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Signs of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 20, 2020

What is an Emotionally Abusive Relationship?

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. 

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. 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:

Signs of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

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.

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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.

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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 severest, 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. 

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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. 

Dealing With an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

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 two 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.

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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

Support and Resources

Emotional Distancing as Punishment

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:
    • US and Canada text Home to 741741
    • UK text Home to 85258
    • Ireland text Home to 50808
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-779-SAFE (7233)
  • Safe Horizon Hotline: 1-800-621-HOPE (4673)

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

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Crisis Text Line: "Crisis Text Line."

Crisis Text Line: "How to Deal with Emotional Abuse."

Domestic Shelters: “The Silent Treatment: An Abuser’s Controlling Tactic.”

HelpGuide: "Domestic Violence and Abuse."

Lifewire: "Basic Relationships Rights."

One Love: "What Emotional Abuse Really Means."

One Love: "How To Tell If You’re In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship."

National Domestic Violence Hotline: "50 Obstacles to Leaving."

National Domestic Violence Hotline: "Here For You."

Safe Horizon: "Call For Help."

University of Florida: "SMART Couples: WHAT IS GASLIGHTING?"

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