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This article was originally published in 2015. It was updated in 2023.
What is emotional abuse? This type of abusive tactic is used by toxic partners to exert power and control over someone by manipulating a partner’s emotions. It can be difficult for a survivor to recognize emotional abuse because it doesn’t leave behind the indicative signs of physical abuse, like bruises and black eyes. However, a partner who uses emotional abuse will likely escalate to other, more physically violent forms of abusive behavior as time goes on.
Another reason emotional abuse is hard to spot is because it’s used to confuse survivors, explains marriage and family therapist Logan Cohen.
“Manipulation and coercion are used to create a shame-based response to make [survivors] either freeze or be confused,” says Cohen, author of How to (Hu)Man Up in Modern Society: Heal Yourself and Save the World. “It can look like [an abuser] putting you down, playing mind games, making you feel guilty, questioning your identity. These are all power and control tactics, and they culminate in physical violence.”
Cohen has gained over a million followers on TikTok with his bite-sized snippets of therapy advice. He covers everything from resolving childhood trauma to self-love. Cohen says emotional abuse is “disorienting and incredibly dangerous,” because of its likelihood to escalate. But separating yourself from an abuser who uses this tactic is necessary.
Pop Quiz: Can You Identify Emotional Abuse?
Test yourself with the following questions to see if you can recognize the signs of emotional abuse. The answer key is below.
- Your partner admits to having a temper. They get angry quickly and with little provocation. It makes you feel like you’re walking on eggshells. They say they wouldn’t be so angry if you didn’t nag them about chores, bring up issues from the past, talk too much about your feelings or interrupt them when they’re watching television. You start to think you’re the reason they get angry. Should you work on this, or is your partner in the wrong?
- Your partner might be abusive.
- Your partner isn’t abusive. These are reasonable requests.
- You go to sleep before your partner because you wake up early. But, your partner likes to wake you up almost every night an hour after you fall asleep to give you a kiss or to ask you a question. Sometimes they need to vent about their day. You’ve repeatedly asked them to not wake you up, as you have a hard time falling back asleep. They accuse you of being selfish and not caring about their needs, and you wonder if this is true. Are their actions a type of emotional abuse or are you making too big a deal out of it?
- Sleep is an important part of your health. Sleep deprivation is a tactic of emotional abuse.
- Chill out—your partner sounds like they just love you a whole lot!
- One of the reasons you fell in love with your partner was because of their sense of humor. They make everyone around them laugh. But sometimes they tell jokes in front of friends about how much weight you’ve gained after having a baby and how much you like to eat. It makes you feel embarrassed, and you’ve asked them to stop. But other people do laugh so maybe it’s not that big of a deal. Is it a big deal?
- It’s not a big deal. This person sounds hilarious.
- Your partner should care about your feelings.. Repeatedly embarrassing or shaming a partner is a sign of emotional abuse.
- Arguments are a normal part of any relationship, but when you and your partner fight, you’re subjected to the silent treatment for days afterward. Your partner won’t even acknowledge your existence or answer you when you speak to them. Luckily, if you’re extra sweet to them and beg them to talk to you, they eventually forgive you. Things go back to normal again until the next fight. This isn’t abusive, is it?
- It is. The silent treatment is a manipulative tactic of emotional abuse.
- No, sometimes when people are mad, their mouth just can’t form words for a while. Totally normal.
- Your partner cares about you more than anyone ever has. You’re OK checking in with them multiple times a day about where you are and who you’re with. They even track your phone, which is obviously just for your safety. When they ask, you don’t mind sending them photos of exactly what you’re doing to show that you’re being truthful, even though this can interrupt your work day. As much as possible, your partner wants to go with you when you go out to see friends or family, even if they’re not invited. They want to make sure you’re safe and that no one else could be trying to get your attention. Sometimes it feels suffocating, like you have no independence. Is this a red flag?
- Nope! It’s normal to want to be aware of where your partner is at all times. Otherwise, how will they know you’re not being unfaithful?
- This is creepy, stalker behavior that’s rooted in power and control. It’s not for your safety, it’s for your partner to control you - which is abuse.
Quiz Answer Key
- A. These are tactics of emotional manipulation, aka, emotional abuse. This partner is in control of when and how you talk to them, which is not healthy or safe in a relationship. Your “punishment” for speaking out of turn is their angry outburst.
- B. Sleep deprivation is used to throw you off balance during the day, which an abuser uses to more easily control you. It can also have significant health effects such as memory issues, trouble problem-solving and an increased risk of car accidents.
- B. Belittling someone is never funny. If you’ve told your partner how this makes you feel, asked them to stop, and they still continue to do it, they’re obviously enjoying the discomfort you get from it. This is an abusive power trip, plain and simple.
- A. The silent treatment is a tactic abusers use to hurt, punish, isolate and control a survivor. It may seem childish, but it can be damaging to a survivor’s self-esteem and sense of safety. It’s not OK.
- B. “Victims of coercive control often feel like hostages,” writes Lisa Fontes, PhD. Partners who control you to a point where you feel isolated, lack independence, need to ask permission or feel scared to “step out of line,”—this is abuse. If it feels off in your gut, listen to it.
Signs of Emotional Abuse
There are more signs than just the above examples of how an abuser might utilize emotional abuse. To identify if what you’re experiencing is emotional abuse, ask yourself the following questions:
Does your partner ….
… put you down, embarrass or shame you?
… call you names?
… ignore you?
… demand to know where you are every minute?
… treat you as inferior?
… purposefully embarrass you, often in front of others?
… not allow you to make decisions?
… rarely validate your opinions or support you?
… threaten you?
… tell you that you’re crazy?
… belittle your accomplishments, aspirations or plans?
… forbid you from talking to or seeing your friends, family or coworkers?
… keep you from sleeping?
… accuse you of cheating or is possessively jealous?
… cheat on you and then blame you for his or her behavior?
… tell you that you will never find anyone better?
… repeatedly point out your mistakes?
… attempt to control what you wear?
… threaten to hurt you, your children, your family or your pets?
The Toll of Emotional Abuse on Your Health
The effects of emotional abuse can last a lifetime and impact your health. They can include:
- Feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem
- Inability to trust
- Digestion issues
- Chronic headaches
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
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How to Escape Emotional Abuse
If you have identified emotional abuse, you have to make a difficult decision: stay and hope the abuser stops (the reality is they likely won’t) or get out before the abuser gets even more dangerous. We hope you chose the latter.
To escape an abuser, you’ll want to do the following:
- Collect evidence if safe to do so. This can be a log of abusive incidents, photos, recordings, police or medical records or witness testimonies.
- Reach out to an advocate at your local domestic violence nonprofit. This person is trained to help you safety plan so you can leave without further threat of danger. You can DIY a safety plan as well. An advocate should also be able to connect you with local resources like emergency shelter, legal advice and help you to secure an order of protection.
- Secure an order of protection (also known as a restraining order or protection order). This will forbid your abusive partner from contacting you in any way or coming near you for a set period of time. This is where your evidence will come in handy.
- Leave when it’s safe to do so. It’s unfair that the survivor is typically the one who has to flee their home, but it’s the safest option to go somewhere that the abuser can’t find you. This may be a shelter or a friend or family member’s home that the abuser is unfamiliar with. Once there, you can have your order of protection served on the abuser and decide on a more permanent, and hopefully, separate, living situation.
It's important to make sure you don’t underestimate what an abuser is capable of, even if they’ve never resorted to physical violence before. An emotional abuser will rely on tactics like gaslighting to lure you back, saying things like, “But that never happened,” or “You’re remembering it wrong.” Don’t fall for it.
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