You’re probably keenly aware of what abuse looks like, at least physically speaking. The signs of physical abuse are actual. Tangible. Those enduring this type of abuse generally have cuts, bruises, and scars. But the signs of mental and emotional abuse are harder to see, especially if you are in an abusive relationship. When you’re in the trenches, it can be easy to miss persistent patterns and abusive behaviors.
“Emotional abuse can take many forms,” Dr. Meghan Marcum, the chief psychologist at AMFM Healthcare, tells Scary Mommy. “Overall, emotional abuse consists of a pattern of psychological trauma (often verbal) that occurs within the context of a relationship. It may include name calling, insults, making demands, and/or using threats to control an individual. Other examples consist include gaslighting, bullying, and sexual harassment. And while the scars from emotional abuse are typically unseen, the effects of emotional abuse can be long-standing. Emotional abuse can result in serious psychological consequences, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, low self-worth, feelings of helplessness, and fear about leaving the relationship.”
Here are eight signs you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, according to four experts.
Does your partner call you constantly? Do they monitor your whereabouts and/or check your emails? If so, this could be a red flag. “One of the most common signs of emotional abuse is control,” Alexander Burgemeester — a neuropsychologist and the owner of The Narcissistic Life — tells Scary Mommy. “People who abuse this way need to be the only person in your life. They find every opportunity to pull you away from family and friends, and they do so through monitoring and manipulation.”
Most individuals yell. It is a normal reaction to stress, anger, pain, and fear. But yelling on a regular basis is not normal, nor is it okay. “Emotional abusers use yelling as a tactic,” Hüdanur Akkuzu — a clinical psychologist — tells Scary Mommy. “They scream at you constantly and call you names you don’t like. They have emotional outbursts. They run hot and cold, and emotional abusers are dismissive and patronizing.” Through their tone and language, they scare you, minimize you, and put you down.
Used by mental and emotional abusers, gaslighting is when an emotionally abusive partner makes you question your reality, an article on WebMD explains. Gaslighters make individuals feel guilty and/or at fault. They blame you for their feelings, thoughts, and/or actions, and gaslighters use language to manipulate you. “[Gaslighters and] emotional abusers commonly say things like ‘you don’t think clearly/your memory isn’t accurate’ and/or ‘you’re crazy/nuts/stupid/don’t make any sense,'” Rachael Chatham, a licensed clinical mental health counselor, tells Scary Mommy.
If you are afraid to be or breathe — if existing in the same space as your partner makes you anxious, or puts you on edge — you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship. “The power dynamic in these relationships is not equal,” Chatham explains. “One partner tends to call all of the shots and can often use their own dysregulated emotions to instill fear in the other. Some internal signs that you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship include experiencing significant self-doubt, loss of a sense of clarity about oneself, and feeling chronically anxious or depressed.” Walking on eggshells is also a sign something is amiss.
5. Shaming and blaming
Emotional abusers are master manipulators. They change the narrative and do so using numerous tactics, including gaslighting and control. They also shame and blame the victim, saying things like “I wouldn’t have yelled at you if…” and/or “this is all your fault.” “Someone who is emotionally abusive will also act superior to you and blame you for things that are not your fault,” Burgemeester tells Scary Mommy.
When most people think of emotional abuse, they think of name calling, yelling, and put downs. But some emotional abusers stonewall their victims, i.e. they shut down and refuse to communicate at all. According to Healthline, “in a social situation, stomping out of the room leaves you holding the bag. At home, it’s a tool to keep the problem unresolved.”
Emotional abuse typically involves insults, humiliation, guilt-beatings, and degradation. “Some signs you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship are that the other person constantly undermines you, making you feel small,” Burgemeester tells Scary Mommy. “Emotional abusers may also call you sensitive, crazy, and/or too emotional for sharing how you feel,” and they do so in both public and private settings.
Emotional abuse is pervasive. It affects every aspect of your life, including your relationships with family and friends. “One of the common signs you are in an emotionally abusive relationship is being cut off from loved ones,” Marcum tells Scary Mommy. “The abusive person tries to establish control by limiting the amount of support the other person is able to access. Sometimes this happens slowly, over time, and may appear innocent as if they can’t bear to spend time without you, but it is just as insidious.” Abusers often convince their partners that no one cares. This alienation can cause victims to feel like they’re on an island, removed from loved ones and past versions of themselves.
If you or someone you love are in an abusive situation, know there is both help and hope. If you are in immediate danger, call 911. If you aren’t in immediate danger and/or you have an opportunity to reach out, do. Confide in a trusted friend, family member, therapist, and/or volunteer with an abuse shelter or call a domestic violence hotline.