Use of verbal and non-verbal communication with the intent to: a) harm another person mentally or emotionally, and/or b) exert control over another person.

Psychologically aggressive acts are not physical acts of violence, and in some cases may not be perceived as aggression because they are covert and manipulative in nature. Nevertheless, psychological aggression is an essential component of intimate partner violence for a number of reasons. First, psychological aggression frequently co-occurs with other forms of intimate partner violence and research suggests that it often precedes physical and sexual violence in violent relationships. Second, acts of psychological aggression can significantly influence the impact of other forms of intimate partner violence (e.g., the fear resulting from being hit by an intimate partner will likely be greater had the intimate partner previously threatened to kill the victim). Third, research suggests that the impact of psychological aggression by an intimate partner is every bit as significant as that of physical violence by an intimate partner. However, further work needs to be done related to the measurement of psychological aggression, particularly how to determine when psychologically aggressive behavior crosses the threshold into psychological abuse.


Psychological aggression can include, but is not limited to:

  • Expressive aggression (e.g., name-calling, humiliating, degrading, acting angry in a way that seems dangerous).
  • Coercive control (e.g., limiting access to transportation, money, friends, and family; excessive monitoring of a person’s whereabouts and communications; monitoring or interfering with electronic communication (e.g., emails, instant messages, social media) without permission; making threats to harm self; or making threats to harm a loved one or possession).
  • Threat of physical or sexual violence (e.g., “I’ll kill you;” “I’ll beat you up if you don’t have sex with me;” brandishing a weapon)—use of words, gestures, or weapons to communicate the intent to cause death, disability, injury, or physical harm. Threats also include the use of words, gestures, or weapons to communicate the intent to compel a person to engage in sex acts or sexual contact when the person is either unwilling or unable to consent.
  • Control of reproductive or sexual health (e.g., refusal to use birth control; coerced pregnancy terminations).
  • Exploitation of victim’s vulnerability (e.g., immigration status, disability, undisclosed sexual orientation).
  • Exploitation of perpetrator’s vulnerability (e.g., perpetrator’s use of real or perceived disability, immigration status to control a victim’s choices or limit a victim’s options). For example, telling a victim “if you call the police, I could be deported.”
  • Gaslighting (i.e., “mind games”) – presenting false information to the victim with the intent of making them doubt their own memory and perception.


*Content Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention

Content Source Last Updated: May 3, 2016