21 Warning Signs Of Emotional Abuse In Relationships

Healthy relationships don't make you feel this way.

woman staring blankly wondering if she is experiencing emotional abuse stockfour / Shutterstock

Domestic violence seems to be at the forefront of the media more and more frequently these days. This is in part due to abusive incidents involving sports figures or celebrities coming to light, as well as YouTubers and public figures speaking and sharing their own personal experiences in emotionally abusive relationships as a precautionary lesson for others.

Abusive behavior isn't always as obvious as physical abuse like being hit or shoved, or verbal abuse such as being called degrading names or cussed out.


In fact, abuse can often be underhanded and subtle.

You may find yourself feeling confused about your relationship, off balance or like you are "walking on eggshells" all the time. This is the kind of abuse that often sneaks up on you and occurs more often as you become more entrenched within the relationship.

I'm talking here about psychological abuse, also known as mental or emotional abuse.

What is emotional or psychological abuse?

Psychological abuse occurs when a person in the relationship tries to control information available to another person with intent to manipulate that person's sense of reality or their view of what is acceptable and not acceptable.


It often contains strong emotionally manipulative content and threats designed to force the victim to comply with the abuser's wishes.

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All abuse takes a severe toll on self-esteem. The abused person starts feeling helpless and possibly even hopeless. In addition, most mental abusers are adept at convincing the victim that the abuse is his/her fault. Somehow, the victim is responsible for what happened.


One of the more sophisticated forms of psychological abuse is often referred to as "gaslighting."

This happens when false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity. Examples may range simply from the abuser denying that previous abusive incidents ever occurred to staging bizarre events with the intention of confusing the victim.

I once listened to a client tell me her husband denied an affair after his she found a racy email to another woman on his computer and confronted him. The husband vehemently denied any responsibility for his actions, going so far as sending an email to his tech guy asking how his account could have been hacked and demanding that he the problem!

Another common form of emotional abuse is saying, "I love you, but ... " That may sound nice at first, yet it is both a disguised criticism and a threat. It indicates, "I love you now, but if you don't stop this or that, my love will be taken away."


These constant jabs slowly strips away your self-esteem. Abusers get a lot of reinforcement out of using the word "love" as it seems to become a magic word to control you.

Abusers at times do what I call "throw you a bone."

I've heard countless times from clients that their partner was "nice," "complimentary," "gave me a gift," etc. as if it should erase all of the bad treatment. You need to understand that this is part of the dynamic and cycle of abuse.

In fact, it is rare for abusive relationships to not have these (often intense) moments of feeling good, complete with overly sincere apologies and attempts to make up for the bad behavior. The victim clings to hope during these moments, and the abuser knows this.


Here are signs of emotional abuse to watch for if you think you or a friend may be in psychologically abusive relationship.

21 Signs of emotional abuse

1. Humiliating or embarrassing you

Maybe you're out to dinner and your partner orders the salad for you, saying, "Yup, been packing on some extra pounds, they'll just have a salad!"

Or when you scan the wine list, they laugh at you in front of the waiter (and everyone else in the restaurant) and tell you how stupid you are and why would you think you know anything about wine — just leave it to them.

2. Constantly putting you down

"You know, you'd be prettier if you wore some makeup" or, "You should actually try to do something with your hair instead of being so lazy" isn't even close to a back-handed compliment. It's just wrong.


3. Subjecting you to hypercriticism

"How could you possibly get this wrong? It is the simplest thing a chimpanzee could do. Just add water. Let it boil." It's spaghetti. Not the LSATs.

But criticizing you is a defensive tactic that abusers frequently use to make their victims feel inferior.

RELATED: The Painful Reality Of Being Emotionally Abused By An Ex Every Day

4. Refusing to communicate or giving you the silent treatment

After a fight, your partner won't talk to you (including texts, emails, calls, or anything else) for over a week. This isn't giving them space. It's them punishing you.

5. Ignoring or excluding you

When your partner finally brings you along to their weekly dinner with their family, they end up completely ignoring you the whole time, even when you politely or kindly attempt to join the conversation, so you can be a part of the discussion and actually be acknowledged in the room, period.


But before anyone can say anything, your significant other pays you no mind or purposefully interrupts you to butt you out.

6. Having extramarital affairs

They might try to defend their actions by saying something like, "It doesn't mean anything!" Stop being so sensitive and don't invade my privacy like that!"

As if they hadn't just opened up what was previously your exclusive, two-person sex life (which is, of course, about more than just privacy — it's a violation of intimacy).

7. Displaying provocative behavior with someone of the opposite sex

Maybe you're at a party together and you see your partner flirting with someone else or checking them out — from head, all the way down to toe.


Perhaps you see them exchange phones (clearly exchanging numbers) and your partner giving an understanding nod as they walk away, right before they bump into you, alone and hurt. It's not "just flirting." Even if it were, it doesn't justify their behavior.

8. Use of sarcasm and an unpleasant tone of voice at your expense

"Oh, great, it's just that time of the month again. I get it." This is neither a way of exiting a conversation with any reasonable excuse, nor is it an explanation that has anything to do with the matter at hand.

They'd just rather chalk up any potential issue or inferiority on their behalf to something they think they can pin on you.

9. Unreasonable jealousy

Stealing your phone, breaking into your laptop to read your emails, or listening in on your conversations is never normal, let alone acceptable, behavior in a healthy relationship.




RELATED: Am I Emotionally Abusive? How To Know If The Abuser In Your Relationship Is You

10. Extreme moodiness

Lately, you find yourself tip-toeing around certain issues with your significant other, in the hopes that they won't go flying off into one of their unpredictable rages.

Everything feels like walking on eggshells, and every time you call them, you're never quite sure which version of them you'll get on the other line.


11. Mean-spirited jokes or constant mocking

Instead of being your support system, you feel like you have to fend for yourself around your partner even when you come home. Nothing you ever do is right, day-in and day-out, even if it's "all in good fun."

12. Saying, "I love you, but ..."

Is it really even love then? Because it can't possibly feel like it.

13. Saying things like, "If you don't _____, I will _____"

Ultimatums are a clear indicator of someone who's trying to manipulate you into getting what they want and likely doesn't have your best interests at heart.

If there are always strings attached, it's time to cut them off for good.

14. Attempts at domination and control

Maybe your partner has asked for you to move in or quit your job, so you can "focus on yourself" while they get the upper hand in making financial decisions. Seems like they're more focused on controlling you, instead of you finding anything (or anyone) that may be better for your life.


15. Withholding sex or affection

If you aren't compliant with their opinions or desires, then they'll just give you the cold shoulder and roll over in bed and hug the corner, leaving you marooned, cold, and lonely — all because you didn't give in to their childish demands?

16. Subjecting you to guilt trips

"I can't believe you would ask me to do this when I've already given you the whole world."

You were only asking for them to help you make dinner. Are they really that self-sacrificing?

RELATED: 10 Signs Your Partner Is Constantly Guilt Tripping You

17. Making everything your fault

You're the reason the dry cleaners lost their shirt. Their car broke down because you forgot to remind them to take it in for its inspection. Their cat got sick in their shoes because you didn't feed the cat in the right bowl. Seriously?!


18. Isolating you from friends and family

Maybe it sounds like a seductive offer to move to a different locale and try out a new life where your partner got a new job offer, and you'll be thousands of miles away from friends and family.

Think carefully before you leave your current job and start packing, though. Perhaps that's exactly what your significant other wants — to have you all to themselves, where you have no one else to turn to.

19. Using money to control you

Saying that they'll support you while you explore your "passions" or help you "through a tough time" is one thing, but be mindful that it doesn't become another, where they use financial assistance as a way of monitoring what you're doing, what you're purchasing, where you're going, and who you're spending your time with.

20. Constant calling or texting you when you aren't together

If they want to keep tabs on you at all times, even if you've given them no reason to believe you're going anywhere strange or out with anyone they might disapprove of, this is a sign that they don't trust you, due to their own issues.


It also interrupts your quality time with family and friends, and it needs to stop.

21. Threatening suicide if you leave

This is a sign that your partner needs real help that you cannot give. Tell them you will not participate in manipulative behavior like this, and that you are going to contact a trusted friend, family member, or professional help (who can take over from here).

Know that their issues are not your responsibility and you cannot change their mind one way or the other in a situation like this, and you cannot be in a relationship where threats like this can exist. The best thing you can do is leave.


RELATED: 7 Signs You're Being Quietly Abused (And Don't Even Know It)

It's important to remember is that abuse of any kind, whether psychological or physical, is never your fault.

Abusers are expert manipulators with a knack for getting you to believe that the way you are being treated is your fault. These people know that everyone has insecurities, and they use those insecurities against you.

Abusers can convince you that you do not deserve better treatment or that they are treating you this way to "help" you.

Some abusers even act quite charming and nice in public so that others have a good impression of them. In private, though, it's a different story, which is can feel quite baffling.


If you see yourself in these words, know that there is little hope for your relationship to improve. It would take a monumental amount of insight and motivation for the abuser to change and unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

If you are in an abusive relationship, I urge you to get out — with professional help if needed.

Often the first step in leaving the abuser is obtaining counseling just to rebuild your esteem so that you can leave.

I particularly want you to know that you may love this person, but that they do not love or respect you.

I assure you that in time you will get over this person if you break it off. You will be making the right decision ... no looking back.


If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, 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. Support is 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 visit thehotline.org.

RELATED: If Answering These Questions Make You Uncomfortable, You Might Be In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship

Dr. Marni Feuerman is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in South Florida, as well as the author of Ghosted and Breadcrumbed: Stop Falling for Unavailable Men and Get Smart about Healthy Relationships.