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Dating And Relationships - Overview | February 15, 2021, 2:09 CST

How to Identify Emotional Abuse in a Relationship

Emotional abuse can be subtle. Know the signs to watch for and the ways to get help.
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The signs of physical and sexual abuse are often visible, which makes it easier for outsiders to approach victims and offer assistance. Emotional abuse, on the other hand, has few physical markers. Victims of emotional abuse frequently do not recognize the damage being done to their own mental and physical health.

Since emotional abuse is more insidious in nature, it’s important to recognize that there are several different ways to identify emotional abuse. Experts agree, however, that an overall definition of emotional abuse is the persistent attempt to control someone, the same way that physical abuse is used.

Emotional abuse targets individuals through criticism, shaming, humiliation and blaming in efforts to manipulate them into submission. Most abusive relationships display consistent patterns of bullying behavior that wear down a person’s self-esteem and mental health. Abusers tend to pressure victims into silence, and silence can lead to isolation, which often causes victims to lose contact and intimacy with a majority of friends and family.

How to identify emotional abuse

When examining your own relationship, keep in mind that emotional abuse can be subtle. It hides behind the guise of love or affection, which makes it difficult to detect.

If you are having a difficult time identifying whether your relationship with a lover, friend, family member or co-worker is abusive, take a moment to check in on how this relationship with this individual makes you feel. Do you feel safe? Are you often afraid of making mistakes or having to anticipate their reactions?

Emotional abuse includes negating or stonewalling a person in order to maintain power. Abusive partners may attempt to exercise control over your money and monitor your behavior. They might also go so far as to dictate who you’re allowed to see, how you dress and where you’re allowed to go.

Other types of behavior that might indicate emotional abuse include:

  • Name-calling
  • Shaming
  • Frequent arguments and denial of your viewpoint
  • Gaslighting, or manipulating someone to question their own reality
  • Unsolicited criticism
  • Comparing you unkindly to others
  • Withholding affection and attention
  • Emotional blackmail through the use of fear, guilt or other feelings
  • Acts of superiority
  • Isolating you from joining other people or activities
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Invalidating you
  • Creating chaos in your life 
  • Accusations of infidelity or acts of jealousy and possession

What to do & how to get help

There are several reasons why abuse survivors stay in these relationships and/or won’t reach out to friends and family members for help.

Victims and abusers alike view abuse in their relationship as a trademark of passion, especially since the abuser has already disguised the abuse as love.

The pattern in abusive relationships shifts between two phases of extreme opposites: one when the abuser begins by angrily confronting the partner and another when the abuser feels guilty and promises to change. A cycle of power and control happens in abusive relationships. The abuser uses various tactics—ranging from subtle, continual behaviors over time to possible escalation to physical and sexual abuse—to keep the victim in the relationship.

Other reasons victims stay could be for fear of their own security and/or the safety of their children. Sometimes individuals stay because they are financially dependent on the abuser, cannot find immediate shelter on their own, or the abuser has complete control over their money.

The first step in dealing with an emotionally abusive person is to recognize their abusive behavior and patterns. Looking for articles and information about the abuse is the beginning of your journey. By being honest and facing your experience, you are already taking the most important step toward escaping abuse. You are—and should be—prioritizing yourself.

You should also try to establish boundaries with your abuser. This may not always come easily, but strictly inform the abuser of the consequences of their behavior and follow through with your boundaries. For example, tell your abuser that you will exit any conversation if they begin to insult you. If your partner repeats the offense, leave the room.

Survivors must also come to terms with the reality that they cannot fix the abuser and it is not their job to fix the abuser. An abusive individual chooses to behave abusively, and only that individual can decide to change. Victims cannot alter the behavior of the abuser, and nothing they do differently will change it.

Create an exit plan

If your friend, partner or loved one has shown no real commitment to working on their abusive behavior, it is important for you to recognize that. Regardless of the affection or commitment you have for this person, you will eventually feel the toll of this relationship, which is likely to escalate to more harmful situations rather than improve on its own.

For this reason, it’s wise to approach a trusted friend, counselor or loved one to help you map out a potential exit plan that also includes your children, if applicable. It is smart to consider all possibilities. Even if you believe your partner is not capable of physical abuse, remember that abuse of any kind can escalate, and having a safe exit strategy ensures your safety and protection.

If you fear immediate physical violence, call 911 or your local emergency services. If you aren’t in immediate danger but need to speak to a professional or find shelter, call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 800-799-7233. This 24/7 hotline can put you in touch with service providers and shelters across the United States.