7 Signs Your Partner’s Brutal Honesty May Actually Be Emotional Abuse
Although it's cushioned under "tough love," brutal honesty is not always supportive. When a partner values their own bluntness over their loved one's feelings, it could be a first step into rather toxic territory. When examining the signs of emotional abuse in a relationship, brutal honesty can be a clear red flag.
When a partner is brutally honest, it can be quite hurtful to be on the receiving end. "The term 'brutal honesty' actually gives away the problem with 'brutal honesty,'" Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle. "We can be honest with our partners; we can say things that can cause short-term distress or hurt. But the idea alone of being 'brutal' in our honesty begins to shift the honesty from a helpful act made from a place of caring towards what could be considered [lacking compassion,] mean spirited, and, in some cases, abusive." There's a difference between your partner being blunt for the sake of helping you, and being brutally honest with the hopes of hurting you.
Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior that involves manipulation. So one of the main differences between bluntness and abusive behavior is the intent. "People who use 'brutal honesty' to exploit your insecurities, self-doubts or naivety are engaging in abuse," Stephanie Camins, LPC licensed professional counselor and clinical director at Road to Growth Counseling, tells Bustle. Therefore it's especially important to pay attention to your partner's hurtful language when it comes up.
Here are seven signs your partner's brutal honesty may actually be emotional abuse, according to experts.
1. They Act Like They Know What You're Thinking
If someone being brutally honest acts like they can read your mind, then they may be being emotionally abusive.
"The more you comment on what other people are thinking, feeling, or what their motivations are for actions, the more you are assuming," Dr. Klapow says. When your partner jumps to these sort of conclusions in the name of being "honest" with you, it could be a form of manipulation. Try telling your partner how you feel when they make these assumptions, and if they don't respond well, consider speaking to someone outside the relationship about your situation.
2. They Rationalize Their Cruelty
An emotionally abusive partner is often quite good at de-escalating the situation after saying or doing something hurtful. If your partner has a pattern of insulting you, then immediately covering their tracks, they may be being emotionally abusive.
"In rationalization, a person will justify their inappropriate comment with an excuse that makes just enough sense that you are likely to question yourself," Camins says. If your partner makes you feel bad for being hurt by their words, then it may be time to reconsider how healthy your relationship is.
3. They Critique You As A Person, Not Your Actions
In a relationship, you and your partner will need to develop an ability to criticize each other in a healthy way. But when it comes time to do the criticizing, comments like "I noticed you didn't do the dishes this week," can be way more helpful than "you never do anything around the house."
When a brutally honest partner has a habit of making comments about you as a person — rather than your actions — that could be a sign of emotional abuse. "Critique an action and you are good, critique a person and their characteristics and you are pushing the line on brutality," Dr. Klapow says. Couples therapy may be able to help mend some of these more toxic communication patterns.
4. They Play The Saint
An abuser may go to great lengths to not seem abusive. They may even try to flip the script completely — claiming that they're actually the one who loves you and supports you most by telling you the most hurtful things.
"By playing the saint, they may claim, they’re only telling you this because they love you more than anyone else," Camins says. This kind of tactic is a relationship red flag, and likely warrants discussing with a loved one or professional outside of the relationship.
5. They Feign Innocence
Even if they're not claiming that their brutal honesty is the saintly thing to do, abusers may still manipulate their partners by claiming they had no idea what they were doing was wrong.
"When feigning innocence, a person will try to convince you that their 'harm' was unintentional or that you misinterpreted what they meant," Camins says. Even if they "didn't mean to hurt your feelings," brutal honesty can still be abusive. Reminding your partner of the effects their words have on you may help them realize that their behavior is unacceptable.
6. They Insult You Even When You've Tried To Change
If you have tried to fix issues in the relationship, and your partner still fires back with character criticisms, they might be being more than brutally honest.
"[It can be emotionally abusive to criticize] a partner who has mishandled a situation [by] using words like 'stupid,' 'lazy,' or 'clueless,'" psychotherapist, relationship coach, and divorce mediator Toni Coleman, LCSW, CMCP, tells Bustle. says. "This is especially abusive when a partner has made a true effort to change something, but it did not turn out well." If you cannot seem to do anything right by your partner, it may be time to examine whether it's worth staying in the relationship.
7. They Tell You That You're Too Emotional
If your partner attacks you for how you react after they've said something they consider brutally honest, that could be another form of emotional abuse that flips the script to make them the victim.
"Telling your partner that it is challenging to interact with them when they are emotionally distressed, and that you want to help but can’t communicate well when they are upset, is helpful," Dr. Klapow says. "Telling them that they are 'over-sensitive,' or 'too emotional,' is a more brutal form of honesty." And being brutal with your partner should never be the goal.
Honesty in a relationship is key. But along with honesty, you and your partner should seek to be kind and understanding. Everyone deserves a loving partner, not one that values bluntness over their loved one's feelings. There are a variety of things you can do if you're being emotionally abused, but starting by telling someone outside of the relationship and creating an exit plan can be a good first step.
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 thehotline.org.