This Is What Emotional Abuse In A Relationship Looks Like

Know how to define emotional abuse to prevent toxic relationships.

Signs Of Emotional Abuse In A Relationship & Examples Of Unhealthy Conversations Unsplash 

Emotional abuse is a form of domestic violence, there's no doubt about that.

In fact, emotional abuse is the most harmful form of domestic violence that people report experiencing. 

RELATED: 11 Horrifying Myths (And Eye-Opening Facts) About Domestic Violence


There are several risk factors that make emotional abuse so harmful. For one, many tend to rationalize or normalize emotional abuse because you can’t "see the bruise". 

However, there is a very real bruise.

The signs of emotional abuse and domestic violence are not always visible or physical. Chronic abuse is internalized by the victim as a negative sense of self-esteem, which lasts a lifetime unless treated. 

Furthermore, many do not get treatment for emotional abuse because the scars are not visual or physical, so they do not know that they have been harmed or need help. A further risk factor is the fact that emotional abuse is often a precursor to physical abuse. 


In my 20 years of clinical practice, the form of domestic abuse and violence that is most common and most often causes mental health issues is emotional abuse. 

Many people do not understand this, because there is no adequate information and education regarding emotional abuse.

In fact, there are some facts about emotional abuse that will help you dispel myths or misconceptions: 

  • Emotional abuse is perpetrated by men and women. 
  • Emotional abuse is perpetrated in spousal relationships and in parent/child relationships. 
  • Naturally empathic people or children are more likely to internalize emotional manipulation or abuse as inherently "their fault".

Some people find it difficult to understand how emotional abuse is "violence". The term "violence" refers to intentional harm done on another.


In physical violence, the harm is physical and visible. In emotional violence, the defining quality remains the intention to do harm to another, and the harm is not visible to the eye, but it is still real. 

Emotional abuse signs are not always visible. So, a helpful means of distinguishing violence, abuse, and manipulation from the normal range of fighting or hurt feelings in any relationship is the presence or absence of empathy. 

While people in healthy relationships will absolutely hurt one another’s feelings, disappoint one another, and even say things that are hurtful, emotional abuse is defined by the sustained inability to meaningfully consider how your actions have affected another. 

Here is an example of how a conversation can go in an emotionally abusive relationship:


Mary: "John, I”m so angry, you came home late last night again, you’re always late, you just don’t care about me."

John: "I”m sorry I was late again last night, but it’s an exaggeration to say I”m always late, you know I’ve made an effort and been home for dinner 3 times this week."

Mary: "Right, sure, you’ve made an 'effort'. Whatever. You obviously don’t care about anyone. I’m obviously not important to you. Just go on making your 'efforts', good luck with that, no one would ever be happy with this."

Here Mary is using manipulative techniques including the induction of guilt to get the desired response. ("You’re always late! You don’t care about me.")

RELATED: 21 Signs You're In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship

She is also using sarcasm, which infers that John’s response is unworthy of her consideration and respect (using air quotes around 'efforts'), and making a criticism of John that infers he, as a person, is not worthy of respect or love (no one would ever be happy with this), rather than critiquing John’s choices or behaviors while making clear that he as a person is worthy of respect. 


There is also an implied threat in this statement. ("Good luck, no one would be happy with this subtle threat that I will leave you and you’ll be alone because you're no good.")

But, in a healthy relationship, the conversation might look like this:

Mary: “John, I’m so angry, you came home late again last night. When you’re late, it’s really hard for me to feel important to you."

John: "I’m sorry I was late again, I understand how important it is for you that I'm here for dinner. This is why I made an extra effort to be home for dinner 3 other days this week. Is there anything I can do to remind you how important you are to me?"

Mary: "You’re right, you did make an effort, I appreciate that. I am really struggling still to feel important. I honestly don’t know what to ask for right now, but I’ll think about it."

You can see how the lack of manipulative statements from Mary, from the get-go, opened up a different response from John. While John’s response wasn’t manipulative in the first example, he was feeling more defensive than supportive. 


You can also see how Mary, in the healthy example, was able to talk about her feeling state and need and refrained from defining who John is as a person, insulting him, undermining his efforts, or inducing guilt. 

When Mary was less manipulative, she got more of her needs met. 

If Mary were to stay stuck in that manipulative manner of relating, then their relationship is not healthy for either of them. 

Here’s an example of a more extreme case:

Ellen (to her boyfriend): "You wouldn’t believe what we did last night, we went out to the lake after the dance, and we all ended up skinny-dipping after dark! I’m not sure how I feel about that but it was such a warm night and everyone had such a good time, I just wanted to tell you, and let you know nothing unsafe or untoward happened. I wish you were there!"

Jake: "I can’t believe you did that. You would seriously do that to me? Only a slut would do that. You are so untrustworthy."

Jake then ends the conversation and refuses to talk to Ellen for an entire day. Later he continues to blame her for the demise of the relationship

In this example, Jake is insulting Ellen’s personhood. ("Only a slut would do that, you’re untrustworthy")


He is also inducing guilt, without any empathy or concern for Ellen. 

Despite Ellen’s attempts to build trust through transparency, Jake is essentially gaslighting her by telling her that she is untrustworthy and has been willfully destructive to the relationship. 

Gaslighting is defining the reality in a way that willfully ignores what one person is saying or doing in a way that suggests that Ellen should doubt her own perception of her own intentions. Over time, gaslighting is enormously destructive to the victim’s mental health. 


Jake is also stonewalling by refusing to talk further with Ellen. Stonewalling is a very toxic behavior that controls the relationship and the other person by means of withdrawing empathy, dialogue, consideration, and mental flexibility. 

The healthy version of this conversation would look something like:

Jake: "Wow! Really? I don't know what to think about that, I guess I need a minute. I guess I thought we would never, ever be naked in front of anyone but each other. I feel pretty confused right now. To be honest, I’m even having trouble believing that nothing else happened, but I know you’ve never lied to me before, so let’s try to work through that. We need to have a serious talk and make sure we’re on the same page about some things, can we make some time to do that?"

In this example, again, Jake is able to state his own feelings, fears, and needs. Emotional manipulation and abuse occur when a person lacks the ability or willingness to state their own needs and feelings.


This self-ownership and transparency replace the former attack and blame on his girlfriend. Jack has every right to feel confused, scared, even betrayed, but he is able to approach those feelings with a basic empathy for Ellen, and conveying respect for her, even if he strongly disagrees with her decision. 

Knowing the difference between healthy critique, fighting fairly, and emotional manipulation or abuse is the key to avoiding toxic relationship patterns!

If you find yourself in an abusive situation and need help, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-7233.

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


Perrin Elisha a psychologist, psychoanalyst, author, and teacher who helps clients get to the root of and heal their relational difficulties. Download my free eBook "How to Be an Extraordinary Partner" or enroll in the Emotional Manipulation and Abuse Course today