“Tough love is real love. Why? Because it’s never easy. It hurts the giver far more than the receiver,” said decorated military pilot and Vietnam war hero Bobby W. Miller. Would you agree? Do you believe in tough love?
Being a bit of a divisive subject, some people say yes, while others would say no. Those who say yes believe it to be necessary for discipline and setting healthy boundaries, while those who say no believe it could lead to some unhelpful relationship dynamics or, at worst, psychological and emotional harm. But no matter which party you belong to, it’s important that we all understand the difference between tough love and emotional abuse so that we can know when it’s crossed that line.
With that said, here are 5 important warning signs that it’s emotional abuse and not “tough love”, according to experts:
The term “emotional blackmail” was first coined by therapist and author Dr. Susan Forward in 1997 and she described it as “when someone uses fear, obligation, and guilt to manipulate you.” And one of the reasons why this is as clear a sign as any of emotional abuse is because, for emotional blackmail to be used against you, you need to be emotionally invested in your relationship with this person. And it’s that attachment that they exploit to get what they want. Examples include: playing the victim and guilt-tripping you, walking out on you, stonewalling/giving you the cold shoulder, and having dramatic emotional outbursts.
Humiliating and degrading
No matter how angry you are with someone, repeatedly name-calling, insulting, and belittling you is never okay, especially not if they do it in front of other people. These kinds of behaviors are already considered emotional abuse because they are meant to diminish and attack your sense of self-esteem — a common tactic for emotional abusers, according to licensed family therapist Dr. Beverly Engel. Shame is the most damaging effect of emotional abuse, Dr. Engel says, because it’s meant to make victims believe that they are unlovable to others and deserving of emotional abuse. And the worst part is, these feelings and self-esteem issues can linger long after the emotional abuser is no longer in your life.
Tough love comes from someone who wants what’s best for you, but emotional abuse comes from someone who wants to control you. So while both can sometimes include lecturing you, emotional abuse actually crosses the line by giving you direct orders and making your decisions for you. According to mental health journalists Ann Pietrangelo and Crystal Raypole, in an article medically reviewed by psychologist Dr. Jacquelyn Johnson, other examples include: monitoring your whereabouts, spying on you digitally, and controlling your finances. These behaviors are abusive because they take away a person’s sense of autonomy, make unhealthy boundaries, and invade their privacy.
Accusing and gaslighting
Although we can all agree that sometimes we need to take a firm, no-nonsense approach with the people we love, especially when we feel that they’ve done something wrong, wrongly accusing and gaslighting someone is never justified. Trivialising serious issues and invalidating another person’s feelings can be considered a covert form of emotional abuse, says certified professional life coach Sherri Gordon, because it can lead to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, and uncertainty of one’s mental stability when done repeatedly for a prolonged period of time. Moreover, emotional abusers will often turn the tables on their victims by denying the abuse and blaming you for all the problems.
Emotional neglect and isolation
Emotional neglect is another often overlooked form of emotional abuse that involves the abuser deliberately withholding their affection and withdrawing from you as a manipulation tactic. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Health Encyclopedia, this is done to create an environment meant to make you more dependent on the emotional abuser and desire their validation more after they reject you. Similarly, they will also tend to make an effort to isolate you by coming between you and the other important relationships in your life so that you prioritize them over everyone else and other people have a harder time realizing what’s really going on.
So, do you relate to any of the things we’ve mentioned here? Did this list help you to better distinguish between tough love and emotional abuse? To summarize, although tough love can sometimes involve a certain level of severity, it never crosses the line towards a lack of humanity or empathy for the other person.
Remember, emotional abuse is just as serious and harmful as physical abuse, and people of any age or gender can experience it. It can also happen in the context of romantic, platonic, or familial relationships.
So if you believe that you might be experiencing emotional abuse, trust your instincts and do not hesitate to reach out to someone about it. Prioritize your own needs and safety and exit the relationship if you can. Should things escalate, get in touch with a mental healthcare professional or other emergency services today.
- Engel, B. (2021). “Why Shame Is the Most Damaging Aspect of Emotional Abuse.” Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-compassion-chronicles/202101/why-shame-is-the-most-damaging-aspect-emotional-abuse-0
- Gordon, S. (2023). “What Is Gaslighting and Signs It May Be Happening to You.” VeryWell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/is-someone-gaslighting-you-4147470
- Pietrangelo, A., Raypole, C., & Johnson, J. (2022). “How to Recognize the Signs of Emotional Abuse.” Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/signs-of-mental-abuse#humiliation-and-criticism
- Raypole, C., & Legg, T. J. (2020). “How to Spot and Respond to Emotional Blackmail.” Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/emotional-blackmail
- Silva, L., Courtney, D. (2022). “4 Signs Of Emotional Abuse, According To Experts.” Forbes Health. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/health/mind/signs-of-emotional-abuse/
- Watson, L. R., Fraser, M., & Ballas, P. (2023). “Health Encyclopedia: Recognizing Emotional Abuse.” University of Rochester Medical Center. Retrieved from https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=1&contentid=2990