You might be familiar with many of the obvious signs of emotional abuse and manipulation. But when you’re in an abusive situation, it’s easy to miss the subtle early signs that build up to a a persistent undercurrent of abusive behavior.
Emotional abuse involves attempts to frighten, control, or isolate you. This type of abuse doesn’t involve physical violence, though it might involve threats of violence directed toward you or your loved ones. It’s characterized by a person’s words, actions, and the consistency of these behaviors. Abuse may start gradually, but it happens again and again.
People of any age or gender can abuse or experience abuse. And abuse doesn’t just happen in the context of romantic relationships. The person abusing you could be your spouse or romantic partner — but they might also be your business partner, parent, caretaker, or even your adult child.
Regardless, you don’t deserve the abuse, and it’s definitely not your fault.
Continue reading to learn how to recognize the signs of emotional abuse and get some guidance on what to do next.
Someone abusing you may use different tactics to undermine your self-esteem.
- Name-calling and derogatory nicknames. They’ll blatantly call you “stupid,” “a loser,” or use other insults. Maybe they use terms of “endearment” that actually highlight things you’re sensitive about — “my little nail biter” or “my chubby pumpkin” — and ignore your requests to stop.
- Character assassination. This usually involves the word “always.” You’re always late, wrong, screwing up, disagreeable, and so on. They might say these things to you, or use them to describe your behavior to others.
- Yelling. Screaming, yelling, and swearing can intimidate you and make you feel small and inconsequential. Maybe they never hit you, but they do pound their fist, throw things, or damage property.
- Patronizing. They belittle you by saying things like, “I know you try, but this is just beyond the scope of your brain.”
- Public embarrassment. They pick fights, share your secrets, or make fun of your shortcomings in public.
- Dismissiveness. You share something important to you and they reply with, “What? Who cares about that?” Body language like eye rolling, smirking, head shaking, and sighing help convey the same message.
- “Joking.” When you express discomfort with something they’ve said, they snap back, “Can’t you take a joke? Grow up.” You’re left feeling foolish and wondering whether you are, in fact, too sensitive.
- Insulting your appearance. As you head out, they stop you at the door. “You’re wearing that ridiculous outfit? No wonder you can’t get a date.” Or they constantly say you’re lucky they chose you, since they could find someone so much more attractive.
- Belittling your accomplishments. They brush off your achievements, saying they don’t matter, or claim responsibility for your successes.
- Putting down your interests. They suggest your hobby is a waste of time. “You’ll never be any good at the piano, so why do you keep trying?” Really, they’d rather you not participate in activities without them.
- Pushing your buttons. Once they find something that annoys you or makes you uncomfortable, they begin to mention it every chance they get, ignoring your requests that they stop.
Abusive behavior relates to the desire to maintain power and control. Someone abusing you might attempt to manipulate you into doing what they want you to do, often by making you feel ashamed of your inadequacies.
They may try to control you by:
- Making threats. They imply — or say outright — that they’ll fire you or report you for being an unfit parent. They might even say something like, “There’s no telling what I might do,” to keep things vague and leave you afraid.
- Monitoring your whereabouts. They want to know where you are, always, and insist you respond to calls or texts immediately. They might show up at your work or school, just to check you did actually go there.
- Spying on you digitally. They demand your passwords, or insist you go password-free, and regularly check your internet history, emails, texts, and call log.
- Gaslighting. Someone abusing you may deny that specific events, arguments, or agreements ever happened. This tactic can leave you questioning your own memory, not to mention your mental health and well-being.
- Making all the decisions. This might involve closing a joint bank account and canceling doctor’s appointments. They may insist you withdraw from school and resign from work — or do so on your behalf. Or maybe they tell you what to wear, what to eat (and how much), or which friends you can spend time with.
- Controlling your access to finances. They keep bank accounts in their name and make you ask for money. They also expect you to keep your receipts and account for every penny you spend.
- Emotional blackmailing. Someone using this tactic will attempt to get you to do things by manipulating your feelings. They might use tricky questions to “test” you, take on the role of victim, or try to guilt-trip you.
- Lecturing you constantly. After you make a mistake, no matter how minor, they catalog all of your errors with a long monologue. They describe all the ways you’ve fallen short and make it clear they consider you beneath them.
- Giving direct orders. From, “I don’t care what happened. You stay here until you get that client back, or you’re fired,” to “Stop taking the pill,” they expect you to do everything they say without question.
- Having frequent outbursts. They told you to cancel that outing with your friend, or put the car in the garage, but you didn’t. So, they become enraged, angrily shouting about how inconsiderate and uncooperative you are.
- Feigning helplessness. They say they don’t know how to do something, hoping you’ll simply do it yourself instead of taking the time to explain it.
- Unpredictability. They explode for no clear reason, then suddenly shower you with affection. Or maybe their mood shifts from upbeat to dark and angry with little warning, leaving you never sure what to expect.
- Walking out. A partner or parent might leave a social event suddenly, so you have no way home. A supervisor might exit during a discussion about your assignment, so your questions remain unresolved.
- Stonewalling you. During a disagreement or conflict, they shut down, refusing to respond to your attempts to communicate.
People who abuse others often try to create a hierarchy that puts them at the top and you at the bottom.
Examples might include:
- Jealousy. They accuse you of flirting or cheating, or say you’d spend all your time with them if you truly loved them.
- Using guilt. They might try to guilt-trip you into doing something by saying things like, “You owe me this. Look at all I’ve done for you,” in an attempt to get their way.
- Unrealistic expectations. They expect you to do what they want, when they want you to do it. They think you should always prioritize their needs, do things according to their standards — and you absolutely shouldn’t hang out with your friends or family if there’s any chance they might need you.
- Goading and blaming. People who manipulate and abuse typically know just how to upset you. But once you do get upset, they pin the blame back on you — after all, it’s your fault for being so sensitive and incompetent.
- Denying the abuse. When you express concerns about their behavior, they might deny it, seemingly bewildered at the very thought. They may even suggest you’re the one with anger and control issues, or say they only get angry because you’re such a difficult person.
- Trivializing. When you explain how much something they said or did upset you and hurt your feelings, they accuse you of overreacting or misunderstanding the situation.
- Blaming you for their problems. When things go wrong, they always blame you. If only you’d been a more loving child, a more supportive partner, or a better parent, they might say, their life would be fantastic.
- Destroying and denying. They might throw your phone down to break it, “lose” your car keys, or destroy other important possessions, then deny it or say it happened accidentally.
Someone abusing you will generally try to get you to prioritize their needs and neglect your own.
Often, they’ll also make an effort to isolate you by coming between you and your supportive loved ones — a step which, of course, leaves you more dependent on them.
Tactics they might use include:
- Dehumanizing you. They’ll intentionally look away when you’re talking or stare at something else when speaking to you in an effort to make you feel unimportant.
- Keeping you from socializing. Whenever you have plans to go out, they come up with a distraction or beg you not to go.
- Invalidating you. They might suggest or say straight out that your needs, boundaries, and desires don’t matter to them.
- Trying to come between you and your family. They’ll tell family members you don’t want to see them or make excuses why you can’t attend family functions. Later, they might tell you that your loved ones don’t care about you or think there’s something wrong with you.
- Using the silent treatment. They might ignore your attempts at conversation in person, via text, or over the phone.
- Withholding affection. They won’t touch you, even to hold your hand or pat you on the shoulder. They may refuse to have any intimate contact if you offend them, or they want you to do something you don’t want to do.
- Shutting down communication. They might wave you off, change the subject, or simply ignore you when you want to talk about important concerns.
- Actively working to turn others against you. They might tell other people in your life, including co-workers, friends, and even your family, that you lie, have lost touch with reality, or have had an emotional breakdown.
- Denying support. When you need emotional support or help with a problem, they might call you needy, say the world can’t stop and wait on your problems, or tell you to toughen up and fix it yourself.
- Interrupting. They might get in your face when you’re in the middle of an activity and take away your phone or anything else in your hands to let you know your attention should be on them.
- Disputing your feelings. No matter what feeling or emotion you express, they might insist you shouldn’t feel that way. For example, “You shouldn’t be angry over that,” or “What have you got to feel sad about?”
If you believe you’re experiencing emotional abuse, trust your instincts.
Abuse is never your fault, and you don’t have to live with it
If you fear immediate physical violence, get to a safe place if you can. You can also call 911 or your local emergency services for help.
If you aren’t in immediate danger and you need to talk or find some place to go, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233. This free, confidential 24/7 hotline can put you in touch with service providers and shelters across the United States.
These tips offer a place to start:
- Don’t try to fix them. You may want to help, but it’s often difficult for abusive people to change their behavior without professional support. You can encourage them to work with a therapist, but they have to make the choice themselves.
- Avoid self-blame. Remember, you never deserve abuse, no matter what you’ve said or done. The only person responsible is the one engaging in abusive behavior.
- Prioritize your needs. Taking care of your physical and emotional needs can help you move forward to a place where you feel comfortable setting boundaries, reaching out for support, and leaving the abusive situation.
- Avoid engaging with them. Don’t reply to their text messages, phone calls, or emails. If you can’t avoid working or spending time with them, try to keep another person with you and limit your conversation to essential topics.
- Set personal boundaries. Decide how you’ll avoid responding to manipulation or getting pulled into arguments. Express those limits to the person using abuse tactics and stick to them. You might say, for example, “If you call me names, I’ll go home,” or, “If you start teasing me in public, I’ll leave.”
- Build a support network. It might feel frightening to open up about what you’ve experienced, but reaching out to loved ones and a supportive therapist can go a long way toward helping you get the support you need to heal.
- Exit the relationship or circumstance. State clearly that the relationship is over and cut all ties, if possible. Block their number and social media accounts, and ignore attempts to reach out.
- Give yourself time to heal. Take space to focus on your needs and recovery. This might involve rediscovering your sense of self, creating a new self-care routine, and talking with a therapist who can offer guidance with recovery.
Leaving an abusive relationship often proves more challenging if you’re married, have children, or have shared assets. If that’s your situation, a good next step involves seeking legal assistance.
A domestic violence advocate or mental health professional can also help you develop an exit plan to leave the relationship safely.
The following resources can also help you come up with a plan: