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Understanding Emotional Abuse: Early Signs & Examples

November 16, 2022
Rachel DeSimone

Domestic violence is not limited to physical abuse.

Emotional abuse is unfortunately very common form of domestic violence. An estimated 50%-80% of adults will experience emotional abuse in a relationship at some point in their lives — whether they recognize it or not.

Emotional abuse is rarely a single event. Instead, it occurs over time as a pattern of behavior used to maintain power and control over the victim. Physical abuse is nearly always preceded and accompanied by emotional abuse and can be a major early red flag in a relationship.

Understanding what emotional abuse is, knowing the early signs of emotional abuse, and being aware of the resources available to you are essential to getting yourself out of potentially dangerous and damaging relationships.

Remember, emotional abuse doesn’t just happen between two romantic partners — it can happen between family members, parents and children, friends, bosses and employees, and any other type of relationship.

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is a sustained and repetitive pattern of non-physical abusive behavior that aims to decrease another person's sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth.  

Emotional abuse can occur in any setting and be perpetrated by anyone, but it is most often seen in romantic relationships.

Emotional abusers use a variety of tactics like gaslighting, name-calling, put-downs, yelling, silent treatment, and more to cut down the victim’s self-esteem.

Emotional abuse is extremely damaging to victims as it can severely damage their mental health, isolate them from loved ones, and leave them feeling unworthy of healthy relationships. The long term effects of emotional abuse can lead to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Emotional abuse is often used interchangeably with the terms psychological abuse and verbal abuse because they have similar characteristics and effects.

The cyclical nature of violence, that is often referenced when talking about physical abuse, is seen within emotional abuse as well. This is sometimes referred to as the cycle of abuse and is how those emotionally abusing someone can trap them by having high highs and very low lows in the relationship.

Emotional manipulation is laced throughout the cycle of abuse to prevent the victim from thinking rationally and reaching out for help.

If you react when an emotionally abusive person hurts you, this is often called reactive abuse and does not mean you are a bad person. You are not an abuser and although abusers will try to say you're abusing them (sometimes referred to as mutually abusive), you are reacting real-time to experiencing trauma and your brain will default into fight, flight, or fawn mode. You are actively surviving trauma and this can often mean your body and mind will revert to survival mode to protect itself.

Early signs of emotional abuse

Emotional abuse can be very difficult to identify in the moment because abusers use so many manipulative tactics to make it hard to discern and understand. These are a few early warning signs to look for that could indicate that the relationship may become abusive:

   1. Love bombing: Love bombing is an attempt to influence another person with over-the-top displays of attention and affection. It usually consists of excessive compliments, mirroring interests, and generally trying to push the relationship forward at an unnatural speed.

   2. Unrealistic expectations: If your partner has unrealistic expectations that require you to revolve your life around them, this is a bad sign. These expectations may come in the form of them expecting you to behave or look a certain way, demanding you give them all of your time and attention, or drop everything for them on a moment’s notice.

  3. Being unpredictable and/or chaotic: Emotionally abusive individuals tend to act in unpredictable and erratic ways. This can include over exaggerated reactions, drastic mood changes, and random outbursts. Victims of emotional abuse will often also react in unpredictable, and sometimes seemingly chaotic when they are around an abusive person as they are always walking on eggshells and in survival mode.

   4. Excessively complaining about others: Along with having unrealistic expectations and standards for you, emotional abusers are likely to never be satisfied with other people as well. They may act superior and find issue with every little thing others do — oftentimes they will complain about the people your closest to such as family or friends to create distance between you and them.

  5. Manipulation: Abusers always use manipulation, but it can be hard to suss out especially in the early days. If the person is guilt tripping you into agreeing with them, satisfying their request, or otherwise tricking you into doing what they want, they are being manipulative. It can be very subtle such as saying this is what’s best for your career or future, promising one thing and then underdelivering, or always saying they’ll get better and repeating the same issues.

   6. Infantilism: When someone treats an adult like a child in order to demean or belittle their abilities, that is considered infantilism. Infantilizing can look like degrading pet names, always taking over tasks or responsibilities because they don’t think you’re capable of doing them, or making suggestions that you wouldn’t understand certain things (when you obviously do).

   7. Ranking and comparing: In order for an abusive person to make their victim feel less than, they will often compare them or rank them against others. For example, an abuser may try to hurt their partner by saying they were so much happier with their ex, or an abusive parent may tell their child that they’re the least favorite out of their siblings.  

   8. Name calling: Name calling can be a playful way to harmlessly poke fun at someone, but if the name clearly offends you and the person does not feel bad or continues to call you this name after the fact, that could be a sign of emotional abuse to come. They will often test your boundaries with name calling of not only you but others around you such as calling your best friend a b!tch or a family member useless.

Types of emotional abuse

So now that you understand the early signs of emotional abuse — which are more like general themes of the abuse, let’s look at some types of emotional abuse, or more specifically, real-world examples of emotional abuse we’ve heard from survivors.

Some common examples or types of emotional abuse include, but are not limited to:

1. Humiliating the victim by saying/doing things to intentionally embarrass them (often in front of friends, family members, or coworkers)

2. Isolating the victim from their friends, family members, and other loved ones by controlling who they hang out with and/or talk to, or denying them access to communication channels like social media

3. Emotional blackmailing the victim by using their own emotions or fears against them such as using a secret or something private you told them against you

4. Invalidating the victim by making them feel as though their opinions and emotions are not important or not based in reality

5. Acting superior to the victim to make them feel less than

6. Shaming the victim by making them feel bad for insignificant things such as not properly cleaning something, not taking care of the children “properly” or not wanting to have sex with them

7. Blaming the victim for things the victim is not responsible for (abusers often blame victims for their actions or emotions, saying things like “you made me do this”)

8. Sabotaging relationships or situations that are important to the victim including work, hobbies, and opportunities

9. Gaslighting the victim by making them feel like their emotions are not valid and making them question their reality and sense of self

10. Financial abuse is a part of 99% of all abusive relationships and often overlaps with emotional abuse because they will use money as a way to manipulate your emotions and trust in your own emotions

11. Threatening to hurt the victim either emotionally or physically and/or threatening to harm things or people the victim cares about including leaking naked photos, outing a secret of yours including your sexuality, or threatening pets

12. There are dozens of nuanced signs of emotional abuse. Visit this page for an even longer list of forms of emotional abuse.

How to tell if someone in your life is experiencing emotional abuse

It can be hard to determine whether or not someone in your life is an emotionally abusive situation, because unlike physical violence, emotional abuse does not leave visible evidence like bruises or scars.

However, there are some things you can look out for. If you notice any of the following, you have cause to be concerned:

  • Their partner or family member says or does things to purposely embarrass or upset them in front of you
  • They have become much more insecure or unsure of themselves
  • They often say sorry for things that are not their fault
  • If you ask them about the relationship or situation in question, they get very defensive and refuse to talk about it
  • They constantly need to tell their partner or family member where they are and who they’re with
  • Their partner of family member gets overly angry at them for small things like accidentally missing a phone call or text message
  • They stop attending events or social gatherings and it feels weirdly difficult to get them to spend time with you (especially without their partner around)

If you are concerned that someone in your life is experiencing emotional abuse, it is extremely important to be patient with them and offer them unconditional emotional support, rather than forcing them to get help or leave the situation.

Abusive relationships are notoriously difficult to escape and if you try to force a victim to leave or take matters into your own hands, you could make the situation worse or put the victim in more danger. Let the person know that you’re always there for them, keep showing up in the ways that you can, and learn more about other ways you can support someone experiencing emotional abuse.

How does their behavior or actions make you feel?

This is one of the most important questions you can ask yourself when it comes to identifying emotional abuse.

Everyone experiences actions that make them feel hurt or disrespected at times, but if someone is consistently and repetitively doing any of the above examples of emotional abuse, chances are they are emotionally abusing you.

While people nowadays can sometimes loosely throw around terms like love bombing and gaslighting, and even emotional abuse at times, it is a serious problem that impacts billions of people worldwide. If you have been reading this article and feel that some of the above examples resonate within a relationship you have with someone, there is hope.

Resources to escape emotional abuse

Getting out of an emotionally abusive situation, whether it be an intimate relationship or a relationship with a family member or friend, is not an easy task. But you don’t need to go at it alone.

It is highly recommended that you reach out to anyone in your support network, like a trusted friend, family member, coworker, or member of your spiritual community who can help validate the abuse that you’re experiencing and assist you in finding the proper resources.

The following hotlines and organizations offer support for victims experiencing any kind of domestic abuse in the United States. They are all available 24/7 and all of them have trained advocates who understand what you’re going through and will be able to assist you in planning a safe escape.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline

24 hour hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

Safe Horizon

24 hour hotline: 1–800–621-HOPE (4673)

National Dating Abuse Helpline

24 hour hotline: 1-866-331-9474

Find additional national and statewide resources here.

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