The 3 Types of Non Physical Abuse

When we think about abuse, we usually are thinking about physical abuse. The concept of non-physical abuse is a bit hazy to most people. We all know when we’ve been hurt but sometimes the context feels confusing. If we are mistreated as children or, over a long periods of time, our sense of self, of what is actually happening, can become misplaced. Non physical abuse can have long reaching affects. Sometimes it occurs alongside physical abuse.
Most of us would never identify ourselves as being abusive towards anyone. We minimize the reaction of others towards us which show hurt when we are angry, sometimes ignoring tears or requests to stop what we are doing. We justify characterize others as weak or over reacting.
This post is meant to help you identify the various types of non-physical abuse, which include verbal abuse, emotional abuse and psychological abuse. Once identified you should be better able to know where to set boundaries in terms of expecting respect from others. (See also Where Do I Draw the Line?, and When Boundaries Aren’t Respected). It can also show you how you words are actions may actually be abusive, or both. (See When YOU are the Volcano – 7 Ways to Care for Yourself and 7 Ways to Love a Volcano).
When non-physical abuse remains unnamed and unacknowledged, it risks causing great harm to all those involved.  Non physical abuse has been found to occur in equal amounts between men and women, but women often suffer disproportionately more from non-physical abuse directed towards them, due to power differences, both physical and in other areas such as economic disparities which exist between the genders. It can occur between siblings and between parents and children. Teen may also be non-physically abusive towards their parents.
James & McKinnon have written an article on non-physical abuse designed to help therapists identify it within the relationships of those they are counselling.
James and MacKinnon (2010) state that,
Unlike physical abuse, NP (non physical) abuse leaves no physical injury, is often not a discrete event and may easily be confused with conflict. Moreover, symptoms of depression, anxiety, confusion, and low self-esteem, may result from either current or past abuse or both, and individuals with these symptoms may not perceive themselves as being abused. (pp. 125)
These authors classify non-physical abuse into three parts, verbal abuse, emotional abuse and psychological abuse. Verbal abuse is rated as first degree abuse, emotional as second degree and psychological abuse as third degree. Emotional abuse may also include verbal abuse and psychological abuse often includes both verbal and emotional abuse. The length of time that the abuse occurs, along with the intent of the abuse and the power dynamics between people all contribute to varying levels of negative impact on physical and mental well being.

Here is how the authors define the 3 types of non-physical abuse:


lasts minutes to hours and is identifiable by words, tone, and body language that communicate hostility.
Verbal abuse is a communication perceived as intending to emotionally hurt by degrading, insulting, humiliating, ridiculing, or in some other ways diminishing the dignity of the other person. Tone and volume provide signals to the listener about the level of hostility directed towards them. Again, the frequency of this happening along with how long the relationship has included this type of communication and the vulnerabilty of the person being abused or the power imbalance between the parties, will all contribute to the level of harm caused by this type of behaivior.
Examples: name-calling, swearing at, or attacking the character of the person targeted.


“…occurs over a longer time sequence, continuing over weeks, months, or years, adversely affecting the target person’s emotional development. The abuser intends to hurt, punish, and gain compliance from the other person” (p. 118).
Emotional abuse consists of acts of commission or acts of omission.
Examples of commission include:
“…ongoing verbal abuse (see above); explosive outbursts of anger; (see when you love the volcano, when you are the volcano); discrediting the other person’s reputation; threats of, or actual, abandonment (more on this in future posts); restricting normal contact with other people ; threats to harm the target person or their family members or pets; inducing terror or fear; using threats to induce the target person to commit a crime or, in the case of children, permitting them to use alcohol, drugs, or see pornography.” 
NOTE: IF you know of a child experiencing this type of abuse (as listed at the end of the last paragraph). Check out this guide for reporting child abuse in Canada.
Acts of omission include:
“…refusing to acknowledge the other person’s presence; withholding necessary information; “the silent treatment”—refusing to communicate for extended periods; failure to confirm the other person’s needs or feelings, and failure to show appropriate affection or love.”  
In the case of a parent and child or intimate partners, one person maybe unable or unwilling to leave and may, paradoxically, seek comfort from the person who emotionally abuses them.


Incorporates both verbal and emotional abuse and, “has the effect of eroding or destroying the target person’s social competence and psychological sense of self” (p. 119-120).
Examples include: “deception, manipulation, and trickery as well as intimidation and threats that undermine the target person’s sense of self. The abuser deliberately controls through isolation, humiliation and shame, imposing a definition onto the target person of “bad,” “mad,” or “inadequate.”
Relationships where one partner is psychologically abusive are characterized by some of the following:

• Compared to target persons, abusers have greater physical, financial, or social power.

• Target persons are isolated. This may be due to personal circumstances (such as a woman not working or driving) and due to the abusers’ tactics. Over time an abuser conscripts family members, friends, therapists, and helping professionals to adopt negative views of the target person.

• An abuser will deny, minimise, or justify his behaviour leaving the target person distraught and confused. In the company of outsiders, the abuser may feign charm and concern depriving the target person of external validation of their experience. The abuser’s camouflage elicits the very behaviours—confusion, hesitation, withdrawal, anxiety, indecision, sub- mission, or subservience—that he then uses as “evidence” of the target person’s weakness, pathology, deviance, or illness.

• Ultimately, target persons lose self-confidence, doubt their sanity and blame themselves, internalising the abusers’ accusations of “bad,” “mad,” or “inadequate.” When they seek therapy, they often present with symp- toms of anxiety and depression and deny or minimize problems in the relationship. (pp. 120)
Psychological abuse can occur between siblings, in parent/child relationships and intimate partner relationships.


On Children

Research has clearly established that children who are the targets of non-physical abuse or who witness such abuse between their parents have been found to:

• have more health problems, higher levels of depression, more attention difficulties and higher rates of internalising and externalising behavioural problems;

• display less social and cognitive competence than children who were not exposed;

• experience high levels of shame, failure, and pessimism and, as adoles- cents, higher risk of abusing substances (p. 113).

On Adult survivors-

Adults who experienced non physical abuse as children or adolescents, are more likely than the rest of the population to:

• be clinically depressed and anxious;

• suffer from eating disorders;

• be diagnosed as borderline, narcissistic, paranoid, or schizoid especially during late adolescence and early adulthood;

• have trauma symptoms and negative health outcomes;

• experience shame and worthlessness because they believe that their maltreatment is due to defects of their character;

• try to avoid re-experiencing shame. (NOTE: Some men hide their vulnerability and become controlling or violent);

• experience low self-esteem linked to feelings of inadequacy and self blame;

• experience loneliness, problems with anger, and emotional reactivity in adult intimate relationships;

• become alexithymic (especially if male), that is, unable to identify or discriminate feelings, possibly the reason why some individuals who report abusive experiences do not identify as having been “abused” (p.114).

On Intimate partners –

Adults who experience non-physical abuse within their intimate relationship tend to:
  •  suffer more distress and fear

• become ill from infections

• suffer the debilitating symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

such as anxiety, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and persistent, painful memories. (NOTE: Physical abuse alone does not predict PTSD symptomatology);

• experience decreased self-esteem and confidence and increased levels of shame;

• feel more despair and loneliness when compared to those who are physically abused;
While women are more likely to experience more suffering as a result of non-physical abuse in intimate relationships, men are also impacted negatively, by this.
If you believe that you are experiencing or have experienced non-physical violence and it is affecting your well being, do not hesitate to contact a counsellor to talk to about this.
If you see yourself in some of the behaviours described above and want to learn how to change this, you may also contact a counsellor for more support.
Check out the whole article on identifying non-physical abuse here.
You may also want to check out an article on Coercion and Control here.
Here is an article for friends and family members who suspect someone they love is being abused, and what to do about it.
You may also be interested in my post on  Passive Aggressiveness

11 thoughts on “The 3 Types of Non Physical Abuse

  1. So how do you handle it when there has been exploitation, clearly identified over years of counseling (in fact, advised to terminate the relationship if responsibility was not taken by both sides for their role), but then one side simply denies it? And then is backed up by courts who refuse to check information from previous therapy engaged in by the couple? Are you just trapped in it until the kids are adults?


    • This does sound like a very difficult situation. I am not an expert on legal options but I do know that things get complicated when the abuse is non physical. Of course ,the well being of the kids should be what the courts take into primary consideration. I don’t want to ask too many personal question on this site, but if you are needing additional legal help there is the legal help centre, if you are wanting to process your specific circumstances and how to manage with co-parenting, I’d be happy to meet in person. You can also feel free to send me a private message if you like.


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