Help for emotional abuse

Your significant other has never hit or shouted at you, so why do they make you feel so bad all the time?

It may be emotional abuse.

From black-and-blue bruises to cuts and grazes, physical abuse leaves behind easy-to-spot traces. But the effects of emotional abuse can be harder to identify, and knowing when its happening to you is often trickier.

Like physical abuse, emotional abuse refers to an attempt to control another person. Although there isn’t any physical harm, emotions are the abuser’s weapon of choice.

There’s a misconception that emotional abuse only involves your partner shouting or swearing at you, but this isn’t true. Emotional abuse can also refer to a situation in which your partner’s behaviour makes you feel insignificant, like when you’re unable to express yourself or when you must change your behaviour to prevent an emotional outburst or backlash.

Types of emotional abuse

Emotional abuse can take different forms:


This includes any unpleasant comments like name-calling or behaviours that lower your self-confidence and self-esteem.


From giving you the silent treatment to sulking all the time, guilt-tripping involves any behaviour that aims to manipulate you. This form of emotional abuse can escalate to behaviours like emotional outbursts and, sometimes, threats of suicide.

Economic abuse

This includes not involving you in the household finances, preventing you from working, withholding money, or constantly reminding you that you don’t contribute enough financially. The aim of this form of abuse is usually to strip away your independence or freedom of choice.


This might include behaviours like shouting, swearing or any other behaviour that makes you feel afraid.


If you’ve ever felt like your opinion doesn’t count around your partner, then they may be undermining you. This can also involve them making you doubt your every move or thought.


Have you avoided seeing your friends for months because your partner doesn’t want you to see them? Or do you need permission to do everyday things, like wearing certain clothes? Emotional abuse and control go together. So, if your significant other is keeping you on a leash, they’re trying to control you for their benefit.

Signs of emotional abuse

Over time, emotional abuse takes its toll on you. The abusive behaviour might make you experience:

  • Anxiety or fear.
  • Shame or guilt.
  • Confusion
  • Aggression (in defence of the abuse).
  • Self-doubt (you might question your memory).
  • Crying
  • Avoidance of eye contact.
  • Feeling powerless.
  • Feeling like you’re walking on eggshells.
  • Feeling helpless.
  • Feeling unattractive.
  • Feeling controlled.
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What now?

If you suspect that you’re being emotionally abused, it’s time to act.

  • Don’t blame yourself. Emotional abuse knocks down your self-esteem. It’s easy to blame yourself for what you’re going through. Understand that you aren’t the problem. Also, understand that you can’t “fix” your partner. You can’t control their actions, but you can control your response.
  • Get support. Being silent simply gives the abuser more power. Speak up and get help. Talk to a close friend, family member, or counsellor. Take time away from the person and spend time with those who support and love you. This will make you feel less alone and give you an objective perspective from those who aren’t directly involved. Try to see it from the outside looking in. You may not be able to identify your partner’s abusive behaviour because you’ve become so used to it.
  • Establish boundaries. Once you have your support system and feel stronger, it’s time to face the abuser. Draw lines in the sand by telling them that they can’t insult, yell or be rude to you any longer. Tell them what the consequences of their actions will be. And then, act. If they insult you, walk out of the room. It’s important to stick to your boundaries. If you don’t, they won’t take you seriously.
  • Plan your exit. If your partner isn’t prepared to make a change, it’s time to leave. Being emotionally abused will affect your mental and physical health in the long run. Discuss your thoughts and ideas for an exit plan with someone you trust and stick to your decision. In the meantime, don’t communicate with the abuser or engage at all. It will only set you up for more heartache.

Help at hand

Emotional abuse can come from anyone close to you, not just a partner. In South Africa, there are organisations that can help you work through emotional abuse. FAMSA (the Family and Marriage Association of SA) is an organisation that provides counselling and education to help improve relationships and families. There are offices around the country.

Phone number:
011 975 7106/7