Is My Partner Emotionally Abusive? 13 Subtle Signs To Watch Out For

Recognizing the subtle signs your partner is emotionally abusive isn't always easy, especially if you're in a long-term relationship for the first time. Everyone wears rose-colored glasses when it comes to their partner, but the sooner you become aware that your relationship is toxic, the sooner you can make the decision to leave in pursuit of something healthier.

"It is important to know whether you are being emotionally abused if you'd like to have a healthy, positive relationship," Kimberley Hershenson, a New York City-based therapist specializing in relationships, tells Bustle. "Being emotionally abused leads to a power imbalance in which you fear your partner while they tend to dominate the relationship. It also leads to trust issues and may result in you experiencing depression or anxiety. Communication, trust and commitment are keys to a successful relationship and emotional abuse plays no part in helping your relationship thrive."

Being in an abusive relationship is seriously detrimental to your wellbeing, so it's important to be able to recognize the signs of abuse so you can get out and find a healthier relationship. Here are 13 subtle signs that your partner is emotionally abusing you — even though leaving a toxic relationship is hard, remember that it's so worth it.

1. They're Selfish During Sex

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In a healthy partnership, sex is all about mutual satisfaction. That doesn't necessarily mean both partners orgasm every single time — it means that they're both giving and receiving intimacy and pleasure during sex. If your partner is consistently selfish in bed, that's a sign that they're emotionally abusive.

"Whether it's guilt tripping you into having sex when you don't want to or ignoring your need for pleasure in the bedroom, not meeting your needs sexually is emotionally abusive," Hershenson says.

2. They're Controlling

It's not always easy to spot a controlling partner, because they often disguise their control as concern: 'I don't want you to wear that so other guys won't bother you'. But if your partner implicitly or explicitly attempts to control every decision you make, that's emotionally abusive behavior.

"If you are told how to dress, reprimanded for your thoughts and opinions or are told who you can associate with, these are all huge red flags that you are being emotionally abused," Hershenson says.

3. They Blame You For Their Actions

Mature adults in healthy relationships know when to take responsibility for their part in a disagreement, but an emotionally abusive partner will blame you for their actions during an argument.

"If your partner gets angry because you 'did something wrong' or you wouldn't fight so much 'if only you didn't act this way,' you are being emotionally abused," Hershenson says.

4. They Gaslight You


If you're unfamiliar, gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which one person twists information or lies in order to make the victim doubt their own memory and sanity — which is incredibly toxic and damaging.

"They make you question your reality by telling you lies, denying they said something and manipulate you in various ways," Rhonda Milrad, LCSW, Founder and Chief Relationship Advisor of online relationship community Relationup, tells Bustle. "Your confidence and self-esteem is eroded and you end up feeling that you can no longer trust your own thoughts, feelings and perceptions."

5. They Compare You To Others

A loving, respectful partner might compare you to someone else as a way to compliment you, but they will never compare you to others with the goal of making you feel inferior.

"[In an emotionally abusive relationship] you are constantly being compared to others and end up feeling that you are not good enough and unlovable," Milrad says. "You hear about the great qualities or accomplishments of others and the underlying message (whether subtle or overt) is that you don’t match up. The negativity and criticism just eat away at your self-esteem and make you feel insecure about the other person’s love and respect for you."

6. You're Always The Problem, Not Them

An emotionally abusive partner will always turn things around on you in the event of a disagreement. No matter the issue, it's your actions, not theirs, that caused the problem.

"When you express your unhappiness about their behavior and try [to] hold them accountable, they tell you that you are too sensitive or overreacting, can’t take a joke or are too insecure," Milrad says. "They try and justify their bad behavior by making your reaction to it the problem."

7. They Never Let You Have Alone Time


It's crucial for both partners to have alone time in a relationship, so they can recharge and have time to pursue their own interests and hobbies. If your partner wants to spend every second together and gets paranoid if you're apart, that's a sign of emotional abuse.

"What’s key here is that you feel comfortable enough to spend time with this person while also being free to express your boundaries and need for outlets outside of that person," Taccara Martin, Relationship Expert and Owner of Empowered Couples, tells Bustle. "When you find that they become intrusive with your boundaries and you don’t feel comfortable telling them 'no,' this may be something that develops into an abusive and/or controlling person."

8. They Isolate You From Your Loved Ones

A tell-tale sign of abuse is when one partner gradually isolates the other from their close friends and family. They'll come up with excuses for why you shouldn't see them that guilt you into complying; 'your best friend isn't supportive of our relationship, so if you love me, you'll stay away from her.'

"At first, they will be seemingly amiable about you spending time with family or friends and pursing extra-curricular activities," Martin says. "However, once they get you pulled into them a little more, you will notice them coming up with more and more opportunities to get you away from the things [that are] important to you. Continuously telling you how much they miss you, even though they spend a lot of time with you, is still a subtle form of guilt."

9. They Always Have To Be Right

People in healthy relationships recognize that it's OK to be wrong from time to time, and can admit when they're wrong instead of deflecting the blame.

"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, a speaker, counselor, and mature 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."

10. They Don't Respect Your Opinion


Whether it's your take on the new Kesha album or your political opinion, your partner should always at least respect your opinion, even if they don't agree. An emotionally abusive partner will discount your opinion and try to change your mind about every little thing.

"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.

11. They Bring Up The Past

In a healthy relationship, neither partner holds a grudge over something that happened earlier in the relationship (or even prior to it). If your partner constantly brings up the past as a way to guilt and manipulate you, then at the very least, they're emotionally immature, if not outright abusive.

"If you may have made a few choices in the past that were not the best (and who hasn’t), your partner may keep bringing this up when you have a disagreement," Rappaport says. "Being constantly reminded of mistakes or poor choices in the past does not...take into consideration that you may have changed (and some people do change) and may make better choices."

12. They Don't Take Responsibility

Even if the blame clearly and solely falls on them — e.g. they always pay the utility bill late — an emotionally abusive partner will find a way to make their mistakes and transgressions your fault,

"If your partner does not take responsibility for their words and actions, there is a level of immaturity that comes into play," Rappaport says. They may say 'it’s not my fault,' even if it is. They always have to find someone else to blame — often their partner."

13. They Withhold Sex/Affection


Sex should never be used as a bargaining chip in a relationship, period. A partner who threatens to stop having sex or expressing intimacy if you don't do what they want or as a punishment for something you've done, that's emotional abuse.

"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 relationship for one or both partners to start cheating."

What Do If You're In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship

Figuring out if you're in an abusive relationship is often easier said than done. Naturally, your perception of your partner's behavior will be skewed, but it's crucial to take a step back and try to look at your relationship dynamic objectively. "When you think of emotional abuse, it is common to think of a dramatic situation where an out of control person is raging at someone else," Milrad says. "However, emotional abuse can be subtle and when it is repeatedly and frequently experienced, it can have a debilitating effect on a person."

If your partner shows signs of being emotionally or mentally abusive, you have to make the difficult decision to put yourself and your mental health first. It's never easy to leave a toxic or abusive relationship, but the sooner you get out, the sooner you can start to heal — and one day, you'll be ready to start the search for a healthy, loving, respectful partner.