Emotional Abuse: Signs and Support

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on July 10, 2023
9 min read

Emotional abuse is generally considered any harmful abusive behavior that is not physical. A relationship becomes emotionally abusive when the pattern occurs repeatedly over time. 

While there are no physical scars or broken bones, emotional abuse is a form of domestic violence. Emotionally abusive relationships do not always include physical violence, but psychological abuse can be a precursor to physical harm in a relationship. Other names for emotional abuse include mental abuse and psychological abuse. 

One or two incidents may just be a bad fight. However, several incidents create the dynamic of an abusive relationship. It may include the following:

  • Aggressive verbal communication
  • Verbal threats
  • Manipulative and controlling behavior
  • Humiliation in front of friends or family
  • Name-calling, insults, and put-downs
  • Silent treatment
  • Gaslighting
  • Isolating you from others

The results of being in an emotionally abusive relationship may include:

Emotional abuse can take place in any type of relationship. That’s because it’s often a means to establish control over the other person, be it a child, partner, friend, family member, or co-worker.

Emotional abuse from parents. Oftentimes, when a parent, guardian, or other authority figure  is emotionally abusive toward a child or teenager, they don’t physically show or express attitudes that support healthy development and overall well-being. 

Instead, they tend to create an atmosphere of fear, hostility, or stress at home. They may do this by:

  • Showing a lack of emotions
  • Disregarding the presence or specific needs of the child
  • Not addressing children by their given names
  • Being deliberately unkind, calling names, or saying mean things like “you’re stupid”
  • Making the child feel unwanted or a burden with comments such as “I wish you were never born”
  • Comparing children to siblings or their peers
  • Blaming children for personal, emotional, or financial problems
  • Verbal abuse or threatening physical punishment in a raised voice
  • Not recognizing a child’s limitations and placing unrealistic expectations or goals on them

Children who are emotionally abused tend to become highly sensitive to their parent’s opinions, feelings, and behaviors. They may alter their own decisions or behaviors to keep the peace or please their parents. 

Emotional abuse among couples. This can happen in any relationship regardless of the gender or sexual identity of the partners. In fact, more than 12 million people in the U.S. report emotional abuse from an intimate partner. And it’s more common than physical or sexual abuse. 

It may start out small like losing your temper or excessive yelling during everyday disagreements, but it can soon grow into name-calling, gaslighting, criticizing, controlling, blaming, and micromanaging your choices or behaviors.

Over time, it’s possible for emotional abuse from parents, partners, or other relations to turn into physical abuse. 

Emotional abuse in the workplace. This can start when another employee or a superior at work starts to question your competence or degrades your work in front of others. 

This can create a hostile or toxic environment, which causes psychological stress and trauma. It can make it hard to fulfill your tasks and duties at work each day. 

Workplace bullies may use subtle or not-so-subtle signs, like:

  • Controlling the narrative when you’re collaborating on projects or tasks
  • Talking down to you or using intimidation
  • Questioning your commitment or ability to prioritize work over personal demands such as family, kids, or friends
  • Sending passive-aggressive emails
  • Shaming or guilting you about your work performance
  • Second-guessing your professional ability or expertise with other co-workers
  • Gossiping about you or your personal or professional life
  • Ignoring you at meetings or other workplace interactions
  • Excluding you from work-related social gatherings
  • Blaming or scapegoating you for problems at work
  • Threatening to fire or expose you
  • Comparing you to other co-workers
  • Taking credit for your work

If you notice these signs, talk to your human resources representative or a superior you trust at work if you’re able to. You can also file a legal complaint or look up options to safeguard your rights as an employee.  

An emotionally abusive relationship may not be as easy to spot as a physically abusive one. However, there are some signs to look out for when trying to identify an emotionally abusive relationship.

Possessiveness, jealousy, and controlling behavior

Emotionally abusive partners are often jealous. They frame their possessive feelings as positive. However, in an abusive dynamic, this jealousy can turn into controlling behavior like:

  • Expecting you to answer texts and calls right away, no matter where you are or what you are doing
  • Always questioning what you were doing, where you have been, and who you have been with
  • Disliking your friends of their gender
  • Disliking other people in your life and discouraging you from seeing them, isolating you from them
  • Accusing you of cheating with no evidence

They may also try to control you with money or access to things you need. This is more prevalent in relationship dynamics where one person works and the other doesn't. An emotionally abusive partner may limit your access to money so that they know everything you are doing. They may also limit your access to a vehicle or phone to prevent you from going to places or talking to people they don't approve of.

Shifting blame and gaslighting

Gaslighting is when an emotionally abusive partner makes you question your reality and sanity. For example, emotionally abusive partners may blame you for their own harmful behaviors. They may unfairly blame you for making them upset and for ways that they treat you. 

Other forms of gaslighting may include:

  • Saying that something you witnessed or experienced didn't happen 
  • Telling you that you are crazy
  • Telling you that other people are lying to you
  • Telling clear lies
  • Invalidating your identities (for example, "You're not really an artist, you just paint on the weekends.")

Manipulation and ultimatums

A person who is emotionally abusive may try to manipulate their partners in several ways. At its most severe, they may threaten suicide, self-harm, or harming someone else if you try to end the relationship. They may also threaten blackmail. This behavior is usually an attempt to prevent you from leaving.

They also may make statements that imply that their affection relies on you meeting their requirements. 

Mean jokes, humiliation, and putdowns

Emotional abuse sometimes starts as a partner simply not treating you very nicely. They may make fun of you, put you down, and humiliate you in front of friends and family. When you tell them that something they said was offensive, they may say you're taking things too seriously or being oversensitive. 

Feeling embarrassed of how your partner treats you

Some people in emotionally abusive relationships find it embarrassing to be in this situation. This causes them to further withdraw from friends and family. Not wanting people to see how your partner treats you is a warning sign of an emotionally abusive relationship. 

Emotional distancing as punishment

People who abuse others emotionally often use the "silent treatment" or emotional distancing as punishment.

The silent treatment is when a partner refuses to talk to you or, in some cases, to even acknowledge you, after a fight. In some cases, a partner may still talk to you but may act emotionally distant, treating you more like an acquaintance than a romantic partner.

In extreme cases, they may leave you stranded somewhere or withhold things you need after a fight. 

At first, as an adult, it may be hard to come to terms with the fact that someone you know or love is emotionally abusing you. But as you do, you may feel a number of emotions. These can be emotional, mental, and physical symptoms that stem from the trauma.

They can include: 

  • Fear
  • Confusion
  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Hopelessness
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Anxiety

For children, it can have long-term psychological and behavioral impacts in their life. They may: 

  • Want attention or cling to someone for emotional security
  • Show or develop risky behavior such as stealing, physical fights, or bullying others
  • Become detached and not care about things
  • Become people-pleasers
  • Have a hard time expressing emotions
  • Have anger, mood, or temper issues
  • Find it difficult to maintain relationships
  • Develop eating or sleep disorders
  • Engage in self-harm

Emotional abuse can also have physical effects, such as: 

  • Body aches and pains 
  • Muscle tension
  • Problems with focus and concentration

Emotional abuse and PTSD. It's possible for emotional abuse to cause posttraumatic stress disorder. This is a type of mental condition that makes it very difficult to recover from the abuse due to signs and triggers that cause you to relive over and over again how you felt during the abuse. 

PTSD symptoms often include:

  • Avoiding triggers or reminders of the abuse. This can include people, places, signs, things, locations, or events.
  • A sudden outburst of emotions or anger when you’re triggered by a memory of the abuse. Some people feel numb to emotions, have sleeping issues, and get startled easily. 
  • If you’re reliving certain interactions from the abuse, PTSD may cause physical symptoms such as a spike in heart rate, nausea, muscle tension, and more. You may have intense emotions and physical outbursts. 

If you notice signs of PTSD, tell your doctor about it right away. They can help you find treatment or refer you to a mental health professional. It may help to get support from your trusted family and friends. It’s important to address PTSD as soon as possible as it can take a long-term physical as well as emotional toll on you. This can include diabetes, heart problems, high blood pressure, and substance abuse, among other things. 

On average, it takes seven attempts before successfully leaving an abusive relationship. There are many reasons why it may not seem possible to leave, including:

  • Threats from the abuser
  • A belief that it would be better to stay together if you have children
  • Financial instability
  • Lack of family or community support
  • Need to keep health insurance
  • Lack of self-esteem/believing you don't deserve better

However, there are some tips that may help get out of an emotionally abusive relationship and deal with how you feel after getting out of one.

Reach out to someone

Emotionally abusive relationships are isolating. Reaching out to someone, whether it is a friend, family member, clergy member, or anonymous hotline, is often a valuable first step. Reach out to people who you know will always have your back. This will start to build you a supportive network and can give you more time away from the abusive partner. 

Create a safety plan

Even though emotional abuse is not physically dangerous, it is still not safe. Emotional abuse can escalate to physical abuse. So create a safety plan that includes saving money and planning where you will go and how you will get there if things do become physically unsafe.

Prioritize yourself

Create time for self-care. It can be as simple as going for a walk by yourself, putting on a face mask, or calling a family member or friend without your partner listening. Put yourself first to focus on what you want and need.

Create a relationship bill of rights

A relationship bill of rights helps you to prioritize your needs and rights in a relationship. Examples of relationship rights include:

  • The right to feel safe
  • The right to prioritize yourself
  • The right to say no
  • The right to make mistakes
  • The right to express your feelings

For your mental and physical health and overall safety, it’s important to set personal boundaries. 

These are basically reasonable rules, guidelines, or limitations you can create to stop others from invading your time, peace, and space. It also helps to set expectations on what you’re not willing to put up with during your interactions with others.

But it’s important to note that personal boundaries aren't the same as ultimatums. An ultimatum tells someone else how to behave, while a boundary is a statement of your own personal limits. They’re meant to help you communicate in a healthy fashion and promote self-respect and self-care.

To set boundaries, you should: 

  • Calm and firmly establish your clear emotional or physical boundary. This can look like, “I don’t respond after work hours” or “Please don’t talk down to me.”
  • Don’t apologize, justify, or try to reason as to why you have set a boundary. 
  • Communicate assertively. Say yes or no with confidence. If this is difficult, write it down and practice beforehand. This also includes being OK if someone else says no to you.
  • Do not try to control or please someone after you’ve set the boundary. You can’t manage or change how someone reacts to your boundary.
  • Set things in place to allow equal power and responsibility when you’re doing a shared task.
  • Share personal information slowly as you build trust.
  • Build a supportive system around you to help you set healthy boundaries. 
  • Detach yourself or limit engagement with toxic individuals. 
  • Make healthy choices for yourself and take responsibility for your actions. 

If you’ve been emotionally abused, setting personal boundaries may take time and strength. Reach out to a certified mental health expert or therapist to help you figure out what that looks like for you. 

It is normal to feel scared when thinking of leaving an emotionally abusive relationship. You are not alone. There are resources to help.

  • Crisis Text Line:
    • U.S. and Canada: Text Home to 741741
    • U.K.: Text Home to 85258
    • Ireland: Text Home to 50808
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-779-SAFE (7233)
  • Safe Horizon Hotline: 800-621-HOPE (4673)

If you are in immediate danger, call 911 or your country's local emergency number.