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Emotional Abuse: What You Need to Know

By Jaylia Rentfro, LMFT

Emotional abuse is a way to control another person by using emotions to criticize, embarrass, shame, blame, or otherwise manipulate another person. In general, a relationship is emotionally abusive when there is a consistent pattern of abusive words and bullying behaviors that wear down a person’s self-esteem and undermine their mental health. Emotional abuse can be difficult to recognize and is often hidden. Blatant forms of emotional abuse include extreme jealousy, attempts to control, possessiveness and yelling/name calling. Often these outbursts are followed by stable and even loving periods, making it more likely for the victim to minimize the behavior. But covert emotional abuse is more subtle and often occurs more gradually in relationships. Covert emotional abuse includes behaviors such as withholding communication, defensiveness, playing the victim, refusal to accept personal responsibility, criticism and manipulation. While most common in romantic relationships, emotional abuse can be seen among friends, in professional relationships and between family members. Children raised in emotionally abusive homes are not always aware that abuse has occurred and may even partner with others that continue the cycle of abuse. Emotional abuse can be subtle, and because emotional abuse erodes self-esteem, it can be very difficult for victims of emotional abuse to recognize the abuse for what it is, and even more difficult to leave the relationship. Often, a person in an emotionally abusive relationship will experience shame and guilt over difficulties in the relationship and may even reach out for support, but the term “abuse” doesn’t seem to fit because “it’s not that bad”, “everyone argues”, “he/she went through a lot as a child,” etc. Victims of emotional abuse often do not see themselves as victims at all, especially if the abuse dynamic is more covert. They may recognize that something feels off in the relationship. They may feel anxious around this person like they are walking on eggshells. But because of the erosion of self-esteem in these relationships, the victim will often blame themselves and try to work harder to be “better” so the abuse patterns will stop. At times, even if the victim attempts to address a problem with their partner, they may leave those conversations feeling shut down, dismissed, or as though they are making a big deal out of nothing. Many times, they are blamed for the abuse. According to, five signs of emotional abuse are:

  • Hyper-Critical or Judgmental Towards You
  • Ignore Boundaries or Invade Your Privacy
  • Possessive and/or Controlling
  • Manipulative
  • Often Dismiss You and Your Feelings

Frequently, abusers use a technique called gaslighting which is a form of manipulation. This is an insidious and usually covert form of abuse that leaves a victim questioning their own reality. Signs of gaslighting include:

  • Insist you said or did things you know you didn’t do
  • Deny or scoff at your recollection of events
  • Call you “too sensitive” or “crazy” when you express your needs or concerns
  • Express doubts to others about your feelings, behavior, and state of mind
  • Twisting or retelling events to shift blame to you

If you are wondering if you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, ask yourself the following questions…

  • Do I feel respected as an equal in my relationship?
  • Am I able to talk openly to my partner about challenges in the relationship without fear of his/her reaction?
  • Do I feel safe in my relationship (emotionally, physically, sexually)?
  • Does my partner take responsibility for their actions?

If the answers to these questions are troubling to you, or if other relationship reg flags come up for you, it is ok to reach out to trusted friends and family for support. Speaking to a therapist can be helpful as it is a confidential, safe place to process your relationship dynamics. Connections Wellness Group has therapy, psychiatry, and even telehealth services available. Call today to make an appointment and please let us know how we can help you! Sources: National Network to End Domestic Violence. Forms of Abuse. 2017.