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Emotional abuse; how to recognise this type of hidden abuse

image showing different types of emotional abuse in relationships

Emotional abuse in your relationship can go undetected for years before you put a label on it. Physical abuse, if your partner hits you, is plain to see. The second it occurs, you know it happened and can decide what to do about it, but when you cannot physically see abuse, it can be shocking and, in some cases, a relief when you get a name for the things that have been happening in your relationship.

Physical abuse is overt; it is out there for everyone to see. Emotional abuse is covert, hidden away, often from the person experiencing it, until they can identify what is happening to them. This article will explain what emotional abuse is and if it is happening to you. It will help you identify, label, and see the unacceptable aspects of your relationship before ending with how and when to get help.

Further reading; Signs you are in an emotionally abusive relationship

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is a form of manipulation that can be difficult to identify. It can involve trying to control someone by making them feel guilty, ashamed, and worthless, shouting and swearing at them and blaming them for things that are not their fault.

It is such a slow and insidious form of abuse that it can slip under the radar. You know something is wrong; your partner has been screaming at you, and hours later, everything is back to normal as if nothing has happened. When you try to discuss with them what had happened, they may ignore you, shout at you more, leave the house or use tactics to confuse you before deflecting all responsibility from themselves. This, in itself, is emotional abuse.

What are the different types of emotional abuse?

There are many types of emotional abuse, but some of the most common include threatening tactics, verbal abuse, financial abuse, and controlling behaviour.

Victims of emotional abuse may be constantly criticized, intimidated, and shamed to manipulate and control them.

The following list is not exhaustive but details ways you might have experienced emotional abuse; for many of you reading this, it might be the first time you become aware that you have been abused.

That discovery can be shocking. This discovery was made by myself on a personal level many years ago while discussing my situation when preparing to leave a relationship. After listening to my story, my solicitor stated that I had been emotionally abused, which did not sit comfortably with me but gave some sense of proper validation for my feelings.


Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that manipulates you into questioning your thoughts or reality. If you are being gaslighted, the conversation can feel crazy as you are constantly told untruths, such as complete denial of something happening.


Stonewalling often goes hand in hand with gaslighting, where your partner shuts off, completely ignores you and often physically removes themselves from the home to completely shut down the conversation.

Love bombing

Abusers often use love bombing to gain control. In the beginning, you are showered with love, attention, and gifts and are the centre of your partner’s world. It can be intoxicating until the trust is built and your partner changes.

Verbal aggression

Verbal aggression is the use of hurtful words to damage you emotionally. This can take the form of constant criticism, ordering, or condescendingly talking to you. Verbal threats of harm can be just as detrimental as actually harming someone.


Angry outbursts can be emotionally abusive because they are a way for your partner to assert dominance over you.

Swearing and name-calling

Swearing and name-calling are never acceptable ways to express yourself. The abuser uses offensive language to hurt and demean you.


Intimidation is emotional abuse involving making you feel scared or unsafe. This may be done through aggressive behaviour or shouting.

What are the signs of emotional abuse?

One way to identify if someone is experiencing emotional abuse is to look for signs of control. An abusive partner may try to control their partner through guilt, threats, or violence. They may also try to isolate their partner from friends and family. Another sign of emotional abuse is a refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions. If an abusive partner refuses to listen to or take responsibility for their actions, it may be a sign that they are emotionally abusing their partner.

  1. Emotional abuse is a pattern of behaviour that’s sustained and repetitive. It can be challenging to identify emotional abuse because it’s gradual and covert. The abuse can go unchecked as the relationship progresses, building for months, years or decades.
  2. The emotional abuse cycle refers to the pattern of behaviour that generally occurs in an emotionally abusive relationship. The cycle stages are tension building, incident, reconciliation, and calm.
  3. The target’s self-esteem is steadily eroded, and their self-doubt becomes so paralyzing that they often have only a vague sense that something (though unsure what) is wrong.
  4. Abusers often exhibit specific personality traits which make them unsuitable partners. Abusers often lack empathy and feel a lack of control over their lives. Ab users may exhibit signs before emotional abuse occurs, such as feeling like they have no control over themselves.
  5. The person may be insecure or uncomfortable around others. They are paranoid and overreact to simple situations..The person exhibits emotional abuse, such as being overbearing, needy, and road raging. Someone who exhibits signs of emotional abuse is often very resentful and blames the other person for all their problems. They are often pushy and will not let you have an opinion. They make decisions for you without consulting you and silence you when you disagree with them.
  6. If you notice multiple patterns of behaviour on the list, it may indicate that the person is abusive. Abusive behaviour includes invading your privacy and being nosey, lying about minor things, disregarding boundaries, and having angry or violent episodes.

Getting help with emotional abuse

Emotional abuse can be a severe problem in relationships. If you are being emotionally abused, taking your safety seriously and knowing that you are not to blame for the other person’s abusive behaviour is essential.

There are many ways to deal with emotional abuse. You can talk to someone who can support you, or if you feel it is necessary, arrange to see a mental health professional.

Remove yourself from the situation

If you realise that the relationship cannot change and it is damaging your mental health, it might be time to leave the relationship.

It can be very difficult to leave an abusive relationship, but some steps can help. 

The first step is to accept that the situation will not change and that you are not to blame.

Plan when and how to leave and seek help from friends or professionals.

Article information: All articles written by Dr Elaine Ryan

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