Emotional Abuse of Women by their Intimate Partners: A Literature Review

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Prepared by Valerie J. Packota


Emotional abuse is one of the most prevalent forms of abuse of women by their intimate partners and its damage is unquestionably severe, undermining a woman's sense of worth, agency, and independence.

It also diminishes a woman's ability to care and provide for her children and to participate in the work force. Emotional abuse crosses all social classes, ethnic groups, sexual orientations and religions. The common denominators of abusers are personal, social and psychological, not demographic. (Miller, 1995; Burstow, 1992)

Historical Acceptance Of Women's Marginalized Position

The marginal role of women and cultural practices that uphold this status are plentiful in history. Tennyson espoused "women as lesser men" and virtually all societies saw women as property. This can be seen today in bride price and dowry practices in some cultures. Arranged marriages still exist in many societies where the woman has a minimal say in her future. (Papp, 1992)

Marriage vows until recently stated that women must love, honour and obey (italics mine) their husbands while losing their own name in the contract. In European society and its colonial mutations in North America, not only did the woman lose her name, but her matrilineal descent couldn't be traced. This loss of identity was reflected in laws that did not prevent a man from raping his wife with impunity. Freud further marginalized the female psyche by presenting the idea of penis envy. Women's right to vote is a recent phenomenon historically. In medical research, the male body has been the norm. In Judeo-Christian theology, god is male and evil has been manifested in Eve. Christianity split womanhood down the middle in the form of the whore/Madonna.

In terms of employment, history discusses the male workplace. The story of women's work encompasses the nursery, kitchen and delivery room. In Canada, women make only two-thirds of the male income today. (Miller, 1995)

The Family And Socialization

The family as a site for women's oppression has been stated in the literature and encompasses two arenas: financial structure and the devaluing of domestic work and parenting. These include feminine nurturance, romantic love, self-sacrifice, maternalism, masculine protection and financial support. Gender polarity establishes dominance and control as central aspects of the masculine and as inappropriate in the feminine. An analysis of patriarchy as a condition of abuse explains why women appear to accept psychological abuse to some extent. (Chang, 1996)

Gallop (1985) identifies that the family is and always has been the "privileged locus of the exploitation of women" (79). Although marriage has a protective effect on men, it has been found to be "detrimental for women in terms of both mental and physical health". (Hare-Mustin 1991)

Biases in Literature

The major sources of data on woman abuse have not included world majority women including immigrant, native, lesbians and older women. Many surveys were done by telephone or

mail out documents, both of which excluded poor women without telephones or adequate levels of literacy. Native women on reservations were excluded due to geography or inaccessibility. This lack of attention created inconsistencies in research and research that generalizes abuse across cultures often does not mention those who are marginalized. (Chester et al, 1994)

In addition, much of the literature makes non-dominant groups homogeneous. Ethnic minorities or world majority peoples are lumped together including aboriginal peoples. In fact, like other ethnic minorities, American and Canadian are heterogeneous. Assumptions as to whether a culture is matrilineal/matrilocal or patrilineal/patrilocal is also not dealt with adequately in the literature. (Chester et al, 1994) Many cultures place a high value on community responsibility and inter-dependence rather than individualism and independence as seen by radical feminist approaches. (Fook, 1993)

It is important to note here that words used in this literature review may need some explanation to further explain and to attempt to avoid bias. The word "traditional" may be seen as representing traditional cultures and therefore presents bias. It would seem appropriate therefore to define tradition as a social custom passed down from one generation to another through the process of socialization. Traditions represent the beliefs, values and ways of thinking of a social group. (Theodorson and Theodorson, 1969)

"Western feminist discourse runs the risk of assuming the image of the 'average third world woman'. This 'average third world woman' leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read: sexually constrained) and her being "third world" (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimized, etc.) This, I suggest, is in contrast to the (implicit) self-representation of Western women as educated, as modern, as having control over their own bodies and sexuality, and the freedom to make their own decisions...This mode defines women primarily in term of their object status.

Feminist theories which examine these cultural practices as 'feudal residues' or labelled 'traditional,' also portray third world women as politically immature women who need to be versed and schooled in the ethos of Western feminism. These theories need to be continually challenged..". (Mohanty, 1991, 56-57)

What Is Emotional Abuse?

The literature provides several definitions as well as several names for emotional abuse. These include psychological maltreatment, nonphysical abuse, psychological abuse, psychological aggression and indirect abuse. Verbal abuse is a feature of emotional abuse and an article from Sweden states that it is a mechanism that 'communicates worthlessness'.(Hyden, 1995) Any relationship that consists of strategies to control or overpower another person must be considered maladaptive. From a feminist perspective emotional abuse is a means of establishing power and control over the victim in addition to enabling the abuser to maintain a system of psychological abuse behaviours that reinforce this power and control. (Shepard & Campbell, 1992). In a book by Deborah Sinclair (1989) entitled Understanding Wife Assault, she states that "underlying all abuse is a power imbalance between the victim and the offender.) Several authors agreed. (Anderson et al, 1991; Loring, 1994; Alexander, 1993) Patriarchal structures are reiterated in several articles and books. (Chang, 1996)

Emotional abuse includes verbal attacks, harassment, belittling, excessive possessiveness, isolation of partner, and deprivation of physical and economic resources. (Alexander, 1993) Emotional blackmail or threats to leave are also present in the literature. (Follingstad et al, 1990). Much of the literature on emotional abuse describes it in conjunction with physical abuse and the literature reflects a range of 59% (StatsCan. 1993) to 88% (Alexander, 1993) of physically abused women also reporting emotional abuse. Statistics from Australia attest to the inevitability of emotional abuse in wife battering. In Australia, surveys done by telephone indicated that verbal and mental abuse ranged from 47.1% to 88% in the battered group. Alexander, 1993) Some of the literature stated that in virtually all cases of physical violence, some form of psychological maltreatment is present. (Anderson, et al, 1991; Campbell et al, 1997).

The effects of emotional abuse are seen as adding to the cycle of violence in which a physically abused woman finds herself (Follingstad et al, 1990) and has long term debilitating effects on a woman's sense of self and integrity. There are preliminary investigations into the relationship between emotional abuse and physical abuse. It can be surmised from the literature that a relationship would exist between emotional abuse and physical abuse. Some initial questions about prevalence and frequency of emotional abuse in physically abusive relationships have been investigated. Three types of emotional abuse appear to predict physical abuse. These included threats, restriction of the woman and damage to the woman's property. (Follingstad et al, 1990)

Studies carried out in the United States indicated that 55% of divorces were due to psychological abuse; 27% of dating relationships reported psychological abuse; 89% - 97% of engaged couples in counselling reported that emotional abuse has taken place in the last twelve months. Within the general population there was a direct correlation between verbal abuse and the probability of depression. (Chang, 1996)

The small amount of literature published exclusively on emotional abuse is understandable given the lethal characteristics of physical abuse and the struggle of academics and professionals to develop a measurable and precise definition. However, the lack of a precise definition and a focus on treatment specifically for these women may be contributing to the trivialization of this phenomenon in our society. (Barling et al, 1987)

The lack of attention in the literature to psychological maltreatment suggests that it may be useful to construe such maltreatment on a continuum. On the one end are isolated hurtful behaviours that may occur in any relationship: withdrawing momentarily, listening unempathetically, speaking sharply in anger. On the other end of the continuum is pervasive, one-sided, severe psychological torture parallelling intentional brainwashing and mistreatment of prisoners of war. (Tolman, 1992)

Emotional abuse, in fact, contains many of the same behaviours that present themselves in documents by an international human rights organization's description of torture: "isolation, induced debility (sleep and food deprivation), monopolization of perception, verbal degradation (denial of powers, humiliation), drugs, threats to kill and occasional indulgences (positives, verbal or material). (Tolman, 1992)

Naming the Problem

The deconstruction of emotional abuse provides us with further insight into the destructive nature of this phenomenon:

Isolation (or the restricting of social contact); economic abuse (or restricting of financial resources); and monopolization (the abuser expects his partner to spend all of her time with him or use her energies to serve his needs) have been listed as some of the psychological abuse strategies used by abusers. Constant criticism, demeaning behaviours, threats, use of male privilege and humiliation are also named in the literature. (Pilowsky, 1993; Parker, 1996; Follingstad, 1990; Marshall, 1996; Hoffman, 1984; Alexander, 1993).

Monopolization of perceptions is often part of the brainwashing that can take place in these relationships. The abusing partner insists that the vulnerable partner also believe the same things that the abuser believes. She is not entitled to her own opinions or ideas.

Required secrecy can also be a significant part of emotional abuse. The woman's support system has been destroyed as contacts with individuals who might observe her bruises and psychological condition and encourage disclosure are nonexistent. Her secrecy is further prompted by his vigilance and by her shame and bewilderment. (Anderson, 1991)

Covert behaviours of the abuser are often outside the consciousness of the abused woman. These abusive behaviours include withholding affection, denial, projection, subtle conveyances of the lack of importance of the victim. The continuous and unrelenting pattern of emotional abuse is interspersed with warmth and kindness to create an 'in and out' of bonding 'crazy-making' feelings in the victim. (Loring, 1997)

Financial AbuseAs a form of isolating the abused woman, financial abuse is also a control mechanism that limits the woman from becoming independent or looking for social supports. This type of abuse can manifest itself in behaviours such as checking the gas gauge on the car or the odometre to see how much gas was used or miles driven and/or doling out small amounts of money, forcing the victim to ask for more. If the abused woman works outside the family home, she is often forced to deposit her pay cheque into her partner's bank account. Often the abuser will put all the family assets in his name. For the abuser, money is an extension of his power. (Miller, 1995; Hoffman, 1984) The abused woman is aware that if she leaves her partner, she and her children may live in poverty thereafter. (Fraser, 1992)

Spiritual AbuseThis type of abuse is characterized by the putting down or making fun of one's culture or beliefs or forbidding a woman to exercise or practice one's spiritual beliefs.(Jacko, 1995)

Sexual DominationExcessive sexual demands and sexual put-downs are characteristic of psychologically abusive relationships. (Chang, 1996)

HIV Risk A more recent addition to the emotional abuse inventory has come in the form of women being at risk of emotional, sexual and physical abuse as a consequence of negotiating condom use to avoid the risks associated with unprotected sex and the contraction of HIV. (Wingood and DiClemente, 1997)

Ritualistic Abuse This type of abuse entails the abuser perpetrating concerted attacks on the victims sense of self and involves enactments of a ritual identifying the victim in some way as evil. This type of abuse is repetitious and dissolves her trust in her own senses. This is a direct assault on identity. Holding a gun to the head of the victim or a cigarette close to the eyes or skin while denouncing her value are examples of this type of abuse. (Loring, 1997)

Patterns of Abuse

Adjust Yourself: An abused woman is constantly having to adjust her behaviour and responses to meet the needs of her abuser. This is often learned in the family of origin. This pattern is labelled "schismogenesis";

Double Bind: No matter what the woman does, she cannot do it right in the eyes of her partner as paradoxes and contradictions are plentiful;

Direct verbal attacks are constant;

Silence and Withdrawal: The abuser creates passive strategies to establish rules about when and what can be contested;

Lack of Emotional Connection: Shared emotional fields are lacking due to behaviour of abuser. This lack of intersubjectivity demonstrates to the woman that she is not heard, has no value and is not supported. This lack of connection is strongest when the abused woman is pregnant, ill or in a grief state. (Chang, 1996; Yoshihama and Sorenson, 1994)

Features of a Prototypic Pattern of Psychological Maltreatment (Termed Psychological Coercion) That the Battering Male Perpetrates in Violent Intimate Relationships

  • Early verbal and/or physical dominance
  • Isolation/imprisonment to various degrees
  • Guilt induction to promote victim self-blame
  • Hope-instilling behaviours via contingent expressions of love
  • Fear arousal, maintenance, and escalation of terror
  • Promotion of powerlessness and helplessness
  • Pathological expression of jealousy usually accusing the woman of infidelity
  • Required secrecy
  • Enforced loyalty and self-denunciation

If the battered woman attempts to leave the relationship: the abuser may react with:

  • Cocky disbelief
  • Confused searching
  • Bargaining
  • Pleading
  • Threatening
  • Seeking revenge (Anderson et al, 1991)

Some Examples of Emotional Abusive Behaviours:

  • The abuser may begin a complaint and slide into constant criticism and name calling before the woman has even senses that there is a problem;
  • embarrass her in public;
  • constantly accuse her of having lovers;
  • begin watching her every move;
  • stalk her when she meets a friend;
  • ignore her when she tries to talk to him;
  • denigrate her family and friends;
  • forbid her to make decisions, or offer an opinion;
  • have emotional outburst because woman has said a 'wrong' word or laughed at the 'wrong' time;
  • escalate abusive behaviours if she talks back;
  • threaten to take her children and states she will never see them again;
  • threaten pets and may tie a cord around a cat's or dog's neck;
  • destroy her most valued possessions;
  • 'gaslighting' where the abuser slowly corrodes the foundation of logic on which a person has learned to make decisions and take action; and doubts her own perceptions; (Miller, 1995) This term comes from the movie "Gaslight" where a husband confuses his wife by denying he had stated something to her, or moving a picture from the wall and accusing her of misplacing it;
  • force a woman to emigrate to another country by husband or husband's family; leaving all supports behind; (Papp, 1990)
  • denying her access to English or French classes in Canada; (my experience working with
  • immigrant women)
  • utter racist, ableist, classist or sexist slurs which may intensify the abuse. This is especially true is the
  • man is from the dominant group. (Burstow, 1992)
  • tell her the details of affairs with other women. (Burstow, 1992)
  • in the case of Deaf women, being prevented from communicating by slapping hands away or being held or the tying of her hands; (Merkin, 1995)

Emotional Abuse Against Specific Populations

Immigrant and Refugee Women

The dilemma of immigrant and refugee women is also highlighted in the literature. The social and emotional effects of emotional abuse in the form of isolation, is particularly striking in the lives of this population. Besides previously outlined issues, forces may include such issues as linguistic barriers, past experiences in country of origin, limited kinship and friendship systems locally, and difficulties in settlement. These external difficulties were reported by immigrant and refugee women as contributing to their vulnerability and were later internalized in the form of emotional isolation. This isolation became an important factor in being abused.(Pilowski, 1993)

Immigrant women are identified as very vulnerable and some abusers threaten to contact immigration if he is sponsoring her. (Miller, 1995) Some of the literature written by immigrant women stated that being 'born female' is the cause of the abuse that they experienced. (Papp, 1990) Asian women reported that a single accusation of infidelity is cause for abandonment. Some stated they do not even look up while walking down the street with their husband but keep their heads lowered. (Miller, 1995) Issues of arranged marriages to men that they did not know and being forced to emigrate to another country also were highlighted in the literature. (Papp, 1990)

In situations where the woman is older, abuse is declared only when the situation becomes truly unbearable. Their isolation is increased due to their dependent position. Social consequences are more important for these older women than for those who have their Canadian citizenship. Laws in Canada may be very different from laws in their respective countries. (Beaulieu, 1992)


The hostility of a misogynist environment, coupled with the heterosexism and homophobia of a community, can render a lesbian vulnerable. If the relationship is secret or hidden, the isolation can increase. Her isolation can be compound by threats from her abuser that she will 'out' her to parents, employers and others. Her self esteem may already be low due to homophobia and its invalidation of the relationship with her partner. The internalized oppression and self hatred accompanied by such a social climate causes serious issues and renders the lesbian who is experiencing abuse particularly vulnerable. The multiple oppressions of this group puts them at greater risk. The lists of abuse behaviours mirror those of the heterosexual community but some listed by abused lesbians include also, "outings" (the sharing with inappropriate others the sexual orientation of the abused partner without their consent), selection of food the partner eats, constant criticism of her demeanor, looks or intelligence. (Loring, 1994) .

Older Women

According to the literature, older women are abused more than any other group, when their partner retires. (Miller, 1995). It is at this time that a senior abuser escalates his abusive behaviour. Up until this point, the woman may have had some freedom during the time her partner was working. However, retirement can exacerbate the partner's feelings of isolation and add to his sense of alienation and lack of self-worth. His frustrations are taken out on his partner coupled with the generational perception of the man being omnipotent in the family. For an older woman, the amount of time she has invested in the relationship also has an impact on her choice to stay, not to mention her lost sense of self which may have been experienced over many years.

Indicators of emotional abuse of older women are similar symptoms of all groups and include confusion, lack of self-esteem, insomnia, apathy, problems with elocution, inability to make decisions, nervousness, depression and bouts of crying. Material or financial abuse can be detected when fundamental needs are not being met such as glasses or dental prothesis. A new will may be drawn up in favour of one person. (Beaulieu, 1992)

Women with Disabilities

A disability is any limitation on the amount or type of activity a woman can undertake. There are many types of disabilities and some women have more than one. Disabilities include, mobility, visual, hearing, non-visible (epilepsy, asthma, allergies, chronic fatigue, diabetes and some heart conditions), psychiatric, developmental, chronic illness (AIDS), learning disabilities, and environmental illness that may render a person isolated in their own home.

Along with sexism, women with disabilities experience 'ableism'. They are, in fact, doubly oppressed. Women with disabilities also come from a variety of backgrounds, including race, sexual orientation, ethnicity and linguistic groups. Ageism and poverty also are experienced by women with disabilities. (Eastcott, 1992)

Evidence indicates that women with disabilities experience more abuse than women without disabilities. Also it is more difficult to escape abuse due to their social and economic circumstances. With very few choices for economic independence, many women with disabilities become more dependent on others than their disability requires. (Cusitar, 1994)

Women with disabilities may depend on a number of caregivers and the larger the number, the more the chance exists that she will be abused. Any abuse or neglect which occurs where people live or when they are in the care of others is considered family violence. Family, in the case of women with disabilities, can include parents, spouses and other relatives, but also friends, neighbours, and caregivers. Caregivers can include attendants, homemakers, counsellors, doctors, nurses or group home workers. Emotional abuse involves a violation of trust and an abuse of power.

Women with Intellectual Disabilities

Those women with intellectual disabilities may tend to learn slowly and may also have a limited ability to learn. They may already have difficulty in coping with the demands of daily life. In addition, sensory, speech and language, behavioural and psychiatric needs can be associated with 'mental handicap'. It is important, however, to remember that there is a great range of abilities among people who have been labelled 'mentally handicapped'.

While as a group they may share certain characteristics and experiences, the variety of their responses, feelings, learning styles and needs is as broad as it is for the rest of the population. (National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, 1993)

Because there is still considerable prejudice against people with 'mental handicaps', they are often subjected to emotional and verbal abuse. Women with intellectual disabilities reported that verbal

abuse was very common and are often based on aspect of oneself that are already stigmatized as 'different'. (Ridington, 1989) Neglect takes the form of not providing the necessities of life and failure to seek medical assistance. Mistreatment has been defined as the use of physical or chemical restraints which harm or are likely to harm the person. Aversive therapies (such as physical restraints, cattle prods, spraying lemon juice in the mouth, time-out isolations) are sometimes used to control the behaviour of people who have an intellectual disability.

People with intellectual disabilities are more vulnerable to violence and various forms of abuse due to the effects of segregation, lack of power over decision-making, lack of self-esteem, lack of access to community-based services, poverty and lack of positive images of people with disabilities in popular media. (National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, 1993)

Women with Physical Disabilities

Numbers of caregivers also produces risks for women with physical disabilities. If she does report abuse there is fear on her part that she won't be taken seriously and her vulnerability may increase. Women who are disabled are often trained to be compliant and are sometimes punished for being assertive or for challenging authority figures. Often women are not given sex education as they are seen by society as non-sexual. This may preclude them not recognizing inappropriate touching from necessary forms.

Growing old increases the likelihood of becoming disabled, which can increase the likelihood of abuse. DAWN Canada: DisAbled Women's Network found that violence and fear of violence were the most critical issues facing women with disabilities. (Cusitar, 1994)

It is extremely difficult for any abused woman to leave a situation of abuse. However, it is particularly difficult for women with a disability. She may be dependent on her abuser for affection, communication and financial, physical and medical support. If she reports the abuse, she may risk poverty and loss of housing. She may fear she will not be heard or believed if she speaks out. She may face further violence, institutionalization, or loss of her children if she seeks help. Her lack of options may leave her feeling so powerless and despairing that suicide seems the only viable choice. Forms of abuse include denial of

food, lack of or inappropriate personal or medical care, rough or inappropriate handling, overuse of restraints, over-medication and confinement. Verbal abuse, social isolation, intimidation, emotional deprivation, forcing her to watch pornography, taking away crutches or wheelchair, refusing to assist her in using her work board or bliss symbolics, denial of the right to make personal decisions, and threats of having her children taken away constitute forms of abuse of disabled women. Financial exploitation such as denying her the right to control her own finances and misusing her finances also exists. (National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, 1993; Ridington, 1992)

Reports also indicated that caregivers would insist that the woman eliminate body waste on cue for the convenience of the caregiver. (Ticoll,1994)

Infantilization (being treated like a child) is another form of abuse which robs the woman of her dignity and self-esteem.

Blind women have reported being stalked and not knowing who the person was or how threatening they were. (Report and Recommendations of the Steering Committee of the Abuse of Adults in Vulnerable Circumstances, 1995)

Deaf Women

A culture that is seldom explored is the Deaf culture. Often Deaf people are viewed from a pathological perspective and not as a cultural entity. (Merkin, 1995) Deaf women and hearing women share a similar experience of spousal abuse in terms of its nature, cycle and escalation. Verbal violence clearly exists with respect to Deaf women. Instead of being expressed verbally and heard, it is expressed by signing and emphatic physical posturing and facial expressions. This is how threats are communicated. Most Deaf women are living with or married to Deaf men. Signing in an aggressive and short manner indicates his abusive tone. The same sense of fear is felt by the woman as the spoken word would to a hearing woman. It is the message itself that does harm or induces fear, not the form of language used. As with any other language, Sign Language (LSQ, ASL) can be the vehicle of abusive messages.

The widespread nature of psychological abuse of Deaf women is supported in the literature. Forms of abuse outlined include denigration, emotional withholding, waking the woman up at night to ask questions, controlling her outings and telephone calls and monopolizing her time. Tying her hands so she cannot sign has been used by abusers as well.

Stalking and having others spy on her were indicated as forms of emotional abuse. Expressions such as 'heart hurt' were used by Deaf woman to mean psychological abuse. Using religious blackmail to intimidate Deaf women was a strategy of the abuser outlined in the literature, as Deaf women often were raised in boarding schools that were religious. Many have a strong faith and this faith is used as a site for abuse.

Breaking visual contact is also a form of abuse. This entails the closing of one's eyes to what the woman is 'signing', turning one's back, looking elsewhere. This blocks the message and marginalizes her ideas and opinions.

When a deaf woman is living with or married to a hearing man who is abusive, he may also control the flow of information to her. He may fail to provide her with important information, fail to inform her of telephone calls and not allowing her to join in discussions. She may be denigrated because of her deafness and states to others that she always misunderstands his intentions. The dissuasive argument goes like this: 'If you talk, who do you think they'll believe, you or me?' He may also state to a judge if the couple separate that 'the children told me they want to be with me.' She may lose her children and the courts often give custody to the hearing partner. Abusive hearing men will also prohibit her from contact with other Deaf people, thus exacerbating her isolation. (Langlais et al, 1995)

Rural and Farm Women

During personal interviews and focus groups set up by the Muriel McQueen Ferguson Centre for Family Violence in Fredericton, N.B. Canada, participants stated that rural life is a particularly ordered environment - a way of life that many rural people experience collectively as well as individually.

There can be a sense of belonging, safety and support but that the closeness of rural life can create a sense of rigid traditional values, control and even intimidation. Several strong recurring themes have emerged in the stories told by abused rural woman. From all accounts, familial relations are structured on hierarchal relationships which are based on traditional inequalities between men and women.

On a community level, there were strong expectations that women demonstrate subservience to men. Almost all of those interviewed spoke of growing up with strictly defined stereotyped gender roles...these roles were understood as the way that women were able to complement and support the role of the husband. The division of labour, traditions and attitudes throughout the community reinforced this...interviewees (italics mine) noted that their own mothers catered to their fathers every need and the girls expected to defer to the boys...were not allowed to obtain driver's license or have access to the family car...A number of those interviewed recalled that their mothers lived in fear.

It was unlikely that somebody in the community would confront an abusive man...As one interviewee said, "Country people tend to know everything about everyone else, but they would never dream of interfering in one another's personal business."

Destruction of farm animals such as a child's pony was named as a form of abuse. (DeVink & Doherty, 1995)

Rural women face many of the same issues as emotionally abused urban women face. However, one of the unique aspect of farming is that husbands and wives often work closely together. Consequently, the farm business, day to day operations and family life are tightly interwoven. Farming may be especially difficult as women living and working on a farm can experience severe isolation and stress from financial or workload worries. When a woman makes a decision to leave a farm there are many feelings that must be untangled. She may feel she is losing her career, her home, her source of income, and her only identity; all at the same time.(Community Abuse Program of Rural Ontario CAPRO, 1997)

Teen Women

While we tend to associate partner abuse with adults, it is also present in teen relationships. Surveys show that violence is experienced in 28% of teen relationships. (Levy, 1995) One may assume that including emotional abuse in such a study may inflate this percentage. (Words and italics mine) Again, reasons why a teen male would inflict abuse is similar to why adult males do so; to control the young woman. Literature also states that at this age, young men may have poorer impulse controls due to levels of immaturity. Emotional abuse of teen women also occurs in all social classes, races, and ethnic groups, in gay and lesbian dating, in rural and urban settings. Emotional abuse in teen relationships occur where the teens are living together or with parents. Types of emotional abuse include threats of physical violence, verbal attacks, demeaning or humiliating the girl in front of others. A teenage boy may control his girlfriend by being self-centered, frequently insisting that she follow his orders or constantly criticize her. Some controlling behaviours have the characteristics of leading to physical violence.

Emotional abuse can be very confusing for teen women because the teen abuser may also be telling her that he loves her. She may begin to feel confused, her self-esteem is lowered, and she feels shame. Also due to her immaturity, she may self-blame and feel that she has caused the problems in the relationship. Statement that continue to confuse may include, 'its a good thing you have me to love you, because you are so ugly (or crazy or disgusting...'), no one else would want you.'

At a time when the teen woman's identity is developing, these putdowns can have a devastating effect on her. Statements that isolate her would include 'we have each other; we don't need anyone else.' (or) 'your friends and parents are trying to keep us apart.' (or) 'no one else understands us and what we have together.' The constant monitoring of her behaviour and suspiciousness of the teen abuser may lead the young woman to stop activities outside the relationship. He may threaten to commit suicide and this too is a burden a young woman may find unbearable to imagine. (Levy, 1995)

It may be very difficult for a teen woman to go to her parents regarding abuse, as this is the time in her life that she is individuating. Services that address woman abuse often do not serve the teenage population. The effect of abuse on teen woman may include over-identification with the abuser so she cannot develop her own interests, forced dependency on abuser, coping with the abuse uses up all her energy and she may face failures in other areas. Developing a healthy body image and value system may be impeded. (Victim Services on line 1999)

College and University Women

In college age young men, the literature indicates that low level violence (defined as playful force during sex, sudden mood swings and/or quick temper) in courtship exists and can measure tendencies towards woman abuse in later life. Personality characteristics in college age men were used as indexes. Threats and verbal abuse were the most predictive signs of courtship violence. (Ryan, 1995) Emotional dependency in primary relationships among college-aged students indicated that anxious attachment, exclusive dependency and emotional dependency as well as self-esteem and identity may be indicators of maladaptive relationships leading to emotional abuse. (Rathus and O'Leary, 1997)

Aboriginal Women: First Nations, Inuit and Metis

Historically, family violence was rare in the Aboriginal community. It was unacceptable and the community would not tolerate the abuse of children, spouses, disabled or the elderly. Many Aboriginal peoples have experienced the detrimental effects of the residential school system, the oppression of sacred traditions and spiritual ways, the loss of family influence and the absence of parental and elder teachings. As a people, they adopted non-functional, non-Aboriginal attitudes, beliefs and values. They became oppressed and internalized this oppression (self-hatred) and the result has been "violence". (McTimoney, 1993)

The types of emotional abuse levelled against Native women by their intimate partners is similar to what takes place in other groups. However, as explained above, when extreme forms of oppression of the whole group exist, the damage can be much greater. The fragility of the severely oppressed woman only makes issues of self-esteem, terror, shame, isolation, depression, hopelessness and severe anxiety more acute.

The literature states that Aboriginal people do not view family violence as a offender-victim relationship, but rather as a dysfunctional community, where family violence is only one problem.

In the American literature, to date, no systematic research that seeks to determine point or lifetime prevalence of wife abuse within or between American Indian communities has been conducted. (Chester, 1994) It would seem logical, therefore, that issues and solutions regarding emotional abuse are in their infancy.

Testimonials by Aboriginal women on reserves stated that it was difficult to leave an abusive relationship due to lack of housing; the abuser continually burnt her clothing; they had to leave the reserve due to lack of safety. They were turned out of her and her children's home by the abuser.

In addition, Native women who had married a white man and divorced were marginalized by the community and put down by their new Native partner. Despite the family violence model of dealing with woman abuse, Aboriginal women have raised this issue in the context of their marginalized (italics mine) place in male dominated governing systems. (Stout, 1996)

International Literature


Unlike increased public awareness and social and legal responses in the United States and Canada (italics mine and words mine) the problem of men's violence against women in the domestic sphere remains virtually unaddressed in Japan. No specific law in Japan defines spousal violence as a crime, nor are civil remedies such as restraining orders available for women battered by their intimate partner. Severe violence is not a minor problem: 18% (n = 85) of all female victims of murder or attempted murder in Japan in 1991 were attacked by their husband. Parallelling the lack of legal responses, virtually no government funding is allocated to services specifically for battered women.

Husbands' physical violence ranks as the second and their emotional violence the fifth most frequently cited reason for wives to file for family court mediation. These figures suggest that a considerable number of women turn to family court to end abuse in their marriages.

Most studies do not attempt to explore the sociocultural components and context of the violence. (Yoshihama and Sorenson, 1994) In regards to emotional abuse, strategies used by abusers mirror what has been outlined in this paper and are numbered as fourteen separate items in the article. Of the 796 respondents in this study, 523 indicated that they experienced one or more of the fourteen identified types of emotional abuse. The largest proportion reported verbal abuse. The fourteen types of emotional abuse include ongoing verbal abuse, verbal threats, behavioural threats, activity restrictions, driving recklessly while she was in the car, threats to kill her or family, no empathy when sick or pregnant,opening her mail, neglect, humiliation, financial abuse, husband having extra-marital affairs, endorsing his mother as the authority figure who supervises and evaluates the abused woman, and the condemning of the abused woman's family and friends. (Yoshihama and Sorenson, 1994)


Chinese culture has been heavily influenced by the Confucian tradition, which disapproves of aggression in general and emphasizes harmony, discipline and self-restraint in interpersonal relationships. However, the patriarchal beliefs and values of the Confucian tradition often place Chinese women in submissive and vulnerable positions. Exploitation of and violence against women within the family contexts have been documented in Chinese societies for many centuries. Violence towards one's wife, either through physical or nonphysical means, is often condoned as a legitimate treatment of Chinese women and defended with the 'rules of the family' (jia fa) or 'three obediences' of women to defer to their fathers, husbands, and sons.

There is also evidence that woman abuse in Chinese societies is multigenerational. (Trans-mitted from one generation to the next) (italics and words mine) Forms of abuse outlined included verbal abuse, threats of violence, extreme controlling behaviour,isolation, monopolization of perception, induced debility, threats, occasional indulgences, demonstrating omnipotence, degradation, and enforcement of trivial demands. (Tang, 1998)


Nicaragua is the only country where emotional abuse is recognized as a crime. It is part of what is referred to as Law 230. The law indicates that acts of violence need not leave physical scars and recognizes psychological damages as well. The literature indicates that psychological damages include anxiousness, inability to sleep and living in fear.

Humiliation, making you feel worthless, constant insults and many of the examples presented in this literature review. The literature also outlines the steps a woman can take to address abuse in the legal arena, such as seeking a psychologist who will attest to your state of mind caused by the abuse and filing a legal claim with a judge. (Women's Network Against Violence, 1997)

Impact Of Emotional Abuse

Initial Denial By the Abused Woman

In the early stages of abuse, a woman will project a positive image of her partner to herself and others. Often others feel uncomfortable challenging her denial or validating her experience of abuse. Eventually her sense of self and subjectivity are destroyed and the more she adapts the more she loses her unique self. (Chang, 1996)

The impact of spousal intermittent emotional (italics and words mine)support in an abusive relationship and the woman's perception that the relationship is working indicates that abused women may offer benign explanations for her partner's negative actions and her propensity to depress. (Arias et al, 1997)

The shame and guilt experienced by the victim results in passivity and a sense of helplessness. Depression becomes normalized due to its duration. Some women find eating as a form of comfort. (Chang, 1996)

Power and Anxiety

Due to socialization patterns, girls often repress or deny their own aggression or assertiveness and the need to be independent and powerful are projected onto men. Being powerful seems unfeminine and women fear acting powerfully may alienate them from traditional women and men. Even acting out one's own self interest is experienced by women as being selfish or aggressive. The anxiety between power and passivity can prove highly destructive when coupled with emotional abuse. Anxiety can be explained plausibly as anticipated unfavourable appraisal of one's current activity by someone whose opinion is significant. The dichotomy intrinsic in this situation is extreme when there is tension between loving a person and at the same time feeling hostile towards him. (Chang, 1996)

Disintegration of the Self

As the abuse escalates, the woman finds that she begins to experience psychic numbing, fragmentation of thoughts, and estrangement from her own body. (Loring, 1997) The emotional exhaustion experienced by the victim is brought on by a cycle of debility, dependency and dread. As the oppression and fear continues and perhaps escalates, the woman may come to feel fatigued, passive, and unable to act, unable to think concretely, and has poor memory. (Anderson, 1991; Evans, 1993)

Escalation Factors of Abuser

When the woman begins to cling and move into traumatic bonding (also known as anxious attachment, see below), the abuser escalates his use of emotional violence, as his loss is intensified and he feels the loss as there is less of her available. The master/slave paradigm is complete. (Chang, 1996)

Somatic Illness

Often somatic illnesses act as metaphors for women who are emotionally abused. A sore throat can indicate that being mute keeps you in a place of safety and perhaps the abuser will curtail his criticism. Chest pains occur when women feel that their hearts are breaking. Extreme fatigue can be brought on by depression or constant fear. (Loring, 1994)

They rarely express anger over their plight and typically report somatic illness such as panic disorders, recurrent major depression, dysthymic disorder (in and out of depression) and somatization disorders. (Anderson et al, 1991)

Stress plays a significant role in the alteration of the immune system and there is increased susceptibility to disease. High blood pressure and gastrointestinal problems has been reported.

Levels of anxiety can be plausibly explained when someone you rely on and are emotionally connected to appraises you as unworthy and is unrelenting in their criticism. (Chang, 1996)

Psychogenic Amnesia

This condition is characterized by the inability to recall specific aspects of a traumatic event. This results from multiple forms of abuse including death threats where the belief that a physical or emotional death is about to take place and there is no escape. (Loring, 1994)

Traumatic Bonding (Also known as Anxious Attachment)

The loss of self leaves victims vulnerable to traumatic bonding which is a type of attachment that intensifies the loss of selfhood. The victim is incapable of detaching herself from the abuser for she has no longer a separate and cohesive sense of self to detach. This type of bond is outlined in the literature as very similar to the Stockholm Syndromewhere paradoxical psychosocial responses of hostages to their captors exists. The abuser alternates kindness with terror and abrupt disconnection. Traumatic bonding can also leave the victim void of the ability to be analytical. A perpetrator of emotional abuse may force a woman into illegal acts (corrupting) and she feels she must comply or lose herself further. The abuser may threaten to kill loved ones if she does not heed his demands. (Loring, 1994)

The intermittent kindnesses and disconnection produce a disequilibrium, self-blame, dependency and a learned helplessness. Members of extremist cults report similar experiences in the form of dissociation from all that is familiar, prohibitions of free expression and dissent, the mobilization of fear and guilt, and the establishment of an omnipotent master who demands self-sacrifice. (Anderson, 1991; Henderson et al, 1997; National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, 1993; NiCarthy, 1982; Rathus and O'Leary, 1997)

Intergenerational Abuse

Neither witnessing violence in one's own parents nor being the target of it is necessary or sufficient condition for being a battered and/or an emotionally abused (italics and words mine) woman later in life. Even if the abuse in the child's home is mainly psychological, however, she may learn important victim characteristics, such as passivity, self-sacrifice, and tolerance for psychological abuse. It is important to note, however, that from a socio-psychological standpoint, it is quite possible that a marital situation could be constructed in which the features of psychological coercion and mind control were of sufficient magnitude that women from any number of different backgrounds might be retained within it. (Anderson et al, 1991)

Theoretical Perspectives

The primary and initial focus of any good theoretical perspective of healing must deal with actual abusive process. Assisting in the process of healing the woman who is experiencing a disintegration of the self, healers, clinicians, counsellors, therapists and others, must engage in an alliance with the client that encourages reintegration. The establishments of non-abusive connections and emotional safety are key to the healing of the abused woman. Once these issues are resolved, other treatment modalities can be explored. (Loring, 1994) When physical abuse is present, there is a tendency for clinicians to focus on that aspect and to perhaps obscure the emotional abuse. Even if the physical abuse ceases, the abuser may continue to emotionally abuse. (Tolman, 1992)

The theories abound regarding the treatment of woman abuse. Some are better than others and some may be dangerous to the woman's well-being. Examples of the various forms are as follows:


This perspective states that the victim can't reject emotional abuse that she doesn't recognize. The approach fails to allow for the victim's tendency to internalize blame and to suffer from depression, confusion and anxious attachment (also called traumatic attachment).(italics mine) Co-dependency theory misses the hostage-like emotional capacity. It does, however, recognize key characteristics of the abuser such as denial of responsibility. (Loring, 1994)

Social Learning Perspective

This theory states that the victim's low self-esteem is a result of the abuse she has suffered and that it is a learned response. Some state that low self-esteem caused them to be in the relationship in the first place. It is probable that both processes contribute to the situation - as a history of abuse renders a victim vulnerable. If there was no actual abuse in childhood, then bonding was inadequate or early caregivers lacked warmth. Overall, social learning focuses on messages in the larger society, i.e. violence/oppression. Society sees women's physical and emotional well-being as unimportant. It also states that boys are socialized to violence and repression of their emotions and to use anger as the primary outlet. This approach is good for men to recognize their own pain and its impact on others.(Loring, 1994)

Battered Woman Syndrome

The characteristics include low self esteem, fear of the partner's actual or threatening abuse and learned helplessness. (Loring, 1994)

Systems Theory

This theory depicts family violence as an interactive process between partners locked in a pattern of mutual behaviour or responses. It views both partners as responsible. It explains the behaviour of victims and abusers in terms of interactional dynamics and systems stability as if there is no differentiation of responsibility. This theory is inaccurate and wrong. There is no recognition of the immorality of violence. It does not protect the victim and, in fact, hold her partly responsible for her own abuse. If an abused woman submits, it is to avoid abuse, not contribute to it. Systems theory states that couples should be counselled together and doesn't recognize the safety issues. (Loring, 1994)

An important reservation is that discussion might entice the counsellors who are more systems-oriented to attempt couple counselling in order to help reconstruct the moral domain characterizing the family system....the safety of the victim comes first. (Pilowsky, 1993)

 The Family Systems model has been utilized to explain intergenerational transmission. Children experience conflict as an aversive event; then the child acts emotionally and instrumentally (acting out) as an attempt to alleviate distress and does in fact alleviate the distress. These patterns are carried into adulthood. A recent longitudinal study spanning twenty-two years, has shown, in fact, that aggression is found to be very stable across generations within a family, when measured at comparable ages, supporting the idea of intergenerational transmission. (Anderson, Boulette and Schwartz, 1991)

Relational Theory

This theory contends that women have traditionally built their sense of identity and self-worth on activities that involve caring about and giving to others. These roles are not given value in our culture. Women grow up with a pervasive sense that what they do isn't as valuable as what men do. Women cannot even value their own thoughts, feelings and actions. The foundations have been laid for self devaluation before the abuse begins. This may lead them to tolerate the negation inherent in emotional abuse. (Loring, 1994) However, this toleration should not be a signal to therapists or others that women are innately masochistic. Poor self-esteem is constructed in the sexist, racist, ageist society in which we live. This is largely the outgrowth of lack of power, but it also comes in part from the traditional "feminine" stereotype, since the traditional female is not supposed to be strong intellectually, physically, emotionally, or morally, except occasionally in the service of others. (Caplan, 1985)


Women in a sexist society cannot become fully themselves. Being authentic means acknowledging and expressing anger, pursuing one's own interests and needs. It opens up possibilities of displeasing others. This may arouse fear of abandonment if authenticity is practiced. Due to how girls are raised, many haven't had the opportunity to define themselves. This point offers an insight into how women learn to submit to others' self-definition - one of the classic dynamics found in emotional abuse. (Loring, 1994)

In therapy, the woman begins to self develop - a paradigm shift takes place and she can begin to define her own reality. She can then feel not threatened by connections and mutuality is expected. (Loring, 1994)

Learned Helplessness

The concept of 'learned helplessness' suggests that perception is a static, inalterable phenomenon, impermeable to external influences. It suggests that somehow, 'helpless' has been developmentally ingrained as an ultimate and final self attribution. Yet, perceptual boundaries are fluid and open to extra-systemic input, most particularly input which, itself, carries emotional competence. (italics and word mine). Women who endured the extent of abuse described to the author could not actually be thought of as 'powerless'. Are there not seeds of empowerment evident in such perseverance, particularly when the choice to stay may be rooted in a strong moral principle upholding the sanctity of family life at the cost of personal integrity and physical safety. (Pilowsky, 1993)

Therapeutic Modalities

A woman's ability to connect, even with the therapist, will be tentative. The therapist's ability to recognize the signs of abuse will be a challenge as there is a lot of ambivalence by the woman towards her abuser. (Loring, 1994)

In many of the studies it was obvious that there were many differences in the ways of seeing the abuse and the abilities/opportunities to escape. These differences should underscore the inevitable uniqueness of every individual's daily life experience. (Pilowsky, 1993)

Attachment-Trauma Model

The components of this model entail developing a therapeutic stance that respects the client's unfolding self and her quest for hope. Warmth and empathy are crucial to beginning this quest and should become a model for the client's subsequent connections. The examining of hopes and dreams; showing respect and interest in her talents and skills; and demonstrating positive regard and belief in her abilities are necessary. She needs to be validated and also need to find a way of comforting herself. The crucial nature of staying 'on the client's side' will lead to reconnective integrative interaction. The goal is to assist in the woman's reintegration as she will come into therapy in a state of fragmentation. The risk of remembering is a painful one and they need to know they are safe and connected to a supportive therapist or counsellor. (Loring, 1994)

Touching to heal can provide some comfort to a woman who has been abused. She may have felt untouchable due to the abuse. Before such touching as hugs, holding of hand, resting hand on shoulder or placing hand under elbow (symbol of support), a therapist or counsellor should have initially gone over the exploitation-free type of therapy provided. (Loring, 1994) Asking the client if she is comfortable with touching is an important part of the therapy.

The abusive partner may be required as part of therapy if the woman wishes to stay in the relationship. However, the therapist needs to share intentions with the woman and ask her permission. The partner can be an ally to the therapist only if he recognizes his responsibility as an abuser. He is there to support the woman's growth, not to heal himself. A separate men's group or therapist can work with him. Three session with the abused woman's therapist should be enough to gather information and to be firm with the abuser as to the woman's need for growth and to find her own authenticity. Because abusers often have abandonment fears, they may cooperate to keep the relationship. For the very sadistic men, little change is possible and this needs to eventually be acknowledged by the abused woman. (Loring, 1994)

Also, the tasks of feminist therapists or counsellors are to raise moral issues therapeutically. In so doing, the abuser must face the immorality of his abusive acts; he must embrace an accountability which will help him break through his wall of denial. (Pilowsky, 1993)

In some literature, treatment models were not named but suggestions were offered and resemble the above. However, contradictions were present and some may be detrimental to the woman. One example states that a therapist might encourage passivity in the woman to avoid abuse. Studies have shown that this passivity may frustrate the abuser as he sees it as not having access to her complete and whole self. (Anderson et al, 1991; Chang, 1996)

Crucial to the beginning of therapeutic relationship is the need to believe the woman despite the fact that she may minimize her physical and psychological abuse. (Anderson et al, 1991) As the trust builds between the therapist and the abused woman, the woman will begin to identify with the therapist and is relieved that someone else identifies the relationship as abusive and actually condemns his abuse of her. Group support can be a critical part of counselling for many abused women who are beginning to reintegrate. However, individual counselling should precede this for a time. (Chang, 1996) The group work can assist in the elimination of isolation. This is especially important for the immigrant/refugee women who can speak their own languages in group. (Pilowsky, 1993)

The temptation to rescue, the frustration, and the disrespect are the principle internal problems that counsellors encounter when working with emotionally abused women. Also this comes from caring for the client; no woman who has not been self-determining and done her own part in therapeutic work and processed her own problems will heal. Some may return to their abuser and leave the counsellor exhausted, disempowered and frustrated. This frustration comes from caring, over-involvement and oversimplification. (Burstow, 1992)

Short term goals vary with the situation. Common short run goals include helping the client

(a) alter a brutalizing situation that she desires to alter, (b) exit from a brutalizing situation, (c) protect herself from the abuser, and (d) start a new and independent life. Subsidiary goals and means that typically figure in empowerment include (a) nurturing and validating, (b) addressing internalized oppression and myths, (c) co-addressing the very real obstacles in the way. Work on internalized oppression is critical. (Burstow, 1992)

Some abused women will trivialize or minimize the abuse, Burstow (1992) again provides us with insight into reasons why this happens.

  • self-protection/terror (the partner has threatened to beat her senseless or to kill if she tells)
  • loyalty to the abusive partner
  • safeguarding one's situation (if she acknowledges to us the full extent of what is happening, she fears that she may have to act and sacrifice what she now has)
  • concern that we will not understand what her partner or family means to her and will push her to leave
  • concern that we will not take in cultural differences and will push her to leave

The issue of self-blaming (victim-blaming) must be seen as the disempowering ploy that it is.

Frameworking: A Spiritual Model of Recovery

In terms of recovery, the Aboriginal community are looking at this system. Frameworking is a matrix of systems whereby integration of various aspects of life are examined and explains how an individual can function better. This matrix includes the physical self, the mental self and the social self.

Aboriginal peoples recognize themselves as collective-oriented people and also consider the environments of home, work and community. This spiritual a