Though psychological abuse is often invisible, it can be just as damaging as physical abuse. Spousal abuse of any type can occur between married, unmarried and same-sex partners and is prevalent across all races and socioeconomic divisions. Women are abused more frequently than men; the American Psychological Association reported in 1996 that 4 million women per year suffer some form of spousal abuse. However, male victims are not uncommon and are likely underreported.
Psychological abuse, often called mental abuse, has several forms. Verbal abuse consists of yelling, criticism, threats, the frequent use of obscenities, name-calling, belittling and humiliating a partner. Financial abuse is characterized by the strict control of household finances and withholding of money. Stalking is a type of psychological abuse that leaves the victim in a near-constant state of fear and anxiety. Mental torment may include the above types of abuse as well as isolation, intimidation and other controlling behaviors.
Verbal abuse is a tactic employed by many abusers. By threatening and belittling his partner, a verbal abuser maintains control through fear and humiliation. The victim believes her partner will follow through on his threats if she attempts to leave, so she reasons that it is safer to stay in the relationship. Often, abuse victims come to believe the negative things abusers say to and about them. The victim may become convinced that no one else would want her or that she could not survive outside of the relationship, so she finds it difficult to leave. Verbal abuse, like other forms of psychological abuse, is a type of brainwashing.
Abuse, Power and Control
Psychological abuse is about power and control. The abuser uses intimidation, humiliation and isolation in order to dominate the victim. The ultimate goal is often to have her victim completely financially and emotionally dependent upon her, and to make him feel as though there is no way out of the relationship. She isolates him from friends and family so that he has no support network. She may threaten to harm him, his children or his pets if he leaves. She may stalk and harass him at work or prevent him from having a job in order to further isolate him and increase his dependence.
Risks for Psychological Abuse
Though anyone can become a victim of spousal abuse, studies indicate there are several factors that increase the risk of psychological abuse. The NCADV reports that employed women with unemployed partners, women who are the primary financial earners in the relationship and women with physical disabilities are at a higher risk for psychological abuse. Professor’s House cites a study reporting that nearly a third of abuse victims experienced the first abusive episode while pregnant.
Escalation of Abuse
Psychological abuse is often an early stage in an abuse cycle leading to physical abuse. The National Coalition against Domestic Violence reports that 95 percent of physical abusers also psychologically abuse their victims. Psychological abuse can also lead to mental and emotional problems, including drug or alcohol dependency, depression and suicide.