5 Signs You’re in an Emotionally Abusive RelationshipThe internet asked, our experts delivered.
If you or someone you know is experiencing any type of abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) for anonymous, confidential help available 24/7, or visit thehotline.org.
If we’ve learned anything from leaked text convos and wide-eyed brunch conversations, it’s this: There are unfortunately a lot of people in relationships who treat their partners like crap. Still, the frequency with which we throw around the term “emotional abuse” seems a bit…excessive. So, what is emotional abuse, and what shitty relationship behavior constitutes that label? Let’s discuss.
The truth is, emotional abuse is complicated and hard to pin down since it doesn’t leave an obvious trail or mark (well, unless you count screenshots), but it can wreak havoc on your life from the inside out. To put it in clinical terms, “emotional abuse is a pattern of control established by instilling fear through aggression and threats, feeding insecurity through insults and bullying, and fostering a powerful sense of dependence,” says licensed psychologist Kyler Shumway, PsyD, the chief clinical officer of Deep Eddy Psychotherapy. And it can happen in any type of relationship—not just romantic ones.
If you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, it can feel unsafe to just be you. Whether your partner is around or not, you might feel uncomfortable being your full self, even if you love the person you’re with, Dr. Shumway explains. “Emotional abuse feels like being kept on a leash made of shame and fear," says Dr. Shumway. “While you might have a pretty long leash and may love the person holding it, you’re ultimately still tied up—and don’t feel safe to run free.”
That might sound pretty clear-cut to you, but gaslighting, manipulation, and efforts to thin out your circle of emotional support can often be hard to spot—especially when you’re invested in the relationship. So, to help you get familiar with those red flags, we’re breaking down what they are, how they work as a mechanism of control, and how to spot them.
1. You’re rethinking your identity.
Your partner teasing you once in a while in a way that unintentionally hurts your feelings probably isn’t emotional abuse. However, things like indirect (or straight-up) scrutiny of your appearance (like, “Why aren’t you wearing the necklace I got you?”) and jokes or sarcasm that make you feel bad about yourself can be major indicators of emotional abuse, says Dr. Zuckerman. As can calling you names, belittling your accomplishments or opinions, and setting rules about what you can do, wear, or eat, she adds.
They might even tell you that your friends suck and pick a fight when you hang out with them, says Dr. Zuckerman. That can leave you feeling left out of your friend group and kind of lost without that support.
Your partner may package their insults as them just trying to help or saving you from embarrassment, Dr. Shumway adds. But unlike letting you know that you’ve got everything bagel in your teeth, these critiques are specifically designed to make you doubt yourself—and any excuse is just an effort to throw you off. These kinds of behaviors are a way to control you or make you feel unimportant, Dr. Shumway explains.
When that happens, you might start questioning your own choices and change the way you see yourself. For example, being constantly put down or criticized can mess with your personal beliefs and self-esteem so much that you think you’re too dumb to go back to school or that you’re too unattractive to date again, suggests Dr. Shumway. Yeah, that’s not ideal.
2. The ~drama~ is a lot.
Emotional abuse doesn’t usually kick off on the first date. Instead, those behaviors start creeping in randomly once you feel comfy and invested in the relationship, says Dr. Zuckerman. From there, the rude (to put it lightly) behavior, petty fights, unwanted advice (if you wanna call it that), or even threats come in hot and random. And the fact that these abusive moves occur so sporadically makes it super confusing, explains Dr. Zuckerman.
Actually, emotionally abusive relationships often exist in a cycle that looks pretty similar to a pattern of addiction, Dr. Zuckerman adds. First, your partner love bombs the shit out of you with gifts, compliments, quality time, and any other love language you speak (which can feel awesome because duh). Then things take a sharp turn and they devalue you—only to start love bombing you again just in time. That means you’re left “constantly seeking that original love bombing behavior,” explains Dr. Zuckerman. Those big dramatic gestures and epic fights can feel like living in a T-Swift song with high highs and low lows, so you might even convince yourself this stuff is fine or even romantic.
3. Your mental health hasn’t been great lately.
Because those episodes often T-bone you out of the blue, emotional abuse typically leaves you feeling anxious, afraid, confused, and maybe even shameful or guilty, explains Dr. Zuckerman. “Chronic, long-standing emotional abuse can result in something called complex post-traumatic stress, which involves symptoms such as hypervigilance, anxiety, depression, [intense mood swings], and poor sleep,” she adds. Basically, emotional abuse completely throws off your ability to feel safe in the world—and even with yourself.
In addition to rocking your sense of self and worldview to the core, emotional abuse can also impact your physical health. “Emotional abuse elevates cortisol, the stress hormone designed to help you survive short-term danger,” Dr. Shumway explains.
4. Breaking up doesn’t feel like an option.
Most of the time, an emotional abuser will casually dismiss or deny any concerns about your relationship when you bring it up to them, Dr. Zuckerman notes. And that might make you second guess whether there’s actually a problem here.
But even if you’re completely aware that your relationship is unhealthy, your loyalty to your partner and belief that things can change convinces you to stick around, which is a situation Dr. Shumway and other mental health pros say is common. Unfortunately, this kind of behavior usually doesn’t just go away, especially without expert help, he says.
Trying to break up or get help also comes with the risk of making things worse, explains Dr. Shumway. “In that way, staying in an abusive relationship can feel like the lesser of two sufferings.”
5. Your answer to these Qs is “Nope.”
It’s true that sometimes it’s hard to see the forest through the trees. Getting distracted by the last petty fight or mentally debating whether your friends actually are the worst (probs not) can keep you from seeing the bigger picture. That’s where answering a few high-level questions about your relationship can clear things up, suggests Dr. Shumway. So…
- Can you go wherever you want, with whoever you want, whenever you want?
- Do you feel supported and unconditionally loved by your partner?
- Are you able to be yourself and be open about your thoughts and feelings?
- Do your friends and loved ones support your relationship?
- If an audience of 1,000 people watched your day-to-day life in this relationship, would the majority agree that it’s healthy?
If your response to any of these questions is a hard “no,” that’s pretty much a flashing neon sign that something unhealthy—and possibly abusive—is happening here.
How to end an emotionally abusive relationship.
Considering that it’s hard enough to break up with that person from Hinge you went on like three dates with, it makes sense if you feel overwhelmed by the idea of getting out of a relationship like this.
That’s why you’d really benefit from some support. If you can make it work, Dr. Shumway recommends finding a licensed mental health pro who can help you create an exit strategy and start to work through the wounds abuse leaves. If that’s not an option, check out The Hotline, which provides all sorts of resources for people trying to leave any kind of abusive relationship.
Having family or friends you can lean on is also key here. Not only can they offer a more objective perspective on the relationship (which is helpful if you don’t trust your gut rn), but they can also help you set aside money or offer a safe place for you to stay temporarily if needed, shares Dr. Zuckerman. “The highest risk for physical violence in a relationship occurs when you’re leaving or your partner is aware that you plan to leave,” she says, which is why a ready-to-go support system is non-negotiable. You can do it!
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.