Emotional abuse is often unclear because by it’s very definition, emotional abuse is manipulative and thereby, confusing. While some behaviors are obviously abusive there are other signs of emotional abuse that are not so obvious.
Of course, this is complicated by the fact that behaviors which may be obviously abusive if you were an outsider to the relationship can become normalized over time. It can happen slowly and over time that someone erodes your self-esteem making you more likely to feel like this is the only person who will ever love you so you must stay.
Therefore, it’s important to be informed as to what constitutes emotional abuse. When you are aware of what are ordinary relationship problems compared to abusive ones, you are more empowered to have truly healthy relationships in your life.
Some Relationships Aren’t Just Bad, They’re Emotionally Abusive
Last year, I was reminded just how insidious emotional abuse is. I’ve been a relationship therapist for 10 years but before last year, I never deemed my last codependent relationship as emotionally abusive.
In a weird small world moment, my husband had been coordinating with someone off Nextdoor who happened to be my ex. When his number showed up, I began shaking and for a moment, I couldn’t even speak. My vision went blurry and my heart was racing. The number that popped up was that number. A number I had deleted, and entered back into my phone, on countless occasions during the four years I spent in an on-again-off-again “situationship” with the owner of this phone number.
I was perplexed and disturbed by my reaction to simply seeing this man’s phone number after all this time. Sure, I knew that I referred to this relationship as my rock bottom – the catalyst to my codependency recovery – but my reaction went beyond this. As a trauma therapist, I knew that my body had been triggered into entering the fight-flight-freeze response. Emotionally, I didn’t get it though. Why would I be traumatized from this relationship?
Emotional abuse is traumatizing
It took me more than a day to ground myself since trauma triggers us into feeling the past is happening in the present moment. To cope, I used strategies like yoga, journaling, and diaphragmatic breathing. To learn more about this breathing technique, please watch the video below.
When I felt grounded again, I started looking at this relationship more closely. I had always thought of this relationship as messy and painful but never traumatic. When I took some time to process this relationship more though, I realized that there were numerous signs of emotional abuse I had experienced in this relationship. They just weren’t obvious to me then.
7 (Not So Obvious) Signs of Emotional Abuse
1. The Silent Treatment and/or withholding affection.
The silent treatment is emotionally abusive. In a healthy relationship, it is absolutely valid if someone needs a time-out or break to process their feelings. This person though will communicate their need for space. In a healthy relationship, people take space to protect the relationship by not doing or saying something hurtful in the moment. Thereby, taking space is a sign of love rather than rejection.
However, when a person acts as if you aren’t even worthy of acknowledgment, this deteriorates your sense of self-worth. It is inherently abusive for someone to refuse to acknowledge you exist. This is true regardless of whatever you did or said.
The silent treatment also erodes our sense of safety in a relationship because it cultivates a need to “walk on eggshells” to not experience the person’s silent rage and rejection.
2. Ranking and comparing you to other people in your life
Another less obvious sign of emotional abuse is comparing you to others.
My ex didn’t want to be committed (which I went along with because I didn’t know how to honor my needs back then). While this lack of commitment would have been painful in general, it was made abusive when my ex would tell me about other women he would go on dates with or even about his sex life with other women. Talk about degrading.
He would tell me ways I was “better” while also highlighting ways I wasn’t “good enough” compared to these other women. This created a vicious cycle in which I kept trying to prove myself to him to eventually be “picked” over these other women.
3. Sarcasm and dismissing their hurtful comments as just a “joke”
If something hurts your feelings and you tell a healthy person, they apologize and work to NEVER do it again. It is more important to a healthy partner to respect you and your feelings, then it is to be “funny.”
In this past relationship, he would love to make “jokes” about my weight. When I would tell him this hurt my feelings he would dismiss me saying it was only a joke and that he’d never say it if he meant it. Thereby, he was not only degrading me, he was confusing me about the validity of my perspective.
4. Openly questioning their commitment to you on an ongoing basis i.e. “I’m not sure I want to keep seeing you…” “Maybe I should just break up with you…” or breaking commitments to you.
A healthy partner may not always want to continue a relationship with you. We are not always going to be compatible long-term with everyone we date. This is just a truth in life.
However, an emotionally abusive partner will act as if must make your case to prove yourself to them so they’ll give you the favor of staying with you. Or they will make promises such as monogamy or plans such as a date or trip and cancel them without any regard for you. If you share your upset about them breaking their commitments, an emotionally abusive person will make it out as if your hurt is an over-reaction. This is gaslighting. Which leads to…
An emotionally abusive partner will portray your emotions or thoughts to their mistreatment as the fundamental problem rather than their behavior.
I bought into this one for a long time personally. For years, I thought this wasn’t an emotionally abusive relationship because I would sometimes cry, beg, and yell from his mistreatment (especially him talking about other women he was seeing). Then, he would give me the silent treatment, because I was too “needy.” He would even sometimes “ban” me to sit on another couch when we were watching TV because I wanted to cuddle or hold hands.
His portrayal that I was too needy or volatile made me believe his mistreatment was “justified.”
6. Mocking your emotions and telling you that you are “too sensitive”
This is in the same vein of being gaslighted with blame shifting. Your emotions are never a problem. Of course, you may react in a way you’re not proud of by your emotions but a healthy partner never mocks your emotions. They are able to be compassionate towards you when you are in pain.
Furthermore, if you have a big heart, your empathy can sometimes put you at risk for being exploited by someone who is emotional abusive. This is because it may be easier for you to prioritize your partner’s emotional experience over your own. In some ways, you may feel that their abusive treatment towards you is justified because they felt hurt, or insecure, or angry (or any other uncomfortable emotion).
7. Manipulating you to come back to them with promises when you walk away but then never putting in any effort besides words to change
If you leave because you get tired of the mistreatment but then they get you to come back with empty promises, this is emotionally abusive. A healthy partner takes genuine accountability for their actions. What this means is they put in the hard work to change the things that hurt you before to show you respect.
Genuine accountability is more than an apology; it’s taking conscious steps to truly change this pattern. Lying to you to get you to come back is disrespectful and emotionally abusive.
Stop Blaming Yourself
Emotional abuse doesn’t occur in relationships because you are “weak,” or “not good enough.” It happens because your partner is choosing to be abusive. Even if this is only an unconscious choice, each individual is responsible for how they treat others. Furthermore, if your partner is emotionally abusive towards you, they would do this to anyone they are with – it’s not personal in this sense.
There is essential power in using the phrase “emotional abuse” because, otherwise, as women, our common default is to pick up the blame in a situation. As women, we are we are trained from a young age to apologize for things that are not our fault.
Someone bumped into us? Oh, I’m sorry I was existing in your way.
I was angry? I must learn to get over my anger issues and learn to be nicer.
He got mad? I definitely said the wrong thing and need to learn how to be a better communicator.
He invaded my space or followed me home? Now, don’t be rude!
Therefore, if our dating partner is cold or unavailable, it must be that we have anxious attachment, or are just codependent and need to heal ourselves, or need to be more considerate of his emotions and not have so many needs, etc. Because of this, I spent years trying to answer the wrong question. I would google “does he like me?” (answer to that was no, not really because he doesn’t even respect you) when if I had known to google “emotional abuse signs,” I wouldn’t have felt “crazy” anymore.
The attraction to this relationship
A lot of us don’t have a clear understanding of the signs of emotional abuse. I never thought of this relationship as emotionally abusive because I blamed myself so easily for his mistreatment.
I am genuinely surprised that not once during those 4 years did anyone I know use the term “emotional abuse.” After all, I’m a therapist and during this time, I was living with a therapist friend and attending a book club of fellow therapists while going to therapy. This speaks to just how widespread our misunderstanding of emotional abuse is though.
I’m sharing all this in the hopes that if you relate to any of this, that you pause and stop for a moment and consider your painful relationship from a different perspective. Maybe it’s not all your fault. You don’t need to be better, or calmer, or thinner, to be loved. Maybe you lose it at times because you are trying so hard to hold it all in. And, it is not your fault if you are being, or have been, emotionally abused.
Once you have experienced emotional abuse, it’s so important to let yourself honor and process this truth. When we try to deny this emotional abuse, it further solidifies into our hearts, bodies, and minds as trauma. Signs of trauma are being jittery, being unable to breathe deeply, obsessively thinking about the relationship, and feeling constantly tired or drained.
The irony with emotionally abusive relationships is that trauma makes us fixate and want to correct the experience. This means that sometimes, in a traumatic situation, we will keep coming back in an effort to change what’s traumatic. For example, I believed if I could get him to see my value and commit to me, then all the hurt he had inflicted onto me would be erased. This process of trauma makes the emotionally abusive relationship feel all consuming or give us a “high” which is sometimes easy to confuse with love.
Healing from emotional abuse
Of course, my hope is that when you notice any sign of emotional abuse you will walk away. Walking away is a tremendous act of self-love. Regardless of how you have been treated, you deserve love! And the love you can always cultivate is your own self-love.
This being said because it’s so easy to blame ourselves or feel deeply attached to an emotionally abusive partner, walking away can feel almost impossible. In this case, first take a deep breath and give yourself kudos for being willing to begin to acknowledge this is an emotionally abusive relationship.
Secondly, once you identify that you are experiencing one or more of the signs of emotional abuse, I’d highly encourage you to find a therapist who is able to do trauma therapy and process this relationship with them. Remember, just because you are processing this relationship, doesn’t mean you’re ready to leave. A good therapist will respect your process. Also, you may be embarrassed to talk openly about this relationship but please try to be vulnerable. You won’t be able to fully heal unless you are honest with yourself.
You’ll be ready to protect yourself with healthy boundaries (whether that means leaving or asserting the need for things to change in your relationship) when you are ready. If you have any specific questions about your personal relationship, please reach out to me. Or if you want to develop healthier boundaries as soon as possible, I’d highly encourage you to take my 4-step healthy boundaries course, Confidently Authentic: Stop People Pleasing and Start Being Empowered.
It takes courage just to honor the truth of emotional abuse in a relationship. I’m proud of you for being here. I’m sending you love!
About The Author, Krystal
Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist with over a decade of experience. She has focused her entire career to empowering people to heal from unhealthy relationship processes. She teaches the skills and tools necessary to have a life filled with healthy and loving relationships.
This passion led her to write her best-selling books and create courses. Her books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many people heal.
Her course, Confidently Authentic: Stop People Pleasing and Start Being True to Yourself, provides the skills necessary to have a healthy relationship. This course features over a year of relationship skills you would learn in therapy. Students share this course has been “life changing.”
Each week, she answers your relationship questions from a place of expertise and compassion. To submit your relationship questions, please DM us @confidentlyauthentic.com