Is Emotional Abuse a Crime?

Emotional abuse, unlike physical abuse which leaves tangible scars, is insidious while being just as damaging. It is a form of psychological violence where the abuser uses words and behavior to intimidate, control, and manipulate the victim. Understanding whether emotional abuse is recognized as a crime can be complex, as laws vary by jurisdiction and the nature of the acts involved.

emotional abuse crime

Understanding Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior that undermines an individual’s mental health and sense of well-being, deeply impacting their emotional state.

It involves a variety of tactics used to manipulate, control, and create fear in a person, often leaving deep psychological wounds.

Recognizing what qualifies as emotional abuse is the first step towards seeking help or supporting others who might be victims.

Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse is often the most recognizable form of emotional abuse. It includes the use of words to belittle, demean, or berate a person.

Examples include:

  • Calling names or using derogatory terms.
  • Constantly criticizing or pointing out one’s mistakes.
  • Blaming the victim for the abuser’s own failures or unhappiness.
emotional abuse crime


Manipulation is a subtle form of emotional abuse that aims to control the victim’s actions or emotions. It is based on cunning tactics that often involve lies or deceit to make the victim doubt their own judgment or reality (a tactic known as gaslighting).

Examples include:

  • Convincing someone that they are not capable of making decisions on their own.
  • Gaslighting by denying events that happened, thus questioning the victim’s memory.
  • Making the victim feel guilty for things that are not their responsibility.
emotionally abusive behavior

Control and Isolation

Controlling behavior occurs when abusers exert power over victims by limiting their freedoms. Isolation is a related tactic that separates the victim from their support system, increasing the victim’s dependence on the abuser.

Examples include:

  • Dictating who the victim can see, where they can go, and what they can do.
  • Monitoring phone calls, messages, emails, and social media interactions.
  • Encouraging or forcing the victim to cut ties with friends and family.

Threats and Intimidation

By using threats and intimidation, an abuser creates fear to coerce or discourage a person from taking action against the abuse.

Examples include:

victim of emotional abuse

Emotional Neglect and Rejection

This form of emotional abuse involves withholding affection, support, or communication. The victim ends up feeling worthless and hopeless.

Examples include:

emotional abuse crime

Economic Abuse

Economic or financial abuse is a way to control the victim by managing or restricting their access to financial resources.

Examples include:

  • Withholding money or giving an insufficient allowance.
  • Preventing the victim from working or having their own income.
  • Taking control of the victim’s bank accounts or assets without consent.
financial abuse

The Legal Landscape of Emotional Abuse

Though historically overlooked, emotional abuse is starting to be considered in criminal contexts more frequently.

Some jurisdictions have created laws specifically addressing coercive control, a form of emotional abuse prevalent in domestic situations where one partner systematically deprives the other of their freedom and sense of security.

In these places, emotional abuse is indeed treated as a crime, with serious legal consequences.

United States

In the United States, emotional abuse is often encompassed within laws addressing domestic violence, child abuse, and elder abuse.

Several states have provisions for restraining orders based on “coercive control,” which includes tactics used to emotionally and psychologically dominate a person.

Although difficult to prove, emotional abuse can lead to criminal liability, including misdemeanors or felonies depending on the severity of the case.

emotional abuse crime

United Kingdom

In the UK, the Serious Crime Act 2015 recognizes patterns of behavior that are controlling or coercive between intimate partners or family members as a criminal offense.

This legislation marks a significant step forward in acknowledging emotional abuse’s impact on victims. The law allows for serious penalties for those found guilty of such abuses, reflecting the recognition at the parliamentary level of the harm caused by emotional abuse.


Similarly, Australian law considers emotional abuse under the umbrella of family violence.

According to the Family Law Act 1975, emotional and psychological abuse refer to tactics that involve coercion or control, which causes emotional or psychological harm.

Legal consequences in Australia can range from intervention orders to criminal charges, emphasizing the country’s acknowledgment of the gravity of emotional abuse.


Challenges in Prosecuting Emotional Abuse

Despite advancements, the primary challenge in legally addressing emotional abuse lies in its definition and how to prove that a crime has been committed. Emotional abuse is not always straightforward to categorize compared to physical forms of abuse because it does not leave visible scars.

Law enforcement and the judicial system rely on clear evidence to prosecute offenders. Since emotional abuse leaves no physical marks, it’s much harder to prove the crime in court.

The subjective nature of emotional distress also means what significantly harms one person might not affect another in the same way. This subjectivity makes it difficult to set a legal standard for emotional abuse that applies across the board.

As a result, it requires meticulous documentation, including communications records, witness testimonies, and psychological evaluations, to establish a pattern of abuse in court.

Furthermore, emotional abuse cases often involve intricate personal relationships and subjective experiences, complicating the legal process. Victims may be reluctant to come forward due to fear of retaliation, feelings of shame, or concern that they won’t be believed.

What Can You Do?

If you’re concerned that you or someone close to you is a victim of emotional abuse, taking proactive steps is crucial for safety and well-being. Here are more detailed actions you can take:

Communicate with Trusted Individuals

Start by talking to friends or family members who you trust. Having a support system can provide emotional relief and practical assistance. For example:

  • A friend can offer their home as a safe space if you need to get away from the abuser.
  • A family member might help with childcare during appointments with legal professionals or counselors.

Document Evidence of Abuse

Keep a detailed record of abusive incidents, including dates, times, and what occurred. Save any abusive texts, emails, or voicemails, and note any witnesses. This information can be critical in legal settings and for therapy sessions. Here are some tangible ways to document abuse:

  • Maintain a private journal or log.
  • Use your phone to keep a record of messages and calls.
  • If your state laws permit, you may also record verbal interactions—ensure you understand your local laws regarding recording consent.

Professional Support

Reach out to mental health professionals such as therapists or counselors who specialize in emotional abuse. They can provide coping strategies and work with you to develop a plan for your safety and mental health. Examples include:

  • Seeking therapy from licensed practitioners who deal with trauma and abuse.
  • Consulting with legal professionals about protective orders or legal action.

Utilize Resources and Hotlines

Contact national and local hotlines and support groups for advice and resources specific to emotional abuse victims. These services often provide free, confidential support. Tangible resources include:

  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline US nationwide number 1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224 or (206) 518-9361 (Video Phone Only for Deaf Callers). The Hotline provides service referrals to agencies in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.   Persons can also contact the Hotline through an email request from the Hotline website
  • Online forums and support groups provide communities where you can share experiences and receive advice from others who have been in similar situations.

Create a Safety Plan

Develop a plan for leaving the situation if it becomes necessary for your immediate safety. Some elements of a safety plan:

  • Identifying a safe place to go in an emergency.
  • Having an “emergency kit” with important documents, money, and essential items.
  • Arranging a code word with friends or family to signal when you need immediate help.

Legal Action

Consider legal options available in your jurisdiction. You might seek a restraining order or explore other legal protections. Take note that legal steps vary significantly between regions, so consult with a lawyer knowledgeable in local laws on domestic violence and emotional abuse.

Remember, emotional abuse can erode self-esteem and create feelings of isolation, but you’re not alone, and support is available. Taking these steps can lead toward a path of recovery and empowerment.

Concluding Thoughts on the Crime of Emotional Abuse

As a society, we must continue to advocate for the recognition of emotional abuse as a serious crime that deserves legal consequences. It’s an issue that transcends just the individual, affecting the well-being of communities as a whole.

As laws adapt and awareness spreads, there’s hope for more robust protection for victims and greater accountability for perpetrators. Emotional abuse, while less visible than physical harm, should not go unnoticed by the eyes of the law.

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