Trigger warning: This post contains sensitive content related to abuse.
Abuse of any kind is complicated, and it can be difficult to identify. This is especially true for emotional abuse: With physical abuse, there is often tangible evidence of violence, but emotionally-abusive relationships can involve sophisticated—and toxic—mind games.
As a result, emotional abuse can be just as damaging. To help victims (and their loved ones) understand the signs, we spoke with Kelly McNelis, founder of Women for One and author of Your Messy Brilliance, and Dr. Sherry Benton, founder and Chief Science Officer of TAO Connect.
Meet the Expert
- Kelly McNelis is a renowned author and founder of Women For One, a destination for women ready and willing to make life happen.
- Sherry Benton, Ph.D., founder and Chief Science Officer of TAO Connect, has over 25 years of clinical and research experience in psychological counseling and college students' mental health.
Read on to learn about the warning signs of emotional abuse, and the experts' advice for navigating these relationships.
Why Emotional Abuse Is Difficult to Identify
If you've ever experienced unpredictable displays of affection, you may have felt the effects of emotional abuse (even without knowing it). Sometimes, it's difficult to tell whether you're having normal relationship problems or being manipulated.
"If someone is physically violent, that is overt and obvious," Benton says. "Emotionally abusive relationships are more subtle." She notes that these relationships usually begin exceptionally well before problems worsen over time. "Each time, you're getting more adapted to the negative patterns, so it gets more difficult to see—as well as to leave."
Many victims of abuse discover the harmful effects over time. After all, if abusers acted this way from the start, how would they develop relationships to begin with? It all comes down to timing.
"There's this story that [says] if you toss a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will scramble to get out," Benton explains. "But if you put the frog in while the water is still cold—and slowly raise the temperature—the frog will [stay] until it is boiled to death. The same kind of thing can happen in relationships."
Thankfully, there are ways to recognize the signs up front in favor of healthier relationships.
If you think you might be experiencing emotional abuse, reach out to friends and family for validation (and reminders that you're not alone).
The 10 Signs of Emotional Abuse
Emotional abuse usually takes place as a means for one person to control another. If you're worried that you may be experiencing this with your partner, Benton says to look for these ten signs defined by Dr. John Gottman of The Gottman Institute:
- Control: Your partner may seem overly-invested in your social life, or police your day-to-day routines without acknowledging your desires. You don't have the freedom to make your own choices (either overtly or subtly). Even small comments that undermine your independence are a means of control.
- Yelling: It's normal for partners to raise their voice occasionally, but it's not healthy when disagreements regularly escalate into shouting. It's especially concerning if you feel afraid. Not only does yelling make a productive conversation nearly impossible, but it also creates an imbalance of power—only the loudest person is heard.
- Contempt: When one partner feels contempt for the other, it's not easy for either person to express their feelings. Benton notes that in healthy relationships, there's an expectation that your partner will listen and be respectful (even if they can't give you what you need). If they respond to your needs with mean-spirited sarcasm, arrogance, disgust, or apathy, then contempt may create a barrier in your relationship.
- Excessive Defensiveness: When you constantly feel like you have to defend yourself, there's less room for positive communication. It's important that both parties are able to talk openly—and honestly—with each other to resolve issues. Excessive defensiveness, Benton says, can feel like you're in a battle where your shield is always up.
- Threats: If your partner is threatening you in any way, you may feel like you're in danger. Coercive "if, then" statements can include blackmail, threats of physical harm or suicide, or other intimidating remarks, but they often share the same intent: To back victims into a corner (and prevent them from leaving).
- Stonewalling: Benton notes that stonewalling takes place when one partner refuses to talk or communicate. If your partner shuts down uncomfortable conversations, it can feel like abandonment. Their refusal to discuss issues may come across as rejection or a lack of concern for your feelings.
- Blame: Victims are often made to believe that they cause—and therefore deserve—their own abuse and unhappiness, making the cycle much harder to break. This can be exacerbated by the shame that many victims feel for letting their abuse continue.
- Gaslighting: A form of psychological manipulation, gaslighting causes victims to doubt their memories, judgment, and sanity. If you find that your concerns (and even memories) are frequently dismissed as "false," "stupid," or "crazy," you may be experiencing gaslighting.
- Isolation: Emotional abuse is pervasive, affecting all areas of life. Most notably is the toll it takes on victims' relationships with friends and family. Abusers often convince their partners that no one cares. This alienation can cause victims to feel like they're on an island, removed from loved ones and past versions of themselves.
- Volatility: If a relationship is constantly interrupted by mood swings, it can signal abuse. Many people experience natural ups and downs, but it's a problem when it harms one's partner. Volatile abusers often shower their victims with gifts and affection following an outburst, only to become angry again shortly after.
Is Your Partner Abusive?
According to Benton, one important distinction to make is that in healthy relationships, disagreements are seen as an opportunity for growth—and both people make an effort to find common ground.
"It's not that people in healthy relationships don't have disagreements; they do. They have just as many as people in bad relationships," Benton says. "The difference is what they do with those conflicts."
While it can be difficult to discern, she notes that mind games are common in emotionally-abusive relationships. One partner may be surprised by the other's sudden pleasant mood, or confused by bouts of unexpected love. "You know you can't trust it, because they're going to go back to being demeaning and belittling…You're constantly on this emotional roller coaster with them," Benton says.
Some partners can learn to overcome their abusive tendencies—but Benton notes that it's much easier to do with an impartial third party like a relationship counselor. Nevertheless, she points out that many relationships are simply unhealthy: "If you love someone, you don't treat them like that, ever. Period."
Your relationship should make you feel secure, supported, and connected, and if that's not what you're getting, you're probably getting more pain than love and growth.
When to Leave an Abusive Relationship
If you're not sure when it's time to leave, try comparing your current relationship with what you want in the future. Benton suggests asking yourself the same questions you'd ask a friend:
"Look around and find a relationship that you can imagine yourself wanting," she says, noting that picturing how a relationship should be can help you realize you're not getting what you want. Rather than comparing idealistic movie relationships, Benton recommends thinking of "real people, who really struggle with each other, and who really work on things together."
Part of deciding to leave is understanding what you need. Does your current partner make you feel better about yourself? "[Your relationship] should make you feel secure, supported, and connected, and if that's not what you're getting, you're probably getting more pain than love and growth," Benton says.
Rebuilding Self-Love After Emotional Abuse
While it's essential to know what you want, you should also remember who you are when leaving an abusive partner. McNelis stresses the importance of showing yourself compassion—and remembering that no one willingly chooses abuse.
"The great thing is that these difficult experiences help us build character, strength, and resilience," McNelis says. "By diving into our experience and choosing to learn from trauma, we can come out on the other side more powerful, and in a position to stand up for others in similar situations."
It's never easy to come to terms with being abused: But this isn't a time for placing blame on yourself. McNelis reminds us that moving on is something to be proud of.
"Choose to claim your self-worth and recognize your courage—both in the moment of your experience and in the aftermath," she says. "Rather than dwelling on what you could've done better, [think about how] every moment in life gives you the opportunity to start over." Most importantly, she emphasizes that no matter how painful your trauma is, you can get through it.
By diving into our experience and choosing to learn from trauma, we can come out on the other side more powerful, and in a position to stand up for others in similar situations.
How to Help Someone in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship
Seeing someone you love experiencing abuse can be painful, even when you're not the one being hurt. If you suspect a friend or loved one is in an emotionally-abusive relationship, Benton suggests being supportive without explicitly judging them for staying.
"Educate yourself about abuse: What it is, what it entails, and how people who are under its thumb think, feel, and behave," McNelis says. "This will help you put yourself in the shoes of the person you love, and understand what they're going through…All too often, people on the outside cast judgments upon the person without any idea of what they're going through, and what their legitimate reasons might be for [staying]."
Finally, it's important to remember that their decision to leave isn't up to you. McNelis says the best thing you can do is listen and hold space for your loved one.
"By allowing for the experience and witnessing their truth—while also championing their courage, and capacity to do what's right for them—you'll help them discover their own lessons, wisdom, and voice. You can also gently nudge them toward resources, [but] this can't be something you force upon them; it always needs to come from their choice alone."
Karakurt G, Silver KE. Emotional Abuse in Intimate Relationships: The Role of Gender and Age. Violence Vict. 2013;28(5):804-21. doi:10.1891/0886-6708.vv-d-12-00041