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The Effects of Psychological Abuse on Family Dynamics

Sophia R. Rubsamen

Global Connections

Instructor: Gregory L. Falls

December 17, 2018


Psychological abuse is an overlooked form of abuse that occurs when one party uses

manipulation of the mind to maintain an oppressive amount of control in a relationship. The

abuse can have a detrimental effect on the structure of a family and its effects have an extensive

impact of the lives of all family members; these effects become cyclical and transgenerational.

Victims of psychological abuse often do not recognize the treatment as abuse because there is no

clear way of identifying it and this leads to many people not addressing the abuse. Children are

highly influenced by the behaviors of their parents. Therefore, when they witness their parents

abusing one another they accept it as normal, and it can lead to a myriad of mental and social

defects. Children who are directly abused also face substantial issues throughout their lives.

Culture has a significant impact on family dynamics and can be a cause of abusive tendencies.

Leaving the abusive situations can be very difficult for victims, but leaving in a safe manner with

a strong support system can save them from their abusers.

Table of Contents

Cover page ………………………………………………………………………………………..1


Table of Contents…..……………………………………………………………………...…........3


Literature Review………………………………………………………………………………….5



Psychological Abuse Defined………………………………………………………...…...8

Distinguishing and Identifying Psychological








Addressing the





There is so much more to every family than what can be seen on the surface; no one truly

knows what happens in each individual house. There is a multitude of definitions for the term

“abuse,” but individuals tend to typically associate the word with physical violence. There is an

entirely other form of abuse just as prevalent. The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines

domestic violence as “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control

over another partner in an intimate relationship” (National Domestic Violence Hotline). This

shows that abusive behavior is comprised of actions used to assert dominance and control; a

grand part of that violence is the psychological aspect. This aspect is almost entirely overlooked

and is therefore much less often addressed or even considered abuse. It is also much more

difficult to distinguish between what is actual psychological abuse versus what is simply rude

and careless behavior, especially within families. Children will not recognize the behavior of

their parents as abusive because it is all they’ve known and witnessed their entire lives; this has a

cyclical effect and teaches children that abuse is normal, acceptable behavior, and it ends up

being the way they treat others as well as the way they accept treatment. Psychological abuse is

an important aspect of domestic abuse that must be publicized, specifically in families, because,

if not addressed, it can become transgenerational and have a lifelong effect on its victims.

Literature Review

The New York Times has been studying domestic abuse since the early 60’s, yet, its

perception of what can be considered abuse has changed over the years. A recent article titled

‘50 Years Ago, Doctors Called Domestic Violence Therapy’ (Times 2014) discusses how in an

earlier print from the 1960s, The Times validated domestic violence as a way to “balance out

each other's mental quirks” (Times 1964). Eliana Dockterman, the author of the more recent

article, refutes earlier claims by saying, “We now know that physical violence is only one part of

domestic abuse: abusers often use other means like isolation, threats to family members and pets,

controlling of personal finances and psychological abuse to hurt their victims” (Dockterman

1994). This shows how modern-day knowledge believes that emotional abuse is a serious

consequence of physical violence.

In 1964, The Times documented a study performed by Drs. John E. Snell, Richard J.

Rosenwald, and Ames Robey; it concluded that wife beating was a validated result of alcoholism

in a marriage. The reason being that the wife may run the household and in order to relieve some

of the husband’s frustration with assertiveness, he beats her, thus allowing him to have power

over her while she maintains power over the household. The times claimed that it was a healthy

way for them to balance out their “mental quirks.” The article made no mention of any

emotionally abusive factor in this or the controlling dynamics executed by the husband.

In 1994, a childhood trauma questionnaire was taken among a multitude of adults with

addictive tendencies. The goal of the questionnaire was to confirm that there is a relationship

between substance using individuals and emotionally abusive relationships with their guardians

and/or trusted adults. To do so, questionnaires were issued to 286 individuals; 40 of them were

given the questionnaire again after 6 months and 68 of them were given structured interviews

about their childhood. The results proved the hypothesis to be correct in that the majority of

patients had experienced physical and/or emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and/or emotional and

physical neglect. (Bernstein 1994)

The British Journal of Psychiatry conducted a similar study analyzing the impact of

childhood trauma, and domains of childhood abuse, on outcome in bipolar disorder (Garno

2018). In the study, 100 patients at a clinic for bipolar disorder treatment were interviewed and

assessed about their childhood. In results, the journal states, “Histories of severe childhood abuse

were identified in about half of the sample and were associated with early age at illness onset.

Abuse subcategories were strongly inter-related. Severe emotional abuse was significantly

associated with lifetime substance misuse comorbidity and past-year rapid cycling. Logistic

regression indicated a significant association between lifetime suicide attempts and severe

childhood sexual abuse. Multiple forms of abuse showed a graded increase in risk for both

suicide attempts and rapid cycling” (Garno 2018). This shows how emotional abuse correlates

with future mental illness.

A website called Liberation in El Salvdor examines the gender and family structures of

El Salvador. It concludes that the “machismo” culture of the country gives the men justification

for being abusive. In El Salvador men are believed to be ‘spiritually superior,’ which allows

them to have complete power and control over all the women in their lives. It also identifies how

social disparities and other cultural beliefs amplify the abusive tendencies.

The U.S. National Library of Medicines’ study on the role of gender and age in emotional

abuse in intimate relationships (Karakurt 2013) had surprising conclusions. The study had 250

participants and they took an emotional abuse questionnaire that focused on isolation,

degradation, sexual abuse, and property damage. It concluded that men tended to report slightly

more emotional abuse than women. The older participants tended to experience less abuse than

the younger participants.


Gathering research and statistics on emotional abuse is an intrusive process, so there will

always be a pretty grand margin of error. Many individuals are very private about the situations

they face in their own homes and are less likely to be honest about the personal details of their

familial relationships. The majority of statistics gathered have been taken from volunteers who

are willing to admit they have faced situations of abuse; there is no way of knowing the actual

statistical amount of families that live in emotionally abusive households.

The countries of focus will be the United States, El Salvador, and Russia. However, no

countries with relevant information will be excluded from the author’s scope of research. The

statistical research directly on emotional abuse will primarily come from sources within the

United States because the other countries of focus are not as aware of the predominance of the

issue and it is not recognized as an issue in multiple regions of the world. Culturally boundaries

in many regions make it taboo to discuss the idea of abuse within families.

Men are more unlikely to be open and honest about the nature of the emotional

relationships they have within their intimate relations. Social stigmas towards masculinity make

men insecure in expressing their feelings because they are afraid of coming off as weak and

losing respect. The fragility of masculinity in the cultures of all three of my focus groups could

skew the results of my research and disregard a huge group of silent victims.


Psychological Abuse Defined

There is no universal definition of psychological abuse, as it is a very complex topic;

behavior is typically psychological abuse when manipulation used to maintain control is

prevalent in a relationship. Psychological abuse, also known as emotional abuse, can encompass

physical, sexual, and verbal maltreatment, while in other cases it can encompass none of them

making it more difficult to recognize and address. Victims of the abuse feel trapped in the

relationship; they feel as though leaving could result in serious consequences, consequences that

could even be life-threatening.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines manipulation as “The action of influencing or

controlling someone or something to your advantage, often without anyone knowing it.”

Manipulation is the basis behind psychological abuse; it’s the manner by which abusers establish

and maintain control over those in their personal lives. Often, this behavior may include name-

calling, isolation, lack of trust, excessive monitoring and threatening, withholding of affection,

humiliation, gaslighting, projection, and constant accusations (National Domestic Violence

Hotline). These are the most common forms of psychological abuse, but there is still a multitude

of other manners by which control is obtained.


Anyone can be a victim of this form of abuse, but not everyone recognizes and takes

action when faced with it; this also applies to the abusers. No demographic is exempt from

including perpetrators of psychological abuse. Statistics on reported instances of emotional abuse

can be skewed because of the discretion taken by the victims out of fear of their perpetrators and

because of the inability to recognize the behavior as abuse.

Distinguishing and Identifying Psychological Abuse

Individuals can often misperceive psychological abuse as simply frustration or anger

when, in reality, it can be much more than that. When the frustration becomes severe enough that

it is constant and their victims are always walking on eggshells to avoid an outburst, it has

become abusive. This concept also works in reverse; not every abhorrent argument is an abusive

occurrence. For example, when a partner cheats on the other, it is not necessarily considered

abuse; once the cheating becomes nearly routine and is intentionally used to exert control, it

becomes abusive.

Associated with this topic is the term “gaslighting.” Gaslighting is a common tactic used

to make victims think they are simply delusional or even that they are the wrongdoers; its a form

of brainwashing. Gaslighting is a broad term for a variety of repetitive behaviors: “withholding”

refers to a partner’s refusal to listen or understand the other; “blocking” refers to the way the

abusive partner changes the subject or makes the other question their own thoughts;

“trivializing” is when they accuse their partner of exaggerating and being too sensitive; “denial,”

which is most common, is when the abuser claims the victim's argument is simply inaccurate,

even if it is proven to be true. Gaslighting is one dangerous way of maintaining control because it

directly contradicts the victim’s known reality (National Domestic Violence Hotline).

Incidents like these are why it is so difficult for victims to recognize the destructive

nature of the relationships in which they are involved. Often, perpetrators are unable to recognize

and admit that their actions are problematic, and, even if they do realize it, it may be very hard

for them to stop being abusive. There is not a clear, fine line as to when one should leave the

relationship or seek help as there is with physical abuse because there are no definite criteria with

which one can, with complete certainty, identify it as psychological abuse.

Interparental Abuse

Interparental abuse has a detrimental effect on family dynamics for generations. While

abuse is commonly thought of as a man abusing a woman, abuse can function both ways. A

study on the impact of age and gender on domestic violence concludes, “Females reported

perpetrating slightly more psychological aggression than males (86% vs. 82%), and in terms of

reported physical aggression, 29% of males and 35% of females admitted to perpetration. In

terms of both psychological and physical abuse, there were no statistically significant gender

differences” (Karakurt & Silver 2013). The study examined and interviewed a number of men

and women of various ages and concluded that, while men tend to report more psychological

abuse, there is not a grand difference in terms of perpetrators of abuse. When children witness

abuse between their parents, they determine the relationship as normal, and they accept it as


Interparental psychological abuse can have a detrimental effect on children’s behavior at

a young age. Studies show that preschool children who live in households that experience

interparental psychological aggression have higher levels of clinical emotional problems. They

tend to be more physically and verbally aggressive and have difficulty making friends and

functioning well in most social environments (Fantuzzo 1991). Children are very observant, and

they mimic the actions and mannerisms of their parents outside of the house.

The effects of exposure to parental conflict in childhood last for a lifetime. The most

obvious effect of witnessing abuse is that it stunts social skill development from a very young

age and thus mars future relationships. Victims can find themselves accepting similar treatment

from their partners as their parents received, or they may also become the abusers themselves.

Research on exposure to interparental violence in childhood and its effects on psychosocial

adjustment in adulthood concludes that, not only will they face social obstacles, but they will

also face a diverse range of social and mental problems distinctly in relation to mother on father

abuse as well as father on mother (Fergusson 1998).

The study by professor David Fergusson employed multiple logistic regression, a form of

statistical analysis that focuses on one nominal variable as well as two independent variables to

predict an outcome, to determine the correlation between adjustment issues associated with the

abusive tendencies of either parent (Handbook of Biological Statistics). He concluded that

children who witnessed their father as the perpetrator of the abuse had increased risks of anxiety

as well as substance abuse and criminal tendencies in adulthood; however, children who only

witnessed their mother as the abuser solely tended to face substance abuse issues (Fergusson


Interfamilial Abuse

Interfamilial abuse has similar effects to interparental abuse, but the consequences are

much more directly correlated to the abuse the children themselves have faced. There is no way

to be absolute in gathering statistics on children who have faced domestic psychological abuse

because of the drastic amount of cases that remain unreported; however, the American Society

for the Positive Care of Children reports that 7.4 million children in the United States report

domestic violence, yet only 3.5 million of these children receive prevention and post-response

services. Of these 7.4 million children, 74.8% of victims face neglect and 6.9% of those children

report psychological maltreatment (American Society for the Positive Care of Children). Direct

psychological abuse has detrimental effects on their mental health and the stability of their


The most commonly reported form of psychological abuse that children face is parental

neglect. A child is facing neglect when their parent rejects the child and doesn’t provide them

with the love, care, and assistance that is expected of parents; this can lead to abandonment. The

magazine PLoS Medicine conducted a study to determine the long term effects of child

maltreatment; it concluded that children who faced non-sexual maltreatment like neglect and

emotional abuse exhibited behavioral problems and mental health disorders. The article writes,

“Exposure to non-sexual child maltreatment, namely, emotional abuse, and neglect, is associated

with increased risk of a wide range of psychological and behavioural problems, including

depression, alcohol abuse, anxiety, and suicidal behaviour, and with increased risk of HIV and

herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV2) infection [11-14]” (PLoS Medicine).

Some parents believe that “tough love” is critical in raising their children, but “tough

love” only goes so far. “Belittling” is a term used to describe the way parents reject their children

by having unreasonably high expectations of them. Often, “belittling” is a result of parental

projection; the parent lives vicariously through the lives of their children, and when their

children don’t succeed they see it as a personal failure. No accomplishment is significant enough

for praise because there will always be room for improvement. “Belittling” leaves children with

low self-esteem and can even lead to mental disorders like anxiety and/or depression. This

hinders their ability to trust themselves to take on tasks, leading them to never meet their

potential and be unsuccessful (Brown).

Narcissistic parents can also raise their children in a neglectful and uncaring manner.

While, in some cases, narcissism may just be an adjective to describe someone who is self-

absorbed, it can also be an actual mental disorder. Narcissistic personality disorder makes one

incapable of putting another being’s needs above their own. According to the Mayo Clinic,

“Narcissistic personality disorder — one of several types of personality disorders — is a mental

condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for

excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others”

(Narcissistic Personality Disorder, 2017). Parents with this disorder are unable to empathize with

their children; the children are typically seen as possessions that can be used to further the

parents own interests. The parent is only happy with the child when it is actively pleasing and

filling the physical and emotional needs of the parent. Children who grow up in these

environments develop severe self-esteem issues, and the parental abuse follows them into

adulthood. The only efficient way for them to escape the abuse, as harsh as it may seem, is by

cutting off contact with the narcissistic parent.

There are myriad ways in which parents intentionally as well as unintentionally

psychologically abuse their children. The effects of the abuse follow the children into adulthood

and can be severe enough to lead to significant mental issues that have an effect on all their

future relationships as well as their own health.

Sociocultural Effects

Psychological abuse is just as prevalent internationally as it is domestically. In many

cultures, psychological abuse isn’t considered to be abuse; the behavior is simply the familial

norm. In other instances, like in the United States, it is simply overlooked, and people are willing

to turn a blind eye to it to avoid possible humiliation for themselves as well as their family.

Different beliefs and levels of societal development affect the traditional family structure in a


In the United States, men and women are both equal and protected from domestic

violence under the law; however, psychological abuse itself is difficult to identify and victims

are not legally protected. Creating a law that prohibits psychological abuse could appear as a

violation of the first amendment that protects free speech and expression. 48.4% of women and

48.8% of men in the United States report being the victim of psychological aggression by an

intimate partner (National Domestic Violence Hotline). These statistics were taken by a random,

anonymous telephone poll among both men and women; this manner of recording statistics is

one of the most effective ways to receive honest information considering the discretion taken to

ensure the responses remain undisclosed.

In some developing Latin American countries, like El Salvador, “Machismo culture” is

prevalent. Machismo culture, also known as marianismo culture, refers to the male sexual culture

that dictates them as spiritually superior to women. Men are designated as the “boss” in the

relationship while the women are seen as property; men are considered entitled to sex, and they

are not expected to remain monogamous. Women are not allowed to exert any control in the

relationship, and this leads to a dangerous power dynamic that is detrimental to the health of the

women as well as other members of the family. Domestic violence is very prevalent in these

regions; physical abuse isn’t perceived as maltreatment, so any mention of psychological abuse

is considered absurdity (Ceballos).


El Salvador is a developing, agrarian country that follows traditional latino customs;

therefore, machismo culture is very prevalent in the country. The poverty rate is slowly

declining, but poverty is still widespread; this leads to gender disparities in society as well as in

the household. This decreases the stability of family structures which has an adverse effect on the

entire family. El Salvadorian women face a difficult dilemma; if they leave the relationship their

children will grow up in extreme poverty without a father figure. An article about gender roles in

El Salvador writes, “Therefore, it appears that through their relationship disempowerment, rural

Salvadoran women and their families are even more likely to remain in poverty than if they had

choices with regards to their family and the formality of their consensual union” (Liberation in

El Salvador). The men in El Salvador are the primary breadwinners for the family; therefore, the

women are financially and physically trapped in the relationship.

El Salvador can be considered one of the most dangerous places for women in the

Western hemisphere due to its extraordinarily high rates of female-targeted violence. Pai, a

nonprofit organization that advocates for global equality for women, reports, “More than a

quarter of women in the country have reported experiencing physical or sexual violence at the

hands of an intimate partner—a number that would surely increase if violence inflicted by other

male family members or acquaintances was taken into account” (Dennis). Physical violence and

psychological violence go hand in hand and, although official statistics on psychological

violence are unavailable, it is assumed that the rates could even exceed that of domestic physical

violence in the country.

The existence of psychological domestic abuse associated with gender disparities is not

specific to developing countries. In Russia, in recent years, Putin has passed legislation

decriminalising domestic violence: “Under new legislation, abusers can avoid jail time, and

instead pay a £375 fine, if the beatings occur – or are reported to occur – not more than once a

year, and if the victim has suffered no lasting harm, such as a broken bone or concussion. Pulling

out hair, or causing skin to break and need stitches, or skin to discolour, turning into a patchwork

of purple and blue, no longer qualify for time behind bars under the new bill” (Ferris-Rotman).

New legislation shows that the government doesn’t even consider physical violence to be an

issue worthy of direct preventive action; therefore, psychological abuse isn’t even a problem

worthy of governmental attention.

Women in Russia have been fighting a war against oppression since the Soviet Union era.

Although the Women's Rights Revolution has extended to Russia, Putin, the president, has

reversed a substantial amount of the progress made. The legislation passed limiting criminal

punishment for abusers has made it significantly harder for women to prove their worth and gain

equal power in the household. Russian women have been discouraged from joining the

workforce and breaking out of the stereotype of being a stay-at-home mom. They see feminism

as a Western ideal being forced on women, and they believe it is more oppressive than the

familial structure they currently reside in. The idea of psychological abuse is completely

irrelevant considering it is often just a typical part of the family dynamics.

There is some truth in the stereotype that Asian, specifically Chinese mothers are

overbearing and have exceedingly high expectations of their children. These parents are called

“Tiger Moms” for their “hyper-disciplining parenting and their laser-like focus on achievement

and performance” (Park 2014). This form of parenting utilizes belittling and emotional neglect to

“encourage” a child to accomplish more. For example, a tiger parent would not accept grades

that were not perfect and the child could be shunned because of it. An eight year long study on

the different parenting styles of Chinese-Americans concluded that the children of parents who

followed the tiger parenting style were less academically successful than children with

supportive parents (Kim 2013). This shows that this abusive form of parenting leaves children

with low self esteem and trust issues through adulthood; this makes it more difficult for them to

feel accomplished in their tasks.

Culture plays a significant part in perpetrating psychological abuse, but it also prevents

victims from seeking helping. Some cultural normalities make it shameful to seem unhappy in

one’s family and therefore hinders victims feeling trapped and powerless in the abusive situation.

Other sociocultural effects, like the oppression of women in developing countries, makes it

impossible to leave the relationship because of the financial and physical dependency the victim

has to their abuser. While leaving may seem like an implausible task, it can be accomplished if

carried out properly.

Addressing Abuse

Victims that recognize the psychological abuse face the dilemma of leaving the

relationship in a safe, healthy, and effective manner. Psychiatrist Dana Baldwin asserts that there

are two major factors that need to be addressed when escaping an abusive relationship: safety

and support. Safety must be addressed first; a victim must be able to leave the relationship

without the fear that they could be harmed physically, mentally, or financially. To do so could

entail simply leaving with the assistance of a support system, or it could call for going into

complete hiding to avoid the abuser. The second most important component is having a solid

support system to lean on once the separation is complete. The support system would provide the

victim with a place to stay as well as financial help and a stable, reliable environment in which

they can recuperate (D. Baldwin, personal communication, Dec. 11, 2018). If these measures are

taken by the victim, then they can safely escape the abuse and hopefully develop safe and

trustworthy relationships with kindhearted, reliable individuals.


Psychological abuse is a serious issue present all around the globe, but it is not treated as

such. There are just as many victims of psychological abuse as there are of physical abuse,

maybe even more; the consequences of psychological abuse are also just as serious as those of

physical abuse, yet only one of these forms receives obvious public and governmental attention.

Facing psychological abuse, directly or indirectly, within the family leads to lifelong

consequences. The victims social skills are stunted and they often face mental illness that leads

to substance abuse and sometimes even criminal tendencies. Leaving the abuse can be a difficult

but vital process that can lead to victims living a safe, healthy, and fulfilling life.


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