5 Major Red Flags Of Emotional Abuse In A Relationship

Emotional abuse can be hard to identify.

Last updated on Aug 08, 2023

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By Jeremy Brown

If asked, “Are you in an abusive relationship?”, chances are the average person would answer with an emphatic “no”.

But, in many relationships, even in the absence of physical violence, abuse is present.

And it happens without notice, in the form of invalidation, gaslighting, and manipulation.

It’s often disguised as concern or a professed desire to be together.

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It’s emotional abuse and it's a silent killer of marriages.

“Emotional abuse is much more prevalent than physical abuse, but we really can’t get accurate statistics on it, because it is so rarely reported in a systematic manner,” says Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist, professor of psychology, and author of Don’t You Know Who I Am?: How To Stay Sane In An Era Of Narcissism, Entitlement And Incivility.

“Interestingly, emotional abuse is a pattern that is pretty much present from the beginning, but it may be embedded in so much other ‘new’ and ‘exciting’ stuff that shows up in a courtship that excuses can often be written for it.”


The roots of emotional abuse tend to be, as with many destructive behaviors, in the partner’s past.

Very often they may have been the victims of abuse themselves or witnessed it in their own family, and have now deemed that to be the “normal” way that couples relate to each other.

“What’s happening psychologically is that the abuser has low self-esteem themselves, is insecure, and they seek power over their partner,” says Diane Strachowski, Ed.D, a licensed psychologist in Menlo Park, California.

“They invalidate their partner or silence them altogether. They make unreasonable demands and expect that their partner put everything aside in order to meet their needs. They can be defensive and discount how bad emotional abuse is.”


Whether it’s yelling or insults or condescending behaviors, she adds, it gets more complicated, because they don’t take responsibility.

Instead, they try to make it look like their partner’s fault.

Emotional abuse can be hard to identify, as it’s often brushed aside by offenders as signs that a spouse is a nag or too sensitive.

But even if it’s done unintentionally, it’s important that the signs of emotional abuse are confronted and corrected.

Otherwise, a relationship is not going to last. So, what are the signs of emotional abuse? 

Here are 5 major red flags of emotional abuse in a relationship:

1. One partner is always controlling the other

If your spouse is constantly checking up on you, asking for updates on your whereabouts, and demanding that you answer your texts immediately, that might be an issue.


Durvasala says that this behavior will often come with a caveat that will deflect the blame from the abuser.

“I was just worried about you!” or “I just want us to be together all the time.”

This can be extremely toxic.

“Wanting to spend some quality time with your partner is one thing, but it’s another thing entirely to completely monopolize them,” says Adina Mahalli, a certified mental health consultant and family care specialist. “Monitoring your partner’s whereabouts, whom they spend time with, and making ‘joint’ decisions on your own are all signs of controlling behavior. This can also present itself in the form of gift-giving that is dependent on compliance.”


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2. One partner always tries to manipulate the other

The emotional abuser knows how to get what they want from their partner and has amassed a wide array of tools in order to do it.

According to Durvasala, these include, “twisting the truth to their advantage, coercing the person to do things, and then guilting them when they do not, frequently bringing up events from the past to rationalize certain ‘asks,’ playing upon a partner’s vulnerabilities to get them to relent to whatever the abuser wants.”

Additionally, someone who is emotionally abusive knows how to play with their partner’s emotions, creating situations where they come off as the one who is being abused.


“Playing the victim role and pushing your partner’s buttons until they blow creates an emotionally manipulative situation for your partner,” Mahalli says.

3. One partner tries to gaslight the other

“Gaslighting” is a term that has only come into popular parlance more recently, but it refers to a pattern of abuse that has existed for a long time.

Inspired by the 1944 film Gaslight, the term refers to psychological manipulation, in which one person is consistently led to believe that their thoughts and feelings are incorrect — a classic emotional abuse staple.

In a relationship, gaslighting can present itself as denying wrongdoing (“I never did that!”) or challenging the person’s interpretation of events, (“You’re remembering wrong”).


Durvasala says to look out for such warning signs as, “saying and doing things that question the reality of another person, leaving the other person confused, lost, and feeling ‘crazy,’ claiming that their social media behavior is appropriate when it is not, and then deleting posts.”

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4. One partner is constantly undermining, invalidating, or insulting the other

“Well, duh,” you say. “Of course, if my spouse is insulting me, I’m in an abusive relationship.”

Not so fast. When emotional abuse is present, the insults come masked as little jabs and backhanded compliments.


A spouse might say, “You obviously love my cooking, look how fat you’re getting!”

Or, “Did you see how good his wife looked? You could look like that if you tried.”

And, when the “joke” falls flat, the abuser turns it back on the other person.

“I was just teasing! You’re too sensitive!”

That way, the pattern of abuse continues unabated.


5. One partner tries to isolate the other

This can dovetail with gaslighting and concerns when an emotionally abusive partner tells their spouse that their friends and family are not good for them and that the only person they need is him or her.

This is another form of control and manipulation, keeping the spouse completely cut off from outside influences.

Darvusala lists other warning signs as, “never being willing to join on events or activities with friends, family, or perhaps children’s friends, or demanding that a spouse not work or volunteer.”

The problem with relationships like this is, absent of actual physical harm, the victim gets lulled into complacency and deluded into believing that things could be worse.


However, this is not the case, experts say.

If you’re experiencing any kind of abuse, then you have to make a change.

“Oftentimes people try to cope or justify staying, saying things like, ‘I know he loves me, he just doesn’t know how to show it. It’s not that bad or I love him.’ Because he is not all bad, you still look for the good and if you have children with him, you may not think you have other options,” Strachowski says. “But the question is, what are relationships for? Ideally, a good relationship makes you feel loved, cherished, and protected. If you believe you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, get the professional help you need and when you are stronger, you can decide to leave. You deserve better.”

If you think you may be experiencing depression or anxiety as a result of ongoing emotional abuse, you are not alone.

Domestic abuse can happen to anyone and is not a reflection of who you are or anything you've done wrong. If you feel as though you may be in danger, there is support available 24/7/365 through the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-7233. If you’re unable to speak safely, text LOVEIS to 1-866-331-9474, or log onto The Hotline.


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Jeremy Brown is a writer and editor. His writing has appeared in many magazines, websites, and newspapers around the world and he has authored special issues for TV Guide and the Discovery Channel, among more.