Abuse in a relationship is never OK, regardless of whether it's physical or emotional. And though a lot of people likely know and agree that there's no place in a healthy relationship for abuse, in the case of emotional abuse, it can sometimes be a little bit tricky to determine what qualifies as abuse and what doesn't. There are some things in relationships that are emotional abuse and some things that aren't, even though you might sometimes guess that they could be borderline. As much as you might wish it were always clear-cut, sometimes it's a bit more difficult to tell the difference.
"I encourage people to really listen to their red flags and experiences that feel less than positive in a relationship," Dr. Angela Grace, PhD, a registered psychologist and author of an upcoming book on the subject, tells Romper in an email exchange. "If these red flags cannot be reasonably discussed with the person and new agreements arrived at that are mutually supportive to both parties, or you leave the situation feeling unheard, shut down, diminished, or shamed, this may be a strong indicator of emotional abuse."
If you think that you're dealing with emotional abuse in your own relationship, reaching out to a therapist and support system can help you get to a place where you're safe and able to heal. It's always OK to ask for help and in the case of emotional abuse, added support can go a long way in easing your transition moving forward.
Name-calling isn't acceptable in any relationship. "Attacking someone’s character is a form of contempt," Lesli Doares, a couples consultant, coach, and author of Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage: How to Create Your Happily Ever After With More Intention, Less Work, tells Romper in an email exchange. "It is meant to demean and humiliate them. It is a form of manipulation to get them to go along with you. Done repeatedly and intentionally, [it] is a form of abuse."
Of course some people may object that they're only teasing or using specific names as a form of endearment. If your partner is calling you names on a regular basis, especially in a way that you are not comfortable or happy with, that could be a sign of emotional abuse.
2Abuse: Withholding Love
You might not think that this is all that big of a deal, particularly when someone is angry, but it's another way to exert control and manipulate the situation. If your partner won't say that they love you or withholds love when there's a disagreement between the two of you or something doesn't go their way, that's a sign of emotional abuse.
"These behaviors qualify as abuse because they are intentionally hurting [and] tearing a person down," Jennifer Weaver-Breitenbecher CAGS, LMHC, a psychotherapist and owner of Polaris Counseling & Consulting, tells Romper by email. "Abuse is an attempt to control another individual through harmful and unhealthy behavior."
3Abuse: Regularly Criticizing
"Consistently being told you’re wrong about everything is demoralizing," Doares says. "It undercuts your confidence and damages self-esteem. It diminishes your worth as an autonomous person and keeps you [second-guessing] yourself."
No one appreciates or deserves constant and unrelenting criticism. If this is a hallmark of your relationship, that's a sign that something's not right.
4Abuse: Keeping You From Friends & Family
Keeping you away from your family and friends is another sign of emotional abuse. "This is often done as an expression of how much someone 'loves' you," Doares says. "They just want you to spend every waking moment with them. Jealousy and possessiveness are often confused with love but they are a form of control."
Neither you nor your partner should be intentionally kept away from your friends and family. Controlling behaviors aren't loving ones.
5Not Abuse: Avoiding Conflict
Avoiding conflict isn't necessarily the best thing for your relationship because it doesn't solve any problems. That being said, choosing to avoid a conflict or the emotions that can go along with one isn't emotional abuse. Doares says the difference is that neither of you actively dismissed or discounted the other person's feelings and concerns. You didn't silence one another.
"While this isn’t a healthy or productive option, many people don’t know how to deal with it so they opt not to," Doares explains. "Feeling unsure about your position or not being able to express it well isn’t the same as not being allowed to or having it dismissed outright."
6Not Abuse: Asking Your Partner To Change A Behavior That Upsets You
Weaver-Breitenbecher says that this is also not a sign of emotional abuse, even if it might seem like it gets close since you're essentially asking them to change a part of themselves for you. But in this case, you're simply asking. Weaver-Breitenbecher says that if you're making them feel like they're not good enough, then that's emotional abuse.
7Not Abuse: Disagreeing With You Or Losing Their Temper
Everyone can have a tendency to say things that they don't really mean when they've lost their temper. It's no one's shining moment. That being said, if you're not doing any of the things that qualify as emotional abuse when you're arguing, even if you're really mad, losing your temper doesn't indicate emotional abuse, Doares says.
"There can be a fine line between abuse and a bad relationship," Doares explains. "Usually that is determined by whether the behavior is designed to control the other person as opposed to just wanting the other person to see your side because you don’t want to alter your own actions or thinking."
8Not Abuse: Calling Out Bad Behavior Or Behavior That Makes You Uncomfortable
Some people might think that this falls very close to telling someone what to do or belittling or criticizing them, but calling out unacceptable behavior isn't emotionally abusive, Weaver-Breitenbecher says. "For example, it isn’t abuse to say 'I️ feel uncomfortable when you go out with your friends and get so drunk that you’re unsafe,'" she explains.
Determining what's emotional abuse and what's not can be difficult, but Grace advises looking at it in terms of a spectrum. "Any act that is perceived as harmful to the recipient could potentially fall under the category of emotional abuse," Grace explains. "However, it depends on the situation, the intention, the ongoing nature of the act, and the willingness to change when called out on the act. For example, everyone gets crabby and irritable sometimes, and may say things in a harsh manner that feels hurtful. Sending a passive-aggressive text that is out of context for the situation can indicate a misunderstanding that needs to be clarified and calmly discussed, yet a continual string of similar texts may verge more towards emotional abuse."
Emotional abuse can be extremely hurtful and damaging to a person and their relationships, so reaching out for help if you need it is very important. Professionals like therapists and organizations like The National Domestic Violence Hotline can help you navigate the next steps you need to take to make sure you're safe and to help you move forward when you're ready to do so.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.