The most common signs of emotional abuse in a relationship and what you should do about it
How do you know you're in a bad relationship and on the receiving end of mental abuse
The fact that you're searching for emotional abuse signs makes me think it’s very likely that you're in an abusive relationship. Your partner or spouse keeps hurting you - mentally and emotionally. And I’m really sorry to know that.
This may sound scary, and might surprise you, but emotional abuse is classed as domestic violence. Your partner (or other 'loved one') may not have laid a finger on you, yet he or she is still abusing you.
Emotional abuse is often the first sign that your relationship problems are far more serious than you had thought. Physical, sexual and financial abuse may well follow. Yet, your partner might have seemed like 'the best catch ever' at first.
It's also possible that your partner has no idea of the true impact of the abuse. However, it's almost impossible to maintain or build your self esteem and confidence in a relationship when you don't feel really safe.
I’m a professional counsellor with 24 years’ experience, during which time I’ve helped thousands of people. So, let's look together at what might be happening for you, and if indeed you are being emotionally abused.
First of all, here are the most significant emotional abuse signs, because we're certainly not just talking only about sudden changes of mood...
Emotionally and psychologically abusive ways of communicating (gaslighting)
When someone is emotionally abusive, they find ways to deliberately put you down in a calculated attempt to make you feel inferior and control you.
They habitually humiliate you by deliberately embarrassing or upsetting you.
That is what coercive control looks like!
Over time, these deliberate attempts to make you feel bad or not worthy (or whatever else your abuser wants you to feel) will really start to wear you down. And the abuser’s aim is to undermine your confidence to such an extent that you begin to doubt yourself.
Because when you doubt yourself, you’re less able to call them out for their misdemeanours. Which gives them pretty much a free pass to carry on hurting you.
Meanwhile, you become even more confused, fragile and defenceless against their abuse. And so the vicious circle continues, especially because they often intersperse their abuse with morsels of love - and maybe even apologies.
How to know you're emotionally abused
Ways emotional abusers manipulate their victims
Emotional abuse involves a lot of manipulation - sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. However it’s done, it’s always with one goal in mind: so that you’ll do what your abuser wants you to do.
Your wishes, sensibilities and boundaries are disregarded. Often, manipulation is achieved by threats of harm if you don’t do what you’re ‘supposed’ to do.
And it's not only the above list that makes you feel stressed, depressed and on edge - their mood can also change in the blink of an eye, and often completely out of the blue.
I do want you to know now - you do not deserve to be treated like that!
Here's Jana Kramer's story, hear how it all began for her and how it developed...
Other ways your partner may be intimidating you
There are, unfortunately, many other ways abusers find to manipulate their victims, for example by...
- withholding money: not letting you have any (or much) cash, or taking your debit/credit cards away and controlling the finances.
- keeping hold of your passport or other identity papers.
- stopping or limiting your access to healthcare.
- manipulating and sabotaging birth control.
- controlling what you can wear, or eat, or which friends you can see and when.
- watching you closely to see whether you look at other men/women - possessiveness and extreme jealousy are signs of emotional abuse.
And unfortunately, emotional abuse can often be accompanied or followed by physical abuse. For more on this, see my article on the signs of an abusive relationship.
You're not alone
First of all, know that you’re really not alone. Emotional abuse is all too common - and because a lot of it is verbal or psychological, it can be harder to identify than physical abuse. It's one of the most difficult relationship problems to have to deal with.
When it comes to domestic violence in general:
But, stats for domestic violence as a whole aren’t all that helpful here, because emotional abuse isn’t always included under the domestic violence umbrella. And anyway, results of published studies show huge discrepancies between each other. And that’s partly because domestic violence often goes unreported due to the victims’ fears of repercussions.
What matters here, though, is what’s happening to you personally right now. So, for the purposes of this article, it’s enough for you to know that people of all backgrounds, classes and genders are being abused at this very moment. And not a single one of those people deserves to be.
You are not the odd one out, and you do not deserve it either.
Emotional or mental abuse signs: you, your loved ones and your partner
Have people who care about you made comments about your partner's attitude towards and treatment of you?
Perhaps they’ve witnessed your partner being abusive to you and have felt anything from awkward to outraged. They may have said something on your behalf, or kept quiet knowing or suspecting you'd be 'punished' for it later. Or maybe they think you’re ignoring their concerns.
Either way, it’s likely that your loved ones have noticed that something’s not right about the way your partner treats you.
If they have defended you in public or even privately, you're likely to have felt anxious about the possible consequences. Your partner may well blame you for the íncident and 'treat' you to a period of 'the silent treatment'.
You might find yourself avoiding certain people, knowing they're critical of your partner, and potentially critical of you too.
You might start to see some of your friends and loved ones less and less often, because you don't want to be confronted by yet another argument or barrage of concern.
On the flip side, you might also find that some of the people you know stop inviting you out - or they invite you, but not your partner.
All of these things can contribute to making you both feel and become very isolated. And that’s another thing that an emotional abuser is keen to see happen. Then, you lack external support, making you even more vulnerable to their manipulation and abuse.
To help this along, your partner might make seemingly innocuous comments about friends or family, or even just anybody you meet or comment on.
Initially these comments might not be overtly critical, but just some hints that they're not all that keen.
Over time these comments may become increasingly sharp, disrespectful and even obnoxious. This drip-drip-drip of criticisms and comments designed to undermine your opinions can leave you doubting your own judgement and yourself.
Ultimately, you’ll probably find that it feels easier not to see some or all of your friends or acquaintances, for fear of your partner’s displeasure or simply just to avoid the hassle of it all.
Without the support of those that truly care about you, and feeling constantly on edge and unsure of yourself, you become even more vulnerable to abuse.
The consequences of being emotionally abused
If you recognise any or all of the emotional abuse signs we’ve looked at so far, then I’m so glad you’ve found this page. It’s time to break the cycle, and protect yourself from further heartache and pain.
Still not convinced that you’re in an abusive relationship? See how many of these questions you can answer with a YES:
- Have you felt low or even depressed lately?
- Have you found yourself becoming increasingly anxious?
- Do you feel like your self-esteem is in your boots?
- Do you find it increasingly difficult to make decisions?
- Have you found yourself becoming more and more resentful, yet you always convince yourself that you do love your partner?
- Do you make choices based on what he/she might think, rather than what you would want?
- Are you increasingly preoccupied with avoiding 'punishment' of some sort, rather than being able to focus on things that you enjoy doing or need to do?
- Do you worry that you are 'the problem' and it's all your fault?
- Do you feel edgy or scared when your partner calls or walks up the path if you even dare to have friends or family round?
- Have you found yourself feeling on edge most of the time when you're with your partner?
- Have you found yourself constantly trying to anticipate their every need, and bending over backwards to please him or her?
- Even when you're not with them, have you started to worry that he or she will suddenly appear, or somehow find out 'what you've been up to'?
Of course, some of these points on their own are not signs of emotional abuse - so make sure you look at the whole picture.
How many of these questions did you answer with a yes?
And are they crucial ones that you should be able to answer with a no?
Still not sure you're in a bad relationship?
Then do get my Comprehensive Relationship Test to help you discover for yourself how you're really faring in this relationship.
So, are you ready to take action? You don’t deserve to suffer any longer.
The "No" test
Do this test early in your relationship - as soon as you as you start to question your partners motives. Change your mind about something you agreed on or say "no" to a suggestion.
Watch how they react. Do they calmly say things like: "What a shame.", "No problem.", "Next time better." with a smile? Or do they angrily make it clear that that was not what they were expecting?
The latter is an indication that you're dealing with someone you feels entitled, doesn't want to take no for an answer and expects you to follow him (or her).
Interested in what caused them to become emotionally abusive?
Realising that you’ve been abused can be hard to come to terms with. I can imagine you might find yourself wondering what could possibly have led your partner behave like this. Let me tell you - this is NOT your concern!
There is no excuse for their behaviour, regardless of...
- whatever’s happened to them in their life
- whatever they say a previous partner did
- however difficult a childhood they may have had
- however insecure they may or may not be deep down
- whatever else you (or they) may think is their problem
You will never get to get to the bottom of it and, most importantly, you cannot heal them!
Instead, it’s time to focus on yourself. You need all your energy to get out of this relationship and start healing.
It’s likely that your partner's behaviour will only get worse, and could even become physical and sexual abuse too.
The fact that you’re in this relationship in the first place suggests to me that there might be a little part of you that needs some TLC.
Maybe you had a difficult childhood, or have always had very low self-esteem, or have been in an abusive relationship before.
There’s absolutely no shame in finding yourself in this position. It just means that top of your list of things to do is to get out of this relationship. Then you'll need to figure out why you ended up with your partner - and why you put up with their mistreatment for this long.
You're not alone!
I'd love you to read this novel about the wife who appeared to have a most wonderful husband. You may recognise many of the hidden signs of abuse...
What to do when you're being emotionally abused
You may well think and feel you love him or her, and they love you.
You may well have had some great times together.
However, know that this is a bad relationship! Love shouldn't hurt. In a healthy romantic relationship partners respect each other and treat each other with love, care, integrity and dignity.
These three steps will get you started on the road to recovery.
It’s important that you get as much support as you can, from people you can trust and who genuinely have your best interests at heart.
What about the future?
Once you’ve detached from your toxic partner and begun to heal, you might start to think about the future.
Of course, you're hoping to find a kind, loving partner to have a healthy relationship with. But you might worry that you’ll miss the signs of emotional abuse again, and end up in the same situation with a new abuser.
So how can you avoid that happening?
The best way is to get to know…
- who you really are.
- what you really stand for.
- what your values and beliefs are.
- how to set and maintain your boundaries.
- how to build your self-esteem.
Although knowing all of that won’t guarantee you a better relationship in the future, it will for sure help you make good decisions. It’ll make you more able to spot the warning signs, and less likely to put up with mistreatment (see also: How to deal with a narcissistic husband). It’ll also make it more likely that you’re able to find a partner who’s more emotionally balanced too.
That might seem like a tall order now if your self-esteem is in your boots and you're in (or just out of) a toxic relationship.
So, for now, just focus on preparing to get safely out of this relationship - with help.
When you’re safely out of the situation, allow for a period of rest in your life. Be on your own and learn to trust yourself again.
While I strongly urge you to get professional help when you’re preparing to leave an abusive relationship, I’d also encourage it for your period of self-reflection too.
It's really easy now to connect with a professional online, on any device, wherever you are. To discover how that works, see my article on online counselling.
Alternatively, you can look for someone you can trust to talk to locally - whether that be a professional or a wise, non-judgemental person in your own surroundings. To learn what you should be looking for in that person, read my article on the where, when and who of getting the best relationship advice.
I hope this article has shed light on the most common emotional abuse signs to look out for - either in your own relationships, or in those of the people you love.
If you have suffered at the hands of an abuser, remember that you’re not alone. And know that it’s not your fault, you don’t deserve it and you didn’t do anything wrong.
Take strength from the fact that you’ve survived this ordeal, and know that a brighter future lies ahead.
With the right help, support and some personal determination, you can heal yourself and leave this pain and suffering far behind. I’m rooting for you - I know you can do it.
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Where to get help
(Links open in new tabs)
For men and women
US and Canada - Domestic Abuse Helpline
Australia - 1800respect
"Domestic Violence and Abuse." Domestic Violence and Abuse - GOV.UK. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2017.
"NCADV | National Coalition Against Domestic Violence." The Nation's Leading Grassroots Voice on Domestic Violence. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2017.