16 Signs Of Emotionally Abusive Relationship And Tips To Handle

Abuse, in any form, is like a gradual poison that kills a person’s spirit slowly with each passing day. If you have ever been in an emotionally abusive relationship, you may know that mental and verbal abuse may be just as harmful as physical assault. Emotional abuse harms a person’s mental health on multiple levels and leads to terrible experiences.

It can be tough to tell whether your partner is emotionally abusive or merely taunting you. So here we are to assist you in understanding emotionally abusive relationships, their signs, and how to walk out before the situation worsens.

In This Article

What Is Emotional Abuse?

Intimidation is a sign a emotional abuse

Image: Shutterstock

When someone constantly puts you down, threatens you, makes you feel worthless, and makes you think you can’t do anything right, then you just need to understand that it is emotional and psychological abuse.

In an emotionally abusive relationship, the abuser controls and dominates the other person through manipulation and intimidation leaving the victim used, powerless, and threatened. The victim also loses their identity and sense of self-worth.

The abusive behavior can often be attributed to the abuser’s childhood, where he may have been abused and didn’t know how to deal with the resulting distress and anguish. As a result, these people are inadequate at having positive and healthy relationships. They feel hurt, angry, and are sometimes incapable of feeling empathy or controlling their emotions. Instead, they project and try to control those emotions by being emotionally abusive (1).

If you are in an abusive or toxic relationship, there’s nothing wrong with you. The abuser is angry with himself and takes that out on you. In certain cases, emotional abuse is accompanied by physical abuse.

Unlike in physical abuse, where the scars are visible, emotional abuse has no scars to see but only a deep mental impact. So, how would you know that you are in an EAR?

Signs Of An Emotionally Abusive Relationship

“Broken bones heal faster than broken spirits.”

Emotional abuse is subtle and deceptive. The people involved might not even be aware that they are in an EAR. The following signs can, however, be your wake-up call to take charge.

Here is how an emotionally abusive partner could behave with you (2):

  1. Emotional abusers manipulate and control you. They constantly bring humiliation upon you in front of others.

    Controlling in an emotionally abusive relationship

    Image: Shutterstock

  1. They criticize you for whatever you do and judge you. And if you are hurt, they might pass it off as a joke.
  1. They are often sarcastic in their remarks and make you feel bad about yourself. They never miss a chance to point out your mistakes and weaknesses.
  1. They are jealous of you having good friends, and try to coerce you into isolation from your friends and family.
  1. They envy your dreams and aspirations, and want to control every aspect in your life. When you discuss your achievements, they put you down and belittle you.
  1. They start isolating you from your family and friends, and become alone, totally dependent on your partner.
  1. They lack empathy and compassion because they cannot be in control when they empathize.
  1. They ignore and disrespect your needs and wants, and treat you like their slave as a result of which you may develop feelings of invalidation.
  1. They cannot laugh at themselves or tolerate when someone disrespects them.
  1. They engage in blame-shifting and blame you for everything that is wrong in their life, often gaslighting you, and avoid taking responsibility for anything.

protip_icon Point to consider
You can find yourself constantly apologizing to your partner and even feel the need to do so while you are subjected to emotional or mental abuse.

  1. They withdraw and stop talking to you to get your attention or for whatever they want.
  1. They argue about routine things and escalate them to the extent of physical abuse.
  1. They can threaten you physically and show their dominance and control over you.
  1. They are emotionally unavailable because they don’t know how to deal with their own inadequacies.
  1. Certain times the abuser even controls the partner’s private space including the phone, car and personal time.
  1. They make you feel responsible for their abusive behavior by saying, “You are too sensitive” or “If you weren’t so dumb, I wouldn’t have yelled at you”.

Be it insensitive comments, humiliation, and exertion of power, all of it can chip away at a person’s self-esteem. Detecting an abusive relationship is vital to protect yourself from further mental harm. A survey determined the most common actions of an abusive partner and is illustrated in the graph below.

Percentage of individuals experiencing criticism and control in relationships

Source: Physically and emotionally abusive relationships; MentalHelp.net

Source: Physically and emotionally abusive relationships; MentalHelp.net

If You Are The One Who Is Being Abused, Then

  • You are anxious and nervous in front of them.
  • You feel trapped and helpless forever in your relationship.
  • You want to remain silent even when you are angry just because you don’t want to antagonize your partner.
  • You are afraid to tell them even trivial things, such as your phone repair or bill payment, because you don’t know how they would react, and you often experience a sense of neglect.
  • You feel you have to take their permission to go out or do anything.
  • You feel ashamed or guilty due to frequently imposed guilt-tripping.

    The abuser makes you feel guilty

    Image: Shutterstock

  • You tend to isolate yourself from others because you don’t want to feel ashamed when the abuser criticizes you.
  • You blame yourself for the abusive behavior.
  • You justify their behavior irrespective of the situation.
  • You walk on eggshells. This means that they play it safe and do not offend their partner and avoid confrontation. In other words, they encourage the abuse subtly.

If you see any of these signs in your relationship, you must accept that it’s happening to you. Remember that the stress of emotional abuse can manifest into anxiety, depression, and emotional trauma. Let’s see the effects of emotional abuse.

Effects Of Emotional Abuse

“It is not the bruises on the body that hurt. It is the wounds of the heart and the scars on the mind.” – Aisha Mirza

That simply sums up the impact of emotional abuse. It can be as severe as physical abuse and sometimes even greater. The emotional trauma can leave scars on your mind that can affect the rest of your life.

Sometimes victims blame themselves and try to underplay the abuse by thinking, “at least he didn’t abuse me physically”. But, that doesn’t reduce the adverse effects. Let’s see the short-term effects it has on the victim (3).

  • They always feel anxious and nervous.
  • They feel powerless, out of control, manipulated, and forever trapped.
  • They become overly passive, compliant, aggressive, or show passive-aggressive behavior.
  • They avoid eye contact.
  • They are afraid to talk about the abuse to anybody.

When the emotionally abusive relationship continues for a long time, the effects are permanent and dangerous. They go to the extent of believing all the negative things that an abuser says about them. The long-term effects of emotional abuse include:

  • They have low self-esteem and self-worth.
  • They develop learned helplessness.
  • They become emotionally unstable, and blame themselves. They believe that their spouse became abusive because of them, leading to degradation of self.
  • They have sleep-related problems.

    Being in an emotionally abusive relationship affects your health

    Image: Shutterstock

  • They tend to withdraw from people, and isolate themselves because they don’t want to feel ashamed or be embarrassed in front of everyone.
  • The emotional stress manifests in the form of physical pain.
  • They have suicidal thoughts.
  • They develop an unhealthy dependence on the abuser.
  • They are unable to trust people anymore.

There’s no reason why you should stay in such an unhealthy relationship when the negatives outweigh the positives. But, the victims still cling on to their partner.

Why Do People Stay In Emotionally Abusive Relationships

To an outsider, it may seem easy to suggest ways, but people who are in an EAR know how difficult it is to call it quits (4):

  1. Financial dependency: The victim might be dependent on the abuser for finances and that makes it difficult to leave the relationship.
  1. Fear of consequences: The abuser threatens grave consequences such as hurting the family members and children or tarnishing the image of the victim.
  1. Children are an impediment: Separation of any sort becomes difficult when children are involved. The victim might not be in a position to support the children financially, or feel guilty of separating the children from their parents. It could also be that the children are too young.
  1. Feeling abuse is normal: The person feels that being abused is normal as they might have themselves grown up in an environment where one their parents abused the other. With limited emotional skills, children do get confusing and mixed messages, and they are likely to carry the confusion to their adulthood. They might end up choosing someone who repeats the complicated emotional dynamics.

    Do not tolerate any kind of abuse by your partner

    Image: Shutterstock

  1. Feels responsible for the partner: When the abused is financially dependent on the victim, the latter may not want to leave the former without support. In some cases, the victim feels responsible for the abuser’s behavior.
  1. Hopeful of seeing change in the partner: The abuser hopes to see some change in the partner. So, wait patiently for an uncertain period.
  1. Inability to let go: Many EARs start off on a good note with a lot of love and understanding, and then evolve into abuse. This leads the abused person into disbelief and they deny the abuse at face value.
  1. Has low self-esteem: If the victim has been in an abusive relationship for a considerable time, then their self-esteem reduces to a point where they do not see it as an abuse anymore. They are used to it, accept it and it becomes their way of life. The abuser might also make the victim believe that the latter cannot survive without the former.
  1. Abuser prevents them from leaving: The abuser can go to great extent to prevent their partner from leaving. They might isolate their partner, and cut off their ties with family and friends. They might provide limited finances just enough to manage themselves.

Taking help from friends and family can reduce the emotional burden of the victim. There are many other ways to deal with EARs.

Ways To Deal With Emotionally Abusive Relationships

If the abuser isn’t willing to change and you are not able to walk out of the relationship, then here’s what you can do to deal with an EAR.

  1. Put your needs first: There’s no point in sacrificing your needs when the other person doesn’t acknowledge or appreciate you. Put your foot down and take care of yourself first.
protip_icon Quick tip
Try to focus your energies on your favorite hobbies, interests, or other physical activities you like. It can help you get a better insight into your problems.
  1. Have boundaries: Setting boundaries can help avoid emotional and physical abuse. For instance, if your partner criticizes you or puts you down always, then tell them, “I will walk away or leave the house if you yell at me or criticize me”. Be firm when you say this and stick to your boundaries.
  1. Keep your calm: If your partner tries to argue, don’t lose your cool. Don’t even try to justify or explain yourself. Just keep your calm and walk away.
  1. Don’t try to change them: The only way you can change the abuser is by waiting for them to realize their damaging behavior. Your repeated attempts at trying to change them will yield no results, and you will be disappointed.
  1. Don’t blame yourself: If you have been in EAR for quite some time, you tend to feel that the other person is not treating you right because it’s your fault. But it’s not about you. It’s the other person who is being abusive. So, stop blaming yourself and build your self-esteem.
  1. Take help: If you find yourself trapped in a relationship, there’s nothing wrong in taking help from family, friends, or even a counselor. Spend more time with people from whom you can get support.
  1. Make a plan: EARs are unhealthy and are difficult to be in. Therefore, act early. The moment you get a hint of it, make plans to leave even if it means having to divorce your spouse. Start saving and planning for your future.
  1. Socialize with others: Abusers tend to isolate the victims from others either because of jealousy or to control them. Break the cycle by spending time with people who love you, make you happy, support you, and let you be yourself without judging or criticizing you.
  1. Be financially strong: Abusers use finance as a means to control the victim. The big step to stop the abuse is to be financially independent. Get a job and start saving so that you are not dependent on the abuser for money.

The key to resuming your dignity and self-esteem is to analyze the reasons for staying in an EAR. Identify them and find ways to leave or quit an EAR. Here’s how you can get out of it.

How To Get Out Of An Emotionally Abusive Relationship

Life is too short to be wasted on someone who doesn’t respect you, disregards your needs, and makes you feel worthless constantly. You are the only person who can decide whether it’s worth staying in the relationship or not. And, if you want to get out of an EAR, here’s how you can do it (5):

  1. Regain your confidence: Build your confidence levels, believe in your worth, and your capability to reach your goals — personal or professional.
  1. Connect to your inner self: It’s never too late to reconnect to your original self. Be the person who you were before you were in this relationship. Be the ‘real’, ‘happier’, and ‘carefree’ you.
  1. Be open and honest with yourself: What is that you want from your relationship? If the bad things outweigh the good ones or if the good things are insignificant, then it’s time to walk out.
  1. Understand your partner’s issues: Are you willing to help your partner change? Is there anything that is bothering them? Ensure that you sync these interests with your personal interests and integrity. Don’t try holding on to your relationship just because you want peace. Do what’s right for you.
  1. Resume your power: If the emotional abuse goes beyond your tolerance threshold, just walk out of the relationship, and take charge of your life.
  1. Have the courage to say ‘no’: All you need is to gather the courage to stop yourself from being abused. Say ‘no’ to your partner and just stop yourself from being abused. Tell him, “If you continue the abuse, I will leave.” And do that if things do not work out. Do not stick around hoping the person will change. Standing up and speaking for yourself is a big leap towards stopping the abuse.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Can emotional abuse change my personality?

Yes, emotional abuse can change your personality. It can have a significant impact if left unattended for an extended period. Victims of emotional abuse often have low self-confidence and suffer anxiety and depression. Coupled with the imbalance in their emotional and mental well-being, they result in chronic health problems and substance abuse (6).

2. How does emotional abuse affect my future relationships?

A victim of emotional abuse might have trouble getting into a relationship. They are less likely to trust other people and can’t open up their feelings to them. As a result of their abuse, they might also develop PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), resulting in frequent headaches, eating disorders, and substance abuse. Others might experience insomnia and emotional outbursts and develop frequent negative thoughts (7).

3. Do emotional abusers know they are doing it?

Emotional abusers could be conscious of their actions in some situations, while they might not completely understand or accept the harm they are causing to others. It’s crucial to realize that emotional abuse is a complicated problem, and those who perpetrate it may have a range of motives and levels of self-awareness.

4. Can therapy help me heal from emotional abuse?

Yes, therapy can be quite helpful in assisting people in recovering from emotional abuse. A therapist can offer a secure and accepting environment to discuss your experiences and feelings. They can provide a caring and understanding viewpoint while also assisting you in recognizing and validating the emotional abuse you have experienced. Also, a therapist can offer ongoing support as you progress through your healing process. They can give you the power to regain control of your life, make wise choices, and establish wholesome bonds based on mutual respect and trust.

5. What are the differences between emotional and verbal abuse?

Emotional abuse seeks to control, manipulate, or undermine a person’s emotional health and sense of self-worth. It can manifest in various ways, including belittling, demeaning, humiliating, criticizing, or mocking the victim. In contrast, verbal abuse refers to using language, tone, or other nonverbal cues to harm, denigrate, or exert control over another person.

6. How do people become trapped in emotionally abusive relationships?

People can be trapped in emotionally abusive relationships by psychological manipulation, fear, dependency, low self-esteem, and a lack of support or resources.

An emotionally abusive relationship might lead to physical and mental trauma. Watch out for the signs of an emotionally abusive partner. If you notice that your partner exhibits most of the above signs, then it might be time for you to redefine your relationship with them. An emotionally abusive relationship may leave you traumatized for ages and cause trust issues in your future relationships as well. Hence, if you’re being abused, the change begins by accepting the fact, identifying the purpose of the relationship, and trying to get out of it. If needed, you can also seek professional help.

Infographic: Latest Emotional Abuse Terms

Emotional abuse may not be visible at times. Sometimes, the victim is unaware of what’s happening to them or cannot explain it to anyone. Therefore, we bring you an infographic with some emotional abuse terms and their meaning, so you know what is going on.

emotional abuse (infographic)

Illustration: Momjunction Design Team

Get high-quality PDF version by clicking below.

Download Infographic in PDF version Download Infographic
Download Infographic in PDF version

Key Pointers

  • Emotional abuse is common in relationships where the abuser dominates and controls the victim through manipulation and intimidation.
  • Indicators of emotional abuse include jealousy, lack of empathy, criticism, isolation, withdrawal, and threatening behavior.
  • Victims often feel confined, helpless, scared, guilty, and alone.
  • The abuser’s childhood experiences are often cited as the primary cause of emotional abuse.
  • Seeking help and support is crucial if you suspect emotional abuse in your relationship to address the issue before it escalates.

Are you in an emotionally abusive relationship? Learn the 14 signs to look out for in this informative video.


MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
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