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Emotional Terrorism

   Through the years, the definition of Domestic Violence has attempted to encompass physical violence, sexual abuse, economic abuse and various forms of emotional abuse. But, by and large, there is still a stigma attached to the term “domestic violence” and therefore, identified victims shy away from the “diagnosis” and avoid getting help.

    Given that emotional abuse is so pervasive yet largely underreported, and wanting to emphasize the devastation of emotional abuse along the continuum of the symptoms associated with Domestic Violence (DV), I began a literature search to find some contemporary definitions of extreme forms of emotional abuse that did not include the term "domestic violence." I came across three terms: 1) “emotional terrorism” (ET) (initially coined by Erin Pizzey), 2) “my emotional vampire” (by a woman who had been severely victimized and created a series of videos to explain the impact of her abuse) and 3) INTENTIONAL INFLICTION OF EMOTIONAL DISTRESS (which is actually a legal term and pertains to TORT law, not Family Law). I also found some independent articles that had been written by women who had been victimized by prolonged emotional abuse, and it is from these sources that I generated my working (operational) definition of emotional terrorism.

    As mentioned, the term emotional terrorism (ET) was introduced by a clinician named Erin Pizzey in the late 80's. In later years, she wrote the book The Emotional Terrorist and Prone to Violence, (1998), and she identifies the FEMALE as being the emotional terrorist perpetrators and asserts that they are also more prone to physical violence than their male counterpart. This is a divergent viewpoint from the previously established Domestic Violence literature which has historically identified the MALE as being the perpetrator.

    In contrast to Erin Pizzey's work, my conceptualization of emotional terrorism, focuses on understanding the "male" as offender/abuser and I assert that their primary means of terrorism is more verbally-based, surreptitious, and covert in nature. While there are no hard and fast gender-specific rules to defining the "emotional terrorist," it is this premise that I used to operationally define emotional terrorism:

“An Emotional Terrorist (ET) targets the victim’s emotional well-being and psychological state of mind, with the intent of inflicting adverse, usually devastating consequences, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically, socially, sexually, professionally and economically. The ET is likely to possess Narcissistic Sociopathic characteristics and appear quite charming, so their initial tactics may seem fairly benign and thereby easily discounted or minimized. However, once in the clutches of an ET, the underhanded devious maneuvers, become more severe and pervasive over time. ET’s use acts of humiliation, intimidation, confinement, isolation, verbal assault, devaluation or other means of abuse to diminish the victim’s sensing of identity, dignity, and self-worth. The ET’s adept ability to manipulate - with the express goal of causing fear and terror - is purposeful and deliberate. When the ET has gained sufficient influence, executed ongoing threats, achieved power and control, and perpetrated unrelenting cruelty and torture, the ET’s merciless antics render their victim helpless and hopeless, which will likely cause permanent damage and continue to impact their lives, long after the relationship has terminated. The looming dread of imminent doom leaves a lasting fear of reprisal (for attempting to break free of their reign of terror) and leaves the victim with life-long painful, crippling memories. Because of the massive destruction to psyche and soul, most victims NEVER recover from the effects of emotional terrorism.” (Engebretsen-Stopczynski, K. E. 06 June 2014, delivered at the 46th Annual AASECT Conference in Monterey, CA). Copyright 2013-2014 ©. All rights reserved.


    While the Domestic Violence (DV) literature includes emotional abuse and manipulation in its scope of symptomatology, most people associate DV with broken bones and visible bruises.  Furthermore, when victims finally stand up and say "enough," it is much harder to prove "emotional abuse" because there are no visible signs of cruelty and torture. To make matters worse, if you seek help from the police, they are likely to say, "Sorry lady. We can't help you because we did not see any crime being committed." This is especially troublesome for the well-dressed, educated, highly polished woman who appears the picture of mental health! NO ONE would suspect HER of being a victim of abuse!

    To assess for emotional terrorism, I created the Engebretsen-Stopczynski Emotional Terrorism Questionnaire (E-SETQ). The E-SETQ is a questionnaire designed to measure the signs and symptoms of emotional terrorism (as described above). It outlines and defines the underlying characteristics and identifiable behaviors of an emotional terrorist and how they operate. The questions are broken down into categories. Only the person administering the instrument sees these subheadings; the person taking the test sees only the questions in numerical order. The classifications include: The Seduction "Hook;" Early Warning Signs; Emotional & Verbal Abuse; Isolation; Ignoring & Emotional Neglect; Sexuality/Sexual Abuse; Psychological Abuse/Mind control; Disrespect/Professional Abuse; Financial/Economic Abuse; Military/VA Benefits & Financial Exploitation; Spiritual Abuse & Intimidation; Physical Abuse & Intimidation; Boundary Violation/Coercion; Threats/Terrorizing; Final Stages of Control/Fear of Abandonment; Your Childhood (girls) – designed to detect early signs of being bullied or being a bully; Your Childhood (boys) - designed to detect early signs of being bullied or being a bully.

Sample questions include:

Excerpt from the Engebretsen-Stopczynski Emotional Terrorism Questionnaire:

Does Your Spouse/Partner…….

  • Frequently criticize you

  • Humiliate you in front of others

  • Ridicule your beliefs, religion, race, class, or sexual preference

  • Make sarcastic remarks about you doing something to “better yourself” (“Oh, you study? PLEASE”).

  • Make contradictory demands and put you in no-win situation if you speak up

  • Say, “You are worthless. You will never make it on your own.”

  • Refuse to make eye contact

  • Make you feel like it’s your fault when s/he does something wrong

  • Blame you for “causing” the abuse

  • Excuse their bad behavior because of drugs or alcohol

  • Repeatedly harass you about things you did in the past

  • Isolate you from family and friends

  • Force you to participate in sexual activities that are uncomfortable (emotionally)

  • Force you to participate in sexual activities that are painful (physically)

  • Punish you by withholding sex

  • Deprive you of appreciation or affection

  • Prohibit you from doing something you wanted to do

  • Block you from seeking professional mental/emotional help and support

  • Lie to your face and accuse YOU of “cheating” if you question his/her whereabouts

  • Exclude you in making important decisions, including finances

  • Mismanage money and accuse you of being irresponsible or a “spend thrift”

  • Make promises to do something with you and/or the family and cancel at the last minute

  • Keep you up at night arguing so that you are sleep-deprived and can't function during working hours

  • Provoke a fight in the morning which throws you off for the whole day

  • If you work at home, DEMAND that you quit at a certain time, even if you are not done

  • Harass you at work to the point your boss has threatened to fire you

  • Threatened to get you fired if you "tell" (about the abuse). (The problem is, there are no physical signs with emotional abuse so the complaint makes YOU look crazy)

  • Threaten with “I’ll show you who is boss” if you exercise any sort of autonomy

  • Threaten to commit suicide if you leave

  • Threaten to kill you and/or your children and/or pets

  • Call the police when s/he was drunk & tried to make it look like YOU were hurting THEM

  • Tell people you suffer from a mental illness, or “S/HE (you, the victim) is just crazy.”

  • Minimize or deny being abusive

  • Spy on you (listen to your phone calls, look at your phone bills, text messages, IM’s credit card statements, check the mileage on your car, call your friends to check up on you, etc).


    You will notice that many of the questions are similar to those that might be found in the domestic violence literature. However, the focus is on the wide range of emotional manipulating and torment that ET predators use to seduce and keep their victims helplessly captive. This list only reflects a small portion of the types of questions that are included in the questionnaire. This instrument is currently part of a research project that is being used to identify victims of emotional terrorism that might otherwise have ignored or have minimized the extent of abuse in their relationship.

     The questions are designed to assess emotional terrorism in a committed monogamous relationship/marriage; it is not intended to for use with individuals who are in other-than monogamous pair-bonds. For more information, this is explained in further detail in chapter eight of Dr. Karen's Marriage Repair Kit: It's all about Respect (2015) ( Information about personal safety and creative exit plans are also outlined in the Appendix section of the book.

    Given that every time we turn on the television and there is some reference to “terrorism” around the world, the notion of focusing on “terrorism” behind closed ‘intimate relationship’ doors is timely for consideration. While labels, per se, can actually be counterproductive, the definition of ET provides a descriptive and understandable classification of symptoms for victims of detestable emotional abuse.

    In summary, it should be pointed out that ET is not necessarily an entity in and of itself. Actually it represents a subcategory of domestic violence. What sets it apart from “domestic violence” however, (which has largely been associated with, and considered to be, “physical violence” by the general public), is that ET represents the extreme end of the spectrum on the continuum of emotional abuse identifiers and symptomatology. Furthermore, the concept of ET takes it out of the 'domestic' realm and allows it to be applicable for abusive relationships and situations within the workplace or relationships outside of the nuclear family.

      In the context of domestic violence, emotional abuse can and often does take a back seat to the other signs and symptoms of domestic violence and gets overlooked and/or dismissed as unimportant, especially by police departments. Although ANYONE (regardless of gender, sexual orientation, culture, religion or socioeconomic status) can be a victim of ET, the ego of a highly successful woman is hit harder because both she and society expect so much more of her! And, while some individuals might not want to admit being a victim of domestic violence, the concept of ET can feel more palatable and therefore increase the likelihood of the victim seeking help.

    During their reign of terror, the stealth tactics the ET predator wields upon his victim are as unique as a human thumbprint, yet unpredictable. The damage and devastation to psyche and soul are massive in scope. Any sense of self-worth and self-esteem was slowly eroded away by the ET; little was left but a mere shadow of what the victim had once known to be true about herself. Thus, the first goal of treatment is to normalize the chaos and disequilibrium the ET created. Once stable, the rebuilding process can begin.  

    The restoration of self can seem daunting, especially if the abuse occurred for a long period of time and rehabilitation, needs to be tailor-made for each person. If you have been a victim of emotional terrorism and want your freedom and life back, there is hope! Call for an appointment (954-779-2855) to discuss treatment options that can help you find the journey back to self.

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