An abuser may unfairly blame you for their abusive behavior. PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou/Getty Images
- Emotional abuse can take the form of gaslighting, which is when someone makes you doubt your reality.
- An abuser may also isolate you from your loved ones in order to maintain control of your life.
- Abusers can express extreme jealousy and unpredictable anger that manifest as yelling.
Emotional abuse isn’t always easy to spot, but it can be just as harmful as physical abuse and lead to mental health conditions such as
and low self-esteem.
Any relationship can become abusive, including with a partner, family member, friend, or in a workplace.
There are several important signs to look for, like gaslighting and extreme jealousy, that may mean you’re in an abusive relationship,
Here are seven signs of emotional abuse and how you can get help.
“Gaslighting is a common tactic in emotionally abusive relationships,” says Payal Patel, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in private practice.
Gaslighters deny that events have happened to make their victims doubt themselves and question their own perception of reality. This helps the gaslighter maintain control, because their word becomes more powerful than the victim’s own beliefs or experience.
According to Patel, some common gaslighting phrases that abusers may use are:
- “You’re crazy for thinking that.” This is a way to make the victim question their own sanity and put more trust in the abuser’s opinion.
- “You’re making a big deal out of nothing.” An abuser may say this to downplay their own abusive behavior and discourage the victim from telling others about it.
- “I never said that.” This is a way for an abuser to avoid accountability for their words or actions and make the victim doubt their own memory.
2. Isolating you from loved ones
Abusers often isolate their victims in order to control them more easily, says JaQuinda Jackson, EdD, LPC, a licensed therapist in private practice.
They may do this by limiting your contact with supportive people like friends and family and convince you that they are the only person who cares about you, says Jackson.
Some signs that your partner is isolating you include:
- They discourage you from seeing friends or family.
- They restrict your ability to go out by withholding money or a vehicle.
- They become angry or make you feel guilty after you see loved ones.
- They insist on going everywhere with you.
- “Isolation keeps the victim dependent on the abuser,” says Mindy Mechanic, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in trauma and interpersonal violence.
When a victim is isolated, they don’t have support from loved ones that could help them recognize the abuse and leave the relationship.
3. Using insulting language
An emotionally abusive person may use language like insults and name-calling to attack your self-worth. The insults often target your competence, attractiveness, and value as a person, says Mechanic.
For example, an abuser may say things like:
- “No one else will ever love you, except me.”
- “You’re too stupid to earn a degree.” or “You’ll never land a job.”
- “You need to lose weight.” or “You need a nose job.”
- “Such tactics wear down a victim’s self-esteem, sense of self-worth, and value,” Mechanic says.
- Losing weight
- Not arguing back
- Keeping the kids quiet
- Returning home quickly from errands
- Constantly accusing you of cheating
- Monitoring your calls, texts, or emails
- Controlling your appearance, including what you wear
- Calling you excessively while you’re at work or with friends
- Glaring at you
- Punching a wall
- Pounding their fist on a surface
- Breaking household items
- All of these actions can signal a potential threat or danger, Mechanic says, even if the abuser doesn’t hurt you physically.
- Feeling hypervigilant
- Being afraid to make even small mistakes
- Fidgety behaviors
- Being extremely careful in what you say to your partner
Victims often stay in emotionally abusive relationships because they believe what they have been told, Jackson says.
“Yelling can actually be one of the first signs of emotional abuse,” Patel says, and it shows up in all types of relationships.
Being yelled at by your partner, parent, or boss can be an indicator of an abusive relationship — especially if the yelling is very loud, aggressive, or the person is up close to your face.
Yelling works as an abusive tactic because it can create an unequal power dynamic between two people.
“The person whose voice is essentially louder has more power and can instill fear in their victim by elevating their voice,” Patel says.
The abuser can then harness that fear to control their victim.
5. Shifting the blame
Abusers will often dodge accountability and blame other people for their abusive behavior. In many cases, the blame falls on the victim.
For example, an abusive partner or parent may convince you that the abuse is your fault and there are things you could do to prevent it.
“It keeps them trapped, believing that it is possible to stop their partner’s abuse by changing themselves,” Mechanic says.
In reality, emotional abuse is often unpredictable and may be based more on the abuser’s mental state than the victim’s behavior.
An abuser may make you believe you can prevent the abuse with efforts like:
6. Acting extremely jealous
“Jealousy is common in relationships, but there’s healthy and unhealthy levels,” Patel says.
Most people feel jealous at some point in a relationship, but when it leads to intense anger or controlling behavior, this can be a warning sign of emotional abuse.
Jealousy often stems from feeling insecure, but abusers may develop more extreme jealousy when they feel like they don’t have power or control over you, says Patel.
Some controlling behaviors to look out for are:
7. Outbursts of unpredictable anger
“Unpredictable anger can be terrifying, and it can be thought of as a form of intimidation,” says Mechanic.
A family member, spouse, or boss may be calm one moment, but then show their anger by:
“Unpredictable anger is a sign of emotional abuse in that it leaves their partner on edge and unsure of what is to come,” Jackson says. Some signs that you’re on edge include:
Emotional abuse may not leave physical scars, but it can still be incredibly harmful, Jackson says.
There are several warning signs, like isolation and unpredictable anger, which suggest you may be in an abusive relationship with a partner, friend, family member, or boss.
If you can relate to any of these signs, you can get help or guidance by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
You may also want to seek a therapist to help you navigate through an abusive relationship.
“Trust your gut feeling, if something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t,” Patel says.