The scars left by emotional abuse may not be visible to the eye, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less painful to endure.
While physical abuse is easy to recognize, emotional abuse can be less obvious. It’s crucial to know what to look for, whether you’re the victim or a family member or friend of someone who’s struggling.
“Months or years of being emotionally abused can cause you to distrust your perceptions and even your sanity,” Beverly Engel, psychotherapist and author of The Emotionally Abusive Relationship, told HuffPost. “Because the abuse usually takes place in private, there are no witnesses to validate your experience.”
Emotional abuse may include criticizing, insulting, blaming, belittling, withholding affection, threatening, gaslighting, humiliating or stonewalling in order to gain and maintain power and control in the relationship. An abusive partner may also exercise control over your money, where you go, what you wear and whom you spend time with.
Difficult as it may be, admitting to yourself that you are caught in an emotionally abusive relationship is a critical first step.
“It can be challenging and scary to fully embrace the truth about being in a relationship with an abusive partner,” said Lisa Ferentz, a licensed clinical social worker and educator specializing in trauma. “When you have invested your time and your heart in a relationship and much of your world revolves around that person, it can feel easier or safer to make up excuses or downplay the impact of the abuser’s behaviors.”
You should also talk to a therapist, join a support group and open up to a trusted friend or family member who can help you take the necessary steps to safely end the relationship.
We asked relationship experts to reveal some of the toxic habits of emotionally abusive partners to help you identify these damaging dynamics in your own relationships.
1. They refuse to take responsibility for their actions and find ways to blame you for anything that goes wrong instead.
“It’s extremely rare for an emotionally abusive partner to take responsibility for his or her behavior. Their tactic is to project responsibility or fault onto their partner. They will deceptively twist reality, distort the truth or outright lie to make the case that their partner is to blame. The subject matter becomes irrelevant as the emotionally abusive partner sidesteps responsibility at all cost.” ― Carol A. Lambert, psychotherapist and author of Women With Controlling Partners
2. At first, they may try to appear loving and attentive to rope you in, but it doesn’t last long.
“The abuser knows how to use charm and ‘grooming’ with gifts and affection to initially win over the victim. Then they manipulate the victim into believing that keeping tabs on them, excessive texting, wanting to spend more and more time alone with them and discouraging independence is really about being ‘deeply in love.’ What might be initially interpreted as ‘jealousy’ very quickly becomes an abusive attempt to control, create self-doubt, and chip away at self-worth and self-confidence.” ― Ferentz
3. They undermine your strengths and minimize your accomplishments.
“For example, let’s say you won a prize for the best essay in a writing contest but instead of congratulating you he says, ‘Oh, big deal. There were only 10 other contestants.’ Emotional abusers also tend to invalidate your feelings with comments like, ‘Why are you making such a big deal out of this?’ or ‘Oh, poor baby, you got your feelings hurt.’ They accuse you of being ‘too sensitive,’ ‘too emotional’ or ‘crazy.’ They also refuse to acknowledge or accept your opinions or ideas as valid and instead make fun of them or discount them with comments like, ‘You don’t know what you are talking about.’ They suggest that your perceptions are wrong by saying things like, ‘You’re blowing this out of proportion’ or ‘You exaggerate.’” ― Engel
4. They lash out when you disagree with them.
“Emotionally abusive partners cannot tolerate disagreement from their partner. They hear the opposing idea from their partner as a personal attack. Feeling victimized, they react with anger and intimidation. Emotionally abusive partners believe their partner is actually the emotionally abusive one.” ― Lambert
5. They make excuses for their destructive behavior.
“They contextualize their abusive behavior, which serves to excuse it by saying, I was stressed, tired, overwhelmed, overreacting, I drank too much, etc. This gives their brain permission to repeat the behavior the next time the context occurs ― that is, whenever the abuser wants adrenaline for temporary energy and confidence.” ― Steven Stosny, psychologist and author of Empowered Love
6. They isolate you from your family and friends so you become completely dependent on them.
“An emotionally abusive partner will systematically and intentionally try to separate the victim from their external network of support: friends, family, co-workers, clergy. This is designed to make the victim solely dependent upon the abuser and to decrease the likelihood that others will witness the abuse. The more a victim is isolated, the harder it is for them to be connected to the resources they need to escape the relationship.” ― Ferentz
7. They put unrealistic expectations on you and the relationship.
“They make unreasonable demands on their partners, insisting that they spend all their time with him or her, expecting them to put everything aside to meet his or her needs. They are dissatisfied no matter how hard you try or how much you give, and they criticize you for not completing tasks according to their standards. They often expect their partner to share the same opinions and become angry if you dare to contradict them.” ― Engel
Need help? In the U.S., call (866) 331-9474 or text “loveis” to 22522 for the National Dating Abuse Helpline.