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Signs and Symptoms of Emotional Abuse

I enjoy helping people figure out how to maintain healthy relationships, with others and with themselves.

All couples argue at times, but it doesn't have to be hurtful or traumatic. Learn to recognize the signs of emotional abuse.

All couples argue at times, but it doesn't have to be hurtful or traumatic. Learn to recognize the signs of emotional abuse.

Emotional Abuse Signs Are Hard to Spot

Emotional abuse is harder to pinpoint than physical abuse. Signs of bloody battles, like bruising, cuts, or scarring, can't be seen by other people the way they are after a physical confrontation, but make no mistake—the wounds do exist. They leave their mark upon a person's heart and soul, eroding a person's ability to distinguish between love and power.

People who endure emotional battery may feel as if they're going crazy. They may try to figure out if their perceptions are really as "out there" as their abuser would have them believe. This article will help you figure out if you or a loved one is enduring emotional abuse and help you take constructive action to change the situation.

All Couples Have Problems

Whether a couple is happy in their relationship or not, life throws challenges their way. Research has shown that the most successful unions still have 5–7 areas of unresolved disagreements, the kind of things that come up again and again and never get resolved. Why do some couples feel happy even though they have to face those obstacles? What is the secret to being able to address those challenges and remain happy?

5 Factors That Contribute to a Couple's Happiness

A large study conducted by Prepare Enrich in 1999 analyzed over 21,500 couples to get answers to questions like these. They found five important factors that distinguished happy couples from unhappy ones.

  • Communication
  • Couple flexibility
  • Feeling close
  • Compatibility
  • Conflict resolution

Other factors that were also important, though not to the same degree, included financial management, leisure activities, family and friends, and spiritual beliefs.

6 Factors That Contribute to a Couple's Unhappiness

The researchers identified the most important facets that contributed to unhappiness. Not surprisingly, the factors that contributed most to unhappiness were virtually the same. In order of importance, they were:

  • Problem solving
  • Couple flexibility
  • Personality issues (compatibility)
  • Communication
  • Leisure activities
  • Parenting

Abuse doesn't only happen during conflict, but when problems arise, it is more likely to be present than when there's no conflict. Abusiveness automatically harms a couple's ability to solve problems and communicate well. It hampers their ability to feel close on an ongoing basis.

Preventing abuse from happening is an important step toward finding long-term happiness in a loving relationship.

Quiz: Do You Recognize Signs of Emotional Abuse?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. During an argument, he says "I'm not talking about this right now" and heads for the door. Is this emotional abuse?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Maybe
  2. She says, "But we need to solve this!" and stands in the doorway so he won't leave. Emotionally abusive?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Maybe
  3. After an argument that's still not resolved, he refuses to speak to her for several days. Emotional abuse?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Maybe
  4. After an argument that's still not resolved, she orders him to sleep on the sofa. Emotional abuse?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Maybe
  5. After an argument that's still not resolved, he decides he'd rather sleep on the sofa. Emotional abuse?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Maybe.
  6. Her pet name for him is one he doesn't like, but she uses it regularly. Emotional abuse?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Maybe
  7. She asks if she looks fat. He says, "Well, you have put on weight." Emotionally abusive?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Maybe
  8. She replies, "You're such an jerk!" Emotionally abusive?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Maybe
  9. He regularly surfs porn on the Internet, even though he promised not to. Emotional abuse?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Maybe
  10. She lies to protect his feelings. Emotional abuse?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Maybe
  11. She interrupts him frequently. Emotional abuse?
    • Yes.
    • No.
    • Maybe
  12. She says she felt hurt over something he said. He replies, "That's baloney." Emotional abuse?
    • Yes.
    • No.
    • Maybe.
  13. He doesn't like girls' night out. She usually doesn't go, but decided to this week. Emotional abuse?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Maybe
  14. He knows she likes him to call if he's late, and usually does, but forgot. Emotional abuse?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Maybe
  15. He doesn't like her to wear makeup. She does anyway. Emotional abuse?
    • Yes
    • No
    • Maybe

Answer Key

  1. No
  2. Yes
  3. Yes
  4. Maybe
  5. Maybe.
  6. Yes
  7. No
  8. Yes
  9. Yes
  10. Yes
  11. Maybe
  12. Yes.
  13. No
  14. No
  15. Maybe

Interpreting Your Score

If you got between 0 and 4 correct answers: You do not recognize the difference between abusive and legitimate behaviors well. This could be hampering your relationships with other people.

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If you got between 5 and 9 correct answers: You do not recognize the difference between abusive and legitimate behaviors well. This could be hampering your relationships with other people.

If you got between 10 and 12 correct answers: You recognize some emotionally abusive behaviors, but have several areas that can use improvement. Even one problem area can erode a relationship over time.

If you got 13 correct answers: You recognize most forms of emotional abuse.

If you got between 14 and 15 correct answers: Congratulations! You're an expert on distinguishing when someone's behavior crosses that invisible threshold between legitimate complaint and abusiveness.

Typical Emotionally Abusive Behaviors

Emotional abuse is all about gaining power or control over a person or situation. When conflict arises, even if there's no argument going on, emotional abuse can take many forms:

  • Name-calling
  • Insults
  • Condescending attitudes
  • Deception and/or lies
  • Silent treatment (also known as stonewalling or cold shoulder)
  • Staying busy
  • Threats (implied or stated)

Certain things are automatically abusive, while others fall into a gray area. The underlying motivation is important for distinguishing harmless behaviors from damaging ones. People who are very insecure or want a high level of control may use emotionally abusive tactics

Consider how behaviors may fall on a continuum, as shown here. When a relationship has no problems, some actions that could be abusive aren't - like when a woman calls her partner a jerk as an expression of affection. He she's joking because she is laughing and reacting to something that wasn't serious. However, during an argument, that same word spoken with an angry expression on her face conveys a very different message. At it's very core, the message is one of disapproval.

Abusive behaviors progressively worsen over time.

Abusive behaviors progressively worsen over time.

Power and the Abuse Continuum

All human beings have basic needs, one of which is to feel a sense of control in their lives. People feel safer when they can predict, influence, and explain their lives in a way that makes sense to them.

When any of these three factors gets disrupted, people feel vulnerability that is highly unpleasant even under the best conditions. For instance, a person having his or her first serious argument in a new relationship feels a high level of anxiety over it. Will this break us up? they may ask. What if it's not really love?


Although some surprises can be pleasant, most of them aren't. A flat tire on the car when it's time to go to work is hardly cause for celebration! If a person anticipates a quiet afternoon, but is greeted with a problem upon walking in the door from work, it affects his or her outlook and attitude. If such negative surprises happen frequently, they may become part of what he or she predicts for their afternoons and they may develop a negative outlook.


When a problem does arise, whether it came as a surprise or not, a person wants to be able to solve it. In fact, he or she probably has some ideas about how to fix the situation. However, when two people must work together to find a solution, their individual values and beliefs may complicate matters.

Making Sense

Last, in order to feel safe, a person must be able to make sense of the things that happen in his or her life. When they don't make sense, a process of denial sets in. Although denial is too complex to explain fully here, the word refers to coping mechanisms that protect a person from emotional pain. They may use logic, minimizing, deception, or many other techniques to avoid facing a painful reality.

Everyone has these needs, and everyone has experienced vulnerability and would like to avoid it. When conflicts arise, a person anticipating pain will take steps to avoid feeling vulnerable or experiencing emotional trauma. In other words, they'll attempt to control their environment. This is a normal and healthy response as long as it doesn't interfere with another person's control of his or her own environment and experience.

In many cases, however, a person's coping mechanisms—that denial mentioned a moment ago—kicks in ahead of time. Instead of being used to cope with something that has happened, they start to use these behaviors to protect themselves from something that could happen. And it works!

The more it works, the more they learn to resort to such behaviors as a first resort. When they stop working as well, they'll escalate their defenses. When this no longer works, they allow their defenses to take on an offensive, aggressive tone to regain control.

Example: Little Johnny

Let's use a simplified "Little Johnny" example to see how this develops over time:

Little Johnny's an adorable, sensitive boy. One day his mom comes home from work. She's frazzled and tired. When she asks him if he did his homework, eleven year old Johnny confesses that he forgot.

"What do you mean you forgot? Admit it, you're just lazy. You never do the things I ask you to do. You do it just to make me mad."

Johnny is hurt and can't understand why she thinks the way she does. After all, he really did forget. At eleven, he got home and made his normal after-school snack, flipped on the television while he ate, and became absorbed in a show he likes. He didn't think about the time when the next show came on, also a favorite. By the time it was almost over, his mother had gotten home.

Like most children, he holds his parents in high esteem. He believes that they know what they're talking about. If his mom thinks he's lazy, inconsiderate, and always fails at the things she asks, he must make sense of it, even though he doesn't believe he's a lazy, inconsiderate failure. He tells himself, "She's just tired. She doesn't really mean it," and feels better because he has used a denial mechanism.

Over the course of many small yet painful experiences, he develops his coping tactics more fully. As a young adult, when his girlfriend says, "I thought you were going to pick up milk after work," he may decide that saying he forgot might invite painful accusations. He subconsciously decides to use one of those coping mechanisms instead.

"You never told me to bring home milk!"

He doesn't want to feel like his environment isn't being controlled well, and he doesn't want to feel vulnerability or pain, so he used deflection in hopes that she would respond with an acknowledgement that he hasn't done something wrong.

It may backfire. She may say, "I didn't tell you because you drank the last of it this morning. You should have known." Now Johnny must escalate his response to regain control or surrender control, which might leave him feeling vulnerable - one of the feelings he wishes to avoid.

He may continue to deflect or use other verbal methods of denying responsibility. If they don't work, he might escalate to name-calling or insults.

Months later, he again forgets to do something, and another argument takes place. This time, she anticipates his denial and uses some of her own coping mechanisms and denial. "You're so dumb, I swear!" she begins. They both are trying to gain control using more intense methods than before.

Over time, these methods fail and the people using them must escalate their attempts to control in order to avoid those vulnerable feelings. This is how a relationship that starts with love and affection can degrade to one that includes emotional abuse. An emotionally abusive relationship will eventually progress to a physically abusive one in many cases. A physically abusive one can progress so far as to result in murder. The only way to stop the escalation is to disrupt the power struggle.

Disrupting the Cycle of Abuse

Some mental health professionals would disagree that it takes two to create abusive environments, but it does. Both parties add fuel to the fire. Power struggles cannot exist if one person has complete control, but it's unrealistic to expect or even want a relationship where all of the decisions lie with just one person.

A power struggle can be broken by one party surrendering control, which means either giving in or leaving the situation behind. It can also be broken if both people learn to negotiate with each other, but if abuse is present, the abuse must be addressed first. Negotiation can only happen when both parties surrender some, but not all, control. No negotiation can take place with an unwilling partner, and an abusive partner is unwilling to give up any control.

Both people are aggressors, and both are victims.

Fortunately, when one person changes, the relationship itself changes. It doesn't happen in a day, a week, or even a month. It happens when one person changes the way they do things, and makes that change a permanent response that happens consistently over a long period of time. When making changes, people should realize that it takes a great deal of practice before a new behavior becomes permanent.

How to Change

Let's take a look at the simplest changes that a person can make:

  • Leave the relationship: This is one option, but many people aren't ready to take such a drastic step. A person considering leaving should recognize that if they return to the relationship later, it means that they will pick up where the relationship left off, but with more baggage than existed before.
  • Walk away: This is the best, most effective way to put the brakes on an argument before it escalates to an unacceptable level. "We can talk about this when we feel calmer." "I will not discuss this when you're calling me names or insulting me." There's a caveat, however! Walking away can stop the abuse but the problem still needs to be resolved. A person resorting to abusive tactics may learn that being abusive takes the heat off right now, and they may increase their use of abusive behaviors to avoid dealing with the problem over and over again.
  • Set ground rules: These can help prevent a discussion from turning abusive. When both parties agree to avoid interrupting each other, confine their speaking to one minute at a time, and to avoid name-calling, blame, and insults, the door is open for healthier communication. It may also be helpful to limit discussions to a maximum of twenty or thirty minutes and return to it at a later time if it's still not resolved.
  • Seek a win-win solution: This ensures that each person will see progress and find an outcome that is acceptable even if it's not ideal. It ensures that they will listen as well as be heard. When used in a fair fighting environment, it gives both people an incentive to work together instead of against each other.

More on Unwilling or Abusive Partners

Everyone has a right to be treated humanely. To be heard and loved and valued. When a person treats themselves well, others will, too. When a person doesn't appreciate himself or herself, however, the opposite happens.

Nobody can be treated abusively without their own consent (not more than once, anyway!)

However, people with low self-esteem may have trouble understanding what appropriate boundaries are and how to maintain them. When they are in an emotionally abusive relationship, their own lack of self-love and social skills can prevent them from making the kinds of permanent changes they need to make.

People with low self-esteem may want to seek individual counseling to address their inner doubts before embarking on a journey to recover from any kind of abuse or trying to repair an existing relationship that is damaged if they want the greatest chance of success.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What do I do when my partner is unwilling to stop stonewalling?

Answer: I have another article about the silent treatment that goes into more detail, but you can let it be his problem instead of yours (not easy to achieve!), or you can keep struggling as you have been, or you can walk away from it, either temporarily or permanently.

Question: Even when there's no argument my husband ignores me for days and weeks, and never comes home. Is this abuse?

Answer: The more important question is, "Will you put up with this?"

Question: How do I handle my husband leaving for 30 days so he can “get over his anger”?

Answer: It sounds like he has emotionally checked out, so if I were in your shoes, I'd probably do my best to move on without him. That's easier to say than do, but I wouldn't let him see me sweating his absence. However, if he has great reasons to have a lot of anger, then I would respect his needs and ask what I can do to make amends, or how I can make sure not to trigger that anger again.

Question: I blocked my boyfriend from contacting me because I felt I needed time to heal, but he hasn't gone out of his way to try and contact me. Should I just forget about him?

Answer: Probably, because you seem to be being abusive to him, too, if you get mad or reject him simply because he respects your wishes.

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