What Is Emotional Abuse? Spotting The Signs

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated June 9, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

It is not your fault if someone else hurts you physically, emotionally, mentally, or in any other manner. Domestic violence, also referred to as intimate partner violence, is any behavior that results in the maltreatment of one partner in a relationship by another.

Are there signs of emotional abuse in your relationship?

Domestic violence may happen in any relationship and among many different types of people. Any form of domestic violence is serious. If you are experiencing mistreatment, reach out for support and get to a safe place. Spotting the signs of emotional harm and other types of abuse may help you end the cycle and allow you to find healthier relationships, and seeking therapy for emotional abuse can be an important step in the recovery process.

What is emotional abuse?

It may be challenging to recognize emotional abuse because it often looks different in different situations and relationships. Emotional abuse is generally defined by behaviors or tactics that control, manipulate, isolate, or harm another person.

There are many unique signs of emotional abuse to look out for. An individual who partakes in abusive behaviors may exhibit a combination of tactics to establish control. They might use threats, intentionally put you down, call you names, monitor your whereabouts, make you feel guilty, or keep you from seeing your friends and family. While they may not physically hurt you, figuring out how to navigate controlling people is stressful and their impact on your mental health may be severe and may result in serious long-term effects. 

Types of abuse

There are several types of emotional abuse. Someone may act out in a variety of abusive ways at once. Emotional or verbal abuse may escalate to physical abuse over time, so it may be beneficial to know about the various types of abuse.  

Physical abuse

Any attack or assault on a person that causes physical harm or injury or carries the risk of damage or injury is considered physical violence. Hitting, slapping, kicking, throwing things, or grabbing someone without permission are examples of physical abuse. Being hit one time by an intimate partner is still physical abuse. 

Sexual abuse 

Behavior that involves any forcible act of a sexual nature may be sexual abuse. Touching someone without permission, sexually harassing, coercion, and forcing sexual acts may all fall into this category of abusive behavior. Marriage or a committed relationship does not equal automatic sexual consent. 

Financial abuse 

Financial abuse may involve an emotionally abusive person withholding money or refusing a partner the right to work and earn money independently. Depriving a person of financial support and what financial support offers (clothes, food, shelter) is financial abuse and may be considered psychological abuse. 

Financial abuse is a tool that spouses or partners who use abusive behaviors may utilize to keep, get, and maintain control over a partner. Without a way to support themselves financially, survivors of abuse may be less likely to leave emotionally abusive relationships. 

Financial abuse can feel all-encompassing for young adults or those without support who might not have the resources and means to escape. However, even those who have some money (theirs or borrowed) may remain in a relationship because of the abuse that they have experienced.


Spiritual abuse 

A person’s behavior that causes a harmful disturbance in the way you feel about your religious or spiritual beliefs may be considered spiritual abuse. It may involve a partner making rules about your right to practice religious beliefs or refusing to “allow” you to practice culturally held values and morals. The partner may also attempt to force their own beliefs on you or use their beliefs as an excuse to treat you poorly.

Technological abuse 

If your partner makes phone calls or sends text messages to you constantly, changes or demands to know passwords to your email and social media accounts, monitors your social media activity, or uses GPS tracking to follow your movements, it could be technological abuse.  

Making fake social media profiles to trick you or catch you doing things they do not want you to do or using social media to harass or threaten you can also be technological abuse. This type of abuse may be labeled as cyberstalking when a partner uses the internet or a device to stalk, follow, and harass you over time. 

Verbal abuse 

Verbal aggression can be when someone uses their words to hurt another person. Verbal abuse may include frequent name-calling, constant criticism, blaming, accusing, and talking to someone condescendingly.  Someone who uses verbally and emotionally abusive patterns may threaten but not follow through. However, verbal threats and the fear of being harmed may still have harmful effects. 

Emotional abuse 

Emotional abuse is any act that subjects someone to behavior that could result in psychological trauma, fear, anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Emotional abuse may involve insults, humiliation, or fear tactics to manipulate or control others. If other types of abuse are happening, emotional abuse may also occur. 

Signs of emotional abuse

While abuse may take on many forms, some of the most common signs of being emotionally abused include the following. 

Character assassination

“Character assassination” behavior may imply that you “just can’t measure up.” An abuser might make statements that insinuate you are incapable of performing tasks, set unrealistic expectations, accuse you of being late all the time, or tell you that you don’t know how to do simple things to instill self-doubt.

Public embarrassment

People who commit emotional abuse might make a public spectacle of you and ridicule you for what they believe are your shortcomings in front of others, including strangers, a friend, coworkers, a parent, or another person in the family. For example, they might yell at you in public or act like you’re being rude to them in front of others. 

No regard for your thoughts or feelings

Someone who acts abusively may imply that the movies you like to watch or the hobbies you enjoy are stupid or a waste of time. They may accuse you of “not having what it takes” to accomplish something important to you.  

When someone uses tactics like this, they may feel insecure and incapable. However, they may project them onto you instead of acknowledging their feelings and disrespect your boundaries.


A partner may deny hurting you and tell you that you’re “losing your mind” or “making it up.” By denying your reality, you may believe your emotions or feelings are invalid. This type of behavior is commonly called gaslighting. 

Giving you orders 

If your partner often uses controlling words or behaviors to manipulate or scare you, this may be a sign of emotional abuse. They might expect you to follow their orders as if you belong to them. 

Treating you as a child 

Controlling the type of clothes you wear, what you eat, or who your friends are can be a sign of emotional abuse. If you feel that your partner sees you as a child or belonging and not a person, that may be a red flag that you are being emotionally abused.  

Unpredictable behavior 

You may be subjected to uncontrollable rage followed by being showered with affection or gifts. Happiness and joy may be quickly replaced with uncertainty and feeling on edge all the time with emotional abuse. There’s usually no such thing as normal conflict because things are so unpredictable. 

“Love bombing” is the period when someone will offer positive reinforcement or intense positive behaviors to attempt to “undo” the impacts of previous abusive behaviors. It may also happen at the beginning of a relationship before emotional abuse occurs. It can look like moving too fast, frequent messaging or contact, or lavish gifts and experiences. 


Those partaking in abuse may accuse others of cheating or flirting with someone else, although they know it is not true. They may use jealousy as an excuse to go through your device, read your diary, or cut you off from social connections. As a result, you might avoid engaging in healthy relationships with other people in your support network to try and avoid their jealousy. 


Survivors of emotionally abusive partners who have experienced emotional abuse often feel like they owe their abusers something. For example, a partner may say, “I’ve done so much for you, and you can’t even do this little thing for me.” They may ignore the things you’ve done for them. 


Emotional abuse may involve withholding affection, love, and sex as punishment or control. They may also prevent you from having a healthy social or family life with your supportive loved ones by refusing to allow you to visit or spend time with those you love or becoming angry or upset when you do. 


Those who act abusively may call their partner names that are blatantly hurtful such as “crazy” or “loser.”  They may use “pet names” or nicknames that cause hurt or embarrassment, even when you’ve asked them to stop. 

Constant communication 

Partners who have abusive behavior in relationships may want to know where someone is at all times. They may call or text several times during the day, stop by unexpectedly, or take your car keys to keep you from leaving.


Gaslighting is one of the signs of manipulative behavior. It is a form of emotional abuse that involves the act of manipulating someone with the use of psychological efforts. People who gaslight may cause others to question their thoughts, memories, or facts related to an event they know happened.

Gaslighting in abusive relationships may occur in different forms. However, most forms may involve an attempt to control someone psychologically. 

Projection is a tactic a partner may use to gaslight others. Projection is the act of accusing someone else of having shortcomings or faults that one sees in themselves. For example, if someone is cheating in a relationship, they may accuse you of being unfaithful instead of admitting to their behavior.

The emotional abuse cycle

The emotional abuse cycle refers to the pattern of behavior that often occurs in an emotionally abusive relationship. The stages of emotional abuse are:

  • Honeymoon 

  • Tension building 

  • Incident 

  • Reconciliation

  • Calm

This cycle is a normal part of abusive relationships and may repeat itself many times throughout the relationship of emotional abuse.

Signs someone may act abusive 

Those with abusive behaviors may have distinct personalities and behavior patterns. People who commit emotional abuse often exhibit self-centered behaviors and lack empathy. 

Once you have been exposed to these traits, you may be able to recognize them in future intimate relationships before emotional abuse can begin again.

Those who abuse others may feel like they have no control over their own lives, resulting in a strong desire to assert control over others. 

Watch for the following signs to determine whether you’re dealing with a person is at risk for coercive behaviors or emotional abuse. Knowing these patterns may help you keep yourself safe from experiencing emotional abuse and becoming a victim in the future.

  • The person seems insecure or uncomfortable around others.

  • They are paranoid about people’s motivations and constantly look for insults or hidden agendas where there aren’t any. 

  • They overreact about simple situations or seem edgy or uptight.

  • They have overbearing parents or family who have taken care of everything for them past an appropriate age.

  • They express road rage and think other drivers are “morons.”

  • They brag or boast about themselves often. 

  • They are highly needy, constantly requiring emotional support.

  • They have unresolved resentment of past partners and blame failed relationships on the other person, constantly bringing up their continued anger or grievances over the former partner.

  • They often talk about how they’ve been treated poorly in the past to gain sympathy. 

  • They act pushy in conversations by not letting others have an opinion, always getting in the last word, or arguing over issues that do not seem worth arguing about.

  • They pressure you to do things you do not want to do. 

  • They give you the silent treatment to hurt you. 

  • They make decisions for you without consulting you.

  • They invade your personal space, always asking about where you are, what you are doing, or who you’re with.

  • They behave possessively over you.

  • They lie about things that would be easy to tell the truth about.

  • They disregard the boundaries you have set.

  • You have heard accounts of angry, violent, or emotionally abusive episodes from other people who know them.

If you see multiple traits in this list in a person, you may be at risk of being mistreated as your relationship progresses. However, abuse isn’t always obvious, and this list is not a complete or official list of signs. If you’re unsure if you’re being abused, speaking to a specialist, such as a mental health professional or abuse advocate, may benefit you. 

iStock/JLco - Julia Amaral
Are there signs of emotional abuse in your relationship?

Signs of mistreatment

If you suspect someone you know is experiencing emotional abuse or you have been witnessing mistreatment firsthand, reach out and offer support when the partner acting abusive is not present.  

The following are symptoms that may indicate someone is experiencing abuse: 

  • They are distant from their loved ones

  • They feel a need to apologize to you consistently

  • They feel the need for permission before doing things they want to do

  • They’re experiencing anxiety or depression

  • They tell you about the abuse or hint at it

  • Their personality changes abruptly 

  • They seem shaky, scared, or withdrawn 

  • They are physically sick with health problems often, in conjunction with other signs on this list 

Emotional Abuse Recovery

Being a survivor of emotional mistreatment or control may feel overwhelming. You may feel like there is no way out. The first step in recovering from emotionally abusive relationships can be acknowledging that there is a problem. 

Seeking the help of a counselor or other mental health professional may offer you an opportunity to discuss your emotions or feelings and develop an exit plan to get you to safety. 

Confiding in a loved one can also be helpful. You may also read peer-reviewed studies to educate yourself further on the most current treatment strategies.

Set boundaries

Even if the person acting abusive towards you chooses not to respect the boundaries you set, setting boundaries can be helpful. Establish in your mind the things you are willing to tolerate and the things you are not. 

Make your intentions and the consequences of overstepping your boundaries clear. When you do this, enforce the consequences when the individual tries to manipulate you. Doing so can feel challenging, so having someone to support you may be beneficial. 

Practice self-care

Practicing self-care is one step toward feeling mentally and physically well. Studies show that daily meditation may be enough to increase self-compassion and help you feel mentally better. 

Taking the focus off the person abusing you and focusing on your wants and needs may help you feel a sense of balance and wellness. Get plenty of rest and sleep. Eat well-balanced, healthy meals and exercise. Find activities that bring you joy.

Avoid arguments

Even if you are right and the person abusing you knows it, they may never admit that they know it. Try not to argue with them or defend yourself from their accusations. A person who acts abusively may use what you say against you, which is not your fault. 

You may make yourself safe by utilizing the “gray rock” method, which involves offering no emotional or in-depth responses and reacting in the most minimal ways possible to avoid conflict. 

Build a support system

Talk to a trusted friend or family about what you are going through. Many individuals who act abusively may assume you will not reach out for support.   

In many cases, people receiving emotional mistreatment feel so emotionally downtrodden that they do not think others will believe them. Consider talking to someone who can offer you emotional support and encouragement so that you can draw strength for the journey of healing and regain your sense of self-esteem. Social support is essential for our physical health as humans. 

Counseling for support in emotionally abusive relationships 

No matter whom you choose to talk to about the abuse you’re experiencing, professional support can be an essential step in recovering from or escaping abuse. Leaving an abusive situation may take several attempts, and support may be helpful. 

Online therapy may be an effective option for those who cannot leave home due to abuse, fear, or a busy life. One study showed the feasibility and efficacy of online-delivered therapy to help those impacted by different kinds of domestic violence. Online therapy increased participants’ safety-promoting behaviors and improved their decision-making and self-efficacy. 90% of female participants left their abusive relationships within one year of receiving the intervention.

Online counseling options, such as the services provided by BetterHelp, focus on providing mental health care that is affordable and convenient. You might feel that there’s no one in your life to whom you’re comfortable opening up. Therapy can allow you to confide in a trusted individual without judgment. If you’re recovering from or experiencing emotional abuse, consider reaching out for help.


All types of abuse are serious and wrong. No individual deserves to be abused. It is not your fault if someone else behaves in an emotionally abusive manner toward you, regardless of their reasoning. 

With the help of a support system, which could include anyone from loved ones to a therapist or even the National Domestic Violence Hotline, you may begin to advocate for your well-being within your relationships. It can be possible to recognize symptoms of emotional abuse and learn ways to end its cycle. You are not alone, and help is available. 

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