Sex & Relationships

13 Signs Your Partner Is Emotionally Abusive

What therapists caution to look for.

by Laken Howard and Carolyn Steber
Originally Published: 
PeopleImages/E+/Getty Images

Recognizing the subtle signs your partner is emotionally abusive isn't always easy. Everyone wears rose-colored glasses when they're in love, which can make it difficult to spot ongoing problems. And then there's the gaslighting and other types of manipulation, which can make it even more confusing.

But if you ever catch yourself wondering, "Is my partner emotionally abusive?" consider it your first hint that something isn't quite right — then keep digging. There's often a lot of unfairness and inequality to be found in these types of relationships, Kimberley Hershenson, a New York City-based therapist, tells Bustle, and that's often what sparks the initial sense something's "off."

If your partner is emotionally abusing you, over time you might start to experience lowered self-esteem, anxiety, and even depression, she says, which is why it's important to talk about these things ASAP. Approach your partner and point out what you've noticed, and see if it's possible to establish better boundaries, healthier communication, etc.

Keep in mind, though, that if someone is toxic and manipulative, they often aren't able to change That's why, while leaving a toxic relationship can be difficult, experts recommend doing so as soon as possible, since it isn't likely to get better. Emotional abuse is detrimental to your entire well-being, so if you recognize the signs of abuse listed below, it may be best to move on.


They tell you what to wear

Abusive partners are often seeking control, but many will try to be sneaky about it by disguising it as concern. For example, they might say, "I don't want you to wear that tight dress because other guys will bother you" or "you shouldn't wear that shirt because it doesn't look good."

And yet, whether your partner implicitly or explicitly attempts to make decisions for you — even if it's just something simple, like what you wear — Hershenson says it still counts as emotionally abusive behavior.


They're selfish in bed

In a healthy partnership, sex is all about mutual satisfaction. That doesn't necessarily mean both partners orgasm every single time — it means they're both giving and receiving intimacy and pleasure during sex.

That's why, if your partner is consistently selfish in bed in any way, you should consider it a red flag. "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.


They blame you for their actions

You might notice that whenever your partner gets angry, they immediately blame you for "making" them act that way, Hershenson says. They might also claim arguments are "always" your fault, and that they wouldn't happen if you didn't act a certain way.

But that isn't the truth. It's emotional abuse.


They make you feel confused

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

It's confusing, stressful, and upsetting to deal with. Not to mention, over time "your confidence and self-esteem is eroded and you end up feeling that you can no longer trust your own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions," Rhonda Milrad, LCSW, a therapist and founder of Relationup, tells Bustle.


They compare you to others

If your partner compares you to others — like a coworker, or their ex — take note, especially if you tell them to stop and they keep doing it.

"[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."

Like gaslighting, these comments are meant to eat away at your self-esteem, Milrad says, so that you become insecure. And insecure people are much easier to manipulate, which is, of course, their goal.


They say you're "too sensitive"

You should be able to approach your partner to talk about problems, point out things that aren't working in your relationship, and then have constructive conversations about boundaries, rules, etc.

But this will never happen if your boyfriend is emotionally abusive. "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 to justify their bad behavior by making your reaction to it the problem."


They don't let you have alone time

A toxic partner might push you away, but they also might insist you spend all of your time together. And that's not OK either.

It's important to have space in a relationship so you can both recharge and pursue separate interests and hobbies. "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, a relationship expert and owner of Empowered Couples, tells Bustle.

If they aren't cool with that, for whatever reason, it's a sign of a problem.


They don't let you visit friends

Another tell-tale sign of emotional abuse is if your partner isolates you from close friends and family. They might come up with excuses for why you shouldn't see them and guilt you into complying: "Your best friend isn't supportive of our relationship, so if you love me, you'll stay away from her."

It might not seem that bad at first. "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 [people who are] important to you," Martin says.


They always have to be right

People in healthy relationships recognize that it's OK to be wrong from time to time. They'll also apologize, and then look for ways to make amends. But if your partner is emotionally abusive, it'll be clear they only ever want to win.

"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," Davida Rappaport, a speaker, counselor, and dating expert, tells Bustle.

It's draining, and doesn't contribute to a stable connection.


They don't respect your opinion

Whether you're talking about a song, a movie, or politics, your partner should never look down on you, even if they don't agree. It's considered toxic — and even emotionally abusive — if they constantly trash your ideas, call you "dumb," or brush you off.

"Over time, you may begin to feel inadequate, frustrated, and your confidence and self-esteem will start to drop," Rappaport says. And what's the point of that? Let's say it together: control.


They hold grudges

Take note if your partner holds grudges, guilt trips you for past mistakes, or throws them in your face whenever they get upset.

As Rappaport says, this is considered emotional abuse because it's toxic behavior, it's an attempt to manipulate the conversation, and it doesn't allow for space to grow.

"Being constantly reminded of mistakes or poor choices in the past does not [...] take into consideration that you may have changed," she says.


They make you feel insecure

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Josh Klapow, "if you live in a constant state of uncertainty and the clarity that we all want from a steady relationship is simply absent," it may be emotional abuse.

This is especially true if you've been together a long time, but it still feels like your partner is holding you at arm's length. You can talk to them about it, but eventually you may decide to move on and date someone who is more available.


They're super needy

Emotional abuse can also crop up in the form of ongoing, seemingly unfixable neediness, Klapow says. Your partner might want you to run their life for them, or address their every need. And while that might not seem as negative as the other issues listed above, it's still a form of toxic control.

So don't brush this, or any other red flag, away. "Some couples can survive emotional abuse if and only if it is modified," Klapow says. "However if you ask for change, and your partner can't, won’t, or refuses — then the abuse is not likely to stop."

At that point, you'll want to make the difficult decision to put yourself and your well-being first. Due to gaslighting and manipulation, it's often difficult to leave a toxic or abusive relationship. But the sooner you get out, the sooner you can start to heal.


Kimberley Hershenson, therapist

Rhonda Milrad, LCSW, therapist

Taccara Martin, relationship expert

Davida Rappaport, counselor

Dr. Josh Klapow, clinical psychologist

This article was originally published on