Updated on September 17, 2020
Emotional abuse is a way to control another person by using emotions to criticize, 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:2
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
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.3 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.4
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.
Tips for Dealing With Emotional Abuse
The first step in dealing with an emotionally abusive relationship is to recognize the abuse. If you were able to identify any aspect of emotional abuse in your relationship, it is important to acknowledge that first and foremost.
By being honest about what you are experiencing, you can begin to take control of your life again. Here are seven more strategies for reclaiming your life that you can put into practice today.
Make Yourself a Priority
When it comes to your mental and physical health, you need to make yourself a priority. Stop worrying about pleasing the person abusing you. Take care of your needs. Do something that will help you think positively and affirm who you are.
Also, be sure to get an appropriate amount of rest and eat healthy meals. These simple self-care steps can go a long way in helping you deal with the day-to-day stresses of emotional abuse.
Firmly tell the abusive person that they may no longer yell at you, call you names, insult you, be rude to you, and so on. Then, tell them what will happen if they choose to engage in this behavior.
For instance, tell them that if they call you names or insult you, the conversation will be over and you will leave the room. The key is to follow through on your boundaries.
Do not communicate boundaries that you have no intention of keeping.
Stop Blaming Yourself
If you have been in an emotionally abusive relationship for any amount of time, you may believe that there is something severely wrong with you. But you are not the problem. To abuse is to make a choice. So stop blaming yourself for something you have no control over.
Realize You Can't Fix Them
Despite your best efforts, you will never be able to change an emotionally abusive person by doing something different or by being different. An abusive person makes a choice to behave abusively.
Remind yourself that you cannot control their actions and that you are not to blame for their choices. The only thing you can fix or control is your response.
Do not engage with an abusive person. In other words, if an abuser tries to start an argument with you, begins insulting you, demands things from you or rages with jealousy, do not try to make explanations, soothe their feelings, or make apologies for things you did not do.
Simply walk away from the situation if you can. Engaging with an abuser only sets you up for more abuse and heartache. No matter how hard you try, you will not be able to make things right in their eyes.
Build a Support Network
Although it can be tough to tell someone what you are going through, speaking up can help. Talk to a trusted friend, family member, or even a counselor about what you are experiencing. Take time away from the abusive person as much as possible and spend time with people who love and support you.
This network of healthy friends and confidantes will help you feel less lonely and isolated. They also can speak truth into your life and help you put things into perspective.
Work on an Exit Plan
If your partner, friend, or family member has no intention of changing or working on their poor choices, you will not be able to remain in the abusive relationship forever. It will eventually take a toll on you both mentally and physically.
Depending on your situation, you may need to take steps to end the relationship. Each situation is different. So, discuss your thoughts and ideas with a trusted friend, family member, or counselor. Emotional abuse can have serious long-term effects, but it can also be a precursor to physical abuse and violence.3
Remember too, that abuse often escalates when the person being abused makes a decision to leave. So, be sure you have a safety plan in place should the abuse get worse. Healing from emotional abuse takes time. Taking care of yourself, reaching out to your supportive loved ones, and talking to a therapist can help.
Sometimes attempts to deal with or reduce emotional abuse can backfire and actually make the abuse worse. Some tactics that are not effective ways of dealing with abuse include:
Arguing with the abuser. Trying to argue with an abuser can escalate the problem and may result in violence. There is no way to argue with an abuser because they will always find more ways to blame, shame, or criticize. They may also try to turn the tables and play the victim.
Trying to understand or make excuses for the abuser. It might be tempting to try to make sense of the other person's behavior or to come up with excuses to justify their actions. Finding ways to sympathize with or minimize an abuser's actions can make leaving the situation that much more difficult.
Attempting to appease the abuser. Appeasing the other person might seem like a form of de-escalation, but it tends to backfire in the long-run and may serve to enable further abuse. Instead of trying to change yourself or your behaviors to suit the abuser's whims, focus on establishing clear boundaries and avoid engaging with them if possible.
If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.