Emotional Abuse: Recognizing the Signs

How to notice signals and how to get help

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Shutterstock Image: eldar nurkovic
Shutterstock Image: eldar nurkovic

Originally published on Psychology Today.

So you are in a relationship… and it doesn’t make you feel good. You are sad all of the time. You feel like you are worthless. You feel crazy, not yourself, angry, and you cannot handle your emotions. Is it you? Or is your partner to blame?  

Emotional abuse is any kind of abuse that is not physical. While that definition can take on many possible forms, it is best explained that emotional abuse can range from subtle things like criticism to more destructive abuse, such as intimidation, manipulation, or bribery. 

The effects on a marriage or relationship can be dramatic. Of course, it depends on the type of emotional abuse taking place. It can lead to depression, anxiety, or mental health issues in the partner. It can lead to poor self-esteem, loss of employment, and even phobic behavior. This includes things like not wanting to leave the house and possible social isolation, where someone might cut off contact with friends or family members. Even things as dramatic as suicide attempts can be related to emotional abuse.  

In the context of a romantic relationship, there are many different ways that emotional abuse can show up:

  • Belittling, or in today’s slang, “negging,” in which the abuser makes some backhanded compliments. This can often be done in a flirtatious manner to undermine another’s self-confidence in order to make the abuser feel or look more important. For example, something like “That dress looked great on you when you were younger. Next time, you should ask me what to wear before we go out.” This negging has a great effect on people with low self-esteem as they really begin to believe they could not function without the other person.
  • Gaslighting: This term comes from the movie Gaslight in 1944, where a man manipulates his wife into thinking he is going crazy. It is when the abuser makes the victim feel they are losing their mind. For example, if a wife is having an affair and gets caught, they deny it anyway and accuse the other partner of being paranoid.  
  • Passive aggressiveness: This one is very thoughtful because it means you cut off a discussion, or deny the other person’s needs but not directly by avoidance of the conversation. Using the silent treatment or refusing to do what is asked, like mowing the lawn or paying a bill. Sometimes it can be intentional, but other times, it can be unconscious if the passive-aggressive person feels over-controlled or manipulated. It usually leads to the other partner feeling very angry. Then, the passive-aggressive person feels vindicated in their behavior and it becomes a very toxic spiral. 
    • For example, a hurt ex-husband does not pay the children’s tuition as per their agreement. The wife is left taking the phone calls from the school with embarrassing requests for money and then she gets angry with him but he still “forgets,” voicing that he feels they should go to public school anyway.  
  • Financial control: keeping all accounts in their name and making the partner ask for every penny, even though the partner contributes to the household in many ways. 
  • Derogatory names and patronizing: Calling the person names like chub, or knucklehead, and patronizing your partner like, “you’re so blonde.” 

There are many red flags to take notice of when you’re being emotionally abused by a partner. Overall, this includes feeling uncomfortable in a situation, like you are being coerced or manipulated by your partner. Specific things to take note of are:

  • If your partner keeps you from socializing or seeking help from friends or professionals. Or, they may even work to turn others against you, like your family or coworkers.  
  • It may feel like your partner is indifferent to your needs, refuses to compromise, or as if you are always walking on eggshells to keep them happy. 
  • You may find yourself turning to marijuana or alcohol in order to cope when this person is home.  
  • If your children become worried for you.    
  • If you are coerced into sexual situations that make you uncomfortable, such as having sex when you are not in the mood to keep your partner from yelling or being in a bad mood. Sex should be pleasurable and wanted every time.  

When it comes to parenting, there are also red flags to signal emotional abuse. 

Specifically, when a parent’s love is conditional. For example, conditional on good grades, performance in sports, etc. Other examples are: if you feel hatred toward your parents, have very low self-esteem, have suicidal thoughts, or thoughts like “they will be sorry when I’m dead.” Or, if you find yourself turning to marijuana, or alcohol in order to cope when the parent is around.  

It is possible that a relationship can survive after emotional abuse, but usually this only happens under the context of therapy or other psychological treatment, in which a person makes a shift in the abuse. 

The victim can help the abuser by setting boundaries with their partner. Statements such as “if you yell at me or call my names, I will leave.” Or, if the person’s emotional abuse is in the context of alcohol, make sobriety a condition of a continued relationship. You can also make therapy or medication a condition of a continued relationship. Build a support network of friends and family who can help you maintain your boundaries or be there for you in crisis.  

Come up with an exit plan if you need to be able to enforce the boundaries you set up. This could include things such as living with a friend or parent, having a lawyer on standby for legal arrangements, etc. 

If you suspect you are being emotionally abused by a partner, you can get help. There is a national domestic violence hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). If it is more subtle, then get mental health counseling. In New York, it is: 1-800-LIFENET or 

Or, call your insurance company for a list of providers or reach out to your doctor for a referral. It is very hard to do this on your own without support to help you set boundaries or deal with your own codependency issues.  

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