Unlike physical abuse which rears its ugly head in dramatic outbursts, emotional abuse can be more insidious and elusive. In some cases, neither the abuser nor the victim are fully aware it’s happening.
The most obvious scenario for emotional abuse is in an intimate relationship in which a man is the abuser and the woman is the victim. However, a variety of studies show that men and women abuse each other at equal rates.* In fact, emotional abuse can occur in any relationship — between parent and child, in friendships, and with relatives.
So what is emotional abuse? It involves a regular pattern of verbal offense, threatening, bullying, and constant criticism, as well as more subtle tactics like intimidation, shaming and manipulation. Emotional abuse is used to control and subjugate the other person, and quite often it occurs because the abuser has childhood wounds and insecurities they haven’t dealt with — perhaps as a result of being abused themselves. They didn’t learn healthy coping mechanisms or how to have positive, healthy relationships. Instead, they feel angry, hurt, fearful and powerless.
Male and female abusers tend to have high rates of personality disorders including borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder. Although emotional abuse doesn’t always lead to physical abuse, physical abuse is almost always preceded and accompanied by emotional abuse.*
The victim of the abuse quite often doesn’t see the mistreatment as abusive. They develop coping mechanisms of denial and minimizing in order to deal with the stress. But the effects of long-term emotional abuse can cause severe emotional trauma in the victim, including depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder.
If you aren’t sure what constitutes this damaging behavior, here are 30 signs of emotional abuse.
1. They humiliate you, put you down, or make fun of you in front of other people.
2. They regularly demean or disregard your opinions, ideas, suggestions, or needs.
3. They use sarcasm or “teasing” to put you down or make you feel bad about yourself.
4. They accuse you of being “too sensitive” in order to deflect their abusive remarks.
5. They try to control you and treat you like a child.
6. They correct or chastise you for your behavior.
7. You feel like you need permission to make decisions or go out somewhere.
8. They try to control the finances and how you spend money.
9. They belittle and trivialize you, your accomplishments, or your hopes and dreams.
10. They try to make you feel as though they are always right, and you are wrong.
11. They give you disapproving or contemptuous looks or body language.
12. They regularly point out your flaws, mistakes, or shortcomings.
13. They accuse or blame you of things you know aren’t true.
14. They have an inability to laugh at themselves and can’t tolerate others laughing at them.
15. They are intolerant of any seeming lack of respect.
16. They make excuses for their behavior, try to blame others, and have difficulty apologizing.
17. The repeatedly cross your boundaries and ignore your requests.
18. They blame you for their problems, life difficulties, or unhappiness.
19. They call you names, give you unpleasant labels, or make cutting remarks under their breath.
20. They are emotionally distant or emotionally unavailable most of the time.
21. They resort to pouting or withdrawal to get attention or attain what they want.
22. They don’t show you empathy or compassion.
23. They play the victim and try to deflect blame to you rather than taking personal responsibility.
24. They disengage or use neglect or abandonment to punish or frighten you.
25. They don’t seem to notice or care about your feelings.
26. They view you as an extension of themselves rather than as an individual.
27. They withhold sex as a way to manipulate and control.
28. They share personal information about you with others.
29. They invalidate or deny their emotionally abusive behavior when confronted.
30. They make subtle threats or negative remarks with the intent to frighten or control you.
The first step for those being emotionally abused is recognizing it’s happening. If you recognize any of the signs of emotional abuse in your relationship, you need to be honest with yourself so you can regain power over your own life, stop the abuse, and begin to heal. For those who’ve been minimizing, denying, and hiding the abuse, this can be a painful and frightening first step.
The stress of emotional abuse will eventually catch up with you in the form of illness, emotional trauma, depression, or anxiety. You simply can’t allow it to continue, even if it means ending the relationship. A licensed counselor who is trained in abusive relationships can help you navigate the pain and fears of leaving the relationship and work with you to rebuild your self-esteem.
Can an emotional abuser change? It is possible if the abuser deeply desires to change and recognizes his or her abusive patterns and the damage caused by them. However, the learned behaviors and feelings of entitlement and privilege are very difficult to change. The abusers tend to enjoy the power they feel from emotional abuse, and as a result, a very low percentage of abusers can turn themselves around.
According to Lundy Bancroft, author of the book Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, here are some of the changes an abuser (either man or woman) needs to make to begin recovery.
Admit fully to what they have done.
- Stop making excuses and blaming.
- Make amends.
- Accept responsibility and recognize that abuse is a choice.
- Identify the patterns of controlling behavior they use.
- Identify the attitudes that drive their abuse.
- Accept that overcoming abusiveness is a decades-long process — not declaring themselves “cured.”
- Not demanding credit for improvements they’ve made.
- Not treating improvements as vouchers to be spent on occasional acts of abuse (ex. “I haven’t done anything like this in a long time, so it’s not a big deal).
- Develop respectful, kind, supportive behaviors.
- Carry their weight and sharing power.
- Change how they respond to their partner’s (or former partner’s) anger and grievances.
- Change how they act in heated conflicts.
- Accept the consequences of their actions (including not feeling sorry for themselves about the consequences, and not blaming their partner or children for them).
If the emotional abuser in your relationship isn’t interested in changing, and you aren’t in a position to leave the relationship immediately, here are some strategies for reclaiming your power and self-esteem for the short term:
Put your own needs first. Stop worrying about pleasing or protecting the abuser. Take care of yourself and your needs, and let the other person worry about themselves — even when they pout or try to manipulate you and control your behavior.
Set some firm boundaries. Tell your abuser he or she may no longer yell at you, call you names, be rude to you, etc. If the bad behavior occurs, let them know you will not tolerate it and leave the room or get in the car and drive to a friend’s house.
Don’t engage. If the abuser tries to pick a fight or win an argument, don’t engage with anger, over-explaining yourself, or apologies to try to sooth him/her. Just keep quiet and walk away.
Realize you can’t “fix” them. You can’t make this person change or reason your way into their hearts and minds. They must want to change and recognize the destructive quality of their behavior and words. You’ll only feel worse about yourself and the situation by repeated “interventions.”
You are not to blame. If you’ve been entrenched in an abusive relationship for a while, it can be crazy-making. You start to feel like something must be wrong with you since this other person treats you so poorly. Begin to acknowledge to yourself that it is NOT you. This is the first step toward rebuilding your self-esteem.
Seek support. Talk to trusted friends and family or a counselor about what you are going through. Get away from the abusive person as often as possible, and spend time with those who love and support you. This support system will help you feel less alone and isolated while you still contend with the abuser.
Develop an exit plan. You can’t remain in an emotionally abusive relationship forever. If finances or children or some other valid reason prevents you from leaving now, develop a plan for leaving as soon as possible. Begin saving money, looking for a place to live, or planning for divorce if necessary so you can feel more in control and empowered.
Emotional abuse is a form of brain-washing that slowly erodes the victim’s sense of self-worth, security, and trust in themselves and others. In many ways, it is more detrimental than physical abuse because it slowly disintegrates one’s sense of self and personal value. It cuts to the core of your essential being, which can create lifelong psychological scars and emotional pain.
Have you suffered with emotional abuse? How have you coped with the situation, and what are you doing to reclaim your power and self-esteem. Please share your experiences in the comments below.