4 Subtle Signs of Emotional Abuse

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, emotional abuse includes “non-physical behaviors that are meant to control, isolate, or frighten you“. This may present in romantic relationships as threats, insults, constant monitoring, excessive jealousy, manipulation, humiliation, intimidation, and dismissiveness, among others.” It can be challenging to see the signs of emotional abuse as they are happening to us, so I have put together some signs and examples of emotional abuse as a way to help those who may be suffering.

1. You consistently feel like you are going crazy in your relationship. Your partner may say, “You twisted my words to make me the bad guy.” “You aren’t really feeling that way. This is just a way you are trying to get attention.” “You are a liar. You always lie.” “It’s always about you, isn’t it?” Statements such as these in conversation can be ways to deflect responsibility from the abuser onto the other person, making it seem like the other person is at fault. Mind and intention reading (ex. “You twisted my words…” “You aren’t really feeling that way.“) are used to control and manipulate, making it difficult for the abused to decipher what they are feeling and thinking from what their partner wants them to think or feel.

If you feel consistently confused about your behavior around your partner or have the urge to record your conversations to make sure you remember them and can challenge what your partner says about what you say, that is abuse.

2. You can’t express thought and emotion openly without your partner shutting down and walking away or getting extremely angry. Perhaps you are attempting to describe how you felt about what they said to you yesterday. You notice your partner stop talking, look sad or angry, and shut down or get up and walk away. When you approach them again, and they ignore you, do not answer, or say, “I don’t know,” or similar statements, this is referred to as stonewalling. Stonewalling is an ineffective communication method that can make the other person feel dismissed or as if their thoughts and feelings don’t matter.

Now, sometimes we need to walk away without making the situation worse at the moment. That is valid. If you tell the person how you feel and they say, “I need some time to digest this, and we will get back to it,” and eventually you both come back to it, this is different from the abuse described above.

3. Your partner says they were going to do something for you or give you something and then says they will take it away because of your behavior, thoughts, or feelings. For example, let’s say that you are expressing your needs or describing how you dislike something your partner did. Your partner states, “Well, I guess I’ll just refund that deposit on the cruise I was doing to surprise you with because you are always nagging me,” or “I guess we don’t need to contact the florist for our wedding because we won’t be having one.” These are forms of manipulation. Again, the abuser tries to control the conversation’s outcome by threatening to take away something you like or may like.

4. Your partner is consistently jealous about relationships you have had in the past. The term for this is retroactive jealousy. For example, they may make you feel bad or guilty about the relationships you have had with others in the past or express anger toward those relationships. They may express anger when you are attending gatherings that your past partner may be at or attempt to stop you from going places where you may interact with past partners. Some partners may even try to “pry” into your past relationships and then become angry about what they find out. They may compare themselves to part partners, saying, “Well, I must not be as nice or handsome as (insert previous partners name here).”

We all communicate with our partners and loved ones ineffectively from time to time. We may get angry with them or saddened by what they have said about us or feel hurt because of their behavior. We may even do a version of what is listed above from time to time. We are human. However, if this is consistently happening (week after week) and your partner’s behavior makes you feel bad, wrong, or crazy, please consider talking to a mental health professional.


Shelby Milhoan, LCPC

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