When Love Isn't Love: 15 Signs of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

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Trigger warning: This post contains sensitive content related to abuse.

Abuse of any kind is complicated and difficult to understand, navigate, and identify, and this is especially true for emotional abuse. In physically abusive relationships, there is tangible evidence of violence and distress, while emotional abuse can involve extremely sophisticated—and, more importantly, toxic—mind games, like inconsistent, unpredictable displays of affection. As a result, though its warning signs can seem ambiguous, emotional abuse can be just as damaging.

What Is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse is an attempt to control someone through psychological manipulation. This can take the form of criticism, shaming, threats of punishment and a refusal to communicate.

According to Beverly Engel, author of The Emotionally Abusive Relationship, "Emotional abuse is defined as any nonphysical behavior or attitude that is designed to control, subdue, punish, or isolate another person through the use of humiliation or fear." To help victims and their loved ones better understand how emotional abuse plays out and identify its red flags, we spoke with Kelly McNelis, founder of Women for One and author of Your Messy Brilliance, and Dr. Sherry Benton, founder and chief science officer of TAO Connect. Read on to hear about the warning signs of emotional abuse and when and how to reevaluate a relationship.

Meet the Expert

  • Kelly McNelis is a renowned author and founder of Women For One, a destination for women ready and willing to make life happen.
  • Sherry Benton, Ph.D., is founder and chief science officer of TAO Connect and has over 25 years of clinical and research experience in psychological counseling and college-student mental health.

Why Emotional Abuse Is Difficult to Identify

To unpack the differences between emotional and physical abuse, we asked Benton to explain how each plays out: "Well, if someone is physically violent, that is sort of overt and obvious. Often times, emotionally abusive relationships are more subtle. The other thing is that a lot of times in an abusive relationship, it'll start out wonderful, great, and fabulous, and the problems evolve very slowly over time so that it gets worse and worse and worse, and each time you're getting more adapted to the negative patterns so that it gets more difficult to see as well as to leave."

She also says that victims often discover over time that their relationships aren't what they want from life; after all, if abusers' hurtful behaviors were apparent from the start, who would get in relationships with them? To clarify, Benton offers the following analogy: "There's this story that if you toss a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will scramble to get out. But if you put the frog in the water while the water is still cold and slowly raise the temperature, the frog will just sit there until it is boiled to death. Well, the same kind of thing can happen in relationships."

The 15 Major Signs of Emotional Abuse

The major signs of emotional abuse may seem different, but they are all hurtful. Citing research by Dr. John Gottman, founder of The Gottman Institute, Benton offered the following definitions:

Control: If the other items in this list are the building blocks of emotional abuse, then control is the keystone holding them together. Often, abusers intend to control their victims, whether overtly (policing and restricting day-to-day routines and relationships) or subtly (taking small jabs to undermine independence and self-esteem).

Goading: Supportive partners recognize each other's insecurities and respectfully steer clear of them. Abusers, in contrast, exploit their partners' weaknesses and intentionally push their buttons, making it easier for them to establish dominance.

Yelling: We all raise our voices occasionally, but if most disagreements devolve into shouting matches--and if, particularly, such episodes cause one partner to shrink and wince--that's a major red flag. Not only does yelling make a productive conversation nearly impossible, but it also creates an imbalance of power because only the loudest person is heard.

Intimidation: Anything that causes a person to feel threatened, meek, or fearful falls under the umbrella of intimidation. This includes yelling, aggressive gestures, destruction (throwing a glass, punching a wall, etc.), displaying weapons, or threatening the livelihood of the victim or someone close to them.

Criticism: "Being hypercritical, belittling, calling people names, all of those things" are forms of criticism. This sign also emerges when one partner attacks the other's character.

Contempt: "It's one thing to just kind of say how you feel and ask for what you need. But then the expectation that the person is going to hear you and at least be respectful and caring in their response, even if they can't give you what you need," is essential to a healthy relationship. If there's contempt in a relationship, Benton says, it's impossible to "get your needs met … and you're going to spend your life feeling hurt." Some examples of contempt include mean-spirited sarcasm, arrogance, disgust, and apathy. Of course, sarcasm can come up playfully too; the question is whether its intention is affectionate or hurtful.

Excessive Defensiveness: "If you constantly feel like you have to defend yourself, or the other person feels like they're constantly put on the defensive, then basically all you're having is negative communication. There's no love, support, caring. It's like you're at battle and you've got your shield up all the time," Benton explains.

Threats: These coercive if-then statements can include blackmail, threats of physical harm or suicide, or other intimidating remarks, but they often share the same intent: to back victims into a corner and prevent them from escaping their abusers.

Stonewalling: "When somebody refuses to talk or communicate and just kind of shuts down," that can be just as hurtful as name-calling, contempt, and defensiveness because a refusal to communicate shows rejection and a lack of concern. In other words, it is a form of abandonment.

Blame: Victims are often made to believe they cause--and therefore deserve--their own abuse and unhappiness, making the cycle much harder to break. This can be exacerbated by the shame victims feel for letting their abuse go on.

Gaslighting: A form of psychological manipulation, gaslighting causes victims to doubt their memories, judgment, and sanity. If you find your concerns or recollections are frequently dismissed as false, stupid, or crazy, you may be experiencing gaslighting.

Isolation: Emotional abuse is pervasive, affecting all areas of life, but most notable is the toll it takes on victims' relationships with friends and family. Abusers often convince their victims that no one cares. This physical and mental alienation may cause victims to feel as though they live on an island, removed from loved ones and past versions of themselves.

Volatility: If a relationship is constantly interrupted by mood swings, it can signal abuse. Hot-and-cold, Jekyll-and-Hyde behavior is stressful and unnerving, as victims never know which version of their partners will be unleashed. Volatile abusers often shower their victims with gifts and affection following an outburst, only to lose their cool again not long after.

Withholding: This is when one partner withholds something from the other—such as sex, money, or even communication (in the form of the "silent treatment")--as punishment or as a means to an end.

Guilt: Feelings of excessive guilt can make for powerful shackles. Emotional abuse may cause one partner to feel responsible for the state of the relationship or the other partner's behavior.

Overcoming an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

According to Benton, one important distinction to make is that in a healthy relationship "when you disagree or you fight, you're fighting to understand and get through it. You still care about each other, and that's clear. It's not that people in healthy relationships don't have disagreements; they do. They have just as many as people in a bad relationship. But the difference is what they do with those conflicts." The difference can be difficult to discern in certain cases, as "sometimes what you get is some pretty sophisticated game-playing, where somebody might be remorseful and all of a sudden caring and loving for a few hours, but you know you can't trust it because they're going to go back to being demeaning and belittling, and all those negative things they do the rest of the time. So you're constantly on this emotional roller coaster with them."

If some of the examples above resonate with you, it doesn't necessarily mean your relationship is doomed. As Benton says, "People can learn new ways to communicate and rescue their relationship sometimes. However, it's much easier to do that ... with an impartial third party, which is one of the best things about relationship counseling."

Nevertheless, she also says that, in many cases, relationships are simply unhealthy: "I think if you love someone, you don't treat them like that, ever. Period."

How to Leave an Abusive Relationship

To determine if you're in an emotionally abusive relationship, Benton suggests asking the same questions you'd ask a friend: "Look around and find a relationship that's something you can imagine yourself wanting. I think having a picture of what should happen is a good place to start realizing that you want something else out of a relationship that you aren't getting from your current partner." To be sure, she isn't suggesting you use "idealistic movie relationships that don't match real people's experiences" for comparisons. Instead, think of "real people who really struggle with each other and who really work on things together."

Indeed, part of realizing you want and deserve better "is just knowing what constitutes a healthy relationship and how it should make you feel about yourself." What's more, Benton reminds us that "a relationship should make you feel better about yourself. It should make you feel secure, supported, connected, and if that's not what you're getting, you're probably getting more pain than love and growth."

Rebuilding Self-Love After Emotional Abuse

McNelis says, "It's most important to show yourself compassion and to remember that nobody willingly chooses abuse. The great thing is that these difficult experiences are the ones that help us to build character, strength, and resilience. By diving into our experience and choosing to learn from our trauma, we can come out on the other side more powerful and in a position to stand up for others in similar situations."

She also says that, instead of looking for someone to blame if you experience abuse, you should "choose to claim your self-worth and recognize your courage—both in the moment of your experience and in the aftermath. We are always doing the best we can with whatever we have." Consequently, rather than "dwelling on what you could've done better," she urges victims to think about how "every moment in life gives you the opportunity to start over and to learn from whatever life has dealt you." Most importantly, she emphasizes that no matter how painful your trauma is, you can get through it.

How to Help Someone in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

According to Benton, if you aren't in an emotionally abusive relationship but suspect a friend or loved one is, you should be supportive without explicitly judging the relationship. However, before broaching the topic, McNelis says, "You have to educate yourself about abuse: What it is, what it entails, and how people who are under its thumb think, feel, and behave. This will help you put yourself in the shoes of the person you love and understand what they are going through." Educating yourself will also show you that each victim's experience is unique. McNelis adds, "All too often, people on the outside cast judgments upon the person without any idea of what they are going through and what their legitimate reasons might be for remaining in such a position."

Finally, it's important to remember that it isn't up to you whether a friend or loved one ends a relationship. As McNelis puts it, "The best thing you can do is listen and hold space for your loved one. It isn't your job to save them; by allowing for the experience and witnessing their truth, while also championing their courage and capacity to do what's right for them, you'll help them to discover their own lessons, wisdom, and voice. You can also gently nudge them toward resources that might allow them to make the best decisions for themselves, but this can't be something you force upon them; it always needs to come from their choice alone."

Once you feel equipped to help, start by asking, Has this person ever seen a healthy relationship? Examples can come from parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, a best friend's parents, whoever. You can also think about who in your own experience has a healthy relationship: How does your friend or loved one's relationship measure up? Discussing such relationships can help victims come to their own realizations while still feeling supported, in contrast to the judgementalism of saying, "You're in a terrible relationship. You need to get out." In other words, Benton says, praise out positive behaviors instead of criticizing negative ones; otherwise, "keep it very behavioral and only talk about how you're worried about them." One example of something you could say is, "This is what I saw happen, and that worries me because…" Then, help your friend or loved one think about what should happen in a relationship.

Article Sources
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  1. Karakurt G, Silver KE. Emotional Abuse in Intimate Relationships: The Role of Gender and Age. Violence Vict. 2013;28(5):804-21. doi:10.1891/0886-6708.vv-d-12-00041

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