Recognizing Emotional Abuse

Too often when people think of abusive relationships, they envision the worst of it: black eyes, women’s shelters, mournful country songs about liquor and fists.

But abuse isn’t always so black and blue. There are more subtle kinds of abuse that, if left unchecked, can fester and overtake you until you feel hopeless and lonely without knowing why. These are often cases of emotional abuse.

In these cases, recognizing the abuse can take a very long time. Oftentimes the abused can be so thoroughly accustomed to it that he or she believes they are deserving of the mistreatment. Or they might not see it as mistreatment at all – just earned consequences of their mistakes.

I want to tell you, no matter who you are, these very important truths: You are worth something. You are worthy of love and respect. If you have made poor choices, they can be undone. You do not have to be defined by your mistakes. You are not your worst days. You deserve happiness.

If you are feeling despondent or hopeless and need someone to talk to, please reach out and call this number: 1-800-799-7233. The National Domestic Violence Hotline will listen and direct you to the right resources.

If you aren’t sure whether or not you’re in an abusive relationship, the National Domestic Violence Hotline defines and explains the different types of abuse. As for emotional abuse, here are some common signs or examples.

Verbal threats to safety and welfare

If someone threatens you with violence, it’s clear-cut abuse. But beyond that, if you’re with someone who constantly threatens to take something away from you – themselves, maybe, or a home, food, or pet – this can be a sign of emotional abuse. It’s one thing if you never pay your rent on time and your roommate says ‘look, I’m gonna have to kick you out unless you cough it up.’ It’s another if you forget to wash a dish for a day or two and your significant other says you can ‘just find somewhere else to go’ if you don’t shape up.

Condescending or speaking down to you

A partner who constantly speaks to you as though you’re stupid is a veiled aggressor. He or she is trying to make you feel small; it’s a form of negging, a way of cutting you down to keep you in your ‘place’. If it’s woven into the fabric of your communication and is a common way he or she speaks to you, it’s likely emotional abuse.

Accusing you of baseless indiscretions

If your significant other is constantly accusing you of things without merit, this can be a sign of something deeper. Oftentimes it’s insecurities, but it can also be a red flag; cheaters often accuse faithful partners of infidelity, since they themselves are made paranoid by their own affairs. In this same vein, emotionally abusive partners will accuse you of being the negative force in the relationship to shift blame and focus from themselves.

Hindering your growth and success

A good partner should bring out the best in you and want to see you succeed. An emotionally abusive partner will want to cut you down and keep you under his or her thumb. If your partner manipulates you out of success – by telling you to turn down a better job offer, preventing you from enrolling in school, or discouraging you from doing any number of things that would make you a happier and more whole person – then they might be emotionally abusive. An abuser is not a good person; they don’t want you to be, either.

Controlling your relationships and actions

A controlling partner can be controlling in several different ways. There are the obvious ones, like dictating what you wear and who you spend time with, but there are other less glaring types of control:

  • Guilting you out of doing hobbies or activities you enjoy. This can be as simple as ‘I wish you cared about me as much as you cared about going to the gym/participating in a hobby/seeing your friends.’ This is mild and not always a sign of abuse, of course, but if you find yourself increasingly cut off from things and people you enjoy to appease your partner, it may be emotional abuse.
  • Changing shared spaces or routines without your consent. If your partner is consistently doing things like redecorating, reorganizing, or rescheduling parts of your life – shared or separate – without speaking to you first, this is a sign of controlling behavior, and can be an indicator of emotional abuse.
  • ‘Helpfully’ pointing out your flaws in certain areas until you cease participating in these areas altogether. Oftentimes abusers are clever manipulators; they may present their abuse and negativity as ‘constructive criticism.’ If a partner tells you, for example, how bad of a cook you are, even though no one else in your life has ever made a similar comment, you might gradually give up cooking altogether and relinquish control in that area to your partner. This can be a sign of emotional abuse.


The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines gaslighting:

” Gaslighting is an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts and sanity, which gives the abusive partner a lot of power (and we know that abuse is about power and control). Once an abusive partner has broken down the victim’s ability to trust their own perceptions, the victim is more likely to stay in the abusive relationship.”

Oftentimes a gaslighting partner will say things like ‘are you sure? You have a bad memory,’ ‘I never said that, you’re lying again,’ or ‘you always overreact.’ It can be as flagrant as ‘you always get irrational when you’re PMSing,’ an attempt to pin blame on your for being unable to regulate your emotions due to hormones.

Gaslighting is a very harmful manipulation tactic that can be almost impossible to spot if you’re regularly exposed to it. If you feel unable to trust your instincts, emotions, or memory, it is possible you have a gaslighting partner. This is a deplorable and flagrant case of emotional abuse.

If you believe you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, it is best to end it before you get too enmeshed. Abusers rarely change and it can be difficult to separate from them cleanly after legal ties like marriage have been forged. If you have children with an abusive partner, there are resources and support systems in place that can help you leave safely.

Remember you are never stuck. There are always options; if you are scared of leaving an abusive partner because of financial or societal reasons, you have resources. Check the National Domestic Violence site for more info.

And, most importantly, just because no one else sees the abuse doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I’m not advocating crying ‘abuse’ whenever you and a partner don’t get along, but abusers are clever and will oftentimes seem like good, loving people to those outside the relationship.

Do not allow yourself to be gaslit – take care of yourself. Get out of the relationship. Reach out for help. You deserve happiness.

At the very least, you can reach out to me. I will always listen.

Xoxo, Grace

image courtesy of raw pixel

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