Psychological abuse

Non-physical abuse is serious and can have long-lasting effects. Find out more about what it is and how to spot the signs.

Psychological abuse is the regular and deliberate use of words and non-physical actions to manipulate, hurt, weaken or frighten a person and to distort, confuse or influence their thoughts and actions. It is also referred to as emotional abuse.

Victims of psychological abuse may also experience physical violence, though they don’t always. But it can be just as harmful.

Signs of psychological abuse

It can be hard to spot the signs of psychological abuse. People who perpetrate psychological abuse may behave differently in public and private. And victims may not understand that what they’re experiencing is abuse.

Psychological abuse includes things like:

  • gaslighting, or making someone question their own thinking or understanding of reality
  • shifting the blame to the victim, for example by presenting insults as a joke
  • criticism, humiliation or put-downs
  • silent treatment
  • controlling who someone can speak to, meet or spend time with
  • suggesting the victim is mentally unstable.

Facts and figures

  • Facts and figures

    of survivors experienced

    some form of psychological violence in their relationship

  • Facts and figures

    of practitioners agreed

    that psychological violence can be as, or more, harmful than physical violence

  • Facts and figures

    of survivors said

    the perpetrator used the children to threaten and control them

How it happens

The abuse involves a pattern of manipulation and grooming designed to lure someone into, or back to, a relationship. It often starts with love bombing – overwhelming someone with constant communication, compliments and loving actions and behaviour. It’s then usually followed by dosing, or small or temporary revivals (or doses) of attention and affection. This slowly desensitises a victim’s natural reaction to abusive behaviour.

Psychological abuse can happen in person or online. People perpetrating abuse will often use technology to threaten and control their victim, or to harass and stalk them.

Perpetrators will also take advantage of any vulnerabilities a survivor may have. For example, they may threaten to have someone with mental ill-health sectioned. They may also use children to threaten or control their victim.

Manipulative tactics

Perpetrators can use a wide range of psychological tactics to maintain control.


Brainwashing: A process of manipulating and modifying a person’s emotions, attitudes and beliefs.

Cognitive Dissonance: Stress, anxiety or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.

Dosing: Small and temporary revivals of the idealise phase where the abuser gives his/her victim “doses” of attention, affection (love bombing) and hope to keep them in, or suck them back into, the relationship.

Gaslighting: A form of abuse in which information is twisted or spun, selectively omitted to favour the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity.

Grooming: A calculated and predatory act of manipulating another individual into subtly and slowly taking on a set of behaviours and actions that makes the victim more isolated, dependent, likely to trust, and more vulnerable to abusive behaviour.

Hoovering: A manipulative technique named after the Hoover vacuum, and used by abusers to “suck” their victims back into the relationship. Hoovering consists of any attempt to communicate with the victim. It is often done in the form of text messages, phone calls, emails, through mutual friends, family or “accidentally” bumping into the victim. Multiple forms of manipulative messages can be used, from just saying hello, to I love you, or more aggressive or provoking messages such as suicide threats, outright lies.

Love Bombing: Phase one of the cycle of abuse. This stage often involves constant communication and compliments and is designed to lure the victim into (or back into) the relationship.

Normalising: A tactic used to desensitise an individual to abusive, coercive or inappropriate behaviours. Once the behaviour is seen as normal, then the victim is more prone to taking part in it.

Silent Treatment: A manipulative and emotionally/psychologically abuse technique where one partner cuts off verbal communication with another for more than a reasonable amount of time where one would need to “cool off”. An abuser will often give the silent treatment as a result of a fight with the victim. The silent treatment can range from days to weeks (or longer), and is used to communicate the abuser’s displeasure, disapproval and contempt toward the victim. During this time the victim becomes so uneasy that they are walking on eggshells, and will do just about anything, including forgiving the abuser of whatever event triggered the silent treatment to start.

Stonewalling: Is a general refusal to communicate or cooperate and is sometimes accompanied by the “silent treatment”. The act of stonewalling is emotionally exhausting for the victim, as they are the ones left to do all the work (emotionally or physically).

Triangulation: Creating some form of drama or chaos, with the abuser in the middle, generally involving two rivals, and manipulating them into a conflict with each other. This either done for the entertainment of the abuser or to deflect blame/accountability from themselves.

Word Salad: Is recognisable through circular conversations and repetition, lack of logic, sweeping generalisations, use of words that are disjointed or unrelated to context, and contradictions. Essentially, it consists of a lack of semantic fluidity. The rationale with this strategy is to demonstrate that there is no solution the abuser can be a part of because, the victim is the problem. Repetition eventually wears the victim out and they give up in exhaustion.

Psychological violence report

Learn more about the experiences of people living with psychological abuse and the tactics used to threaten and control by those perpetrating the abuse.

Read the report

The impact and effect of psychological abuse

Psychological abuse can result in serious, and long-lasting, harm. It can impact on someone’s ability to parent, work, socialise and generally function day-to-day.

Survivors may feel:

  • confused, anxious or under pressure
  • low self-esteem or self-worth
  • exhausted, worn down, a lack of motivation
  • emotionally withdrawn or shut down
  • lonely or isolated.

Ongoing effects include issues with confidence, trust, relationships finances and employment problems.

Victims may also experience anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or they may think about or attempt suicide or self-harm.

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