7 (Not So Obvious) Signs of Emotional Abuse

In this article you will learn the 7 signs of emotional abuse which are sneaky. Emotional abuse can be hard to identify. By it’s very…


In this article you will learn the 7 signs of emotional abuse which are sneaky. Emotional abuse can be hard to identify. 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.

Emotional Abuse May Become Normalized

The cycle of abuse 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. Slowly, your partner may erode your self-esteem. This may make you feel like your emotionally abusive partner is the only one who will ever love you – so you must stay.

Therefore, it’s important to be informed as to what constitutes emotional abuse. You are more empowered to have truly healthy relationships in your life when you know these 7 signs of emotional abuse.

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.

Related: What is Codependency? 6 Key Symptoms Explained

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.

From The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

Emotional Abuse is Traumatizing

My reaction to seeing this phone number was perplexing. 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. I wondered: Why would I be traumatized from this relationship?

Coping with Trauma

It took me more than a day to ground myself since trauma triggers us into feeling the past is happening in the present moment.

Related: Can You Heal Trauma on Your Own? 4 Clear Steps to Heal

To cope, I used strategies like yoga, journaling, and diaphragmatic breathing. To learn more about this breathing technique, please watch the video below.

Diaphragmatic breathing – necessary skill for anxiety management and trauma relief

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. There were numerous signs of emotional abuse I noticed in this relationship when I took time to process them. They just weren’t obvious to me then.

(Not Obvious) Sign of Emotional Abuse #1: The Silent Treatment &/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.

Related: Good Communication in a Relationship: A Couples Therapist Explains

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 erodes your 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.

Finally, a sign of narcissistic abuse is being given the silent treatment if you don’t want to have sex.

Source Pathological Narcissism

(Not Obvious) Sign of Emotional Abuse #2: 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.

Related: Dating With No Commitment: What You Need to Know

He would tell me ways I was “better” while also highlighting ways I wasn’t “good enough” compared to these other women. For years then, I fixated on proving myself to him. I wanted him to “pick” me over those other women. It was a painful, codependent cycle that took me 4 years to exit.

(Not Obvious) Sign of Emotional Abuse #3: Sarcasm and dismissing hurtful comments as 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.

7 signs of emotional abuse

(Not Obvious) Sign of Emotional Abuse #4: Openly questioning their commitment to you

Your partner making comments like “I’m not sure I want to keep seeing you” or “Maybe I should just break up with you….” is emotionally abusive.

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…

(Not Obvious) Sign of Emotional Abuse #5: Blame-shifting

An emotionally abusive partner will portray your emotions or thoughts to their mistreatment as the fundamental problem rather than their behavior. This is a form of gaslighting as well.

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.”

(Not Obvious) Sign of Emotional Abuse #6: Mocking your emotions and telling you that you are “too sensitive”

Having your emotions mocked or being told you are “too sensitive” by your partner is another sign of emotional abuse – and gaslighting.

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.

Unfortunately, being empathic can put you at risk for being exploited by an emotionally abusive partner. 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).

(Not Obvious) Sign of Emotional Abuse #7: Manipulating You to Stay

Manipulating you to come back to them with promises when you walk away but then never putting in any effort besides words to change

The seventh sign of emotional abuse is manipulating you to stay in the relationship. An emotionally abusive partner may do this with promises to change – but then never follow through.

A healthy partner takes genuine accountability for their actions. This means that they do the hard work of changing to not keep doing the things which hurt you.

Related: When Should You Stop Trying to Make a Relationship Work

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.

Abuse isn’t Your Fault

Emotional abuse doesn’t occur in relationships because you are “weak,” or “not good enough.” Abuse 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.

Stop Blaming Yourself

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. If you’re a woman, you likely were trained from a young age to “keep the peace” and apologize for things which aren’t your 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 need to learn to communicate better.

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.

Emotional Abuse is Overlooked Too Often

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.

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.

Give Yourself Grace

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.

From The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

This means that sometimes, in a traumatic situation, we will keep coming back in an effort to change what’s traumatic. I mistakenly believed if I could get my ex to see my value and commit to me, then all the hurt he had inflicted 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

Please know you’re not “failing” if you need time to gain clarity and struggle to set boundaries. It truly is a process to heal.

Of course, my hope is that you live a life free of abuse. Either your partner is willing to take the steps to change. Or if not, you may need to leave. Walking away from an abusive relationship is a tremendous act of self-love. You deserve love regardless of what your abusive partner may say. And the love you can always cultivate is your own self-love.

Of course, I understand how walking away can feel impossible when we love our emotionally abusive partner. If you’re not ready to set this boundary, please contemplate what limits you are ready to set. Also, please give yourself kudos for being willing to begin to acknowledge this is an emotionally abusive relationship.

Therapy May Help

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.

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!

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About The Author

Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist and author with over a decade of experience. Currently, Krystal sees clients at her private practice, The Healthy Relationship Foundation. She has dedicated her entire career to empowering people to find their voice, deepen their ability to self-love, and improve their relationships.

Her newest book, Setting Boundaries: 100 Ways to Protect Yourself, Strengthen Your Relationships and Build the Life You Want…Starting Now! (Therapy Within Reach), gives you the tools necessary to identify, set, and stay firm with your boundaries.

Her other 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 overcome people pleasing, self-neglect, and resentment to have a healthier relationship with themselves and others.

If you have any personal dating or relationship questions, Krystal is happy to provide advice using her expertise and compassion. If you feel comfortable, feel free to leave any questions in the comments of this post. Otherwise, you may send an email to krystal@confidentlyauthentic.com or DM her on Instagram. We will always keep your name and other identifying information confidential.

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