abuse and in these cases, it is not as easy to identify or categorize as some other forms of domestic violence—such as those involving physical abuse or sexual assault. For a complete review of the physical aspects of domestic violence, click on this link
Psychological abuse is much less visible—also known as "covert“—which makes it harder to identify, even for a victim.
The very nature of psychological abuse involves the use of "power and control tactics" that are designed to leave the victim ashamed, scared, and even confused about the source of the problem, as well as their own personal wants and needs.
These power and control tactics can be used in combination with physical violence—or even on their own as a stand-alone strategy to control the behavior of others.
Here is a short video to show how psychological abuse commonly occurs as a part of the domestic violence cycle:
These tactics of psychological abuse will be the focus of this article in order to shed light on these abusive strategies that can be more difficult to see and define.
It should also be recognized that without intervention, domestic abuse—even if only involving psychological abuse at first—is a chronic behavioral health issue that can be expected to continue increasing in intensity over time.
This means that even if there is no physical violence yet, this can be expected to develop over time unless there is some type of intervention.
You can read more about this 8 Stage Model of Domestic Abuse here
It is common for a victim of psychological abuse to "go back and forth" in their head with a sense of confusion about what they are experiencing because the entire goal of psychological abuse is to make a victim doubt themselves—to disorient a victim with emotional and psychological instability.
Psychological abuse is difficult because the scars and injuries left on the victim are not visible, however they still involve emotional pain that damages the brain and central nervous system in ways that impacts a victim's entire well-being.
Meanwhile there is nothing that a victim can specifically point to and say, “Yes, now this is abuse!"
Instead for a victim of psychological abuse, there are tend to just be a lot of questions:
“Am I going crazy? Am I imagining this? Why is the Abuser so cruel sometimes and then loving at other times?"
If you are wondering this for yourself and have any doubts that you should keep reading to learn more about your unique experiences, then review these 4 Common Signs of Psychological Abuse below:
4 Common Signs of Psychological Abuse
1) Psychological abuse usually takes place in secret--behind closed doors. Usually only the partner of the abuser witnesses it.
2) Psychological abuse often takes many different forms--including several different types of manipulation that can make it hard to identify and measure specifically.
3) Since domestic abuse is a chronic behavioral health issue, psychological abuse (and other forms of domestic violence) tend to become more intense over time. This happens as the abuser and victim become adapted to the distorted reality the abusive partner is creating.
4) Abusers consistently deny that their behavior is abusive. It is common that a domestic abuser shifts blame for the abusive behavior to the victim (more about how to identify this soon) and claim that victim is the one abusing them!
If any of these signs of abuse are present in your relationship, then it's time to take a closer look at what is happening.
The power and control wheel is a particularly helpful tool in understanding the overall pattern of abusive and violent behaviors.
These tactics of psychological abuse are used by an abuser to create and maintain a control over his/her partner or any other victim in the household—whether in conjunction with physical violence as a part of the domestic abuse—or not.
While these tactics of psychological abuse are less easily identified, they are still effective in their own right when used by an abuser to establish a pattern of unfair control over their victim in the relationship.
(Source: Developed by Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, Duluth, MN, https://www.theduluthmodel.org/)
These tactics of psychological abuse have been outlined below for review.
As you read through each section, make a note of your personal experiences so you can begin to understand the full scope of the current situation.
Emotional abuse describes behavior that is focused on undermining a person's sense of self-worth. This can involve constant criticism (also called “badgering“) or belittling a victims abilities to create self doubt—even name-calling or other verbal abuse. You may be experiencing emotional abuse in your relationship if your partner:
Calls you names (outside of your given name) or constantly criticizes you
Tries to make you feel bad about yourself
Humiliates you in any way.
Plays "mind games" to create confusion and make you feel like "the crazy one"
Making unreasonable demands or expecting perfection
Making comments like, "Nobody else would ever put up with you because [insert personal traits here] make you unlovable."
Manipulation is commonly used in combination with the tactics of emotional abuse noted above. These strategies of psychological abuse involve the abuser distorting reality to create confusion and resulting disorientation on the part of the victim.
From this disoriented and disempowered position, an abuser can more easily manipulate the thoughts, feelings, and agenda of their victim. You might be experiencing emotional abuse in a relationship if your partner:
Denies or minimizes existence, severity, or impact of the abuse
Blames or shifts the responsibility for the abuse onto you
Lying or with-holding information to gain a strategic advantage
Pretending to be a victim for sympathy
Uses intoxication to excuse or minimize the impact of their abusive behavior
Is charming or gives gifts right after abuse--also known as "love bombing"
Uses religious beliefs to justify abusive behavior
Intimidation involves the abuser creating fear in the victim to ensure that the victim does not feel free to question the authority of the abuser. You might be experiencing intimidation in a relationship if your partner:
Makes you afraid by using looks, actions, or gestures to imply danger
Smashing things, destroying property, and slamming doors
Yelling at you or interrogating you
Drives recklessly with you or loved ones in the vehicle
Threatening is when an abuser states their clear plans to harm a victim and/or their loves ones if the victim does not comply with the controlling demands of an abuser. This type of psychological abuse is also fear-based like intimidation. You might be experiencing threats in a relationship if your partner:
Makes threats to harm or kill themselves of you--examples being
"I'll kill you if you ever leave me."
"I'll take the children and you will never see them again."
Financial or economic abuse involves making a person financially dependent by maintaining control over financial resources, withholding access to money, and/or blocking a partner from working or studying outside of the home. You might be experiencing financial abuse in a relationship if your partner:
Conceals information about finances
Uses family assets without their partners knowledge or permission
Preventing partner from getting, keeping, or leaving a job
Damaging credit ratings
Making a partner ask for money or giving an allowance
Destroying checkbooks, money, credit cards, or property