What Is Emotional Abuse?

Updated: 15 hours ago

By Sherri Gordon Verywellmind Reviewed by Amy Morin, LCSW

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)

​Invalidate You

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)

​Create Chaos

Emotionally abusive people create chaos. Some exampl