Emotional abuse is a way to control another person by using emotions to criticise, embarrass, shame, blame, or otherwise manipulate another person. In general, a relationship is emotionally abusive when there is a consistent pattern of abusive words and bullying behaviors that wear down a person’s self-esteem and undermine their mental health.
What’s more, mental or emotional abuse, while most common in dating and married relationships, can occur in any relationship including among friends, family members, and co-workers.
Emotional abuse is one of the hardest forms of abuse to recognize. It can be subtle and insidious or overt and manipulative. Either way, it chips away at the victim’s self-esteem and they begin to doubt their perceptions and reality.
The underlying goal of emotional abuse is to control the victim by discrediting, isolating, and silencing.
In the end, the victim feels trapped. They are often too wounded to endure the relationship any longer, but also too afraid to leave. So the cycle just repeats itself until something is done.
How Do You Know?
When examining your own relationship, remember that emotional abuse is often subtle. As a result, it can be very hard to detect. If you are having trouble discerning whether or not your relationship is abusive, stop and think about how the interactions with your partner, friend, or family member make you feel.
Here are signs that you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship. Keep in mind that 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.
If you feel wounded, frustrated, confused, misunderstood, depressed, anxious, or worthless any time you interact, chances are high that your relationship is emotionally abusive.
Have Unrealistic Expectations
Emotionally abusive people display unrealistic expectations. Some examples include:
- Making unreasonable demands of you
- Expecting you to put everything aside and meet their needs
- Demanding 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 according to their standards
- Expecting you to share their opinions (i.e., you are not permitted to have a different opinion)
- Demanding that you name exact dates and times when discussing things that upset you (and when you cannot do this, they may dismiss the event as if it never happened)
Emotionally abusive people invalidate you. Some examples include:
- Undermining, dismissing, or distorting your perceptions or your reality
- Refusing to accept your feelings by trying to define how you should feel
- Requiring you to explain how you feel over and over
- Accusing you of being “too sensitive,” “too emotional,” or “crazy”
- Refusing to acknowledge or accept your opinions or ideas as valid
- Dismissing your requests, wants, and needs as ridiculous or unmerited
- Suggesting that your perceptions 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 (the expectation is that you should not have any wants or needs)
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”
Use Emotional Blackmail
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 or giving you the silent treatment
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, know what is best, and are smarter
Control and Isolate You
Emotionally abusive people attempt to isolate and control you. Some examples include:
- Controlling who you see or spend time with including friends and family
- Monitoring you digitally including 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 co-workers
- 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
Types of Emotional Abuse
Emotional abuse can take a number of different forms, including:
- Accusations of cheating or other signs of jealousy and possessiveness
- Constant checking or other attempts to control the other person’s behavior
- Constantly arguing or opposing
- Isolating the individual from their family and friends
- Name-calling and verbal abuse
- Refusing to participate in the relationship
- Shaming or blaming
- Silent treatment
- Trivializing the other person’s concerns
- Withholding affection and attention
It is important to remember that these types of abuse may not be apparent at the outset of a relationship. A relationship may begin with the appearance of being normal and loving, but abusers may start using tactics as the relationship progresses to control and manipulate their partner. These behaviors may begin so slowly that you may not notice them at first.
Impact of Emotional Abuse
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, research indicates that the consequences of emotional abuse are just as severe as those from physical abuse.
Over time, the accusations, 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 may begin to agree with the abuser and become 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 ulcers, heart palpitations, eating disorders, and insomnia.