Emotional Abuse Is Insidious, Perhaps Even More Than Physical Abuse
Photo by Sophia Hernandez / EyeEm for Getty Images.

Emotional Abuse Is Insidious, Perhaps Even More Than Physical Abuse

As gender-based violence continues to plague the world over, it's important to also highlight the dire effects of emotional abuse, long before it manifests in the physical.

Gender-based violence (GBV) remains a challenge in many countries, and has been further exacerbated by national lockdowns imposed as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Nigeria, Kenya, Tunisia, Liberia and more have all experienced horrific and highly publicised instances of GBV, and femicide, over the past few years. Tunisia even went as far as calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty following the brutal murder of a young woman. Liberia and Nigeria, even, declared a state of emergency on rape.

It's well established that GBV is a scourge in South Africa, with the femicide rate at an alarming five times the global average. The figures continue to worsen, a fact reflected in the daily lived experiences of many South African women. Unsurprisingly, physical and sexual abuse are the two forms of violence that have almost become synonymous with GBV. Other forms of abuse such as verbal, psychological — and more especially emotional abuse — are often sidelined.


Anele Tembe, daughter of prominent South African businessman Moses Tembe and rapper AKA's fiancèe, fell to her death from her hotel window almost two months ago. The tragedy of her death was further heightened by the fact that she and AKA were, reportedly, together at the time of her death. While there continues to be tremendous speculation around the circumstance of Tembe's death, mental illness, substance abuse and a potentially abusive relationship have been touted as potential contributors. Shortly after Tembe's death, alarming videos and photos emerged depicting AKA breaking down a door in one instance, and Tembe appearing to have been physically assaulted. The latter having been divulged to the media by some of Anele's closest friends. As is most often the case, the conversation has largely centred on whether or not AKA physically assaulted Tembe. And while that is a question that most certainly requires an answer, several social media users highlighted the importance of considering the possibility of emotional abuse and the impact it may have had on Tembe's mental wellbeing.


The overlooking of emotional abuse happens for a number of reasons. Firstly, emotional abuse is not as easy to pinpoint as physical abuse. It only takes one incident for us to generally identify the beginnings of physical abuse, but this is not as straightforward when it comes to emotional abuse.

Clinical psychologist Jordan Du Toit defines emotional abuse as "breaking someone down through verbal means or behaviours in the absence of physical violence." She adds that emotional abuse is about manipulating a victim through words or actions, so that they gradually become dependent on their abuser — and are constantly nervous of certain reactions in the relationship. Du Toit takes great pains to emphasise the volatility that can be displayed by an emotional abuser. "With emotional abuse, there will be switches. Similar to a rollercoaster, there will be highs, characterised by the perpetrator using the love-bombing tactic, which comprises intense demonstrations of love and affection. Then there are downs, where the perpetrator tells the victim that they are worthless and attempts to establish power over them."

In an EWNarticle, People Opposing Women Abuse's (POWA) Nomkhosi Xulu and Nonhlanhla Sibanda-Moyo, a gender specialist at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation highlight several common hallmarks to emotional abuse, which align with Du Toit’s sentiments. These traits include quick involvement (the early display of very strong feelings), manipulation, inconsistency in behaviour, being a control freak (the establishing of power) and the isolating of the victim. Both Xulu and Sibanda-Moyo believe these signs are never, instantly, obvious to the victim, adding that emotional abuse is often the precursor to physical abuse.


Kondi Neth, a University of Stellenbosch PhD candidate, agrees that emotional abuse often precedes physical abuse. Her work currently looks at using the creative arts as therapy for women who have experienced IPV. Referring to a controversial "tell-all" interview that AKA recently had with news anchor, Thembekile Mrototo, Neth affirms what many of Tembe's supporters were quick to express on social media — that he was being manipulative. Many on social media accused the rapper of using the media to "sanitise" his image while others asserted that it was simply a publicity stunt wherein he deflected from taking responsibility for his own actions. Some even felt that the fact that Tembe was much younger than AKA, had opened her up to the possibility of abuse and manipulation.

Neth explains why emotional abuse is particularly insidious, and why it's often difficult for victims to miss the signs early on. Neth also highlights how control is central to the modus operandi of an emotional abuser."When [the perpetrator] starts to isolate you from your loved ones, it's so that they can control you. By the time it moves to physical violence, you as the victim don't have a support system anymore."


A 2014 University of Fort Hare study conducted by Nontando Jennifer Mesatywa found that emotional abuse was "linked to controlling behaviour by one's partner and the [depersonalising] of the victim and increasing the power of the abuser". Ultimately, the study found that emotional abuse relegated women to feeling ashamed, isolated and as though they had been robbed of their dignity and self-worth." Abuse has generally been linked to depression and anxiety disorders among those who have experienced domestic violence, IPV or GBV. Victims of emotional abuse may exhibit symptoms of confusion, fear, hopelessness and shame, according to Healthline. In light of that knowledge, it starts painting a clearer picture about the negative impact of emotional abuse long before it escalates to a blue eye, broken rib or cracked tooth.

We may never know what exactly was at the heart of Tembe's death. This is, and has been, the case for many South African women, and women in general, contending with GBV in one way or another. However, if we're going to successfully overcome the beast that is GBV and produce an environment where girls and women can exist with little to no safety concerns, then we need to dig a little deeper and address the forms of violence that aren't always as conspicuous.