Psychological Violence

"Over time as most people fail the survivor's exacting test of trustworthiness, she tends to withdraw from relationships. The isolation of the survivor thus persists even after she is free."  — Judith Lewis Herman (Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence - From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror)

Psychological violence

There are different types of psychological assaults.

  • Threats of violence and harm

The perpetrator’s threats of violence or harm may be directed against the survivor or others important to the survivor or they may be suicide threats. Sometimes the threat includes killing the victim and others and then committing suicide. The threats may be made directly with words (e.g., “I’m going to kill you,” “No one is going to have you,” “Your mother is going to pay,” “I cannot live without you”) or with actions (e.g., stalking, displaying weapons, hostage taking, suicide attempts).

  • Emotional violence

Emotional abuse is a tactic of control that consists of a wide variety of verbal attacks and humiliations, including repeated verbal attacks against the survivor’s worth as an individual or role as a parent, family member, friend, co-worker, or community member. In domestic violence, verbal attacks and other tactics of control are intertwined with the threat of harm in order to maintain the perpetrator’s dominance through fear. While repeated verbal abuse is damaging to partners and relationships over time, it alone does not establish the same climate of fear as verbal abuse combined with the use or threat of physical harm. The presence of emotionally abusive acts may indicate undisclosed use of physical force or it may indicate possible future domestic violence.

Emotional abuse may also include humiliating the victim in front of family, friends or strangers. Perpetrators may repeatedly claim that survivors are crazy, incompetent, and unable “to do anything right.” Not all verbal insults between partners are acts of violence. In order for verbal abuse to be considered domestic violence, it must be part of a pattern of coercive behaviours in which the perpetrator uses or threatens to use physical force.

  • Isolation

Perpetrators often try to control survivors’ time, activities and contact with others. They gain control over them through a combination of isolating and disinformation tactics. Isolating tactics may become more overtly abusive over time. Through incremental isolation, some perpetrators increase their psychological control to the point where they determine reality for the survivors. Perpetrators’ use of disinformation tactics such as distorting what is real through lying, providing contradictory information, or withholding information is compounded by the forced isolation of the survivors.


For example, perpetrators may lie to survivors about their legal rights or the outcomes of medical interventions. While many survivors are able to maintain their independent thoughts and actions, others believe what the perpetrators say because the survivors are isolated from contrary information. Through his survivor’s isolation, the perpetrator prevents discovery of the abuse and avoids being held responsible for it.

  • Use of children

Some abusive acts are directed against or involve children in order to control or punish the adult victim (e.g., physical attacks against a child, sexual use of children, forcing children to watch the abuse of the survivor, engaging children in the abuse of the survivor). A perpetrator may use children to maintain control over his partner by not paying child support, requiring the children to spy, requiring that at least one child always be in the company of the survivor, threatening to take children away from her, involving her in long legal fights over custody, or kidnapping or taking the children hostage as a way to force the survivor’s compliance. Children are also drawn into the assaults and are sometimes injured simply because they are present (e.g., the victim is holding an infant when pushed against the wall) or because the child attempts to intervene in the fight.

(Source: Strengthening Health System Responses to Gender-based Violence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia)