Oftentimes, people in emotionally abusive relationships don't recognize their situation as abuse because they're not being physically attacked. Many people believe that if there aren't physical signs of abuse, then it's not really abuse. But the pain and trauma from emotional abuse are just as real as those from physical abuse. The scars aren't visible, however. Rather they are hidden under the skin and deep in the psyche of survivors. That's why knowing how to tell you're in an emotionally abusive relationship is important.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), emotional abuse or psychological abuse is using "verbal abuse, acts, threats of acts or coercive tactics." My own experience with domestic violence and emotional abuse is sadly not uncommon. A high school boyfriend threatened and manipulated me for several years. Through his manipulation tactics, I began questioning my reality. I was made to feel like his rage and anger were my fault, as if I was doing something to "provoke" him. I was made to feel like I was overreacting and exaggerating. He suggested if I acted a certain way, it would stop. It didn't.
Eventually, I let go of the perfect image of how we were when we first met. It was never going to be that way again. I knew if I let things continue, I would be putting myself in more danger than I already had. Only now do I see how much damage was already done to my entire psyche. The after-shocks, trauma, and scars from that type of emotional abuse doesn't leave you. There were so many red flags that I missed when I started to feel uneasy in the relationship. Things I refused to see out of denial, and things I couldn't see because I was scared.
Now that I've had time and space from the trauma, it's really important to me to help educate people on what emotional abuse is and what it looks like. Here are some ways you can tell if you're in an emotionally abusive relationship.
"If it's been forever since you've seen your best friend, mom or siblings, despite their offers, then it may be time to think about why," Dr. Samantha Rodman, a clinical psychologist and creator of the Dr. Psych Mom website, tells me during an interview. "Often you know vaguely that it will cause a 'problem' to see or even mention these people, but you don't consider it abusive. In fact, it is."
Emotionally abusive partners will often isolate you from other close relationships including those with family, friends, or even coworkers, Rodman says. She suggests the abuser may not even consciously know they're doing it. But, if they get wind of the fact that you want to leave, they know instinctively that others in your life, like friends and family, may suggest you should.
More recently the term "gaslighting" has surfaced. Gaslighting is a psychological abuse tactic that makes the victim question their own reality, according the National Domestic Abuse Hotline website. Some examples of an emotionally abusive person gaslighting their partner are saying things like, "You're crazy, that never happened," "You sure? Your memory isn't so great," or "It's all in your head."
My abuser hit me in the head while driving and tried to convince me afterwards that it was a total accident. He denied it ever happened. And for a moment I questioned it too. I thought did I perceive that wrong? Even though I knew deep down, it was no accident.
Gaslighting is a super powerful abuse tactic because it makes the victim question everything — their sanity, their feelings, and their own gut instincts, thereby giving the abuser control.
"If you're scared to bring up certain topics, this is a danger sign that your relationship is built on shaky foundation," Rodman says. She adds that the abusive partner might stop you from talking about things you care about and sometimes they'll ridicule you for expressing yourself at all.
The abusive partner might not explicitly say, "don't talk about this," but Rodman suggests if talking about something or someone brings up an immediate angry response every time, that's emotional abuse.
Occasional feelings of jealousy are normal in a relationship according to Dani Bostick of the American Counseling Association. But if your partner is texting and and calling you incessantly for no reason it may be unreasonable jealousy.
“Jealousy becomes a problem when the person feeling jealous becomes possessive or controlling, or imposes double standards on his or her partner,” Bostick write on the Domestic Shelters website.
The threats don't have to be limited to one towards you. An abusive partner may threaten to hurt or kill your children, other family members and pets. The abuser may even threaten to commit suicide, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP).
A threat can also can come in the form of intimidation whereby the abuser destroys property, smashes things in front of you, or show you weapons. My abuser punched a hole in a wall next to my head during a fight. I wasn't hit, but the message he sent was implied violence.
According to the NCADV, an abuser may blame their partner for their own behavior. They will claim you provoked them or caused them to lash out. They might even blame you for their own infidelity saying you caused them to be unfaithful and cheat. An abuser will also claim that stress, drugs, or alcohol caused them to behave a certain way.
An abuser can control economic resources to hurt their partner. According to the NCAVP, an abuser may control how money is spent on clothes and food. They might run up debt, steal credit cards and money.
An abusive partner may criticize their partner constantly in privacy, or out in public. How they do it may vary widely. For example an abuser might make insults about their partner's intelligence and appearance. Or they might make fun of their partner and humiliate them, all of which is a tactic to chip away at their target's self-esteem and confidence, according to the NCAVP.
The "silent treatment" is a form of emotional abuse that the Good Therapy website says is typically used by narcissistic people. By implementing the silent treatment, the abuser is attempting to punish their partner. They are simultaneously avoiding blame (and even resolution) and effectively shutting down any attempts by their partner to assert themselves. Meaning the abuser gets full control over the situation.
Mainly emotional abuse is a way for the abuser to keep control over the relationship and over the person. It's a way to oppress their partner and keep them down. No one deserves that kind of abuse and treatment from anyone.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline or visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.