Blurring the lines of emotional abuse: defining what is and isn’t “normal”

May 03, 2017
Article Promo Image

The university experience is more than just lectures, tutorials, assignments and eventual degrees. For many students, uni is a time for self-exploration, personal growth, making life-long friendships and our first adult contact with casual dating and serious relationships.

These are stock-standard things that many students encounter, but without much conversation surrounding these topics before and during our uni years, we’re left to our own devices and forced to blindly navigate some of the most important experiences in our young adult development.

This is harmless most of the time, but when it comes to fragile, messy, intimate things like young adult relationships, not having a clear understanding of what is and isn’t normal leaves young people open to potential danger and suffering when adjusting to the learning curve of sex, love and dating that occurs throughout student life.

So, what’s normal in a relationship and what’s not?

Arguing about who’s turn it is to cook dinner, which bar to go to this weekend or what TV show to binge-watch on a Sunday morning is normal and not necessarily a sign of an unhealthy relationship. However, it’s when these arguments turn into frequent personal attacks and criticisms that a relationship becomes emotionally abusive.

Tracy-Anne Cerff is a counsellor who specialises in domestic violence, mental illness, relationships, trauma, and abuse. Cerff explains that, “Emotional abuse, also referred to as mental or psychological abuse, is when a person is or has been subjected to behaviours by another person that may result in psychological trauma”.

Victims begin to feel they deserve it, are unlovable and at times blame themselves for the abuse.

The effects of psychological trauma can be worse than physical abuse

Cerff says that, unlike physical abuse, emotional abuse is invisible and can range from verbal abuse such as name calling to acts of intimidation and isolation and threats of physical harm, all of which lower a victim’s confidence, self-esteem and self-worth.

“Survivors have often stated in therapy that the impact of constant emotional abuse was far more hurtful and longer lasting than that of physical and sexual abuse,” says Cerff.

“Victims begin to feel they deserve it, are unlovable and at times blame themselves for the abuse.”

When emotionally abusive behaviour is repeated within a relationship, the victim is likely to internalise, rationalise and normalise the cruel treatment they’re receiving, which can carry over to a person’s future relationships and mental health.

“The scars of emotional abuse in youth have the potential to resonate throughout a person’s life, limiting their achievements, their relationships and their happiness,” says Tess Reilly-Browne, a relationship and crisis counsellor who has been counselling abuse and trauma victims for over ten years.

The scars of emotional abuse in youth have the potential to resonate throughout a person’s life, limiting their achievements, their relationships and their happiness.

Why is it important for young people to know about emotional abuse?

While emotional abuse is not exactly a fun topic of discussion, it's a topic that needs discussing nonetheless. Psychological trauma from emotional abuse is often thought of and researched in terms of adult relationships, but it is also a very real reality in the romantic relationships of young people.

“It is vital to the health of our society to oust all abuse, including covert emotional abuse. It happens in every culture, every socio-economic group, to the young, to the old, and everyone in between”, says Reilly-Browne. “If a relationship leaves you feeling deflated, depressed, degraded, lonely and alone, powerless and confused, then that’s an abusive relationship”.

Similar to the stigma surrounding mental health issues like depression and anxiety, emotional abuse is not spoken about enough and many people, especially young adults, don’t understand that the treatment they’re receiving should not be accepted.

“Education is crucial for awareness and change”, says Cerff. “Not only is the young person suffering, but they are taking their issues into new relationships and then having children themselves, and may be modelling certain negative [emotionally abusive] traits”.

Learning about emotional abuse helps us to recognise the warning signs of emotionally abusive behaviour in our own relationships as well as in the relationships of our family and friends, and prevent those behaviours from impacting other areas of our lives.


Emotional abuse is not normal. If you or anyone you know is experiencing emotional abuse, you can find help at White Ribbon Australia, ReachOut and  Australia Counselling, or give the National Sexual Assault, Domestic & Family Violence Counselling Service a call on 1800 RESPECT.

Penny Robinson

Penny is a Philosophy and Media and Communications student at the University of Melbourne. She enjoys traveling, snacking, and not going to the gym.