Being in an abusive relationship – be it, with a partner, a parent, a family member, or a friend – is something no one should ever have to go through. Physical abuse is considered both a violation of one’s human rights and a crime punishable by law, and there are plenty of emergency hotlines and social services at the ready to help survivors of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence.
But what happens when the scars our abusers leave us with can’t be seen? What happens if the damage they inflict is purely psychological in nature?
This is what you’d call “emotional abuse”. It’s defined as the continued mistreatment of another person which involves deliberate attempts of intimidation, humiliation, isolation, and neglect (O’Hagan, 2014). It can be hard for us to believe that someone we love would ever want to hurt us, but the sad truth is, millions of people all over the world suffer from emotional abuse – and some of them may not even know it!
Emotional abuse tends to be gradual and elusive. There are a number of obvious signs it may be taking place, but when you’re in the midst of it all, it can be difficult to recognize. However, studies show that it can be even more harmful than physical abuse, because it erodes our self-esteem, damages our mental health, and drains our emotional energy (Follingstad, et al., 2000).
On that note, here are 6 telltale signs that can help you spot emotional abuse when it happens:
1. Control and Shame
Abusers always want to have the upper hand and exert their dominance over their victims, so they prey on other people’s insecurities and exploit their weaknesses for their own gain. This could mean that they threaten you into doing what they want; monitor your every little move; invade your privacy by reading your messages; control your finances; make decisions for you without even asking; and put ideas in your head about how “untrustworthy” everyone else in your life is.
2. Humiliation and Criticism
Humiliation and criticism are common tactics abusers employ to attack their victims’ self-esteem. This can take the form of name calling, insults, sarcasm, and hurtful jokes; while other times, it manifests as yelling, patronizing, and belittling. Emotional abuse happens when someone has a laugh at your expense, and doesn’t ever apologize for it. They will put you down just so they can feel good about themselves, and accuse you of being “too sensitive” or “overreacting” when you confront them about it (Loring, 1994).
3. Accusations, Blame, and Denial
While it may not feel like it at first, when someone you love constantly accuses you of doing them wrong, blames you for everything bad that happens to them, and denies doing any of it, that’s already a warning sign for emotional abuse. This kind of behavior is meant to confuse victims and minimize the situation. Oftentimes, an abuser will turn the tables on you and make you think you’re the one hurting them. And whenever you call them out on what they’ve done, they will trivialize your feelings by saying they “didn’t mean it”, or “you just took it the wrong way”, or “you have no sense of humor.”
4. Neglect and Isolation
Emotional neglect happens when someone doesn’t care about your feelings and constantly tries to put their own emotional needs above yours. Emotional isolation is what you call it when an abuser tries to distance you from other important people in your life and make you more dependent on them. Both of these behaviors are meant to make victims more helpless and compliant to their abusers. Other forms of emotional neglect and isolation include: talking over you, refusing to listen to you, demanding respect without giving it, turning other people against you, and being indifferent to your emotions (Glaser, 2017).
5. Emotional Blackmail
Do you know someone who holds grudges against you for even the slightest of mistakes? Does anyone try to emotionally manipulate you into doing things for them or agreeing with them? Watch out! This is called emotional blackmail, and it’s one of the most harmful forms of emotional abuse. Abusers will demand something from you that you have no choice but to meet – or else! They might throw a tantrum; guilt trip you; use your secrets against you; withhold their affection for you; leverage the love you have for them; and even put themselves in harm’s way just to coerce you into doing what they want (Johnson, 2014).
Finally, codependence is another common sign of emotional abuse, but unlike the others, this one might not be entirely intentional. Codependence happens when you become so enmeshed with someone that you don’t know how to be without them anymore. It’s an unhealthy relationship where your sense of identity and self-worth is tied to another person. When you become codependent on someone, you make them your utmost priority. You’re willing to sacrifice everything for them, fix all their problems, and save them from themselves. You love and care for them in a way that they will never reciprocate, and though you might want to leave, you honestly don’t know what you’d do if they weren’t in your life anymore (Brown & Bosson, 2001; Burns, 1979).
If you recognize any of these signs, or you worry you might be at risk of being emotionally abused, take action. Nobody deserves to be treated this way, and there are plenty of people, professionals, and organizations you can turn to for help. Break the cycle of abuse and reach out to someone today.
- O’Hagan, K. P. (2014). Emotional and Psychological Abuse: Problems of Definition. Child Abuse & Neglect, 19 (4); 449-461.
- Follingstad, D. R., Rutledge, L. L., Berg, B. J., Hause, E. S., & Polek, D. S. (2000). The Role of Emotional Abuse in Physically Abusive Relationships. Journal of Family Violence, 5 (2); 107-120.
- Glaser, D. (2017). Emotional Abuse and Neglect: A Study of Psychological Maltreatment. Child Abuse & Neglect, 26 (17); 697-714.
- Loring, M. T. (1994). Emotional Abuse. Lexington Books; Macmillian.
- Johnson, R. S. (2014). Emotional Blackmail: Fear, Obligation, and Guilt. Journal of Gender and Relationship Studies, 10 (19); 311-320.
- Brown, R. P., & Bosson, J. K. (2001). Narcissus meets Sisyphus: Self-love, self-loathing, and the never-ending pursuit of self-worth. Psychological Inquiry, 12(4), 210-213.
- Burns, R. B. (1979). The Self Concept: In Theory, Measurement, Development and Behavior. London: Longman.