“Unlike physical or sexual abuse, there is a subtlety to emotional abuse,” Lisa Ferentz, a licensed clinical social worker and educator specializing in trauma, told HuffPost. “It’s a lot more confusing to victims, as it typically is couched in behaviors that can initially be perceived as ‘caring.’”
At the start of a relationship, the abuser may appear to be attentive and kind. Ferentz said that this period of good behavior is part of the perpetrator’s “grooming process.”
“In doing so, they win over the trust and confidence of their victims, which then makes the victims vulnerable to subsequent abuse,” she explained.
“Unlike physical or sexual abuse, there is a subtlety to emotional abuse. It’s a lot more confusing to victims as it typically is couched in behaviors that can initially be perceived as 'caring.'”
Emotional abuse, which is used to gain power and control in a relationship, may take a number of forms, including but not limited to: insulting, criticizing, threatening, gaslighting, ridiculing, shaming, intimidating, swearing, name-calling, stonewalling, lying, belittling and ignoring.
The scars of emotional abuse may not be visible to the eye, but the effect it has on the victim can be traumatic. Those who have been emotionally abused may later experience anxiety, depression, chronic pain, PTSD and substance abuse issues.
In an effort to understand emotional abuse, we asked six experts to share some of the subtle warning signs that could indicate you’re caught in this type of toxic relationship.
1. You walk on eggshells to avoid disappointing your partner.
“You’re second-guessing and self-editing, which means you’ve internalized the subtly abusive behavior so that your partner doesn’t have to do it overtly.” ― Steven Stosny, psychologist and author of Love Without Hurt
2. Your partner uses gaslighting to maintain the upper hand in the relationship.
“Your partner declares reality for you, denying or distorting how things really are, in order to shore up a perception that supports how they see things. Common ways that this can show up is being told, ‘You’re not remembering correctly,’ ‘I never said that’ or ‘I never did that.’ They might infer that you’re not making sense or you’re faulty in the way you’re looking at things when you’re not. Because these responses can instill self-doubt over time, you’re more likely to go along with your partner’s distortions. In time, self-doubt creates a loss of trust in your perception and judgment, making you all the more vulnerable to a partner who wants to control you.” ― Carol A. Lambert, psychotherapist and author of Women with Controlling Partners
3. Your partner requires constant check-ins and wants to know where you are and who you are with at all times.
“What can seem like genuine concern is often a way for an emotionally abusive person to be in total control when they are constantly keeping tabs on another person’s schedule. Texting a few times a day to ‘check in’ can turn into relentless harassment. Wanting an ongoing account of another person’s whereabouts, in addition to [a person] limiting where their partner goes or who they spend time with, are powerful examples of emotional abuse.” ― Lisa Ferentz, author of Treating Self-Destructive Behaviors in Trauma Survivors: A Clinician’s Guide
4. Your partner says hurtful things about you disguised as “jokes.”
“Then when you complain, they claim they were only joking and you’re too sensitive. There is truth to the saying that behind every mean or sarcastic remark is a grain of truth.” ― Sharie Stines, therapist and relationship coach who specializes in recovery from abuse
5. You find yourself apologizing even when you know you’ve done nothing wrong.
“Emotionally abused people often come to believe that they are stupid, inconsiderate or selfish because they have been accused of these things so often by their partner.” ― Beverly Engel, psychotherapist and author of The Emotionally Abusive Relationship
6. Your partner is hot and cold.
“Your partner is loving one moment and distant and unavailable the next. No matter how hard you try to figure out why, you can’t. They deny being withdrawn, and you start panicking, trying hard to get back into their good graces. Absent an explanation for why they’re turned off, you start blaming yourself. Done often enough, this can turn a relatively independent person into an anxious pleaser — which is where your partner wants you.” ― Peg Streep, author of Daughter Detox: Recovering from An Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life
7. Your partner refuses to acknowledge your strengths and belittles your accomplishments.
“Put-downs and degrading comments, which can be less obvious at the beginning, are not random attacks. Rather, they are intended to specifically target your strengths that seriously threaten your partner, who’s looking to have power and control in the relationship. The ways your partner reacts to your accomplishments or positive feelings about something can be telling. Does he show little interest or ignore you? Does he find something about what you’re saying to belittle? Does he change the topic to one that’s shaming in some way to you or criticize you about what you’re not doing? Over time, confronted with hurtful responses, your sense of confidence and trust in your own competence can slowly diminish.” ― Lambert
8. Your partner withholds affection, sex or money to punish you.
“Or makes those things contingent upon cooperating with them. Any relationship that has ‘strings attached’ is inherently problematic. The process of withholding affection or emotional or financial support is not always understood as abusive. Most people equate abusive behavior with the infliction of harm. In this case, it’s the withholding or absence of what a person deserves to experience in a relationship that makes it abusive.” ― Ferentz
9. You’ve lost sexual desire for your partner.
“This is especially true for women, who generally need to feel trusting and intimate with their partner in order to become physically and emotionally aroused. If a woman feels hurt, afraid or angry with her partner, she will not feel safe and open around him, and her body will respond accordingly.” ― Engel
10. You feel sorry for your partner, even though they hurt you.
“Emotional abusers are master manipulators, and they are able to screw you over while at the same time making you feel that it’s either your fault, or at the very least, something they couldn’t help because of their childhood or a past relationship, how hurt they are over something you said or did or even nothing at all ― you just feel sorry for them. Victims of emotional abuse often overlook their abusers’ behavior because they are overly relating with the ‘hurt’ part of the abuser — the innocent part, or the side of the abuser that seems lost, rejected, abandoned.” ― Stines
11. Your partner is always changing plans in order to “surprise” you — or so they say.
“While overt control — insisting they get their own way, asserting veto power over plans, making constant demands without discussion — is easy to spot, what Dr. Craig Malkin calls ‘stealth control,’ a behavior he identifies with narcissists, is much more insidious. Stealth control includes changing up plans you’ve already made — eating at a French bistro, going to see friends — or revising joint decisions under the guise of ‘surprising’ you with something better than the original. Of course, surprise isn’t the motive; controlling you is, without ever making a demand. Alas, you’re so flattered by his caring that you utterly miss the point. In time, it becomes a pattern and your own wants and needs will fall by the wayside.” ― Streep
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-866-331-9474 or text “loveis” to 22522 for the National Dating Abuse Helpline.