Emotional abuse, unlike physical abuse, can be so subtle and insidious that friends, family and even the victims themselves may not recognize the toxic dynamics at play.
At first, the emotionally abusive partner may act in ways that appear loving and attentive on the surface — all part of the “grooming process” to win over the victim. But this period doesn’t last long: Soon, the perpetrator starts to employ abuse tactics such as insulting, criticizing, gaslighting, humiliating, stonewalling and withholding affection, to name a few, in order to gain power and establish control in the relationship.
These behaviors, which often happen behind closed doors, gradually weaken the victim’s self-confidence and self-worth, making them more vulnerable to future abuse.
“Over time, the victim has become so ‘mind-controlled’ that they are only a shell of their original self and spend all their time trying to figure out how to love the abuser better — which never works,” therapist Sharie Stines, who specializes in recovery from abuse, told HuffPost.
We’ve previously written about the signs that you might be in an emotionally abusive relationship. But what does this type of toxic dynamic look like from the outside? Below, experts share potential warning signs that could indicate a friend or relative is the victim of emotional abuse.
1. Their partner talks down to them or shares hurtful or embarrassing stories about them in public
Your friend’s significant other may try to pass off rude or critical remarks as “jokes,” then accuse your friend of being “too sensitive” if they say it bothered them. Other times, your friend may even laugh along with their partner, acting like it’s no big deal, even though you can tell it hurt them deep down.
“Even if these comments are supposedly said in a humorous way, putting someone down, especially if done in front of others, is disrespectful and is an expression of hostility,” said psychotherapist Beverly Engel, author of “The Emotionally Abusive Relationship.”
2. Your once-confident friend now seems insecure
Your pal used to be self-assured, but lately they’ve been making a lot of uncharacteristically disparaging comments at their own expense.
“Like, ‘I’m so stupid,’ ‘I can’t do anything right’ or ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately, I’m so forgetful,’” Engel said. “This could very well indicate that they are being emotionally abused by a partner who is extremely critical of them, who constantly blames them, or who has unreasonable expectations of a partner.”
As a result of the gaslighting your loved one might have experienced in their relationship, they may begin to doubt their own judgment and abilities. You may notice this friend now has a hard time making simple decisions on their own.
“They may struggle with deciding what to order at a restaurant or choosing clothing at a store,” said Shannon Thomas, trauma therapist and author of “Healing From Hidden Abuse.” “The more intense the emotional abuse, the greater the challenges are to making even basic decisions.”
3. They blame themselves for anything that goes wrong and apologize profusely afterward
They’ll often say sorry for things that don’t warrant an apology, like small mistakes or things that aren’t their fault.
“Your friend is overly kind and frequently apologizing to you, just in case he/she does something wrong to make you upset,” Stines said. “This person has been conditioned to take the blame and be at fault for every little thing.”
4. They never want to talk about their relationship
If your friend rarely mentions their partner or clams up and changes the subject when you ask how things are going in the relationship, that could be a sign they’re avoiding the issue for a reason.
“This is because they’re ashamed and believe that if they don’t talk about it, no one will find out and in some respects, it didn’t happen,” Stines said.
5. Their partner checks in on them constantly
It’s normal for couples to keep each other in the loop about their schedules or plans for the day. But a partner who calls or texts demanding to know where their S.O. is and who they’re with at all times is controlling and possessive — not caring and concerned.
“You notice that when your loved one spends time with you, they are always in a hurry to get home,” Engel said. “They always make some excuse like: ‘My husband isn’t feeling well’ or ‘We have a delivery coming.’ Their partner has even called you to ask if your loved one has left your house or the restaurant because they aren’t home yet.”
Know that perpetrators of emotional abuse often try to isolate their victims from their friends and family. That way no one can bear witness to the abusive behaviors or give this person the support they need to end the relationship.
6. Your friend’s mood changes after they receive a call or text from their partner
When your friend gets off the phone with their S.O., you sense something’s wrong because their demeanor becomes tense or closed off.
“You will see a shift in the victim’s body language, facial expressions or tone of voice after contact from the abuser,” Thomas said.
7. Their partner has unfettered access to their accounts like email, online banking and social media
An emotionally abusive partner not only knows their partner’s passwords but uses them to log in to certain sites or apps as a way to keep tabs on them.
“They may justify their actions by claiming that this is how they are building trust in the relationship,” said clinical psychologist B. Nilaja Green. “This can be problematic as it tells their partner that they are not allowed to have privacy in their relationship and it blurs emotional boundaries.”
8. When you express your legitimate concerns, your friend dismisses them
“Even with clear evidence that something is off in the relationship, victims will initially try to minimize and deflect attention away from the truth being revealed,” Thomas said. “As a family member or friend, it’s vitally important you don’t also begin to believe the lies told by the victim or even the abuser.”
How You Can Help A Loved One In This Situation
Here’s how you can support someone you believe may be in an emotionally abusive relationship:
First, ask if they’re OK
Start by mentioning that you’ve noticed some changes in them of late and you’re concerned.
If your friend denies that anything’s wrong, don’t press the issue just yet, Engel said. You can say something like, “I just want you to know that if you ever need to talk, I’m here. I care about you,” she suggested. Then drop the subject for the time being.
“You’re wanting to plant the seed that someone is noticing what’s happening to them, even as they work hard to hide it,” Thomas said.
If they confide in you, withhold blame or judgment
If your friend decides to open up to you, act as a safe space. Regardless of what they say, don’t pass judgment, as that will only push your loved one away.
“Although we may feel frustrated, angry, disappointed and even confused about how our loved ones can find themselves in an abusive relationship, it is important to refrain from blaming them and further judging and insulting them,” Green said. “They may or may not be able to see their situation as clearly as you can and there may be reasons for them staying in the relationship that may not always be clear [to you].”
Making comments like, “I would never stay,” or “Why do you put up with that?” can do more harm than good.
“Any statements that imply that the victim is stupid or inadequate, while the speaker is superior and ‘too smart’ to make such a foolish decision as to stay with an abuser, will keep the person quiet,” Stines said.
Don’t offer advice right now — just listen
Many victims of emotional abuse don’t tell their loved ones what’s happening because they either blame themselves or feel ashamed of their situation. So if your friend is talking, that’s a big step. Resist the temptation to jump into problem-solving mode right off the bat.
“Don’t push them away with unwanted advice — especially advice to end the relationship,” Engel said. “They need your support but not pressure from you. You want them to feel safe in coming to you again, not feel guilty or bad about themselves that she didn’t follow your advice.”
Don’t tell them what to do; encourage them to make their own decisions
Let your friend know you believe in them and you trust them to do what’s best for them.
“Victims of abuse are only disempowered when their friends start implying that they — the victims — are too incompetent to figure out what to do,” Stines said.
If you want to lend a hand, you can offer your friend a safe place to stay, availability to talk at any time or help them find a therapist or other resources.
Keep track of any abusive behavior you happen to witness
Write down anything concerning you observe between your friend and their partner. Save it as a note in your phone or record a voice memo so you don’t forget.
“Keeping a record for yourself is a helpful grounding technique,” Thomas said. “Loving someone who is in an emotionally abusive relationship is extremely painful and may cause you to doubt what you are witnessing.”
Know that exiting the relationship could take time, so be patient
You may want your friend to break up with their partner ASAP but that’s not always realistic or safe. Manage your expectations and remember to take care of yourself too ― it can be taxing to support someone you care about through these difficult circumstances.
“It may take longer for your loved one to extract themselves from the relationship, if they ever do,” Green said. “Although you can be a supportive presence and even offer to help your loved one get connected to resources, it is also important for you to maintain your own emotional boundaries and to get support that you may need.”
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-866-331-9474 or text “loveis” to 22522 for the National Dating Abuse Helpline.