7 Emotional Abuse Tactics In Relationships That Can Seem Innocent At First

Emotional abuse usually starts off subtle.

by Kristine Fellizar
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Just because something seems innocent, it doesn't always mean that it is. This is especially true when it comes to relationships. Emotional abuse usually starts off subtle. It’s important to be aware of emotional abuse tactics that almost always seem innocent initially.

“Emotional abuse is the silent scar of domestic violence,” licensed professional counselor Nickia Lowery, MHS-C, NCC, tells Bustle. “It’s another form of abuse used to control an individual, and it’s usually achieved through verbal attacks, chronic infidelity and/or isolation.”

It can be far more damaging than any other form of abuse because it’s psychologically damaging. While physical scars can eventually heal, it’s hard to unhear or unlearn things. “You become conditioned to accept that you are not worthy or less than, increasing the likelihood that you will stay and continue to subject yourself to further emotional and psychological damage,” Lowery says.

More often than not, emotional abuse is calculated. So while it’s easy to brush off your partner’s hurtful comment as a joke, Lowery says they usually know what they’re doing. They will use certain tactics to make sure they have the power and control, even if you’re not fully aware of it. So here are some abusive tactics people use in relationships that almost always seem innocent at first, according to experts.



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Isolation is an important one to watch out for because it doesn’t seem harmful at first. When you first start seeing someone, you want to spend a lot of time with them. But an emotional abuser will try to take up as much of your time as they can. If you want to make plans with friends, an abuser will try to guilt trip you into spending time with them instead. According to Lowery, they may even try to convince you that the only person who truly cares about you is them. The goal here is to make you dependent on them. “Once an individual is isolated, they’ll feel trapped and helpless,” she says.


Giving The Silent Treatment

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Another seemingly innocent tactic someone might use is ignoring their partner in order to control the situation. The silent treatment is a form of punishment that many emotional abusers like to use. According to Lowery, it’s a way for them to take your power away. “Now the only way to gain their acceptance or forgiveness is to do what they say,” she says. When you love your partner and you want to bring your relationship back to a good place, you’ll likely do what they want.


Making Jokes That Are Actually Insults

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If you ever find yourself getting self-conscious or feeling the need to change yourself because of your partner’s comments, this is a red flag. Making hurtful comments about you, your appearance, or your past in a “joking” way is not OK. You may even think your partner really is just joking. But according to Lowery, some use these types of jokes and comments as a way to control others.



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Gaslighting is dangerous because it starts off pretty subtle. For instance, you might say, “I’m feeling hot,” and your partner may respond with, “No, you’re not, it’s cold in here.” A comment like that may seem harmless enough and wouldn’t really raise any red flags. But as Katie Ziskind, licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Bustle, this is an example of a person who’s invalidating your emotions. “If you bring your emotions to the table in a respectful way and your partner calls you crazy or makes you feel that way, it’s emotional abuse,” she says. “Often, this is considered gaslighting and it’s a tactic used by narcissists.” If done regularly over time, it can make you feel insecure, belittled, and worthless.


Making Suggestions On What You Should And Shouldn’t Do

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“Telling a person what they ‘should’ do (or not) is so common that it’s often missed as a possible sign of abusive behavior,” Dr. Carla Manly, clinical psychologist and author of Joy from Fear, tells Bustle. Giving suggestions is fine. But it’s important to be aware of whether or not these suggestions are coming from a good place. When it’s not, your partner might use this tactic as a way to control you. It invalidates your choices and leaves you reliant on them to make the “right” decisions for you.



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Catastrophizing is what happens when someone makes a catastrophe out of a situation or makes something seem far worse than it actually is. As psychotherapist Christine Scott-Hudson tells Bustle, an emotional abuser may use this tactic as a way to make you doubt yourself. “They’ll try to act like they’re just looking out for you when, in actuality, they’re attempting to erode your self-confidence by questioning you and bringing up anxious ‘what ifs?’” she says. For example, you might be up for an executive position at your job. Instead of being encouraging, an emotional abuser will bring up all kinds of scenarios in which you end up failing. They may do this so you won’t see your true potential and eventually leave them.


Guilt Tripping

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“Emotional abusers are often very manipulative,” Connie Omari Ph.D., LPC, NCC, clinician, and owner of Tech Talk Therapy, tells Bustle. “They may intentionally bring up something negative from their partner’s past to justify their bad behavior.” They never really forgive and forget. They’ll use your mistakes against you during fights and they’ll guilt trip you in order to get you to do what they want. According to Omari, it’s a way for them to gain dominance over you.

These tactics may seem innocent enough, especially at first. So it’s important to pay attention to how your partner’s actions are making you feel. If anything makes you uncomfortable, talk to them. If they don’t make an effort to change or downplay their behavior, Lowery says you may want to consider leaving because the abuse will continue. If you already feel like you can’t talk to your partner about their behavior at all, it may also be time to seek help exiting the relationship.

Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit