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9 Ways to Tell If It's Emotional Abuse - And How to Get Help


Healthy relationships should make you feel safe and loved. But in an emotionally abusive relationship, you feel neither—instead, you feel trapped, worthless, afraid, desperate to please, and alone. You may even feel like you deserve the name-calling and fits of jealous rage. If you're a new mom and your family is transitioning into parenthood, it’s tempting to say your partner just “has a temper,” or “is really stressed right now” instead of admitting you’re with an abuser, says Mary Jo Rapini, a Houston, Texas-based licensed counselor with 20 years of experience working with couples.

“A healthy relationship makes you feel good about yourself,” she says. “If you feel like you’re in a relationship with someone who makes you feel bad about yourself, it’s time to take action.”

Read on for nine signs of an emotionally abusive relationship, and how to get help if you're in one.

1. An Emotional Abuser Is Controlling

a couple sitting on a sofa while arguing

Exerting excessive control over your behavior in ways ranging from when and how you speak to access to shared items like cars or money is a hallmark of emotional abuse. One member of a couple might be in charge of things like balancing the checkbook, but it’s extreme and unhealthy behavior to, for example, require that the other partner “prove” she needs to write a check or make an ATM withdrawal. “You don’t marry someone to have someone to control,” says Rapini, “you marry someone to share your life with, and that means treating each other like equals.”

2. An Emotional Abuser Uses Loud, Aggressive Language and Name-Calling

an angry man yelling and waving his finger

Screaming, berating, name-calling, and intimidating language is another hallmark of emotional abuse, and it too is about control. “They’re basically trying to humiliate you to a point of submission,” says Rapini, “You want to avoid the humiliation, so you stop confronting the person.”

3. An Emotional Abuser Is Dismissive

a couple having an arguement on a couch

Your emotionally abusive partner may be very resistant to your attempts to discuss your concerns about their behavior and your relationship. In addition to wanting to deny anything is wrong, there are often issues of narcissistic personality at play in this context. He simply “does not have the emotional ability to care about your thoughts and feelings,” says Rapini.

4. An Emotional Abuser Withholds Affection

a couple looking sad and frustrated on a bed

Claiming, for example, that you don’t “deserve” to hear that your partner loves you because of some slight or disagreement is emotionally abusive, says Rapini. It’s tantamount to being in a relationship with “a dictator” who instills fear in others over what may happen if they fall out favor with their ruler.

5. An Emotional Abuser Acts Differently When You’re in Public

a woman holding up a photograph of her mouth

Often, emotionally abusive language and behavior is reserved for private time, when there can be no witnesses to the tirades. People who are abusive at home but cheerful and even affectionate in public can leave their partners confused, embarrassed, questioning their own judgment about the at-home abuse, and distant from friends whom they fear might not believe them. The double-standard, says Rapini, is another form of emotional abuse. Ask yourself, she suggests: Do you get extra tense before going out in public with your partner?

6. An Emotional Abuser Threatens to Leave or Hurt You

a man holding a clenched fist with his wife in the background

Anyone who threatens physical abuse fits “the batterer’s profile,” says Rapini, and they may be more likely than you think to eventually follow up on those threats. Threats can take non-physical forms too, as when one partner threatens to leave the family, taking the house, car, or money away from their partner. These threats are often linked to specific—and hyper-critical—judgments, like, “If you can’t lose some weight, I’m going to _______.”

7. An Emotional Abuser Is Irrationally Jealous

a man pushing a woman up against a wall

At the base of jealousy, which can take the form of false accusations or demands that you stop spending time with specific people, is fear, says Rapini. “They are afraid you will leave,” she says, especially if they see you getting close with people who they perceive as threats to the controlling “rules” they have set for your relationship. Explosive jealous episodes may be followed by a “honeymoon” period in which they try to fix everything with gifts or excessive compliments. “They’re suffering a huge conflict inside,” says Rapini,” because they realize that their behavior is out of control.”

8. An Emotional Abuser Isolates You

a couple having an arguement at dinner

Whether because of jealousy or other forms of exerting control, emotional abusers often discourage friendships and social interactions outside of your relationship. At the root of this pattern is a deep insecurity, says Rapini. “Abusers are very fragile inside,” she says, “That’s part of the reason they try to cut off your network.” Allowing yourself to be isolated, though, is dangerous to your mental health as well as your possible future physical safety. “Confide in at least one adult, though I prefer you confide in three,” says Rapini, so you have in-the-know people who can help guide you if you need to leave the relationship.

9. An Emotional Abuser Expects You to Live to Please

a woman looking sad while her husband looks frustrated in the background

Many couples have values of “servitude” and “submission” as part of their relationship, whether for religious reasons or traditional ideas about gender roles. In many cases, these relationships are healthy because each member of the couple “serves” the other in a balanced way that works for both people. But, Rapini says, if one member of the couple expects the other to constantly be at their beck and call, acquiesce to every request without question, and declare that their partner is “always right,” emotional abuse—fueled by narcissism—may be at play.

How to Get Help

a couple of people holding hands

Rapini tells couples that emotional abuse can’t be “fixed” by waiting it out, trying to love it away, or confronting it on your own—professional help in the form of an anger management therapist or marriage and family therapist is absolutely necessary. You can also try online private counseling at a reasonable cost, you can try Better Help and Safe Horizon. This counselor might recommend a psychiatrist to prescribe medication to help the abusive person begin to learn healthy behaviors. The person who has been abused will also benefit from counseling to help her preserve her self-esteem and build into her life activities that make her feel healthy and strong. 

Physical safety for the abused person and any children in the home is also paramount; Rapini recommends that having a bag packed is both an empowering step and an important one if you need to leave in a hurry. Have a few friends or close family members who know of the situations and can receive you if you do not feel safe in your home. It is a frightening realization that you and your children are not safe at home, but scary as it is, that realization requires action, for your children as well as yourself. “Every day you keep your child locked into an abusive situation, you’re hurting them,” says Rapini. 

With the proper help, says Rapini, many emotionally abusive relationships do become healthy, supportive partnerships. But once you recognize emotional abuse, don’t delay in getting your children and yourself to a safe place—and work on it from there.

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