Signs of Emotional Abuse, Emotionally Abusive Relationships

September 29, 2015 Ryan Poling, MA, MAT

Am I Being Emotionally Abused?

Sometimes, the signs of emotional abuse aren't readily apparent to the victim. Emotional abuse can come in many forms. It may be a peer degrading you, a boss or coworker berating you, a spouse or loved one belittling you, or many other possibilities. Unfortunately, because emotional abuse is often not as obvious as physical or sexual abuse, it can go unnoticed or ignored. However, it is not a less severe form of abuse. It is a valid and painful experience of being dehumanized or demeaned and the effects of emotional abuse can be devastating. Emotional abuse can also be difficult to respond to effectively because it can sometimes feel vague or subjective. As such, I will first explain the signs of emotional abuse, how to recognize it, and then discuss how to address it.

Treatment Program: Ryan Poling, MA, writes on behalf of Bayside Marin, a substance abuse treatment center that provides comprehensive detoxification, residential, and outpatient care for substance use and co-occurring mental health disorders in Marin County, just north of San Francisco.

Recognizing Signs of Emotional Abuse

The signs of emotional abuse may not be readily apparent. Learn how to recognize the signs of emotional abuse and what to do about it.Emotional abuse can be difficult to identify or even if you do identify it, you may second-guess yourself or wonder if you are being too sensitive. (Wondering if the signs of emotional abuse apply to you? Take our emotional abuse test.) One way to think about emotional abuse is to consider how you feel about the behavior of or words used by the potential abuser. If you feel repeatedly violated, disrespected, ignored, walked-over, or demeaned, you may be experiencing emotional abuse.

Here are some signs of emotional abuse

  • The abuser will humiliate you or put you down - either alone or in front of other people.
  • The emotional abuser calls you "too sensitive" when you respond to their abusive comments.
  • The abuser belittles you and trivializes your accomplishments, hopes and dreams.
  • The abuser tries to dominate or control you and your behavior.
  • They will try and isolate you from family and friends.
  • Everything is your fault. They blame you for their problems and unhappiness.
  • The abuser uses "gaslighting" techniques to make you question your own sanity.
  • The abuser engages in extra-marital affairs, withholds sex to control you, or becomes emotionally distant.
  • They show a lack of respect towards you and are always pointing our your mistakes or shortcomings.

In relationships, everybody makes mistakes and occasionally hurts another person’s feelings. However, emotional abuse is not the same as an occasional misstep or a slip-of-the-tongue. Emotional abuse is systematic and intentional. It is designed to cause the abused person (both women and men can be victims of emotional abuse) to withdraw and shrink and the abuser to expand and grow. If you are in a close relationship and you repeatedly feel as though you are being

  • patronized
  • insulted
  • controlled
  • treated like a child
  • demeaned

it may be helpful to recognize that you are potentially being emotionally abused. (Emotional Abuse in a Relationship) But once you recognize it, what are you to do about it?

Responding To Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is primarily about taking power from you and giving it to the abuser. As such, your response to emotional abuse should be to reassert your ability to control your own behavior. First, it is important to set boundaries. Make sure to tell your abuser in clear, unequivocal language what you do and do not find acceptable, and make sure to state clearly how you will respond if your abuser continues his or her behavior. For example, if your spouse is emotionally abusing you, you might say something like, “I do not like when you repeatedly ridicule me, and I do not want to be around you when you do so. The next time you openly mock me, I will ask you to stop. If you do not stop, I will pack up my things and leave.” Here are three articles that discuss how to set healthy boundaries:

  1. Boundaries Help Overcome the Victim Mentality
  2. Establish Healthy Boundaries in 3 Easy Steps
  3. Setting Functional Boundaries

It is important to consider within yourself what you are willing to do to keep yourself safe from emotional abuse, because the next step is to act on your words. It is important to follow through on whatever consequences you decide to set. Your abuser will likely not be pleased if you follow through because it means his or her power over you is weakening. Your abuser will likely try to bargain with you or reassert authority over you, so do not compromise and do not negotiate once you have decided on what behaviors you do not find acceptable. Remind him or her that you want to renew your relationship, but that you are not willing do so in the presence of his or her abusive behavior.

Along with setting and maintaining strong boundaries, it is important to also find support. Inform a small number of trusted friends about what is happening. You may also want to consider treatment. For example, it may be helpful to talk to a therapist or join a support group. Abuse has the ability to distort your reality and make it seem as though you, not the abuser, are the problem. You may be tempted to cope in less healthy ways, such as blaming yourself or using substances. However, having wise outside voices can help to remind you of what is healthy and what is likely not healthy.

Dealing with emotional abuse can be a deeply painful experience, but by recognizing it for what it is, setting boundaries, upholding your boundaries, and finding support from close friends and treatment professionals, it is possible to create a safer and more supportive environment for yourself.

APA Reference
Poling, R. (2015, September 29). Signs of Emotional Abuse, Emotionally Abusive Relationships, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Author: Ryan Poling, MA, MAT

Connie wilson
June, 24 2018 at 11:10 pm

Husband manipulates me constantly

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