61 Devastating Signs Of Emotional Abuse In A Relationship
Nothing is more damaging to your confidence and self-esteem than being in an emotionally abusive relationship.
Unlike physical abuse, which rears its ugly head in dramatic outbursts, emotional abuse can be more insidious and elusive.
In some cases, neither the abuser nor the victim is fully aware it's happening.
The most obvious scenario for emotional abuse is in an intimate relationship in which a man is the abuser and the woman is the victim.
However, a variety of studies show that men and women abuse each other at equal rates. In fact, emotional abuse can occur in any relationship — between parent and child, in friendships, and with relatives.
What Is Emotional Abuse?
Emotional abuse is a form of brain-washing that slowly erodes the victim's sense of self-worth, security, and trust in themselves and others.
In many ways, it is more detrimental than physical abuse because it slowly disintegrates one's sense of self and personal value.
It cuts to the core of your essential being, which can create lifelong psychological scars and emotional pain.
Emotional abuse is used to control and dominate the other person, and quite often it occurs because the abuser has childhood wounds and insecurities they haven't dealt with — perhaps as a result of being abused themselves.
They didn't learn healthy coping mechanisms or how to have positive, healthy relationships. Instead, they feel angry, hurt, fearful and powerless.
Male and female abusers tend to have high rates of personality disorders including borderline personality disorder (BPD), narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), and antisocial personality disorder(ASPD).
Although emotional abuse doesn't always lead to physical abuse, physical abuse is almost always preceded and accompanied by emotional abuse.
The victim of the abuse quite often doesn't see the mistreatment as abusive. They develop coping mechanisms of denial and minimizing in order to deal with the stress.
But the effects of long-term emotional abuse can cause severe emotional trauma in the victim, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
If you aren't sure what constitutes emotionally abusive behavior, read the list of signs below.
Here are 61 signs of emotional abuse in a relationship:
Domination and Control
1. Says things to upset or frighten you.
Maybe you are tender-hearted, sensitive, or easily upset. Your abusive partner has found your Achilles heel and is playing you for all it’s worth. If you don’t obey, go along, or toe the line, your partner is going to threaten and scare you into it.
2. Becomes overly and inappropriately jealous of attention from or conversation with others.
Your partner doesn’t like the idea of sharing you with anyone—even in the most innocuous, innocent situations. He or she will make sure you never cross the line again by inflicting the pain of extreme jealous tantrums and threats.
3. Monitors your time and whereabouts.
Nothing is more controlling and dominating than someone checking up on you constantly and managing what you do and where you go. Emotional controllers are masters at monitoring you and will either guilt you into staying put or threaten you if you step out of line. As a result, you feel like you’re under house arrest with no freedom or decision-making powers.
4. Monitors your telephone calls/texts or email contacts.
This kind of monitoring is just another way of controlling you and crossing your personal boundaries. You feel like a child whose parent suspects you’re up to no good—except you aren’t a child. You’re an adult with a right to privacy and a right to contact whomever you wish without interference.
5. Makes decisions that affect both of you or the family without consulting you or reaching an agreement with you.
An emotional abuser will attempt to put you in a secondary (or bottom-rung) position in the family by neglecting or refusing to include you in important decisions. He doesn’t want his position of power to be usurped or undermined if you have a differing opinion. She doesn’t really see you as an equal decision-maker in the family, so why even consult you? Eventually, you forget how to make decisions and rely on your abuser to manage things.
6. Controls the finances and how you spend money.
You don't know how to access your bank accounts because your partner won't give you the passwords. You can't make a purchase without asking permission and getting an “allowance” from your partner. You may not even know how much money you have or how your partner is spending it. All financial control and decision-making are in your partner's complete control, leaving you helpless and completely dependent.
7. Repeatedly crosses your boundaries and ignores your requests.
Your partner doesn't care that you've asked her not to leave her dirty dishes in the sink. She does as she pleases. You might ask your partner to put the kids to bed tonight because you're exhausted, but it's not going to happen because he has other plans. Your boundaries and requests are rarely honored.
8. Makes subtle threats or negative remarks with the intent to frighten or control you.
Your partner might say things like, “I'm going to take the children, and you'll never see them.” Or, “If you leave, you'll never get a penny from me.” Words are used as weapons to keep you in line. And your abuser has an uncanny way of knowing exactly what your Achilles heal might be. He or she chooses words that have the most power to manipulate you.
Signs of Verbal Abuse
9. Shows complete disregard and disrespect.
Everything about your partner's words and language reveals his or her contempt for you. Maybe she talks down to you or laughs at you. Maybe he starts humming or looks at the newspaper while you’re trying to talk. Your abuser’s words and actions when you speak tell you volumes: you are worthless in his or her eyes.
10. Disregards your opinions, ideas, suggestions, or needs.
Your point of view and emotional needs are not important to the abuser. He or she doesn't really care how you feel or what your opinion is. If you try to express yourself, they will either ignore you or tell you your thoughts and feelings are wrong or stupid.
11. Makes “jokes” at your expense.
Both you and your abusive partner know the intent of the “joke.” She isn’t kidding when she makes fun of your latest job setback in front of her parents. You can feel the edge in his humor when he jokes about your weight gain. Cruelty and disrespect are masked with humor, but you see through it clearly and know your partner is twisting the knife to make you feel bad about yourself.
12. Uses sarcasm or “teasing” to put you down or make you feel bad.
Sarcasm is using words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say in order to insult, demean, or show irritation. Your abuser might say she is teasing, but you know the truth behind the words. Sarcasm, when used by an abuser, is a passive-aggressive behavior that allows the abuser to pretend as though his or her words were meant jokingly. It’s an attempt to keep you off balance and uncomfortable enough that you’ll back off.
13. Swears at you or calls you names.
Just like insults and threats, swearing and name-calling is a base attempt to frighten and demoralize you. Unlike the more covert abuse method of sarcasm, swearing and name-calling are about as direct as your abuser can get. He or she has so little respect for you and for common decency that saying offensive, derogatory things is not beneath them. Once you’ve been called these names enough, you begin to believe them and accept the behavior as normal.
14. Creates circular, never-ending conversations to confuse and exhaust you.
Some abusers seem to thrive on stirring the pot with exhausting, circular arguments. They can go on and on with confusing, long-winded tirades that ultimately leave you so exhausted, you give up. You will say or do just about anything to avoid getting trapped in this vortex of confusion and contention—and that’s exactly what your abuser wants.
15. Regularly points out your flaws, mistakes, or shortcomings.
Your abuser is going to make sure you know about it when you make a mistake or don't live up to his or her expectations. Nothing gets by your abuser, and you are given no grace when it comes to being imperfect in any way. You feel unloved and unlovable as a result.
Demanding and Controlling Expectations
16. Orders you around and treats you like a servant.
“The sink is full of dirty dishes. Get up and clean them right now.” “Make me a sandwich. I’m hungry.” “I’m tired of listening to the kids’ whining. Do something about it.” You aren’t treated like an equal adult in your own home. You’ve been relegated to the position of server-in-chief. You jump when your spouse says jump.
17. Gets extremely angry when he or she doesn’t get demands met.
If you don’t jump when your abusive partner tells you to, you’ll pay for it. The consequences might include yelling, cursing, door slamming, pouting, or put-downs. He will make you so anxious or uncomfortable that being a servant seems like the best alternative.
18. Demands obedience to whims.
Some emotional abusers thrive on the role of being a puppeteer and watching you dance according to the way they manipulate you. Just because they can, your partner will ask you to hop up to get something the moment you finally sit down to relax. Because she is too selfish to walk the dog or take out the trash, she demands you handle it every time.
19. Treats you like a child and tries to control you.
Your abuser doesn't see you as an equal partner. He or she views you as a child who needs to be managed and controlled. You aren't as smart, wise, or competent as your abuser, so he or she thinks it is necessary to manage all of the decisions and rules in the household.
20. Behaves like a spoiled child.
Sometimes it feels like you’re living with a toddler or sulky teenager rather than a grown-up. Whining, moaning, pouting, complaining, and temper tantrums are the manipulative tactics of choice for your partner. They attempt to guilt, shame, or frustrate you enough to coerce you into compliance.
21. Acts helpless to get his or her way.
“I just can’t cook as well as you do. You need to fix dinner.” “The kids never listen to me. You tend to it.” “Paying the bills gives me anxiety. You need to handle it.” Your abuser feigns helplessness, inability, or dire consequences if he is required to handle normal tasks that he is perfectly capable of handling. It’s like pulling teeth to get her help, so you might as well just do it yourself.
22. Requires his or her permission before you can go anywhere or make a decision.
Your abuser holds you on a tight leash. If you want to go out with a friend, you better get his or her OK. If you want to buy new shoes, your abuser has to approve the expense. You are no longer an independent adult but rather a child who must ask before any favor will be granted.
23. Has an inability to laugh at themselves and can't tolerate others laughing at them.
Your abuser has no humility or self-deprecating humor. If he or she makes a mistake, you better pretend it never happened. You can't find the humor in his or her human foibles, or you will risk the wrath of someone who has zero tolerance for others (especially you) making light of his or her slip-up.
24. Is intolerant of any seeming lack of respect.
Laughing at your abuser is definitely seen as a lack of respect, but that's not the only thing that can get your abuser riled up. If you don't take him or her seriously, or you neglect to follow directions or advice, your abuser takes this as a sign that you aren't being respectful. Even having your own opinions or ideas can be viewed as a lack of respect.
25. Is lacking empathy or compassion for you and others.
You might be sick or depressed, but your abuser doesn't seem to care — especially if your issues interfere with what he or she wants or needs. There is a striking lack of empathy and compassion when you are going through something difficult, and you can never count on him or her being there for you. You may see this lack of empathy from your abuser with your kids and others as well.
26. Views you as an extension of themselves rather than as an individual.
Your abuser sees you as a supporting cast member in a show that's all about him or her. You exist to make your abuser look and feel good. If you don't do that, he or she views it as a complete betrayal and a loss of self. Who you are as an individual doesn't matter — unless it reinforces your partner's self-interests.
27. Escalates abusive language or behavior if you talk back.
Yelling, cursing, and name-calling are deeply offensive to you, and your partner knows it. That’s why he resorts to it the minute you give any pushback to his demands. If you want to keep the peace, you better just comply and do what he says.
28. Uses guilt trips or shaming to get his or her way.
Your abuser really knows how to play the victim. “I thought you cared about me? Why won’t you do this?” “If you were a real gentleman, you’d be happy to buy me a new car.” Any refusal by you is positioned as a character flaw or cruelty. You don’t have a right to say “No” without feeling bad about it. Your abuser knows exactly what makes you feel so bad that you’ll give in.
29. Behaves dramatically in public until you agree to do what he or she wants.
Nothing is more embarrassing and shameful to you than airing your dirty relationship laundry in public. But your abusive partner doesn’t seem uncomfortable at all with it. In fact, she’s happy to have a temper tantrum at a restaurant or family gathering in order to get her way. He doesn’t mind picking a fight in front of your neighbors if it means you’ll acquiesce.
30. Withholds sex or affection to get his or her way.
You crave his physical affection and hugs. You long for the intimacy and connection that you can only find during sex. Yet your abuser has found a way to turn affection and sex into a tool for pressuring you. When you don’t submit to his wishes, you get the cold shoulder. Your hugs are pushed away, and your touch is rejected. Unless you finish all the chores and promise to watch the kids for the weekend, you’re not going to get any sex.
31. Is frequently emotionally distant or emotionally unavailable.
You frequently find yourself saying, “What’s wrong? Is everything OK?” Your spouse has turned as cold as Siberia, and your conversations have become one-word utterances with no effort on her part to show kindness or closeness. You’ve learned through experience that the only way to melt the iceberg is by yielding to her wishes.
32. Gives you disapproving or contemptuous looks or body language to make you feel bad.
Your abuser doesn't have to say anything. He or she can just give you “that look” — the one you have seen hundreds of times that says, “You better stop now or else.” It sends a wave of anxiety or shame through you because you know you've once again angered or disappointed your partner.
33. Has unpredictable emotional outbursts.
Screaming. Cursing. A crying jag. Inappropriate laughter. Knocking a lamp off the table. A calm discussion can escalate in a matter of seconds into a full-blown eruption of emotion. You are so caught off guard by this outburst, you have no idea how to respond.
34. Shows a “Jekyll and Hyde” temperament with wild mood swings.
This morning she woke up happy and loving, but by lunchtime, she’s so cold and rude, you wonder if another person has inhabited her body. One minute he’s laughing and having fun with the kids, but the next he’s barking out orders and yelling about the dirty dishes. Riding your partner’s hourly emotions is like being on a roller coaster wearing a blindfold. You never know what to expect next.
35. Stomps out of a room during an argument or heated discussion.
You’re in the middle of working through a conflict or discussing a serious topic when, out of the blue, she marches out of the room and refuses to talk. Rather than deal with the issue at hand, your partner makes a dramatic (and infantile) exit to show you who’s boss and that you’re not worthy of a serious, mature conversation.
36. Sulks and refuses to talk about an issue.
Unpredictable behaviors often involve your partner resorting to juvenile performances. You may be discussing an issue like two adults, when suddenly your partner doesn’t like the turn of events and decides to pout, scowl, or refuse to talk. You feel like your partner has transformed into an unpleasant teenage version of himself when he can’t get his way.
37. Shakes a finger or fist at you or makes threatening gestures or faces.
He doesn’t have to actually slap you for you to feel the sting of his rage. All he needs to do is get in your face and pull back his fist. She doesn’t need to lay a finger on you for you to flinch at the look of hatred in her eyes. Real physical abuse feels like it’s just a hair’s width away from this angry moment, and you truly fear for your safety.
Chaos and Crisis Creation
38. Acts jealous and suspicious of your friends and social contacts.
No matter how innocent, platonic, or wholesome a relationship might be with a friend, coworker, or even family member, your spouse has a way of twisting it into something sordid, selfish, or wrong. She acts out with jealous tantrums or accusatory questions. He’s sure your friends are out to get him or tear your relationship apart.
It’s your child’s birthday party, but your spouse makes a big show by wearing a provocative dress and flirting with the other dads. You’re in the middle of telling a funny story at a party, and everyone is laughing—except him. He interrupts to tell you that you’re telling the story all wrong, and he takes over. Your partner can’t stand being on the sidelines of any occasion, especially if you’re getting any attention.
40. Makes a big scene about small or insignificant life problems.
The holiday turkey gets burned, and he has to announce what a lousy cook you are in front of the entire family. You forget to bring some important documents to the meeting with the accountant, and she makes sure everyone knows you always make stupid mistakes like this. Your partner trolls through life, looking for reasons to have a blowup and make a scene.
41. Does something to spite you, just to get a rise out of you.
Your spouse knows you want to be early to get a good seat at your son’s basketball game, but she intentionally takes her time getting ready to make you late. The emotional abuser knows what you value and what’s important to you, and he or she deliberately undermines your wishes to watch you squirm or gain the upper hand.
42. Threatens infidelity or divorce to throw you off balance.
Nothing heightens the tension and creates drama like the statement, “There are plenty of men who would treat me much better than you do. I think it’s time I find one.” Maybe he stirs the pot by announcing, “I’m done with this crap. This marriage is over.” Even if you know it’s an empty threat, it still feels like a punch in the gut.
43. Uses neglect or abandonment to punish or frighten you.
Your abuser wants to make you suffer, so he or she will just stop participating in the relationship. Maybe he or she will stop coming home at night or take trips away from home without telling you. After arguments, he or she might take off in the car and neglect to call so you will worry.
44. Belittles, insults, or berates you in front of other people.
Your spouse or partner waits until there’s an audience of people you care about, and then the insults begin. The slights may be subtle or more direct, but everyone in the room feels the tension in the air and knows what’s going on. Even if your friends and family don’t believe the insults, you feel humiliated and shamed nonetheless.
45. Puts down your physical appearance or intellect.
“When are you going to lose weight? I don’t want to be with a fatty.” “How stupid can you be? Even a kid knows better than that!” Appearance and intellect are the two easiest targets for an abuser, especially if he feels insecure about his own looks or intellect. If the attacks happen often enough, you begin to feel ugly and stupid. You worry that if you leave the relationship, no one else would ever want you. In fact, your abuser may remind you of that fear frequently.
46. Belittles and trivializes you, your accomplishments, or your hopes and dreams.
Whatever successes you’ve enjoyed, whatever achievements you’ve obtained, whatever goals you set—your abuser will find a way to minimize them. You won’t see pride shining in his or her eyes for your success. Instead, you’ll see jealousy, contempt, or passivity. The one person whose good opinion matters most to you refuses to give you a morsel of praise or support.
47. Tells you your feelings are irrational or crazy.
Maybe you are sensitive, sentimental, caring, affectionate, and loving. You might have a soft spot for the pain of others or feel emotions intensely. You might simply want a hug, a calm conversation, a loving response, or a supportive comment. Your abuser isn’t capable of showing these emotions or doesn’t know how to. So he or she derides you for having them. Your feelings have no value because they make your abuser feel “lesser than.”
48. Turning other people against you.
Your abusive partner feels threatened by the positive attention, praise, or love shown to you by others. Rather than feeling proud of you and the way others respond to you, she’ll throw you under the bus in front of others or behind your back. She wants to taint your reputation in order to make herself look like the star or to prevent you from having outside influences or distractions.
49. Corrects or chastises you for your behavior.
No matter what you do, it never seems good enough for your partner. He or she is constantly pointing out what you do wrong or how you could be doing it better. You are made to feel incompetent and stupid, even when you have done your best.
50. Shares your personal information with others.
Your abusive partner uses your personal information as a weapon against you. If you've shared something private or shameful with your partner, he or she doesn't treat that information with dignity and compassion. Rather, it's seen as a useful tool for controlling, manipulating, and shaming you.
51. Accuses you of being crazy or being the abusive partner.
You know she’s lying, manipulating you, and treating you like dirt—or is she? You know you rarely feel loved, but she claims you are off your rails and unappreciative of the good treatment you receive. Any time you push back or question, even just a little, she loses it and claims you’re being abusive. You feel completely trapped and confused.
52. Invalidates or denies their emotionally abusive behavior when confronted.
You finally have the courage to speak up to your partner about his or her behaviors, but you are met with a blank stare and a complete denial. No matter how many examples you give or how convincing you might be, your abusive partner refuses to admit that he or she is emotionally abusive.
53. Accuses you of lying or having a bad memory.
He comes home with a brand-new sports car and swears the two of you discussed it. You know you didn’t. You would never have felt comfortable spending that money on something so frivolous. But he’s relentless in claiming he discussed it with you, and you were fine with it. Maybe he did. Maybe you’re going crazy. You’d feel so bad if you were wrong about your memory.
54. Hijacks a conversation to confuse or divert the subject away from your needs.
You finally have the courage to express the pain and hurt you’re feeling about her abusive behaviors, but before you can get through the first sentence, the conversation has suddenly become all about her. Rather than listening to you, she starts yelling and complaining that you never listen to her and that you only care about yourself. Wait, what’s happened here? You’ve completely lost your train of thought and what you wanted to communicate.
55. Plays intentional mind games.
Whether it’s conscious or not, your partner has an uncanny way of jerking you around with his words. One minute he says he loves you more than anyone, but the next he’s pushing you away and refusing your affection. She swears she only has eyes for you, but she waits until you’re watching to flirt openly with your neighbor. It’s like your partner wants to make you crazy.
56. Blames you for his or her bad behavior.
He says he wouldn’t drink so much if you weren’t so demanding. She says that the only reason she yells at the kids is that you don’t show her enough love. Whatever your abuser’s bad behavior happens to be, you are the cause of it. And the argument your partner presents is so compelling, you start to believe it yourself.
57. Accuses or blames you for things that aren’t true, such as infidelity.
You have opened your calendar, your phone, and your computer to your partner to prove your innocence. You’ve offered to give him proof that you were indeed doing what you said you were doing. But nothing is going to convince him that you aren’t lying. You will be accused and blamed, even when it becomes clear you aren’t at fault. Logic and truth mean nothing to your abuser.
58. Accuses you of being “too sensitive” in order to deflect their abusive remarks.
Your abuser's snide remarks or passive-aggressive behaviors are all in your head. You are just too sensitive to see things clearly. At least that's what your abuser wants you to think. He wants you to believe he is the grown-up, while you are just an overly-needy child.
59. Tries to make you feel as though he or she is always right, and you are wrong.
You may know in your heart of hearts that you are right about something. It could be trivial or important, but your abuser digs in and won't admit that you are right. He or she is so convincing and adamant that you begin to doubt yourself.
60. Makes excuses for their behavior, tries to blame others and has difficulty apologizing.
Your abusive partner never steps up to personal responsibility. He or she deflects and blames rather than acknowledging and apologizing. You've lost complete respect for your partner because of his or her inability to own the issues that a causing so many problems.
61. Blames you for their problems, life difficulties, or unhappiness.
All of the bad things that happen to your partner are your fault. At least that's what your partner thinks. If he or she is depressed, lost a job, or has some other difficulty, you are the reason it's happening. If only you were a better partner, he or she would finally be happy and successful. If you hear this enough, you begin to believe it.
The first step for those being emotionally abused is recognizing it's happening. If you observe any of the signs of emotional abuse in your relationship, you need to be honest with yourself so you can regain power over your own life, stop the abuse, and begin to heal. For those who've been minimizing, denying, and hiding the abuse, this can be a painful and frightening first step.
The stress of emotional abuse will eventually catch up with you in the form of illness, emotional trauma, depression, or anxiety. You simply can't allow it to continue, even if it means ending the relationship. A professional licensed counselor who is trained in abusive relationships can help you navigate the pain and fears of leaving the relationship and work with you to rebuild your self-esteem.
What immediate action can you take?
Here are some strategies for reclaiming your power and self-esteem for the short term:
Put your own needs first. Stop worrying about pleasing or protecting the abuser. Take care of yourself and your needs, and let the other person worry about themselves — even when they pout or try to manipulate you and control your behavior.
Set some firm boundaries. Tell your abuser he or she may no longer yell at you, call you names, put you down, be rude to you, etc. If the bad behavior occurs, let them know you will not tolerate it and leave the room or get in the car and drive to a friend's house.
Don't engage. If the abuser tries to pick a fight or win an argument, don't engage with anger, over-explaining yourself, or apologies to try to soothe him/her. Just keep quiet and walk away.
Realize you can't “fix” them. You can't make this person change or reason your way into their hearts and minds. They must want to change and recognize the destructive quality of their behavior and words. You'll only feel worse about yourself and the situation by repeated “interventions.”
You are not to blame. If you've been entrenched in an abusive relationship for a while, it can be crazy-making. You start to feel like something must be wrong with you since this other person treats you so poorly. Begin to acknowledge to yourself that it is NOT you. This is the first step toward rebuilding your self-esteem.
Read Related: 12 Surprising Forms Of Verbal Abuse
Seek support. Talk to trusted friends and family or a counselor about what you are going through. Get away from the abusive person as often as possible, and spend time with those who love and support you. This support system will help you feel less alone and isolated while you still contend with the abuser.
Develop an exit plan. You can't remain in an emotionally abusive relationship forever. If finances or children or some other valid reason prevents you from leaving now, develop a plan for leaving as soon as possible. Begin saving money, looking for a place to live, or planning for divorce if necessary so you can feel more in control and empowered.
Can an emotional abuser change?
It is possible if the abuser deeply desires to change and recognizes his or her abusive patterns and the damage caused by them. However, the learned behaviors and feelings of entitlement and privilege are very difficult to change. The abusers tend to enjoy the power they feel from emotional abuse, and as a result, a very low percentage of abusers can turn themselves around.
According to author Lundy Bancroft, here are some of the changes an abuser (either man or woman) needs to make to begin recovery:
- Admit fully to what they have done.
- Stop making excuses and blaming.
- Make amends.
- Accept responsibility and recognize that abuse is a choice.
- Identify the patterns of controlling behavior they use.
- Identify the attitudes that drive their abuse.
- Accept that overcoming abusiveness is a decades-long process — not declaring themselves “cured.”
- Not demanding credit for improvements they’ve made.
- Not treating improvements as vouchers to be spent on occasional acts of abuse (ex. “I haven’t done anything like this in a long time, so it’s not a big deal).
- Develop respectful, kind, supportive behaviors.
- Carry their weight and sharing power.
- Change how they act in heated conflicts.
- Accept the consequences of their actions (including not feeling sorry for themselves about the consequences, and not blaming their partner or children for them).
Are you seeing signs of emotional abuse? Then click here to get the Emotional Abuse Test that has been taken by over 200,000 people.