Signs you are in an emotionally abusive relationship

Emotional abuse creeps up slowly and can be hard to spot, let alone realise it is happening to you. My own experience was learning my relationship was fraught with arguments and that I felt confused to the nth degree regularly, but not once did I think I was being emotionally abused until a used the phrase, and it hit me like a tonne of bricks.

I’m a psychologist and lived in an abusive relationship without being able to label my experience as emotional abuse, and I am being clear about that at the outset to highlight how not only difficult with type of abuse is, but how it can become the norm.

Resources if you are in an abusive relationship; Refuge

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is a pattern of behaviour in which the perpetrator uses words and nonviolent behaviours to exert power and control over the victim. It is a form of domestic violence and includes aggressive verbal communication, verbal threats, manipulative and controlling behaviour, humiliation in front of friends or family, name-calling, insults, put-downs, silent treatment, gaslighting, and isolating the victim from others. Having your emotions used against you is a sign of emotional abuse.

You can read more on emotional abuse here.

How to tell if you are in an emotionally abusive relationship.

Red flags

  1. Starting arguments for no reason. It took me years to learn to spot this for what it was, get offside and not engage.
  2. Crazy making statements. For example, you ask your partner to do something small like wash the car, and they respond by saying, ‘Do you want me to fail my work exams?’ Implying that you are stopping them from studying and making it difficult for you to ask them any more questions.
  3. Emotional outbursts
  4. Behaving erratically and unpredictably so you feel like you are “walking on eggshells.”
  5. Asking for passwords and smartphones and monitoring your activities
  6. Making you feel wounded, frustrated, confused, misunderstood, depressed, anxious, or worthless
  7. Denying, minimising, or trivialising your experiences
  8. Blaming you for their mistakes or shifting the responsibility onto you
  9. Constantly checking up on you or stalking you
  10. Gaslighting or manipulating facts and events
  11. Withholding affection or appreciation
  12. Isolating you from family and friends
  13. Using fear or intimidation to manipulate or control you
  14. Threatening to hurt you or themselves
  15. Refusing to take responsibility
  16. Comparing you to other people
  17. Ignoring or disrespecting your boundaries

Jealousy and control

The signs of jealousy and control in an emotionally abusive relationship include: constantly accusing you of cheating; monitoring your calls, texts, or emails; controlling your appearance, including what you wear; calling you excessively while you’re at work or with friends; treating you like possession or property; requiring that you are always accessible; and questioning your whereabouts, who you were with, and what you did.


My experience of criticism as a form of emotional abuse became so usual that it almost stopped hurting. This is a good and bad thing in that it is good that you no longer react and bad that you are denied the chance to feel the emotional pain and anger needed to motivate you to move and leave.

Signs of negativity and crushing criticism in an emotionally abusive relationship can include:

  • Name-calling and derogatory nicknames.
  • Character assassination.
  • Yelling and screaming.
  • Patronising remarks.
  • Public embarrassment.
  • Dismissiveness.
  • Insulting your appearance.
  • Belittling your accomplishments.
  • Putting down your interests.
  • Pushing your buttons.
  • Trying to taint your reputation.

Withholding of Approval and Acknowledgment

A sign of withholding approval and acknowledgement in an emotionally abusive relationship is when a partner uses affection to exploit and control you. They will withhold their love or become irritated and hostile if you don’t comply or agree with their wishes. They may also monitor your communication with others or become jealous and angry if you spend time with someone other than them. This behaviour indicates that your partner attempts to control you and impose unfair boundaries.

Manipulation and coercion

Signs of manipulation and coercion in an emotionally abusive relationship include:

  • Making threats.
  • Monitoring your whereabouts.
  • Spying on you digitally.
  • Gaslighting.
  • Making all the decisions.
  • Controlling your access to finances.
  • Using emotional blackmail.
  • Lecturing you constantly.
  • Giving direct orders.
  • Having frequent outbursts.

These tactics are used to maintain power and control and can lead to feeling guilt, shame, frustration, or doubt about yourself or the relationship. Other signs to look out for are manipulative behaviours such as guilt-tripping, exaggerating flaws, denying events, withholding affection, making you feel guilty, and using your emotions against you.

Ways to cope and heal from an emotionally abusive relationship

  1. Acknowledge that you are in an emotionally abusive relationship. Understand that emotional abuse is a form of psychological abuse with long-term physical and mental health impacts, such as heart problems and depression.
  2. Identify the signs of abuse you are experiencing, such as feeling controlled, inability to make decisions, or having your boundaries and opinions disregarded.
  3. Assess your level of injury from the emotionally abusive relationship. Consider the physical and mental impact of the abuse. Identify how it has changed your thoughts about yourself, your relationship, and your world. The more you can understand the effects of the abuse, the more you can take steps to heal and rebuild your self-esteem.

To cope and heal from this type of abuse, you must first recognise the reality of the situation. This means acknowledging that the circumstances are not likely to change, understanding the psychological aspects of the abuse, and accepting that it is your fault. 

Give ourself time to heal

Giving yourself time to heal from being in an emotionally abusive relationship is essential. It is important to remember that nobody deserves to be a victim of abuse, and taking the necessary steps to recovery is the only way to heal truly. It may be difficult to prioritise yourself after an emotionally abusive relationship, but self-care is essential in healing.

If you choose to stay or cannot leave the relationship yet.

My personal experience was that several tactics worked in helping me help myself while I stayed in the relationship, but ultimately getting out of the relationship, however painful, led to the best healing.

The points below help you cope while you are in the relationship, but for many people who leave, including myself, spending every day without drama and feeling at peace is the ultimate goal.

Develop healthy coping skills

In an emotionally abusive relationship, developing healthy coping skills to manage the situation is crucial. Some of these healthy coping skills can include: communicating clearly and assertively; setting boundaries and sticking to them; practising self-care by eating well, exercising, and getting enough rest; participating in research-backed activities like mindfulness or meditation to reduce stress; and engaging in positive self-affirming activities.

Finally, it is essential to remember that you are not responsible for “fixing” the abuser and should prioritise your own needs and safety.

Make time for yourself.

Make yourself a priority and take care of your needs. This includes getting enough rest and eating healthy meals. Affirm your worth and recognise that it’s not your fault that you’re being abused.

Taking time for yourself can be simple things such as taking a walk. I made walking part of my self-care and found it helped with sleep, but getting out in nature allowed me to practise mindfulness.

Take a good hard look at your relationship and decide if you want to stay in it or if it is time to leave.

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