How To Tell If You're In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship, According To Experts
It's an unfortunate reality, but not everyone is capable of being a healthy romantic partner — which is why it's so important to be able to recognize the signs of emotional abuse in a relationship. It can be difficult (and often painful) to acknowledge when your partner exhibits emotionally abusive behaviors: when you love someone, it's tempting to sweep bad behavior under the rug and just learn to deal with it. But being in an emotionally abusive relationship is extremely detrimental to your well-being, and it's crucial to learn how to spot toxic behavior so you can cut out anyone who brings you down instead of building you up (like a healthy, loving partner should).
"Emotional abuse is anything that causes someone to second-guess themselves, develop concerns over their self-worth, or begin to feel insecure or unsafe in a relationship," Tamara Hill, National Certified Counselor & Certified Trauma Professional, tells Bustle. "Emotional abuse really starts out as psychological abuse in which the other person gains a position of dominance over the other. That position of dominance is projected (by the victim) to be a 'normal' response in the relationship. In a lot of ways, the victim minimizes, normalizes, or undercuts their own feelings and intuition on what the real problem is in the relationship."
Of course, recognizing the signs your partner is abusive is often easier said than done: emotional abuse comes in many forms, and the red flags can be more subtle than with physical abuse. "Emotional abuse is trickier to identify than physical abuse because it’s not based on physical actions that you can rationally experience or witness," Katie Kozlowski, a Life Coach & Feminine Being Expert who focuses on emotional intelligence and helping women overcome abuse, tells Bustle. "[Emotional abuse] is more subtle and insidious and therefore easier to misunderstand or 'let slide' because it's more about words and behaviors that make you feel small, controlled and belittled."
If you're concerned that your partner might be emotionally abusive, here are 11 red flags to be on the lookout for — and remember that no one deserves to feel manipulated, guilt-tripped, controlled, unheard, or unsafe in their relationship.
1. They Have To Be Right All The Time
An emotionally mature, non-toxic partner understands that everyone makes mistakes from time to time — and is able to own up whenever they're in the wrong. If your partner absolutely refuses to take accountability for their mistakes and prefers to place the blame on others (including you), that's a big red flag.
"If you have a partner who needs to be right all of the time, this behavior or habit can become abusive over time," Davida Rappaport, Speaker, Spiritual Counselor & Dating Expert, tells Bustle. "In many cases it does not matter if you are having a disagreement, argument, or just talking about something of mutual interest, they have a need to be right — every time."
2. They Constantly Denigrate You
In a healthy relationship, your partner should never criticize you and make you feel bad about yourself... even if you mess up.
"If your partner takes their need to be right to the next level, they may start to denigrate you — criticize what you say, what you do, the choices you make and so on," Rappaport says. "When this happens, you may feel trapped — damned if you do; damned if you don’t. At this point your self-esteem and confidence may also begin to erode because you may feel that you will never be able to please your partner. Criticism may also lead to insults and verbal abuse."
3. They Don't Care About Your Opinion
Whether it's about something as silly as which Britney Spears song is the best or something as serious as the current political climate, your significant other should *always* value your opinion and look forward to hearing your input.
"If you have a partner who doesn’t respect your opinion, listen to what you have to say, and/or consider your point of view when you hold a conversation, over time, you may begin to feel inadequate, frustrated and your confidence and self-esteem will start to drop," Rappaport says.
4. They're Verbally Abusive
In the heat of an argument, regrettable things might be said and voices might get raised — which is normal from time to time. But if you've come to expect being verbally berated or yelled at by your partner, that's a sign of abuse.
"If your partner verbally abuses you — [which] can be a combination of constant criticism, not respecting you and any number of behaviors that show lack of respect — this can be considered a form of emotional abuse," Rappaport says. "If your partner constantly yells or shouts at you when they become angry, frustrated, hurt, etc., you end up being not only their sounding board, but you may also become emotionally battered as a result of this behavior."
5. They Compare You To Others
A subtle but nonetheless nefarious sign of emotional abuse? If your partner is constantly comparing you to others as a way to make you feel inferior or not good enough.
"Another way your partner may be emotionally abusive to you is when they start comparing you to others," Rappaport says. "No one can be as good or as bad as someone else. If your partner constantly compares you to their ex or a family member — whether positively or negatively, this may make you feel inadequate, resentful or possibly competitive, depending upon the situation. No one can compete with someone’s perception of another person."
6. They Withhold Sex/Affection
In a healthy partnership, sex and intimacy are never used as weapons — both should be freely given by both parties, and not withheld as a way to control or punish your partner.
"If you have a partner who uses sex or affection to control you, this can be considered emotional blackmail or emotional abuse," Rappaport says. "Using intimacy, sex or affection to control a relationship definitely creates resentment. Over time, you may begin to withdraw from the relationship because you are starving for love or affection. This also opens up the [door] for one or both partners to start cheating."
7. They Gaslight You
If you haven't heard the term, gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse wherein your partner will purposely manipulate situations or information in order to confuse you, then act as if you're "crazy" when you bring up your doubts or question things.
"[A gaslighter] screws with your reality then tells you you're crazy," Dr. Perpetua Neo, Executive Coach & Psychologist, tells Bustle. "[For example] my ex used to delete names off selected numbers from my phonebook, then he'd tell me I was crazy and hiding things from him because 'I scroll through your phone, there are so many unnamed people, names keep disappearing'. Because I didn't have any reason to suspect him at first, I thought I was going crazy! Other forms of gaslighting include telling you you're crazy and too sensitive, so you intellectualize all forms of their bad behavior, slowly absolving them all."
8. They Put The Burden On You To "Change Them"
If someone is emotionally abusive, they won't come out and admit it (that is, if they even realize what they're doing is abuse). Instead, they'll blame you for their bad behavior, and put the onus on you to "help them change" — which is extremely unfair and damaging.
"[An emotionally abusive partner] will argue [they're] not abusing you or an abuser... and will tell you only you can help [them]," Neo says. "Because people with high levels of empathy and who over-give are abuse magnets, this adds an extra layer of burden, making you feel entangled with the abuser. And because you're so ashamed, you don't dare to tell anyone, making yourself further isolated."
9. They Isolate and "Love Bomb" You
Love bombing might sound like a positive thing, but it's actually super destructive: it's when someone showers you with love and affection at first, only to later withdraw all of that lovey-dovey stuff and replace it with manipulative, isolating behavior.
"They [might] tell you your family/friends are 'bad for you', how much they love you and need to spend time with you, how you are their rock and 'soulmate', making you feel both loved and coerced to spend time with them," Neo says. "They may even say things like, 'let's run away to (new city/country) to start a new life' [which] sound[s] romantic, when in essence they want you far away from your support system."
10. They Ignore Your Boundaries
It's healthy and normal to establish boundaries in a relationship, and a healthy partner will never cross or ignore your boundaries (even if they personally don't agree with them). If your partner consistently tramples all over your boundaries, that's a red flag that they're emotionally abusive.
"Boundaries are the Hell No's in our lives; standards are the Hell Yes'," Neo says. "[Breaking boundaries] starts very insidiously, for instance by being late for three hours without telling you. Then if you call them out, they'll tell you you're crazy."
11. They Alternate Abuse With "Good Days"
As if emotional abuse wasn't already difficult enough to recognize, it can be made even more complicated by the fact that abusers will often alternate bad days with good ones, leaving you confused and wondering whether the bad days are just a fluke, rather than a pattern of abuse.
"'The Good Day' is the aftermath when they apologize after the abuse," Neo says. "Because they are not 'all bad', you think 'I could live with it' — otherwise known as intermittent reinforcement... You think, 'If only everyday could be like The Good Day', and you trade walking around on eggshells for a[n]... attenuated version of The Good Day as time passes."
Even though it can be difficult, it's crucial to learn how to disentangle the bad days from the good ones, and be honest with yourself about how your partner really makes you feel. If the answer is any combination of "unsafe, unheard, disrespected, insecure, controlled, manipulated, etc" — even if it's only 10 percent of the time you're together — you owe it to yourself to reach out, get help, and, if necessary, come up with a plan to leave the relationship. After you've taken time to heal, someday you will find a healthy, loving partner — and you'll be so much better off for it.
Editor's Note: If you need help getting out of your relationship or figuring out what to do next, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233.