The short answer is – no, they aren’t. Although until recently not even psychology dealt with emotional abuse and its consequences to the same extent as it did with physical abuse, recent studies came to a conclusion that these forms of violence can be equated. What is more – it seems that emotional abuse might even be more harmful in some instances than physical aggression within a family or a romantic relationship.
All forms of abuse are damaging
Any form of abuse is seriously damaging to its victims, both direct (a battered woman, for example) and indirect (the child who is “merely” an observer of this abuse). It’s often difficult to pinpoint what it is exactly in pathological family dynamics that causes the most harm. Moreover, physical abuse rarely happens isolated from emotional abuse (while emotional abuse can go on for decades without it ever escalating towards physical violence), which makes it even more challenging to understand what hurts more. Nonetheless, newest studies tend to confirm what is well known amongst the victims of emotional abuse – emotional violence is as destructive as physical or sexual abuse!
When a child is physically or sexually abused, as it seems, the consequences it has on mental health and behavior tend to resemble those that different kinds of psychological abuse causes. For example, both children with a history of physical and emotional abuse are more likely to become anxious, depressive, aggressive and to break rules, or to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. There seems to be little to no difference based on the kind of maltreatment a child is going through. Sometimes these issues are even more prominent among the victims of psychological violence, as research shows.
Physical abuse surfaces sooner than emotional abuse
The immediate effects of physical violence are far more visible than those of emotional abuse. There are bruises, scars, and other signs of physical damage that was just done to a person. Emotional abuse is almost invisible. Until the victim’s mental health deteriorates that much to become an evident proof that someone is being consistently abused (and it can take years for this to happen), psychological abuse remains hidden to the outside world – and to anyone who could help.
Victims of any form of abuse suffers in silence
Every abuser works on isolating their victim from the influence of others so that they can control them more easily. But this is especially important for emotional abusers, as they rely on their victim being controlled purely by the manipulation of their worldview and social relations. This isolation can be visible to others, or in a more sinister form, unnoticeable to the outside world. A victim still goes to school or work, has friends and sees the rest of the family. But, the “cage” is there and it is undetectable. It consists of a set of beliefs about the abuser’s perfection and flawlessness, and at the same time, the erroneousness of everyone else. In that way, even the most unreasonable claims made to the victim become a reality. The abused can believe that it is really all their fault, that they always cause the abuser to behave in that way, that they are unworthy, despicable and they should ultimately consider themselves lucky that anyone (the abuser) decided to commit any affection to such person.
And when a child receives any of such messages during the development of their cognition and personality, it can (and usually does) have life-long outcomes. Children believe their parents and take whatever they tell them as an ultimate truth. And suggesting or outwardly saying that the parent doesn’t think the child is deserving of their love and attention leads a child into a deeply rooted core belief that will follow them throughout their life. Psychological abuse is now found to correlate to various developmental problems, difficulties in education, attachment disorders, asocial and antisocial behavior, and other forms of mental health problems.
Emotional abuse is still a gray area of social work, psychology and, in general, our actions towards helping the victims. Even the victims themselves rarely can claim with certainty that they are abused, precisely because they are constantly bullied into a complete lack of self-esteem and a relentless self-doubt. However, the research in the latest years shows us how damaging emotional abuse really is, and how it can scar someone for life, making their existence an unauthentic struggle. Being a victim of emotional abuse, we now know, has the power to ruin a person’s future, as the consequences last and spread across all areas of life.