Even if a family member, friend, or romantic partner doesn’t get physically violent with you, they could still be abusing you. Psychologists break abuse down into several categories: physical, sexual, financial, and emotional (or psychological) abuse (Holt, 2013, p. 16). The American Psychological Association (APA) defines emotional abuse as the repeated degrading of another person’s mental health and well-being through nonphysical actions (n.d).
Although emotional abuse has occurred in interpersonal relationships for years, it has only recently been added to the definition of domestic violence (Francis & Pearson, 2019). Emotional abuse is also harder to spot than physical abuse because the psychological signs are generally less obvious to both the victim and bystanders than physical evidence of abuse (Francis & Pearson, 2019). And if you find yourself in an abusive relationship, it can be hard to recognize the signs in time to get out without help. Here are 7 signs of emotional abuse:
When someone berates you, they criticize you and make you feel like you can’t do anything right. Some signs of this in an emotionally abusive relationship include: the abuser repeatedly insulting you, even after you’ve asked them to stop, holding you to impossibly high standards and then belittling you when you don’t measure up to them, and swearing or yelling at you frequently, even when you aren’t arguing (Francis & Pearson, 2019). Berating is often a sign of verbal abuse — critical or threatening words used to make you break down or begin to doubt yourself (APA, n.d.). Repeated berating can lead to humiliation.
Humiliation can take many forms, from private slights to public insults. Examples of humiliation in an abusive relationship are degrading comments about your appearance, intelligence, or success (Francis & Pearson, 2019). Even small insults and microaggressions can have a huge impact on a person’s self-esteem when they are repeated, and emotional abusers will take advantage of this to convince you to maintain your relationship with them. They may say things like, “I’m the only one who could ever love you” or “you’ll never find someone as good as me” (Francis & Pearson, 2019).
Emotional abuse may take the form of intimidation. Intimidation might look like a person using their physical presence to manipulate their victim into agreeing with them. While emotional abuse does occur without other forms of abuse, it can also lead to, or happen at the same time as, physical abuse (Crisis Text Line, n.d.). Intimidation might also look like threats and verbal harassment (Francis & Pearson, 2019). A situation where you comply with the demands of a person you’re in a close relationship with because you fear the consequences of disagreeing with them is another example of intimidation. Emotional abuse is defined by behavioral patterns, so if intimidation is recurring and intentional, it is a sign of emotional abuse (APA, n.d.).
Isolation is another sign of emotional abuse. People who care about you want the best for you, and can’t stand to see you being treated poorly. An abuser will try to isolate you from these people so they don’t pick up on the warning signs. So if someone acts nice to you when you’re with your friends and family or in public but displays the other signs on this list when you’re alone with them, this is a red flag of emotional abuse. Abusers often try to isolate their victims by encouraging them to move in with them and away from their family and friends, or threatening to end the relationship if their victim expresses a desire to visit other people (Dubrow-Marshall, 2017).
During a rejection phase, an emotional abuser will physically distance themselves from you or become emotionally unavailable. This is another method of control: being suddenly cut off from their affection will make you question yourself and worry that you’re the broken one in the relationship. If the abuser has succeeded in isolating you, you’ll be completely reliant on them for emotional support, and it can be devastating to your mental health if they cut you off (Dubrow-Marshall, 2017). Another sign of emotional abuse is public rejection, where they ignore you in public or around friends and family as a punishment (and not because they need space after an argument) (Francis & Pearson, 2019).
While the rejection phase is marked by avoidance, the exploitation phase is characterized by the person reaching out to you only to use you. Maybe they call you every time they need something, no matter how trivial it seems, or ask for favors you don’t feel comfortable doing (Francis & Pearson, 2019). But although they always contact you when they need something, they do little in return and become emotionally unavailable when you need them. Exploitation is a sign of manipulation that could be a sign of emotional abuse if it becomes a pattern and occurs alongside the other signs.
Has someone in your life ever tried to control everything you do? Maybe it was a well-meaning helicopter parent or a partner in a relationship. But however well-meaning a person may be, when they begin micromanaging your life and refuse to listen to you talk about your personal goals, your relationship has crossed into unhealthy territory. Emotional abusers can leave you feeling worthless and dependent on them to make any decision, no matter how small. They may even gaslight you, manipulating you and making you question your judgement (Moulton Sarkis, 2018). So if you find yourself scared that even a seemingly harmless decision, like wearing a t-shirt instead of a sweatshirt, will anger the person, it’s likely you’re dealing with emotional abuse.
Being trapped in a relationship with an emotional abuser can feel incredibly difficult to overcome. Emotional abuse has been linked to the development of low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders (Francis & Pearson, 2019). And it’s important to remember that regardless of their gender, anyone could be an emotional abuser. But there is hope; you don’t have to go through it alone. Knowing the signs is the first step to helping yourself or someone else who finds themselves in an abusive relationship, so don’t beat yourself up for not recognizing or acting on the signs sooner. What’s important is that you take action once you identify a combination of these signs. Below is a list of hotlines you or a loved one can use to seek help for emotional abuse.
- American Psychological Association (n.d.). Emotional abuse. In APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved 11 June from https://dictionary.apa.org/emotional-abuse.
- –(n.d.). Verbal abuse. In APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved 11 June from https://dictionary.apa.org/verbal-abuse.
- Crisis Text Line (n.d.). How to Deal with Emotional Abuse. Retrieved 11 June from https://www.crisistextline.org/topics/emotional-abuse/#myths-about-emotional-abuse-2.
- Dubrow-Marshall, L., & Dubrow-Marshall, R. (2017). When your life is not your own. Therapy Today, 28(9), 24–27.
- Francis, L., & Pearson, D. (2019). The recognition of emotional abuse: Adolescents’ responses to warning signs in romantic relationships. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260519850537.
- Holt, A. (2013). Abuse in families: Commonalities, connections and contexts. In Adolescent-to-parent abuse: Current understandings in research, policy and practice, 15-36. Bristol University Press. DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1t6p748.6.
- Moulton Sarkis, S. (2018). Gaslighting: Recognize manipulative and emotionally abusive people–and break free. Hachette Books.
- National Child Abuse Hotline (US and Canada): 800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453)
- National Domestic Abuse Hotline: 800-799-SAFE (800-799-7233)
Video Phone for Deaf Callers: 206-518-9361
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255)
TTY: 800-799-4TTY (800-799-4889)
- Crisis Text Line: Text HELLO to 741741 (US and Canada) or 85258 (UK)
- National Runaway Switchboard: 800-RUNAWAY (800-786-2929)