There’s a tendency to think of abusive relationships in physical terms — but physical abuse and the threat of violence are not the only signs of a potentially abusive relationship. Emotional abuse can be a destructive force even in the absence of violence. There may be no external signs of the damage being done, but ongoing mental and emotional abuse does real harm, both psychological and physical.
An emotionally abusive relationship often involves subtle but pernicious forms of mental abuse, including gaslighting, control, manipulation, and invalidation — intentional or otherwise. These tactics are often disguised as concern or a professed desire to be together. But when persistent, they amount to emotional abuse and are silent killers of marriages.
The source of emotional abuse or mental abuse tends to be, as with so many relational behaviors, rooted in a person’s past. Very often they may have been the victims of abuse themselves, or witnessed it in their own family, and see that as the “normal” way that couples relate to each other.
“What’s happening psychologically is that the abuser has low self-esteem themselves, are insecure, and they seek power over their partner,” says Diane Strachowski, Ed.D, a licensed psychologist in Menlo Park, California. “They invalidate their partner or silence them altogether. They make unreasonable demands and expect that their partner put everything aside in order to meet their needs. They can be defensive and discount how bad emotional abuse is.”
Though specific examples of emotional abuse may be unique to each relationship, there are patterns of behavior to watch for. “Emotional abuse is much more prevalent than physical abuse, but we really can’t get accurate statistics on it because it is so rarely reported in a systematic manner,” says Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist, professor of psychology, and author of Don’t You Know Who I Am?: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement and Incivility. “Interestingly, emotional abuse is a pattern that is pretty much present from the beginning, but it may be embedded in so much other ‘new’ and ‘exciting’ stuff that shows up in a courtship that excuses can often be written for it.”
Whether it’s yelling, insults, or condescending behaviors, she adds, the signs of an abusive relationship become more complicated because the person doesn’t take responsibility. Often, instead of admitting their behavior might be wrong, they try to make it look like their partner’s fault.
Emotional abuse can be hard to define within a relationship, and difficult to express to those outside of it. Offenders may see accusations of emotional abuse as a sign that a spouse is a nag or too sensitive. But even if acts of emotional abuse in a relationship are unintentional, it’s essential they are acknowledged, confronted, and corrected. There are some common signs that a relationship may be emotionally abusive.
5 Warning Signs of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship
1. One Partner Is Always Controlling the Other
If a spouse is constantly checking up on their significant other, asking for updates of their whereabouts, demanding that they answer texts immediately, and bullying them for information, this is often emotional abuse. This behavior, per Durvasala is often accompanied by a caveat, such as “I was just worried about you!” or “I just want us to be together all the time” that serves to deflect blame from the abuser.
“Wanting to spend some quality time with your partner is one thing, but it’s another thing entirely to completely monopolize them,” says Adina Mahalli, a certified mental health consultant and family care specialist. “Monitoring your partner’s whereabouts, whom they spend time with, and making ‘joint’ decisions on your own are all signs of controlling behavior. This can also present itself in the form of gift-giving that is dependent on compliance.”
2. One Partner Always Tries to Manipulate the Other
An emotional abuser knows how to get what they want from their partner, and has amassed a wide array of tools in order to do it. According to Durvasala, these include: twisting the truth to their advantage, coercing the person to do things, and then guilting them when they do not, frequently bringing up events from the past to rationalize certain “asks,” and playing upon a partner’s vulnerabilities to get them to relent to whatever the abuser wants. Additionally, someone who is emotionally abusive knows how to play with their partner’s emotions, creating situations where they come off as the one who is being abused. “Playing the victim role and pushing a partner’s buttons until they blow creates an emotionally manipulative situation for your partner,” says Mahalli
3. One Partner Is Constantly Undermining, Invalidating, or Insulting the Other
Insults might sound like an obvious sign of emotional abuse. But when emotional abuse is present, the insults come masked as little jabs and backhanded compliments. A spouse might say, “You obviously love my cooking, look how fat you’re getting!” Or, “Did you see how good his wife looked? You could look like that if you tried.” And, when the “joke” falls flat, the abuser turns it back on the other person by undermining or invalidating their emotions with such phrases as “I was just teasing! You’re too sensitive!” That way the pattern of abuse continues unabated.
4. One Partner Tries to Gaslight the Other
“Gaslighting” is a term that has only come into the popular parlance more recently, but it refers to a pattern of abuse that has existed for a long time. Inspired by the 1944 film Gaslight, the term refers to psychological manipulation in which one person is consistently lead to believe that their thoughts and feelings are incorrect — an oft-used tactic of emotional abusers. In a relationship, gaslighting can present itself as denying wrongdoing (“I never did that!”) or challenging the person’s interpretation of events, (“You’re remembering wrong”). Durvasala says to look out for such warning signs as, “saying and doing things that question the reality of another person, leaving the other person confused, lost, and feeling ‘crazy,’ claiming that their social media behavior is appropriate when it is not, and then deleting posts.”
5. One Partner Tries to Isolate the Other
When an emotionally abusive partner constantly tells their spouse that their friends and family are not good for them, that they’re the only person they need, this is dangerous territory indeed. Keeping a spouse completely cut off from outside influences is another form of control and manipulation. Darvusala lists other warning signs, such as: “never being willing to join on events or activities with friends, family, or perhaps children’s friends, demanding that a spouse not work or volunteer.”
The big problem with such scenarios is, absent of actual physical harm, the victim gets lulled into complacency and deluded into believing that things could be worse. This is not the case.
If you or someone you know is experiencing any kind of abuse, then you have to make a change.
“Often times people try to cope or justify staying, saying things like, ‘I know he loves me he just doesn’t know how to show it. It’s not that bad or I love him.’ Because he is not all bad you still look for the good and if you have children with him, you may not think you have other options,” Strachowski says. “But the question is what are relationships for? Ideally, a good relationship makes you feel loved, cherished and protected. If you believe you are in an emotionally abusive relationship get the professional help you when you are stronger you can decide to leave. You deserve better.”