Call 911 for all emergencies.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline 1.800.799.SAFE (7233)
National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-4-A-CHILD (2-24453)
National Sexual Assault Hotline 1.800.656.HOPE (4673)
What Is Emotional Abuse?
Emotional Abuse is a form of abuse where the perpetrator uses fear, humiliation or verbal assault to undermine the self-esteem of their victim.
Many people think that if they’re not being physically abused, they’re not being abused. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Emotional abuse is extremely difficult to identify because it is often subtle. Emotional abuse leaves no physical “marks.”
Emotional abuse often accompanies other forms of abuse, but it can happen on its own as well. No abuse – neglect, physical, sexual or financial – happens without psychological consequences, therefore all abuse contains elements of emotional abuse.
Emotional abuse doesn’t just “go away.” Emotional abuse gets worse over time as it erodes a person’s self-esteem, confidence, and trust in their own judgment. It is similar to brainwashing – it can cause a victim to question reality and their own sanity, which leaves them at the mercy of relying on the very person who is abusing them.
Like other forms of abuse, emotional abusers strive to overpower the other person – the one with all the power has all of the control.
Emotional abuse is every bit as damaging as physical abuse.
How Does Emotional Abuse Happen?
Very few people willingly enter into an abusive relationship, but many of us who were emotionally abused as children find ourselves in emotionally abusive relationships as adults. We did not learn how to develop our own standards, viewpoints, or validate our own feelings as children, so as adults, the controlling/defining stance of an emotional abuser is familiar.
An emotional abuser (like his or her victim) struggles with feelings of powerlessness, anger and hurt, and may be attracted to those who haven’t learned to value themselves and their feelings.
The first step in recovery from emotional abuse is to evaluate and understand your relationship patterns (especially family relationships).
Knowing where you came from and why you’re like this can help prevent future abuse.
Signs You’re In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship:
How to Spot Emotional Abuse in Your Relationship
You must remember that emotional abuse is often subtle and, as a result, it can be very hard to detect. If you are having trouble understanding whether or not your relationship is abusive, stop and think about how the interactions with your partner, friend or family member make you feel. If you feel wounded, frustrated, confused, misunderstood, depressed, anxious or worthless any time you interact, chances are high that your relationship is emotionally abusive.
Here are signs that you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship. Keep in mind, even if your partner only does a handful of these things, you are still in an emotionally abusive relationship. Do not fall into the trap of telling yourself “it’s not that bad” and minimizing their behavior. Remember, everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and respect.
Emotionally abusive people display unrealistic expectations. Some examples include:
- Making excessive demands of you
- Expecting you to dump everything to meet their needs
- Insisting you spend all of your time together
- Being dissatisfied – no matter how hard you try or how much you give
- Criticizing you for not completing tasks up to his or her standards
- Expecting you to share their opinions – you’re not allowed to have your own opinions
- Demanding that you name exact dates and times when discussing things that upset you. When you cannot, they dismiss the event as if it never happened
Emotionally abusive people invalidate you. Some examples include:
- Undermining, dismissing, or distorting your perceptions or reality
- Refusing to accept your feelings – trying to tell you how you should feel
- Requiring you to explain and explain and explain how you feel
- Calling you “too sensitive,” “too emotional,” or “crazy when you share your feelings
- Refusal to accept that your opinions matter or are valid
- Dismissing your wants, needs, requests as “ridiculous”
- Suggesting that your feelings are wrong or that you cannot be trusted by saying things like “you’re blowing this out of proportion” or “you exaggerate”
- Accusing you of being selfish, needy or materialistic if you express your wants or needs. He or she has the expectation that you should not have any wants or needs outside of your partner
Emotionally abusive people create chaos. Some examples include:
- Starting arguments for the sake of arguing
- Making confusing and contradictory statements (sometimes called “crazy-making”)
- Having drastic mood changes or sudden emotional outbursts
- Nitpicking at your clothes, your hair, your work, and more
- Behaving so erratically and unpredictably that you feel like you are “walking on eggshells”
Emotionally abusive people use emotional blackmail. Some examples include:
- Manipulating and controlling you by making you feel guilty
- Humiliating you in public or in private
- Using your fears, values, compassion or other hot buttons to control you or the situation
- Exaggerating your flaws or pointing them out in order to deflect attention or to avoid taking responsibility for their poor choices or mistakes
- Denying that an event took place or lying about it
- Punishing you by withholding affection
Emotionally abusive people act superior and entitled. Some examples include:
- Treating you like you are inferior
- Blaming you for their mistakes and shortcomings
- Doubting everything you say and attempting to prove you wrong
- Making jokes at your expense
- Telling you that your opinions, ideas, values, and thoughts are stupid, illogical or “do not make sense”
- Talking down to you or being condescending
- Using sarcasm when interacting with you
- Acting like they are always right, knows what is best and is smarter
Emotionally abusive people attempt to isolate and control you. Some examples include:
- Controlling who you see or spend time with including time with friends and family
- Monitoring your phone calls, text messages, social media, and email
- Accusing you of cheating and being jealous of outside relationships
- Taking or hiding your car keys
- Demanding to know where you are at all times or using GPS to track your every move
- Treating you like a possession or property
- Criticizing or making fun of your friends, family, and coworkers
- Using jealousy and envy as a sign of love and to keep you from being with others
- Coercing you into spending all of your time together
- Controlling the finances
Signs You May Be Emotionally Abusive:
Although not an exhaustive list, here are some signs that YOU may be emotionally abusive:
- You feel your partner pushes your buttons.
- Your partner puts you in a bad mood.
- There are times you don’t want to speak to or be around your partner.
- You feel you have to criticize your partner for not being more efficient or more reliable or a better person.
- You treat your partner in ways you couldn’t have imagined when you first started loving her.
- You sometimes make your partner feel like a failure as a provider, partner, parent, or lover.
- You automatically blame your partner when things go wrong.
- You resort to name-calling, swearing at your partner or putting him down.
- You threaten to take his children away.
- Your family and friends would be surprised to know how you treat your partner behind closed doors
Children are sensitive to what is going on around them and to the environment in which they live. Emotionally abusive actions towards children may include:
- Ignoring your child when he or she is in need.
- Not calling your child by his or her name.
- Making your child feel unwanted.
- Comparing your child to siblings or peers.
- Isolating your child from family and friends.
Types of Emotional Abuse:
Emotional abuse can be subtle that reading this list may be an eye-opener for you:
Abusive Expectations – Makes impossible demands, requires constant attention, and constantly criticizes.
Aggressing – Name calling, accusing, blames, threatens, or gives orders, and often disguised as a judgmental “I know best” or “helping” attitude.
Constant Chaos – Deliberately starts arguments with you or others. May treat you well in front of others, but changes when you’re alone.
Rejecting – Refusing to acknowledge a person’s value, worth or presence. Communicating that he or she is useless or inferior or devaluing his or her thoughts and feelings.
Denying – Denies personal needs (especially when the need is greatest) with the intent of causing hurt or as punishment. Uses silent treatment as punishment. Denies certain events happened or things that were said. Denies your perceptions, memory, and sanity by disallowing any viewpoints other than their own which causes self-doubt, confusion, and loss of self-esteem.
Degrading – Any behavior that diminishes the identity, worth or dignity of the person such as name-calling, mocking, teasing, insulting, ridiculing,
Emotional Blackmail – Uses guilt, compassion, or fear to get what he or she wants.
Terrorizing – Inducing intense fear or terror in a person, by threats or coercion.
Invalidation – Attempts to distort your perception of the world by refusing to acknowledge your personal reality. Says that your emotions and perceptions aren’t real and shouldn’t be trusted.
Isolating – Reducing or restricting freedom and normal contact with others.
Corrupting – Convincing a person to accept and engage in illegal activities.
Exploiting – Using a person for advantage or profit.
Minimizing – A less extreme form of denial that trivializes something you’ve expressed as unimportant or inconsequential.
Unpredictable Responses – Gets angry and upset in a situation that would normally not warrant a response. You walk around on eggshells to avoid any unnecessary drama over innocent comments you make. Drastic mood swings and outbursts.
Gas-lighting -A form of psychological abuse involving the manipulation of situations or events that cause a person to be confused or to doubt his perceptions and memories. Gaslighting causes victims to constantly second-guess themselves and wonder if they’re losing their minds.
What is the Long-Term Impact Of Being Abused?
When emotional abuse is severe and ongoing, a victim may lose their entire sense of self, sometimes without a single mark or bruise. Instead, the wounds are invisible to others, hidden in the self-doubt, worthlessness, and self-loathing the victim feels. In fact, many victims say that the scars from emotional abuse last far longer and are much deeper than those from physical abuse.
Over time, the accusations of verbal abuse, name-calling, criticisms, and gaslighting erode a victim’s sense of self so much that they can no longer see themselves realistically. Consequently, the victim begins to agree with the abuser and becomes internally critical. Once this happens, most victims become trapped in the abusive relationship believing that they will never be good enough for anyone else.
Emotional abuse can even impact friendships because emotionally abused people often worry about how people truly see them and if they truly like them. Eventually, victims will pull back from friendships and isolate themselves, convinced that no one likes them. What’s more, emotional abuse can cause a number of health problems including everything from depression and anxiety to stomach problems to insomnia.
What Do I Do If I’m Being Emotionally Abused?
Leaving an abusive relationship is difficult and can be dangerous. If you do not have friends or family that can help you, please contact a local women’s shelter or other organization that can help you safely leave the abusive relationship. Here are some tips for things you can do to help yourself if you’re being emotionally abused:
Make yourself physically and emotionally well – step one will always be to make sure you’re getting all the help you can. Stop worrying about pleasing the person abusing you. Take care of your needs. Do something that will help you think positive and affirm who you are.
Establish healthy emotional boundaries with your abuser – Firmly tell the abusive person that they may no longer yell at you, call you names, insult you, be rude to you, and so on. Then, tell them what will happen if they choose to engage in this behavior.
Stop blaming yourself – guilt may be the enemy of emotional abuse victims. What’s happened to you is not your fault – you couldn’t have known what your partner would do. If you have been in an emotionally abusive relationship for any amount of time, you may believe that there is something severely wrong with you. Why else would someone who says they love you act like this, right? But you are not the problem. Abuse is a choice.
Realize that you cannot “fix” the abusive person. Despite your best efforts, you will never be able to change an emotionally abusive person by doing something different or by being different. An abusive person makes a choice to behave abusively. Remind yourself that you cannot control their actions and that you are not to blame for their choices. The only thing you can fix or control is your response.
Do not engage with an abusive person. In other words, if an abuser tries to start an argument with you, begins insulting you, demands things from you or rages with jealousy, do not try to make explanations, soothe their feelings or make apologies for things you did not do. Simply walk away from the situation if you can.
Build a support network. Stop being silent about the abuse you are experiencing. Talk to a trusted friend, family member or even a counselor about what you are experiencing. Take time away from the abusive person as much as possible and spend time with people who love and support you.
Work on an exit plan. If your partner, friend, or family member has no intention of changing or working on their poor choices, you will not be able to remain in the abusive relationship forever. It will eventually take a toll on you both mentally and physically.
If your safety has been threatened, don’t hesitate to contact the local authorities.
Educate yourself about emotionally abusive relationships.
Remember that you’re not alone. The abuse is not your fault. No one deserves to be abused. Help is out there.
How Can I Help Someone In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship?
If safety is ever a concern, don’t hesitate to find outside help. Here’s the State Coalition page for a state-by-state list of resources.
Educate yourself about emotionally abusive relationships.
Be gentle when you talk to the victim in an emotionally abusive relationship. Criticism of the abuser and his or her behavior may cause the victim to withdraw from you. Offer to lend an ear if they’d like it.
Help the person disconnect from their abuser so that they can see the situation in a more balanced light. You may be able to help provide the distance and clarity needed for the victim of emotional abuse to see the patterns of abuse.
Suggest continued therapy to overcome the abuse and work through their issues.
Additional Emotional Abuse Resources:
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1.800.799.SAFE (7233)
National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4-A-CHILD (2-24453)
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1.800.656.HOPE (4673)
State Coalition List – Directory of state offices that can help you find local support, shelter, and free or low-cost legal services. Includes all U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence)
Domestic Violence Coalition: State-by-State directory of the Domestic Violence Coalitions.
Domestic Violence Shelters: State-by-State Directory of Domestic Violence Shelters.
RAINN: The nation’s largest anti-sexual assault network and a list of International Sexual Assault Resources
Page last audited 7/1/2019