10 Signs of Emotional Abuse, and How to Overcome It

woman crying

Emotional abuse is not only limited to romantic relationships. It can also occur between family and friends. However, for the purposes of this article, we will focus on toxic traits a partner might have in a relationship and the steps you can take to overcome them and break free.

What is emotional abuse?

If you think you might be in an emotionally abusive relationship, chances are you’ve seen signs – or possibly a pattern – of verbal offense, threatening, bullying, and/or constant criticism. Emotional abuse signs can also include more subtle tactics such as intimidation, shaming, and manipulation. The end goal of the abuser is ultimately to control the other person, often stemming from insecurities instilled since childhood and that they have yet to deal with. Sometimes, it is a result of the person having been abused themselves.

The first step is to recognize the signs of emotional abuse. Does your partner exhibit any of the descriptions listed below? While it’s common to think of a man as the abuser, women and men abuse each other at equal rates.1 Emotional abuse does not always lead to physical abuse, but it does almost always precede and accompany physical abuse, so if you notice the following ten emotional abuse signs in your relationship, it may be time to confront your partner or consider seeing a counselor:

1. Your opinion does not matter.

Your partner regularly disregards your opinions and needs. You feel like you cannot say anything without it being immediately shut down or without being made fun of. In addition, your partner regularly points out your flaws, mistakes, and shortcomings.

2. You require permission to do anything.

You feel as if you cannot make any decisions or go out anywhere without prior permission first. If you do anything without asking, you feel you need to hide it or risk angering your partner.

3. You are always wrong.

No matter what you say or do, your partner always tries to make you feel as though they are right and you are wrong. No facts or details will sway them to believe otherwise.

4. You must respect them, or else.

Any sign of disrespect, even if completely unintentional or mistaken, sets them off. You have to think twice about everything you might say or do to make sure they won’t take it the wrong way.

5. You are not an individual.

Instead of thinking of you as an independent individual person, they view you as an extension of themselves. You feel as if you cannot do anything for yourself without your partner guilt-tripping you.

6. You have no control over the finances.

Your partner either does not let you have any control over how you spend money or they heavily criticize every purchase you make, regardless of which one of you is the one actually making the money.

7. You cannot get close to them emotionally.

Your partner keeps their thoughts buried inside and avoids talking about anything that isn’t purely transactional, e.g. the kids, finances, or management of the house. When they lash out at you, it tends to be for reasons beyond what was actually being discussed.

8. They blame others.

Going along with never being wrong, your partner may also make excuses for their behavior. They blame others even when they are the one to blame, and they have difficulty apologizing for any wrongdoing.

9. They share personal information about you.

You cannot confide in your partner because they will tell others what you said, often combining it with the abovementioned ridicule. You feel as if you cannot trust your partner at all.

10. They play the victim.

Often combined with blaming others, they will also play the victim in order to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. They try to deflect any blame to you or manipulate you into feeling sorry for them instead of upset.

What can you do?

The first thought most people have is, “Can an emotional abuser change?” However, as with the situation, the answer is not as simple as a clear yes or no. It is possible to change, but only if the abuser recognizes their abusive patterns and the damage caused by them and has a deep desire to change their ways. It is not an easy solution. Learned behaviors become so ingrained into a person’s personality and, together with feelings of entitlement, can be very difficult to change. In addition, many abusers tend to enjoy the power they feel from the emotionally abusive relationship. As a result, very few end up being able to turn themselves around.

So what can you do instead? Try out the following strategies for reclaiming your power and self-esteem:

1. Put your own needs first.

Stop worrying about protecting your partner. They will probably pout and try to manipulate you into staying in the same routine, but nothing will change unless you put your own desires first. Do what you can to make sure you take care of yourself and your needs first and foremost.

2. Set some firm boundaries.

You must let your partner know that abuse will no longer be tolerated in any shape or form, whether that is from yelling, ridiculing, etc. If the behavior continues, show them you will no longer stand for it by leaving the room or even exiting the house to go somewhere else until the situation dissolves.

3. Don’t engage.

Often, the abuser will feed off of you arguing back and trying to explain yourself, or they might try to manipulate you into feeling sorry for them and expect an apology. Don’t give in. Stay calm, keep quiet, and walk away. Show them that their behavior will no longer work on you.

4. Realize you can’t “fix” them.

As tempting as it is to think you can reason with an abuser, only they can decide that they want to change their destructive quality. Repeated attempts at trying to fix the person will only leave you emotionally exhausted and ultimately worse off than before.

5. You are not to blame.

If you’ve been in an emotionally abusive relationship for some time, it is easy to start thinking that maybe there is something wrong with you, that there must be a reason your partner treats you so poorly. This is simply not true. Sometimes, rebuilding your self-esteem is the first step to escaping an emotionally abusive relationship.

6. Seek support.

You don’t have to go through this experience alone. In fact, you shouldn’t. Talk with family or friends that love and support you, and go to a counselor if need be regarding what you are going through. Sometimes it helps to talk with someone in order to not feel so alone or isolated.

7. Develop an exit plan.

Sometimes you might feel the need to stay in a relationship because of the amount of time you’ve already invested, or perhaps finances or children are making you stay. But you can’t stay with an emotional abuser forever. You need to develop a plan to move on, whether that means saving up money or planning for a divorce and looking for somewhere new to live.

If you notice any of the above signs of emotional abuse, take a good, honest look at your relationship. Physical abuse does not need to be present before you decide to do something about it. In many ways, emotional abuse can be worse than physical abuse, since it can destroy your sense of self-worth. Remember: it is never too late to seek help.


1Hamel, John (2014). Gender-inclusive treatment of intimate partner abuse: evidence-based approaches (2nd ed.)

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