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5 Disturbing Signs That Will Help You Spot Emotional Abuse

CL Grant has authored many relationship books, including "30 Day No Contact Rule," "The Reality of Being the Other Woman," and "Ex Addict."

Domestic abuse is not just physical.

Domestic abuse is not just physical.

What Is Emotional Abuse?

Domestic abuse or Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) encompasses physical and sexual assault, stalking, and psychological harm inflicted by a current or former partner. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines IPV as a, 'serious, preventable public health problem that affects millions of Americans.'

Emotional and psychological abuse is one element of IPV. It comprises a repeated pattern of controlling or coercive behavior undertaken within the confines of an intimate relationship. Consumed by an overwhelming need to dominate and control, the abuser manipulates, demoralizes, and isolates his victim using tactics such as verbal attacks, threats of violence, humiliation, and mind games.

Unfortunately, this type of abuse is difficult to spot. It is so insidious that the injured party is often unaware that they are being vilified. There are no bruises or broken bones, but they are exposed to a deluge of negative emotions. The perpetrator uses subtle tactics that slowly escalate until the victim accepts these actions as being normal.

Who Are the Victims of Emotional Abuse?

Relatively little research has been carried out specifically for sufferers of emotional abuse. Most studies consider domestic violence as a whole. This is to be expected as surveys show that psychological abuse usually precedes physical aggression.

Overall, women are more likely to be abused than men. However, this may be due to under-reporting by males, who may feel too embarrassed to report their partner to the relevant authorities. It is important to remember that victims can be of any age, gender, or ethnicity. They can also be in same-sex or heterosexual relationships. Disturbingly, emotional abuse is also commonplace in teenage relationships. While psychological abuse declines with age, older men experience more abuse than their female counterparts.

Although this article focuses on emotional abuse within romantic relationships, children and vulnerable adults, such as the elderly, can also fall prey to similar maltreatment.

Abuse Statistics

The following statistics have been compiled using numerous sources.

  • 85% of domestic abuse victims are women
  • 18 to 24 year old women experience the highest levels of IPV
  • 95% of men who physically abuse their partners also use psychological abuse
  • 18% of women have been prevented by their partner from seeing family or friends
  • 26% of teenage girls have experienced repeated verbal abuse by their partner
  • 20% of teenage girls said a partner threatened violence or self-harm at the prospect of a breakup
  • Almost 50% of men and women in the United States have suffered from psychological abuse by an intimate partner
  • 14% of women and 6% of men have been stalked by an intimate partner
  • 29% of male victims are unlikely to discuss partner abuse compared with 12% of women
You don't need to suffer in silence.

You don't need to suffer in silence.

What Are the Effects of Psychological Trauma?

It is all too easy to underestimate the long-term damage that emotional trauma can cause. The abuser is intent on exerting control over their partner, and in doing so, they can trigger acute psychological trauma which can be more harmful than physical violence.

In addition to anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, studies show that emotionally abused women have a higher risk of suicidal tendencies than those who have not experienced abuse in their relationships.

Being psychologically abused leaves you:

  • Feeling confused and disoriented
  • Repeatedly apologizing to your partner, even when you have done nothing wrong
  • Lying to avoid confrontation
  • Making excuses for your partner's behavior to family and friends
  • Feeling anxious, depressed and even suicidal

Your confidence and self-esteem are destroyed and you begin to doubt your own sanity. You become a shadow of your former self. You are in a state of turmoil: a quivering wreck to be precise. Even the sound of your partner's voice has the power to make you tremble.

Unable to sleep, you may find yourself constantly reliving the abuse in your mind. You may feel numb or find yourself unable to stop crying. Your appetite diminishes and you struggle to find enjoyment with any aspect of your life. You become withdrawn and may experience physical symptoms such as nausea, headaches or pain in your chest or limbs. In order to escape reality, you may find yourself turning to alcohol or becoming increasingly reliant on substance abuse. If this is you, it is vital you seek assistance from a medical professional, to help you recover.

What Is Gaslighting in a Relationship?

Before discussing the signs of emotional abuse, it is important to consider the psychological phenomenon of 'gaslighting.' This is a technique frequently used by narcissists and others with borderline personality disorders.

The term is derived from the Oscar award-winning movie, Gaslight (1944), an adaptation of the 1938 stage play, Gas Light. In the film, the main character, Paula Alquist, is steadily manipulated and psychologically abused by her new husband. The abuse progresses to such an extent that she begins to doubt herself and assumes that she is going insane.

In its simplest form, gaslighting can best be thought of as a means of brainwashing. The sooner you acknowledge that you are not operating on a level playing field, the better. The abuser rewrites history and uses various tactics such as:

  • Lying
  • Telling you that you are going crazy
  • Refusing to listen to you
  • Denying that they said or did something
  • Accusing you of doing the very thing that they are guilty of
  • Turning people against you
  • Telling everyone else that you are crazy
  • Telling you that everyone else is a liar
  • Blowing hot and cold

If you believe that you are being harmed at the hands of a narcissist, you may find it helpful to keep a journal of what is being said and done to you. Not only will this support you, in maintaining a sense of reality, it should also provide you with the impetus to leave a toxic relationship.

Domestic Violence in the U.S.

What Are the Signs of Emotional Abuse?

There are many signs of emotional abuse and it is crucial that you are able to spot these. Not all of these indicators may apply, as each abuser will have his or her own particular methods. Nonetheless, the following provides a clear indication of what you should be looking out for. Your partner is being emotionally abusive if he uses any of the tactics listed in the five categories below.

1. Humiliation and Disrespect

One of the first things that you will begin to notice about your partner is the disrespectful manner in which he speaks to you. He is patronising and treats you like a child. He may mimic you or use sarcasm to put you down, even in front of others. This constant ridiculing is upsetting and deeply embarrassing. He may even call you derogatory names or body-shame you.

Your personal successes and achievements are dismissed as being worthless and your opinions insignificant. Your abuser takes great delight in doing things just to spite you. His constant criticism eats away at you and destroys your self-esteem.

2. Threatening Behavior

In the beginning, there is often no physical violence. Nonetheless, you start to feel uncomfortable as each day is like 'walking on eggshells.' There may be disapproving looks or menacing gestures. He may yell, swear or throw things and become enraged if you dare answer him back.

The simplest of matters can leave you facing a tirade of abuse. Household chores may not be done to his satisfaction, or his dinner may not be to his liking. No matter how trivial the incident, he erupts like a volcano.

Your partner may also blackmail you by threatening to leave the relationship. Alternatively, he may scare you into doing what he wants, by saying that he will harm himself, if you fail to comply with his wishes. If these ploys fail to have the desired effect, he may reveal personal details about you to your family and friends.

On a sinister note, the abuser may threaten physical violence against you, your children or others close to you, should you not meet his demands.

3. Coercive Control

Initially, the prospect of being financially supported by your spouse may sound appealing. However, this is one tactic the abuser uses in order to control you. Pursuing a career provides you with confidence, independence and financial freedom: all of the things that he does not want you to have. Hence, he insists on being the sole income provider and restricts the amount of money that he gives you. You may find yourself with an 'allowance' that barely covers your basic expenditure needs. He manages all of your joint finances and you have absolutely no idea how much money or debt you both have.

He constantly monitors your whereabouts and frequently checks up on you. If you do not answer your phone, or respond to his text messages immediately, he becomes extremely agitated. He will check your phone daily and interrogate you as to the purpose of each message and call.

You may discover spyware installed on your computer or he will insist on knowing all of your passwords to your email and social media accounts. Furthermore, he may plant covert cameras or listening devices, in your home or car.

He will stop you from seeing family and friends and intercepts phone calls to your home, often telling callers that you are unavailable. He prevents you from leaving home by not allowing you to use the family car. He may even physically lock you in the house. Eventually, you begin to feel trapped in the relationship, with no means of escaping.

4. Emotional Withholding

In any loving relationship between a couple, there will be physical and emotional intimacy. By withholding himself and not engaging with you, your partner is being abusive. You may notice that he is emotionally distant, lacks empathy or gives you the 'silent treatment.' He no longer bestows any compliments and may not pay you any attention at all.

He will refuse to participate in any form of meaningful conversation and may deliberately keep information back from you. He doesn't care about your feelings and rejects you when you initiate physical contact. This neglect is used as a form of punishment and control.

5. Gaslighting Techniques

As discussed, gaslighting is a menacing form of mental abuse that forces you to question your own sanity. If you attempt to discuss any matters of concern with your partner, he will blame you for being overly sensitive and refuse to enter into any dialogue.

He will even accuse you of doing things that you haven't done and say that everything is your fault. He trivialises your emotions by changing the subject or by telling you that you are overreacting. He will question your memory of specific events and even censure you for making things up. He repeatedly tells you that you are crazy until you reach the stage where you begin to believe him.

It is never too late to walk away from an abusive relationship.

It is never too late to walk away from an abusive relationship.

Healing From Emotional Abuse

The longer you are exposed to psychological abuse, the greater the damage that will be caused. The only solution is for you to leave this toxic relationship as soon as possible. Despite what you may be feeling at the moment, the problem lies with your abuser and not with you. It is highly improbable that you can fix the problems in your relationship, no matter how hard you try.

There are several steps that you need to take:

  1. Admit the truth of what is happening to you
  2. If appropriate, confide in a close friend or family member
  3. Begin setting healthy boundaries in your relationship
  4. Seek professional advice such as counselling or psychological help
  5. When you are feeling strong enough, seek legal advice

If you are concerned about leaving your partner due to your financial situation or fear of violence, help is available. Simply search online for organisations and charities in your locality.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Intimate Partner Violence. [12 April 2017]
  2. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. National Statistics. [18 April 2017]
  3. Safe Voices. Domestic Violence. [18 April 2017]
  4. Breiding MJ, Basile KC, Smith SG, Black MC, Mahendra RR. Intimate Partner Violence Surveillance: Uniform Definitions and Recommended Data Elements, Version 2.0. Atlanta (GA): National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2015 [12 April 2017]
  5. Karakurt G, Silver KE. Emotional abuse in intimate relationships: The role of gender and age. Violence and victims. 2013;28(5):804-821. [12 April 2017]
  6. Jina R, Jewkes R, Hoffman S, Dunkle KL, Nduna M, Shai NJ. Adverse mental health outcomes associated with emotional abuse in young rural South African women: a cross-sectional study. Journal of interpersonal violence. 2012;27(5):862-880. [12 April 2017]

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.

© 2017 C L Grant