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Spotting the Signs of Emotional Abuse in Relationships

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9 min

Spotting the Signs of Emotional Abuse in Relationships

Starting from the beginning, let us talk about why we actually need to bring this up. Here are some scary numbers: over 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the US have experienced abuse in the form of physical violence and/or emotional abuse like stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

Abuse, emotional abuse especially, is a bit like an elusive ghost until you—or someone you love—become the haunted house. It thrives in the shadows of silence and stigma. 

But here’s the shocking reality: it’s everywhere. A friend, a family member, a colleague, maybe even you? So, knowing how to spot the warning signs of emotional abuse is especially important in today’s society.

Ready? Grab your courage; we’re about to bring light to a dark matter.

What is emotional abuse?

Let’s start with the general definition of abuse. In basic terms, it is the physical, psychological, or financial violence of one partner against another. As you can see, abuse is not just hurting someone physically; it can also hurt them emotionally.

At its core, emotional or mental abuse is a systematic way to diminish your sense of identity and independence. 

It’s a medley of tactics—such as intimidation, constant criticism, and isolation—that make you question your own reality. 

The scars from mental cruelty can be as deep and long-lasting as wounds from punches or slaps but are often not as obvious. In fact, even among women who have experienced violence from a partner, half or more report that the man’s emotional abuse is what is causing them the greatest harm.”― Lundy Bancroft, counselor and author of the bestseller “Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men”

People who have been emotionally abused for a long time may need help in the future with things like anxiety disorders, depression, and complex PTSD.

Can childhood trauma cause adult emotional abuse?

Our early relationships can often serve as templates for the ones we choose as adults. People who were emotionally abused as children tend to get stuck in relationships or situations that are similar to those in their childhood.

As psychologists point out, victims of emotional abuse do not always realize they are in danger. Why? It may trigger your childhood trauma, and you have more chances to fall for this type of person.

First appearing as a “kind uncle/ aunt” or a caring partner, the abuser blinds those being hurt by unkind conduct when they were kids.

By getting the victim to trust them, the person who is abusing them makes them more vulnerable over time. They stop even asking themselves, “Am I being abused?

10 signs & tactics of emotional abuse (Checklist)

It might be easy to ignore or explain away small signs or symptoms of abuse, but it is clear that some overt behaviors are abusive. 

Here are ten warning signs with examples of emotional abuse from a partner that should not be ignored:

1.  🚩 Love-bombing and devaluation cycles

If someone wants to get control over you, they may love-bomb you by giving too much praise and compliments and pressing you to commit right away. It often turns into devaluation, where the abuser lowers your worth by stopping the caring gestures. Instead, they start to make mean comments or punish you.

Examples:

  • “I’ve never met anyone like you; you’re perfect in every way.” 
  • In the later stages, the abusive partner may constantly point out your perceived flaws or mistakes. 

2.  🚩 Excessive control

We’re not talking about somebody who’s organized; we’re talking about some tyrant with levels of control where they’re dictating the spoon-to-mouth sequence over breakfast. As their influence grows, you find yourself more and more reliant on them. All of a sudden, you are stuck in a relationship that feels like “a cage.”

Examples:

  • “I don’t care if you want to work or not; you’re staying home. I will handle all the money from now on, and you need to ask me before you buy anything.”
  • Being bombarded with questions after time spent away from your partner.
  • Your partner is investigating or snooping into your personal matters.

3.  🚩 The silent treatment

As a form of punishment, the abuser often uses silent treatment or other ways to withhold affection or praise. This kind of behavior is meant to make the victim scared and anxious, so they will do what the abuser wants. 

Interesting research shows that the silent treatment makes the anterior cingulate cortex (this is the brain area that senses pain) work harder. A lot of different physical reactions have been found, including changes in weight, higher blood pressure, and trouble sleeping.

In other words, people who are given the silent treatment feel both mental and physical pain. 😞

4.  🚩 Gaslighting & manipulative language 

“My thesis on why I’m always right” – coming soon to a bookstore near you. The term “gaslighting” has become very popular in the fight against abuse. It’s a psychological tactic in which the victim’s perception of reality is constantly questioned. 

Often, the abuser will deny that certain things happened or that certain things were said to make another one feel crazy. So, the right examples of gaslighting are when they make you question your memory, perception, or sanity.

What they are:

  • “No problem. You always have something more important than me, anyway. I’m used to it.”
  • “When you had your outburst yesterday, I was genuinely scared by how angry you got. I don’t think I did anything wrong. You might have overreacted.”
  • Using your insecurities as leverage in disagreements or discussions.

5.  🚩 Verbal abuse

Through consistent insults, humiliation, and other forms of verbal aggression, the abuser intends to break down the person’s self-esteem. These words cut deep into the soul of the one hurt and leave scars that may never go away.

Example of verbal emotional mental abuse in relationships:

  • “You’re useless. I don’t know why you even bother. You’re too stupid to understand.”
  • “Why do you always do this wrong? Why can’t you be more like [someone else]? You’re incompetent.”
  • “At the party, you embarrassed me with your stupid jokes. Can’t you do anything right?”
Spotting the Signs of Emotional Abuse in Relationships in notebook

6.  🚩 Unpredictability or the fear of the next move

One of the terrifying examples of emotionally abusive relationships or marriage is its unstable nature. The abuser’s behavior can change drastically from one moment to the next. One day, it’s rainbows and unicorns; the next, it’s doom and gloom, all under the same circus tent. 

The sacred “act your age, not your shoe size” becomes a theatrical drama, and the audience is just as clueless about the plot as the performer. This inconsistency keeps you in a constant state of fear and hyper-vigilance. 

Examples:

  • You never know what will set them off. It might be nothing, or it might be something you can’t even imagine. 
  • “I do not know what will make him angry again, but he seems fine now.”

7.  🚩 Isolation from family and friends

People who abuse others often try to cut their victims off from family, friends, and other people who can help them. Doing this makes the victim more dependent on them, giving them more power over them. It’s like “It’s a Wonderful Life” without the part where George Bailey gets to keep living his outside-world life.

Examples:

  • “Why do you always have to be with your friends? Can’t you just stay home with me for once?”
  • “Your family always puts their noses in our business. You need to stop talking to them so much.”
  • You may feel totally reliant on the abuser when your social support slowly fades away.

8. 🚩 Blame and denial

Imagine the game of chess, but for every piece you lose, your opponent insists you still have it. Blaming someone becomes a game of verbal hacky sack in abusive relationships.

Victims of emotional abuse often come to believe that they are stupid or selfish because their partner blames them too often,” explains psychotherapist Beverly Engle, author of Emotionally Abusive Relationships.

Examples:

  • Overexaggerating your mistakes into unforgivable transgressions.
  • Holding a grudge or using the past against you in new disputes.
  • Making you feel responsible for their emotional well-being: “You’re the reason we’re having problems.”

9. 🚩 Codependency

In addition to the “bad” examples above, emotional abuse can also look like “real love.” 

When someone is in a codependent relationship, they depend on the abuser, which can make them feel less autonomous. In order to feel stronger and keep the victim from feeling like they can run away, the abuser may encourage this tactic.

A good example of this psychological type of abuse is the phrase: “I need you to take care of me. Without you, I don’t know what I’d do. You’re the only one who really understands me.”

10. 🚩 Unreasonable jealousy

When someone’s jealousy extends beyond what’s normal and starts infringing on your friendships or personal freedom, it becomes a tool of emotional abuse. 

They may demand constant reassurance or become controlling out of fear of losing you, not out of genuine concern for the relationship. For instance, a partner gets mad when you make plans with others; they always need to know where you are and who you are with.

How to deal with emotional abuse

If recognizing the signs of abuse is the first step, escaping or stopping the mental abuse is an ongoing odyssey. It demands strength, support, and a roadmap to a reality where fear doesn’t tether your every step.

Seeking support and help

First of all, remember, you’re not alone. Shelters, support groups, and hotlines are designed to throw you a lifeline.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing abuse, the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-7233 is available 24/7 and provides confidential support and resources. 

Reaching out is not a sign of weakness; it’s a fist shaken in the face of your abuser, the first slingstone of defiance.

Self-reflection and awareness

Another stage of healing is self-examination and understanding. People who have been abused are told to think about how they feel and what they have been through. Now, it’s time to know yourself a bit better. 

👉To help with this step, you can take the Breeze childhood trauma test. This free and simple test will give you a safe space to understand yourself better, turn back the clock, and determine how your childhood may impact your adult life.

Therapy

Therapy is where you rebuild the fortress of your identity. It’s not just for the battle-scarred but for anyone seeking to relearn their worth. 

Rychel Johnson, M.S., LCPC, an expert from Breeze, also adds Verbal and mental abuse can affect your mental health as well as your physical health. Common emotions you may experience are confusion, nervousness, anxiety, feeling powerless, shame, and more. There may be pressure to stay in this relationship despite your awareness that things don’t feel right, with attempts to bargain with the abuser and change their behavior. It is not unusual for an abuse victim to feel like they are to blame. Fortunately, there are resources like therapy and support groups to help you find your footing and navigate leaving a harmful situation.

Loving yourself

Self-care is crafting a sanctuary out of ‘I.’ It’s the art of love—the love that turns inward, painting the walls of your temple. It’s about putting your wellness first and rediscovering the joy that abuse tried to steal.

A word from Breeze 

For those who have experienced or are currently living through emotional abuse, remember that the actions of others do not define you. You are defined by the strength and courage it takes to confront and overcome such experiences. 

By learning to recognize the signs of emotional abuse and taking steps toward recovery, survivors can begin to rebuild their lives on the foundations of their own making.

Rychel Johnson, M.S., LCPC photo

Reviewed by Rychel Johnson, M.S., LCPC

Rychel Johnson, M.S., LCPC, is a licensed clinical professional counselor. She owns a private practice specializing in anxiety tre...