The saying "trust your gut" is especially poignant when it comes to protecting yourself in a romantic relationship. If your instincts tell you that something isn't quite right, chances are it isn't. Questioning your partner's love may be difficult, but it's worth it if it means avoiding emotional (or physical) pain. Wondering what kind of behavior warrants you to double-check his intentions? We asked psychotherapist Fran Walfish for her opinion on the subtle signs of relationship abuse to look out for.
"If your partner is overly charming, blames you for everything, and turns your reality upside down, run as fast as you can in the other direction," Dr. Walfish warns.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Frances Walfish, Psy.D. is a child, couple, and family psychotherapist based in Beverly Hills, California. She is also the author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child.
Dr. Walfish explains that, unlike physical abuse, emotional abuse in a relationship is not necessarily easy to spot. In fact, some forms can even seem flattering at first. An emotionally abusive boyfriend may shower you with attention, charm, and flattery at the beginning of your relationship to build up your confidence. At that point, you become the perfect victim because you're too smitten to protect your heart by standing up him. "Even the most skilled and competent psychologist can miss spotting a well-oiled emotional abuser," she admits.
Read on for the seven subtle signs of relationship abuse to look out for.
Acts Excessively Charming
If your partner is charismatic and alluring in all the right ways, that's definitely not a cause for concern. However, if it seems like they're piling on the charm so much that it's noticeable and off-putting, you should take a step back and reassess how the relationship makes you feel. Again, if you're not entirely sure what to think, trust your instincts. "This is the abuser's way of seducing you so that you will trust them before they start to act emotionally abusive toward you," Dr. Walfish notes.
Sets You up To Fail
"This is when the abuser asks his partner to do something because he says he can't do it himself. But whatever the partner does is met with harsh criticism instead of praise," Dr. Walfish offers. A little teasing (and fair fighting) every now and then is healthy and totally normal in a relationship, but when it starts to take a turn for the mean, that's not a good sign.
For instance, if you left the chicken in the oven too long and it came out a little dry, you can both have a playful laugh about it. However, if your partner starts to berate and demean you over the ruined meal, they're being emotionally abusive by making a huge deal out of seemingly nothing.
For the most part, people can appreciate when someone corrects their error—whether it's pointing out that they made a wrong turn or reminding them that the dinner reservation is an hour later than they thought. However, Dr. Walfish says that "constant correcting keeps the abuser on top and his subject in a one-down position."
If you're in an emotionally abusive relationship with a partner who constantly criticizes, you may feel like you can never do anything right. More often than not, it's just a power play to make you feel like he's a saint for accepting all of your alleged flaws.
Gives You the Silent Treatment
"The silent treatment functions as a way to keep the receiver in suspense of what will happen, and unsure of what they did wrong and how bad it is," Dr. Walfish suggests. "It is a way of controlling the other person as a precursor to abuse."
Think about it: If your partner starts ignoring you, isn't your first question, "What did I do wrong?" You may spend the next few minutes replaying the day's events in your head to remember a rude comment or an insulting gesture you made, but you probably didn't actually do anything to warrant your partner being so cold and dismissive. Whether or not you actually did anything wrong, an emotionally abusive partner will expect you to do whatever you can to get back in their good graces.
Blames Everything on You
"The name for someone who constantly blames his partner is projective identification, a psychology term that means the abuser relates to the partner as if she did something wrong," Dr. Walfish acknowledges. In other words, it's a defense mechanism that the abuser employs when they want to pin their bad behavior on you.
For instance, if you notice that a few bills are missing from your wallet, they may say they only took your money because you left your wallet out, making you feel like it's your fault that they essentially stole from you.
Pressures You Sexually
Some people look at sex as a way to assert power over their partner, not as a loving act that feels good for both parties. In cases of emotional abuse, Dr. Walfish says, "The abuser emotionally manipulates his partner into sexual activities that she doesn't like."
If your partner has been asking you to experiment in the bedroom, but you're not comfortable doing what he wants to try, he may emotionally twist your arm into doing it anyway. For instance, he may say something like, "If you love me, you'll try this." He knows that you don't want to disappoint him, so he uses your affection for him to manipulate you.
Denies Bad Behavior
Dr. Walfish explains, "even when the partner points out the abuser's aggressive behavior, he doesn't accept it as a flaw. Instead, he'll convince himself and try to convince his partner that he's only acting this way to help make the partner a better person." This kind of obvious denial is common in narcissists.
When you tell him that he's too aggressive towards you, he may say that he's not aggressive; he's assertive. He may also add that you're too emotionally fragile, so he's helping you develop a thicker skin. "Many emotional abusers also have a piece of sociopathy in their personalities, which means they lack consciousness about any wrongdoing on their part," Dr. Walfish adds.