What is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse is the unseen fallout of all other forms of abuse: physical, mental, verbal, sexual, and even spiritual abuse. People often minimize the importance of emotions. Yet with deeply wounded people, their feelings can be the driving force behind their choices, the life-sustaining element of their very beings. Emotional abuse strikes at the very core of who we are, crushing our confidence, wearing away our sense of worth, crushing our spirit. The Bible says,
“A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” (Proverbs 17:22)

  • Emotional abuse is any ongoing, negative behavior used to control or hurt another person. Emotional abuse ranges from consistent indifference to continual belittling of character. All forms of abuse—emotional, verbal, mental, physical, spiritual, and sexual—damage a person’s sense of dignity and God-given worth. All forms of abuse wound the spirit of a person and, therefore, are emotionally abusive. Proverbs, the book of wisdom, says, “A crushed spirit who can bear?” (Proverbs 18:14)
  • Emotional abuse or “psychological mistreatment” scars the spirit of the one abused. The damage from emotional abuse lasts far longer than damage from any other kind of abuse. A broken arm will soon heal; a broken heart takes much longer. After extended periods of emotional abuse, many victims lose hope, feeling that life is not worth living. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” (Proverbs 13:12)
  • Emotional abuse can be passive-aggressive. Passive-aggressive abuse is a means of indirect, underhanded control; hence, the term is passive-aggressive. Passive-aggressive abusers express their anger through nonassertive, covert behavior. In an attempt to gain covert control, they often use manipulation as a means of placing themselves in a position of dependence. Then, with underlying anger, they become faultfinders of the people on whom they depend. Victims of passive-aggressive people feel perplexed and dismayed at being the target of punitive and manipulative behaviors.Friends of passive-aggressive abusers often become enmeshed in trying to comfort or console them in response to their claims of unjust treatment and their inability to handle life on their own.Passive-aggressive abusers need to recognize and resolve their very real anger and take to heart God’s warning:

    “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.”(Ecclesiastes 7:9)

  • Emotional abuse can be either overt or covert rejection. Overt rejection conveys the message that a person is unwanted or unloved (as when one is belittled as a child). Covert rejection takes place in subtle ways that may or may not be intended to cause harm by the perpetrator (as when one is ignored as a child).

Biblical Example: 2 Samuel 13

Both Overt and Covert Rejection: Tamar

(Read 2 Samuel chapter 13.)

  • OVERT REJECTION: Tamar, daughter of King David, was raped by her half brother Amnon and then was openly and blatantly despised and shunned by him.
  • COVERT REJECTION: Their father, King David, indirectly rejected Tamar by failing to execute justice on her behalf when he refused to hold Amnon accountable for his sin against Tamar. David, in essence, let his son off the hook by totally ignoring the sexual violation of his daughter.

QUESTION: “What does the Bible say about emotional abuse?”

ANSWER: The Bible doesn’t use the term “emotional abuse,” but it does instruct us as to how we are to treat one another. The Bible details numerous attitudes and actions we should have toward each other. If we follow these guidelines, we will never be abusive toward anyone:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3–4)


Article Used by Permission from Hope for the Heart©
Scripture, unless otherwise indicated, taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Used by permission.

June Hunt

June Hunt

June Hunt, M.A. Criswell College, is a biblical counselor whose award-winning radio program "Hope For The Heart" is heard on 900 radio outlets around the world. For more than 25 years, she has counseled people, offering them hope for today's problems. June has helped many people with emotional, relational, and spiritual problems experience God's love through biblical hope and practical help. Click here to find out more about Hope for the Heart.

Hope For The Heart Board of Reference

Dr. Henry Blackaby (Blackaby Ministries International), Dr. Rick Warren (Saddleback Church), Dr. Tony Evans (The Urban Alternative), Joni Eareckson Tada (Joni and Friends), Kay Arthur (Precept Ministries International), Dr. David Jeremiah (Turning Point), Dr. Tim Clinton (American Association of Christian Counselors), Dr. Bruce Wilkinson (Bruce Wilkinson Ministries), Dr. Chip Ingram (Living on the Edge), Roger Staubach (SRS Real Estate Partners), Steve Arterburn (New Life Ministries), Vonette Bright (Campus Crusade for Christ), Dr. Charles Stanley (In Touch Ministries), Zig Ziglar (Ziglar Training Systems)


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