Emotional Abuse of Women by Male Partners: The Facts

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In heterosexual relationships, most abuse happens to women by their male partners. Emotional abuse, like physical abuse, is used to control, demean, harm or punish a woman. While the forms of abuse may vary, the end result is the same - a woman is fearful of her partner and changes her behaviour to please him or be safe from harm.

Many people think that emotional abuse is not as serious or harmful as physical abuse. Women state that this is not true, and that the biggest problem they often face is getting others to take emotional abuse seriously.

Some tactics of emotional abuse by an abuser are to:

  • Isolate a woman from her friends, family, cultural or faith community, care providers, and prevent her from having independent activities such as work, English as a Second Language classes or other education;
  • Act overly jealous or possessive; accuse a woman of having affairs if she talks to another man; coerce her into sexual activity to prove her love;
  • Criticize a woman constantly - her actions, size and appearance, and abilities;
  • Use a woman's disability or deafness to demean or control her;
  • Threaten, intimidate, harass, or punish a woman if she does not comply with her abusive partner's demands;
  • Use the children to control a woman, for example undermine her authority as a parent or threaten to take them if she should leave;
  • Make all of the decisions in the family, withhold information and refuse to consult her or about important matters such as where they live, or the family's finances;
  • Control the money - what is spent, how it is spent, not allow a woman access to financial resources, or conversely not contribute to any of the household expenses.

Commonly Asked Questions

How many women are emotionally abused?

More women experience emotional abuse than physical violence. 35% of all women who are or have been in married or common-law relationships have experienced emotional abuse [1].  In comparison, 29% of women have been physically assaulted by their male partners [2].
Is emotional abuse a safety risk to women?

The presence of emotional abuse is the largest risk factor and greatest predictor of physical violence, especially where a woman is called names to put her down or make her feel bad [3]. Emotionally abusive partners also commit murder or murder-suicide. Women are at most risk of  being killed when they leave their partners [4]. Women themselves can also be suicidal as a result of emotional abuse.

How can emotional abuse be as hurtful or harmful as physical abuse?

Most women indicate that emotional abuse effects them as much, if not more than, physical violence. They report that emotional abuse is responsible for long-term problems with health, self-esteem, depression, and anxiety [5]. In one study 72% of women reported that being ridiculed by their abusive partners had the greatest impact on them, followed by threats of abuse, jealousy, and restriction [or isolation]. It was also found that the impact increased with the frequency of the emotional abuse [6]. However, like women who are physically and sexually abused, emotionally abused women demonstrate incredible resilience and inner strength as they successfully balance the everyday demands of life such as children, school and work.

Aren't women just as emotionally abusive as men?

Emotional abuse, just like any other form of abuse, is about power.  Women may exhibit some of the behaviours labeled as abuse, but it is critical to assess whether her actions give her power and make her partner fearful of her. Research has shown that being female is the single largest risk factor for being a victim of abuse in heterosexual relationships [7], something that is clearly reflective of women's lower status in our society.

Why don't women just leave?  

Women generally do whatever they can to end the emotional abuse, whether directly or indirectly, such as trying to avoid, escape or resist their abuser in some way [8]. Unfortunately, women who are emotionally abused often find that their experiences are minimized or misunderstood by those they turn to for help. In addition, beyond short-term emergency shelters and services, there are few long-term options available to abused women. The lack of accessible affordable housing, inadequate income support, legal aid, and day care prevent a woman from having the resources to live free from abuse. As a result of these and other barriers, an emotionally abused woman usually leaves her partner an average of five times before ending her relationship [9].


1. Statistics Canada, Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile, 1998:15.

2. Ibid: 9

3. Ibid:17

4. American Psychological Association, Violence and the Family: Report of the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family, 1996:39.

5. Education Wife Assault [Springtide Resources], Emotional Abuse Focus Group, April 1999.

6. Follingstad, D., Rutledge, L., Berg, B., Hause, E., Polek, D., "The Role of Emotional Abuse in Physically Abusive Relationships," Journal of Family Medicine, Vol. 5[2], 1990:113.

7. American Psychological Association, Violence and the Family, Report of the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family, 1996:19.

8. Ibid: 36

9. Henderson, A.J.Z., Bartholomew, K. and Dutton, D.G., "He loves me: He loves me not: Attachment and separation resolution of abused women", Journal of Family Violence, 12[2], 1997:186.