It can be difficult to
spot an emotionally abusive relationship. The abuse can take less obvious forms than physical abuse, and emotional abusers often gaslight their victims about the abuse itself, making victims doubt themselves. But emotional abuse is very real and very damaging, and the abusive behaviors tend to follow patterns that you can recognize if you know what they look like.
"Because it is not physical, emotional and verbal abuse are not always visible," licensed psychotherapist, licensed marriage and family therapist, and registered art therapist
Christine Scott-Hudson, tells Bustle. "Emotional abuse is elusive. Emotional abuse is communication that is intentionally trying to make another person feel bad, wrong, or unloveable. One definition of emotional abuse is: Behaviors, including isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of humanity, identity, dignity, and self-worth of the recipient. One specific form of emotional abuse is chronic verbal aggression. People who suffer from emotional abuse tend to become more withdrawn, more isolated, less confident, and may become depressed, anxious, or even suicidal."
If you think you might be experiencing emotional abuse, ask yourself if your partner devotes time to talking and thinking about these seven things. If so, it's quite possible that your relationship is abusive and you should seek help to get out of it.
271 EAK MOTO/Shutterstock
Your partner should only make you feel great about your body. If they point out what they dislike about your looks or how to improve them, they're certainly being unkind and potentially being abusive.
"A partner who is fixated on controlling your body through criticisms, insults, diet, exercise, etc. may be emotionally abusive,"
Scott-Hudson says. "They may be trying to get you to follow their orders, establishing control and emotional dominance through positioning themselves as the expert and you as the underling. It is a power dynamic that is not typically healthy in most relationships. You and you alone should be in control of what you eat, how much you exercise, how you work out, and what you wear to have real agency over your own body." Prostock-studio/Shutterstock
Any perceived flaws of yours, physical or mental, should not be your partner's focus. If your partner has an issue with the way you're behaving, they should bring it up respectfully using "I" statements that focus on how it affects them, not what's wrong with you.
"An emotionally abusive partner will focus on your flaws and loves to pick them out, whether you're alone or in front of other people,"
psychotherapist and therapeutic relationship coach Rachel Wright, tells Bustle. "Whether it's your weight, how you speak, the TV shows you watch, how you dress, your hobbies — they'll find anything to bring you down." And if this is the case, it may be time to recruit the help of loved ones or a professional to exit the situation. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
In a healthy relationship, your partner will ask where your boundaries are, and you will only need to express them once for them to be respected. But an abusive partner will fixate on your boundaries, making you feel bad for having them or trying to get you to change them.
"In the early days of a relationship, this may appear playful," Amica Graber, relationship expert for
TruthFinder, tells Bustle. "For example, tickling you after you’ve told them to stop, or standing too close. Once they’ve realized that they can overstep your boundaries without consequence, they’ll often ignore them altogether."
While it's OK for our partners not to like all of our friends and family, it's not OK for them to tell us who we can and can't spend time with. Emotional abusers will do this to turn their partners against their loved ones so that they have full control over their partners.
"The modus operandi of an emotional abuser involves isolating their victim from their friends and family," Graber says. "This makes it harder for the abused to recognize that their partner’s behavior isn’t normal or acceptable. Early into a relationship, an emotional abuser will look for ways to drive a wedge between the victim and their circle of support. Typically, the abuser may say things like, 'I don’t like how you act around X' or drop thinly veiled insults about your loved ones. This can escalate into spreading lies about them, or punishing you when you spend time with them."
In healthy relationships, people can count on their partners to encourage them to go after their dreams. But abusive people will cut their partners down and doubt their ability to achieve their goals.
"Emotionally abusive partners tend to spend a great deal of time doubting your dreams, raining on your parade, and joy-crushing," Scott-Hudson says. "After spending time with them, you may start to doubt yourself. They dream-crush to keep you from shining too brightly. They are afraid that if you shine, your sparkle may attract other people, bigger opportunities, or greener pastures. Keeping you feeling small helps quell their own anxiety about your potential to realize your own worth, leave them for someone who treats you better, and get the heck out of dodge."
If you confide in a partner about your insecurities, it's because you're looking for them to assuage them, or at least be sensitive about bringing them up. But in an emotionally abusive relationship, your partner may do the opposite: fuel your insecurities.
"If you have revealed a vulnerability to your partner, such as some body consciousness or growing up feeling like you weren't smart enough, and then your partner uses those vulnerabilities to tease you, they are demonstrating that they are not an emotionally safe person," Scott-Hudson says. "Our partners are supposed to be our encouragers. Our partners are supposed to be a safe place to land. Our relationship should be the place where we are lifted up. One way to tell if your partner is an emotionally safe person is to ask yourself: would you feel comfortable telling them something you feel ashamed of? Can they be trusted with that kind of information?"
Abusers often engage in "discounting behaviors" — techniques to dismiss or trivialize your opinions and perceptions, says Scott-Hudson. For example, they might tell you that you feel a certain way because you're too sensitive or that you want something because you're too needy.
"The intention is to make you feel unimportant and insignificant, which is how they actually feel about themselves deep down on the inside," Scott-Hudson explains. "Once you understand that this is their shadow projection, it is hard to unsee it! Basically, whatever the emotional abuser is trying to make you feel (ugly, stupid, unimportant, unloveable, etc.) is how they really feel on the inside. They point at you with one finger and the rest point right back at them."
Abusive partners can make it feel scary to get out, but help is available.
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.