What is emotional kidnapping?

Emotional kidnapping refers to manipulative behaviors where one person controls, exploits or limits another person’s behavior and emotions. The term “kidnapping” is used to convey how the victim’s emotional and psychological state is taken hostage. Emotional kidnappers use various tactics to maintain control and power in relationships.

What are some signs of emotional kidnapping?

There are several warning signs that may indicate emotional kidnapping in a relationship:

  • Isolation – Emotional kidnappers try to cut off the victim’s other relationships so they become dependent on the abuser.
  • Belittling – Constant criticism and insults are used to break down the victim’s self-esteem.
  • Gaslighting – The abuser questions the victim’s sanity, memory or perception of reality to destabilize them.
  • Outbursts – Explosive rage, threats and emotional withholding keep the victim on edge.
  • Blaming – The abuser makes the victim feel responsible for the abuse.
  • Stalking – Harassing behavior maintains contact and control over the victim.
  • Sabotage – The abuser may undermine the victim’s goals and aspirations so they cannot flourish independently.
  • Financial control – Limiting access to money is a strategy to force dependence on the abuser.

What causes a person to emotionally kidnap their partner?

There are several possible root causes of emotional kidnapping behavior:

  • Personality disorders – Narcissistic, borderline, antisocial, histrionic or paranoid personality disorders often underlie emotional kidnapping tactics.
  • Trauma history – Attachment injuries, exposure to domestic violence, abandonment or abuse during childhood can condition kidnapping behaviors.
  • Insecurity – Deep-seated fears of rejection, inadequacy or abandonment may drive kidnapping efforts to counteract these feelings.
  • Need for control – A rigid desire for dominance, authority and control in relationships may lead to kidnapping tactics.
  • Codependency – unhealthy dependence between partners encourages excessive control.

What are the effects of emotional kidnapping?

Emotional kidnapping can severely impact the victim in the following ways:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Low self-esteem and self-worth
  • Identity loss or lack of autonomy
  • Stockholm syndrome emotional bonding with the abuser
  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Physical health issues related to chronic stress
  • Substance abuse or addiction issues
  • Financial distress

How do you identify if you are being emotionally kidnapped?

If you suspect you are being emotionally kidnapped, tune into the following signs:

  • You feel anxious, depressed, worthless or unstable much of the time.
  • You need your partner’s validation and approval to make decisions.
  • You are isolated from friends and family or keep secrets from them.
  • Your partner rages, belittles, criticizes or intimidates you.
  • You feel like you are “walking on eggshells” afraid to upset your partner.
  • You make excuses and have empathy for your partner’s bad behavior.
  • You feel responsible or ashamed of being abused.

The more signs you identify with, the more likely you are caught in emotional kidnapping. Make an honest assessment about your relationship – consider enlisting trusted friends or a counselor to get an objective viewpoint.

Why don’t people leave emotionally kidnapping relationships?

There are many complex reasons why people stay in abusive, emotionally kidnapping relationships including:

  • Trauma bonding – When abuse is interspersed with affection, it can create powerful emotional bonds and loyalty to the abuser.
  • Fear – The abuser often threatens and intimidates the victim with repercussions if they try to leave.
  • Isolation – Being cut off from support systems makes it harder to leave.
  • Self-blame – Feeling responsible or deserving of the abuse contributes to staying.
  • Low self-esteem – Believing one cannot survive or cope without the abuser feeds resignation.
  • Financial control – Economic power imbalances make leaving seem impossible.
  • Hope for change – The victim believes the abuser will reform so they wait endlessly for improvement.
  • Normalization – Long-term abuse warps perceptions of what is acceptable behavior in relationships.
  • Love – Despite the abuse, victims often retain affection and emotional connection to their partners.
  • Children – Concerns about child custody, co-parenting and breaking up the family contribute to staying.

How can someone leave or resist emotional kidnapping?

If you find yourself caught in emotional kidnapping, consider the following strategies:

  • Build support – Secretly start connecting with friends, family, domestic violence resources and support groups.
  • Set boundaries – Start saying no to control tactics and fight isolation.
  • Plan an exit – Carefully plan your departure while protecting yourself and children.
  • Document the abuse – Keep a record of incidents which could aid future legal proceedings.
  • Seek counseling – Enlist help to process trauma, boost self-esteem and establish independence.
  • Assert yourself – Believe you deserve better and start building the life you want.

Leaving an emotional kidnapper safely often requires outside support. Be patient with yourself as you slowly reconnect to your inner power and autonomy. The journey to freedom takes courage, self-love and putting your wellbeing first.

How can society address emotional kidnapping?

To combat the harms of emotional kidnapping on a societal level we need:

  • Education on healthy relationships and warning signs of abuse
  • Early intervention and treatment for people with personality disorders
  • Robust domestic violence support services and shelters
  • Legal protections for emotional abuse as well as physical
  • More affordable, accessible mental health services
  • Training for law enforcement, social services and court personnel on emotional abuse
  • Public awareness campaigns to reduce stigma around domestic violence
  • Empowerment-based counseling approaches
  • Stricter sentencing for domestic violence related crimes

Societal outlooks that normalize abuse of power in relationships also need to evolve. The more we all condemn emotional violence and show compassion for victims, the closer we get to preventing emotional kidnapping.

What are alternatives to emotional kidnapping?

Healthy, ethical alternatives to emotionally kidnapping a partner include:

  • Compassionate communication of needs and feelings
  • Expressing jealousy, fears or insecurities without blaming
  • Giving a partner space while managing your own anxiety
  • Addressing conflicts calmly without insults, threats or intimidation
  • Accepting decisions you disagree with gracefully
  • Listening to a partner’s differing perspective with empathy
  • Compromising to meet each other’s relationship needs
  • Celebrating each other’s personal growth and interests

Focus on nourishing intimacy through care, trust and mutual commitment – not control. Appreciate each other’s autonomy. Healthy interdependence comes from free choice, not forced captivity.

How can couples rebuild intimacy after emotional kidnapping?

Healing after emotional kidnapping in a relationship requires:

  • The abuser admitting fault and seeking professional treatment
  • Completely ceasing all controlling and abusive behaviors
  • The victim spending time focusing on self-care and recovery
  • Rebuilding trust slowly through consistent caring actions
  • Both partners participating in counseling together and separately
  • Opening up communication and allowing emotional expression
  • Discussing the abuse history gradually in a safe environment
  • The abuser listening without defensiveness as the victim shares their hurt
  • Making amends through loving behavior and remorse – not just empty apologies
  • Being patient – healing trauma bonds takes time and commitment

With sustained effort, empathy and professional support, some couples can salvage relationships after emotional kidnapping. The abuse must end completely and the victim’s emotions be prioritized in this delicate rebuilding process.


Emotional kidnapping refers to psychologically controlling, coercive and exploitative abuse tactics that essentially hold a victim’s emotions hostage. A variety of factors can compel people to emotionally kidnap their partners, but often stem from underlying dysfunction or insecurity. The impacts of this emotional violence can be extremely damaging. Escaping kidnapping relationships is challenging but possible with adequate support and planning. Addressing the societal roots that foster emotional abuse is key to preventing further harm. With courage and compassion, healthier, ethical relationships based on mutual care and respect can prevail over darkness.

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