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.
The 10 Signs of Emotional Abuse:
- Control: Your partner may seem overly-invested in your social life, or police your day-to-day routines without acknowledging your desires. You don’t have the freedom to make your own choices (either overtly or subtly). Even small comments that undermine your independence are a means of control.
- Yelling: It’s normal for partners to raise their voice occasionally, but it’s not healthy when disagreements regularly escalate into shouting. It’s especially concerning if you feel afraid. Not only does yelling make a productive conversation nearly impossible, but it also creates an imbalance of power—only the loudest person is heard.
- Contempt: When one partner feels contempt for the other, it’s not easy for either person to express their feelings. Benton notes that in healthy relationships, there’s an expectation that your partner will listen and be respectful (even if they can’t give you what you need). If they respond to your needs with mean-spirited sarcasm, arrogance, disgust, or apathy, then contempt may create a barrier in your relationship.
- Excessive Defensiveness: When you constantly feel like you have to defend yourself, there’s less room for positive communication. It’s important that both parties are able to talk openly—and honestly—with each other to resolve issues. Excessive defensiveness, Benton says, can feel like you’re in a battle where your shield is always up.
- Threats: If your partner is threatening you in any way, you may feel like you’re in danger. Coercive “if, then” statements can include blackmail, threats of physical harm or suicide, or other intimidating remarks, but they often share the same intent: To back victims into a corner (and prevent them from leaving).
- Stonewalling: Benton notes that stonewalling takes place when one partner refuses to talk or communicate. If your partner shuts down uncomfortable conversations, it can feel like abandonment. Their refusal to discuss issues may come across as rejection or a lack of concern for your feelings.
- Blame: Victims are often made to believe that they cause—and therefore deserve—their own abuse and unhappiness, making the cycle much harder to break. This can be exacerbated by the shame that many victims feel for letting their abuse continue.
- Gaslighting: A form of psychological manipulation, gaslighting causes victims to doubt their memories, judgment, and sanity. If you find that your concerns (and even memories) are frequently dismissed as “false,” “stupid,” or “crazy,” you may be experiencing gaslighting.
- Isolation: Emotional abuse is pervasive, affecting all areas of life. Most notably is the toll it takes on victims’ relationships with friends and family. Abusers often convince their partners that no one cares. This alienation can cause victims to feel like they’re on an island, removed from loved ones and past versions of themselves.
- Volatility: If a relationship is constantly interrupted by mood swings, it can signal abuse. Many people experience natural ups and downs, but it’s a problem when it harms one’s partner. Volatile abusers often shower their victims with gifts and affection following an outburst, only to become angry again shortly after.
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