"Emotional abuse can be defined as any type of behavior that is intended to control, intimidate, or otherwise manipulate another person through the use of fear, humiliation, or verbal or physical aggression," Joni Ogle, LCSW, CSAT and the CEO of The Heights Treatment, tells Scary Mommy. "While emotional abuse may not always result in physical harm, it can profoundly impact the victim's mental and emotional well-being. Emotional abuse can occur in any type of relationship, including between family members, friends, or romantic partners."
Emotional abuse can be challenging to identify, says Ogle, because it can be subtle or disguised as something else. "For example, a partner who is always making demands and criticism may say that they are just 'looking out for' the victim or that they 'have their best interests at heart,'" Ogle explains. "However, over time, this behavior can take a toll on the victim's self-esteem and emotional well-being. If you are in a relationship where you feel constantly belittled, controlled, or otherwise mistreated, it is important to reach out for help."
And because emotional abuse can be so insidious, it is equally challenging to determine whether or not you're being emotionally abusive towards your loved ones. "It might be hard to admit that you could be emotionally abusive, but it's important to be honest with yourself," Ogle says. "If you're not sure, ask a trusted friend or family member if they think your behavior might be crossing the line into abuse."
Below are her recommendations to keep in mind if you're questioning your own toxic behavior and how to tell if you're being emotionally abusive.
What are the signs of emotional abuse?
There are many different forms of this type of abuse, according to Ogle, but some common examples include the following:
- Yelling (or even swearing) at the person
- Making demeaning or derogatory comments about the person
- Regularly criticizing or belittling the person
- Dismissing the person’s thoughts and opinions
- Withholding affection or love as a way to control the person
- Constantly checking up on the person or demanding to know their whereabouts
- Isolating the person from family and friends
- Controlling the person’s finances or limiting their access to money
- Making all the decisions in the relationship and not allowing the person any input or autonomy
- Gaslighting the person, or manipulating them into doubting their own memories or perceptions
How do you know if you're emotionally abusive?
There are a few key things that can help you take a self-check when it comes to confronting your own emotionally abusive behavior.
First, Ogle suggests being aware of your own emotions and triggers. "If you find yourself getting easily defensive or feeling like you have to control everything, that's a red flag," she says. "Second, take a step back from your relationship and try to look at it objectively. Are there patterns of behavior that are making you or your partner unhappy? For example, do you regularly criticize or belittle your partner? Finally, think about how you would feel in your partner's shoes. Would you be okay with the way you're treating them?"
What do you do if you realize you are being emotionally abusive?
Acknowledging that you're emotionally abusive can be a painful experience, but it's the first step to healing.
"If you find yourself constantly belittling or controlling your partner, or if you find that your relationship is mostly characterized by conflict and manipulation, it may be time to reach out to a counselor or therapist," Ogle says. "They can offer you guidance and support as you work on making positive changes in your relationship. There might be underlying issues that are contributing to your behavior, and a therapist can help you address those."
In addition to seeking professional help, there are also some things you can do on your own to work on being less emotionally abusive, according to Ogle. One crucial step she recommends is to start recognizing your own patterns of behavior. "When you catch yourself being critical or manipulative, take a step back and try to understand what might be driving that behavior," she says. "Are you feeling insecure or threatened in some way? Once you can identify your triggers, you can start to work on managing them in a healthier way."
It's also vital to practice communicating in a more respectful way. If you find yourself getting defensive or angrily lashing out, Ogle suggests instead taking a deep breath and trying to calm down before responding. Also, it may be helpful to rehearse what you want to say ahead of time so that you're less likely to get flustered in the moment. And instead of attacking your partner's character or putting them down, Ogle says try to focus on what you're feeling and why.
"If you can share your feelings honestly and openly, it can help defuse a lot of tension and conflict. Of course, changing long-term patterns of behavior is not always easy, and it will probably take some time and effort. But if you're willing to put in the work, it can make a world of difference for your relationship."