How to tell if you’re being emotionally abused

·Contributing Writer
Emotional abuse can be difficult to spot. (Photo: Getty images)
Emotional abuse can be difficult to spot. (Photo: Getty images)

Emotional or psychological abuse isn’t always obvious to the eye or ear. With physical or verbal abuse, the signs are clear, like violence, insulting language, or overt threats. But emotional abuse is infinitely trickier to spot, because it’s often couched in other manipulative gestures and frequently blurs the line between what’s loving and what’s controlling.

Emotional abuse is simple in definition, says Karla Ivankovich, a clinical counselor at OnePatient Global Health Initiative: It’s the “the use of emotion as a means of controlling another person,” she says. “This is strongly tied to the new buzz term of ‘gaslighting,’ which is a form of psychological abuse so profound it causes the victim to question their own judgment and unknowingly be forced to accept responsibility for things they have not done.”

Psychological abuse is not uncommon. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, roughly half of men and women have experienced a psychologically aggressive gesture from a partner. Four in 10 have experienced coercive control. The effects are lasting. The coalition also says 7 out of 10 women who have been psychologically abused experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and are more likely to report poor physical and mental health.

In the past five years, there’s been increased interest in understanding what emotional and psychological abuse looks like. Related terms, like “narcissist” and “love bombing,” are starting to become more mainstream — and Google searches are on the rise for the meanings of these abuse-related terms.

If you’re dating or committed to an emotionally abusive partner, you may not instantly know it. But there are signs you can watch out for, so you can discern what’s unhealthy — or likely to become unhealthy the longer you stay.

The beginning of the relationship may feel like a dream.

Narcissists perpetuate a lot of emotional abuse, which can result in a whirlwind romance in the beginning, according Lisa Firestone, a clinical psychologist and co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships. “One of the problems with narcissists is that they are very charismatic,” she says. “Dating a narcissist is really fun in the beginning.”

This “love bombing” (or over-the-top flattery) can be a way narcissists prime their victims for a big fall: They shower the object of their affection with attention and grand gestures upfront, only to “flip” a switch later on when they snap, and become angry or critical. “It can be shocking, because it feels so out of character, but that flip side is always there,” Firestone says. In the aftermath, feeling intimidated, threatened, or endangered by your partner is an important sign of an abusive situation.

The blame for the abusive partner’s bad behaviors will fall on you.

Ivankovich says that emotionally abusive types often blame their toxic behaviors on their victims. “An abuser will often blame the partner for the things they are actually doing themselves, causing the partner to question their own commitment,” she says.

In practice, the blame might feel reasonable, because it tugs on your heartstrings. For instance, an emotionally abusive partner might cheat and say it was because they weren’t feeling loved enough. Or they might try to isolate you from your family, saying they miss you and want to spend more time together. But you should pay attention to “diminishing feelings of worth” and “withdrawal from friends and family,” both of which Ivankovich says are common in emotionally abusive situations.

You always feel the need to earn your partner’s love and become timid.

Ivankovich says that those in emotionally abusive situations are often subject to threats. “It’s always, ‘I’ll leave you if …’ or, ‘If you do this, I’ll do that,’” she says. “Ultimatums are common.” Over time, you may start to defer to your partner in an unhealthy way, which friends or family may even notice and bring up to you.

You may feel yourself becoming timid and worrying about every decision’s impact on your partner. If you feel the compulsive need to ask for “permission” before doing just about anything, maybe agreeing to a girls’ night or attending happy hour with co-workers, you might be with an abusive partner. “While together, it is also common for the victim to look at the abuser for approval before answering questions, or look away when a question is asked,” Ivankovich says.

Their words don’t match their behaviors, or they are generally inconsistent.

Watch for inconsistency, says Firestone. Let’s say they repeatedly tell you how amazing you are, but will diminish you in front of friends. Or they tell you how much they love you, while continuing to cheat, disrespect your time, or criticize you. “When their words don’t match their actions, something is wrong,” she says. “That’s when you can start to feel crazy.”

Also, early on, pay attention to how the person behaves with you versus others. If the person treats the wait staff or colleagues poorly, but shower you with attention and “caring” gestures, that’s still a huge red flag, says Firestone. “Small lies are also problematic,” she says. “If a person lies easily, seemingly about nothing, or the stories don’t add up, it’s not a good thing. You can’t be with a person you don’t really know, or someone who only shares pieces of themselves to maintain a positive image.”

It’s always about them.

Firestone says to pay attention to the contents of your discussions, and how you spend your time. An emotionally manipulative person will make it about them, often under the guise of nice partnership gestures. They could call you every day, but talk only about themselves. They could take you on an expensive trip, but did they even ask you if you wanted to go?

Consider whether the benefits of the relationship are mutual and fulfilling for both parties. “Do they ask you about your day, before sharing their own? Is there a give-and-take in the relationship?” Firestone asks. “Good communication is where you feel seen and valued for who you are. A narcissistic partner only sees the parts of you that feed them.”

If you suspect you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, help is available. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is just one resource. Call 800-799-7233 or 800-787-3224 (TTY) 24/7 for confidential support.

Jenna Birch is the author of The Love Gap, as well as the co-founder and CEO of the new dating app Plum. Her relationship column appears on Yahoo every other Monday. To ask her a question, which may appear in an upcoming post, send an email to with “YAHOO” in the subject line.

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