7 Things That Look Like Love (But Are Actually Emotional Abuse)

Watch out for these emotional abuse love signs to spot the difference between love and abuse.

Couple pressing foreheads together emotionally Getty Images

By Elizabeth Laura Nelson

When you think of a woman in an abusive relationship, what does she look like? Does she have a black eye? Does she live in a shelter, maybe with a couple of kids clinging to her, maybe with various bruises, scars, and burns covering her body?

That’s the stereotype many of us were brought up on, and certainly, sometimes it’s accurate.

But when you consider that more than one in three women and one in four men will be in an abusive relationship at some point in their lives, you have to do the math and wonder why you aren’t seeing a lot more black eyes walking down the street, and in class, and at the office.


In a 2010 survey by the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 57 percent of respondents said they find it difficult to identify the signs of violence in a relationship. Part of the reason it’s so hard to see abuse is that much of the time, it’s actually invisible. In fact, it often masquerades as love.

That’s why a new campaign by the One Love Foundation, using the hashtag #thatsnotlove, aims to help people identify the more insidious forms of abuse in relationships and dating, especially among young people.

Here are seven of the most subtle, but no less severe, signs of emotional abuse — ones we often dismiss because, at first glance, they seem a lot like ‘love’…

1. Moving unusually fast.

Love at first sight is supposed to be the ideal, isn’t it? It’s fairytale territory: the thing we’re all after. But this is how abusive relationships often start out. He’s instantly smitten with you; your first date might even last the whole weekend. The intensity ramps up fast, and suddenly you’re spending absolutely all of your time together. Before you know it, it’s like you’ve known each other forever, even though it’s only been a couple of weeks.


Of course, not every relationship that starts out this way will turn out to be abusive, but if things are moving this fast, there’s reason to be wary. Try not to get swept up in the romance and drama of it all at this stage. An abusive relationship shifts from exciting to terrifying faster than you can imagine, so if your date’s declaring his undying love for you before the two of you have had enough time to truly get to know each other, try putting on the brakes a little and slowing things down.

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2. Wanting to know everything about you/

It feels amazing to be seen, and heard, and known, and loved for who we really are. In fact, there’s no better feeling in the world. But that’s also part of how an abuser insinuates himself into your life. He wants to hear all your stories; never gets tired of listening to you confess your darkest fears, your secret ambitions, and your most intimate fantasies. He makes you feel like the most fascinating person on earth. And because you can say anything to him and nothing scares him off, you grow to trust him deeply and feel close to him quickly.

But watch out, because an abuser will remember everything you’ve told him, and down the road, he’ll use it against you. Anything you’ve confessed becomes ammunition that he can use to threaten you or hold over your head. The saying ‘A little less history and a little more mystery’ should generally be adhered to in the initial stages of dating someone. There’s nothing wrong with taking your time and even leaving a few things to mystery, it’s actually part of the fun!


3. Texting and calling you constantly.

If you’ve ever been in a relationship with someone who wasn’t as attentive as you wanted — someone who didn’t return your texts in a timely fashion, or sometimes didn’t return them at all, someone who rarely called, and who got off the phone as fast as possible when you called him  then being in a relationship with someone who is always in touch can feel wonderful. Your phone buzzes with a ‘Good morning, beautiful!’ text before your eyes even open, he calls during your coffee break and on your lunch hour, and he always texts back right away.

Yep, it’s great  until it starts to feel creepy and suffocating. Like when those texts become ‘Why haven’t you called me back?’, ‘Where are you?’ and ‘You can’t ignore me like this’ in the event you don’t promptly respond to them anymore. If a guy always needs to know your movements, it’s a red flag he’s potentially jealous and possessive, both things that are absent in healthy relationships.

RELATED: 6 Heartbreaking Ways Emotional Abuse Changes You

4. Wanting to be with you all the time.

An abusive guy will never be able to get enough of you – at least in the beginning. He won’t want you to go out with your other friends, or to ever spend a night by yourself at home with Netflix and a bottle of wine. This might not feel particularly threatening; after all, he’s telling you how much he loves you, misses you, needs you. That’s sweet, right?


But when he refuses to respect your boundaries, and worse, when he has no life outside of you, that’s a very bad sign. In a healthy relationship, both partners do things on their own sometimes and are totally okay with that. You don’t want to lose your identity to your relationship — and you definitely don’t want to get sucked into a potentially violent, emotionally abusive situation.

5. Telling you no one will ever love you as much as he does.

While this might sound romantic at first, it’s actually a really messed up thing to say — and it’s a hallmark of an abuser. The subtext is “you don’t deserve anything better than the way I’m treating you” and “you’re lucky to have me.” He’s setting you up to believe you’ll never find anyone better than him, and that no one else could ever love you so that when he pulls the rug out, your self-esteem will be decimated and you’ll be too beaten down to leave.

6. Keeping track of your whereabouts 24/7.

This goes right along with texting you all the time and not wanting to be apart, ever, but with a twist: an abuser will want to know exactly where you are all the time when you’re not with him. He’ll do this under the guise that he’s just looking out for you, worrying about you and wanting to make sure you’re safe  and he’ll make it convincing, too.

Watch that he doesn’t get hold of your phone and turn on the ‘share location’ feature so he can track you using GPS at all times: this is a classic abuser move, updated for today’s technology. No one in a happy, trusting relationship needs to track their partner’s whereabouts.


7. Always being “sorry” and needing a fresh start.

When you get fed up with any of the aforementioned moves, things are apt to quickly blow up into a fight. But an abusive partner will never want to break things off. He will always be willing to give you “another chance”, or to beg you to give him another chance. He’ll bring on the apologies, tears, flowers, and romance in order to get you back, or he’ll give you a moving speech about how much he wants to make it work, and that’s why he’s going to keep fighting for you. no matter “how awful” you’ve been to him.

Abusers have a way of knowing exactly what to say to keep you on the hook. If you finish a conversation feeling confused and guilty, wondering ‘WTF just happened?’ then it’s a safe bet you’re in an abusive relationship.

If any of the above scenarios sound a little too familiar to you, tell a trusted family member, friend, or medical professional what’s happening. Because #thatsnotlove.


For anyone struggling with domestic abuse, there are resources available in your state, as well as the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233)

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Elizabeth Laura Nelson is a writer who focuses on topics of self-love, health and wellness, and love. For more of her content, visit her author profile on She Said