Jack is constantly criticizing his wife, Sally. One day he says she's too easy on their children. The next day she's not making enough money. Although Jack often promises to help with the housework, he rarely does. Recently, he told Sally that if she "can't get her act together," he will leave her.

Susan often tells her elderly father with diabetes that he is too much work to take care of and does not respond when he needs help. When he apologizes for being a burden, she just gives him a sarcastic smile.

Many days when Joe gets home from work, he yells at his teenage daughter, saying that she'll never get good enough grades to get into college or be thin enough to find a husband.

What do these three situations have in common? They all involve emotional abuse.

What Is Emotional Abuse?

It's not uncommon for people to hurt or try to control another person once in a while. Emotional abuse is usually a pattern of behavior over time, in which one person hurts another person emotionally and maintains power and control over that person. Or it can occur in a single traumatic event.

Emotional abuse involves doing and saying things that make the victim feel badly about herself or himself. Low self-esteem, worthlessness, fear, helplessness, and guilt are common results.

Anyone can be a victim of emotional abuse. It can occur as men hurting women, parents hurting children, women hurting men, children hurting parents, and between people of the same sex.

What Are the Signs of Emotional Abuse?

There are many signs of emotional abuse, ranging from the obvious to subtle. Ask yourself if someone in your life does any of the following things:

  • Yells at you or orders you around
  • Insults you, calls you names, blames, or criticizes you
  • Makes fun of you in private or public
  • Withholds affection or ignores you
  • Tries to control your activities and contact with other people
  • Threatens to abandon or hurt you or your children

More subtle ways someone can emotionally abuse you include:

  • Denies abusing you.
  • Makes hurtful remarks in a caring tone of voice
  • Judges you or denies your feelings
  • Twists your words and distorts their meaning
  • Breaks promises and then claims to have forgotten

What Are the Causes of Emotional Abuse?

One of the main reasons people abuse a loved one is because they have been hurt themselves, usually during childhood. Often, the ways they have learned to treat other people are abusive, although some abusers may not see their behavior as harmful. Stressful events may set off a bout of abusive behavior in some people. Some researchers think that certain people may have innate biological tendencies toward aggressive behavior.

Is There a Relationship Between Emotional and Physical Abuse?

"Emotional abuse may lead to physical abuse in some cases, but it always accompanies physical abuse," says Gregory L. Jantz, PhD, a psychologist and director of the Center for Counseling and Health Resources in Seattle, and author of the book Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse.

With physical abuse there are usually visible effects, such as wounds, bruises, and scars, but, says Dr. Jantz, "emotional abuse creates invisible bruises on the sense of self. Sometimes emotional abuse can be more devastating than physical abuse."

Because emotional abuse can be hard to see, it often goes unrecognized. When it is recognized, it is often ignored, denied, or considered acceptable behavior. As a result, it often continues within a relationship and from one generation to the next.

Getting Help

The first step in changing an abusive relationship is to recognize that abuse is occurring and seek help. You need to accept that the abusive behavior is not your fault and that you cannot change the abuser's behavior but you can do things to help yourself. The abuser must take responsibility for his or her actions.

"There is hope for change if both the victim and abuser are willing to commit to changing," Dr. Jantz says.

Abusers who don't see that their behavior is abusive are more likely to learn new ways of interacting and successfully change their behavior than are people who abuse intentionally, according to Dr. Jantz.

For intentional abusers, change can occur, but it is often a very hard and slow process, in which professional help is crucial.

Whether you are being abused or abusing someone else, you can get counseling and help in deciding whether or not to stay in the abusive situation. There are services specifically for victims and abusers. See the organizations listed below.