Emotional abuse can come about slowly and quietly, which is why it's often easy to ignore, brush off, or overlook. But since it's a very real and very toxic problem, as well as one that may require you to reevaluate your relationship, it's important to keep your eye out for the signs — including all the small ways your partner lets you down.
"Emotional abuse can be any form of manipulation or exploitation of a person’s vulnerability," licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Racine Henry, PhD, LMFT, tells Bustle. "It can be the result of a power imbalance within a relationship and cause extreme mental and emotional distress."
For some couples, it's possible to overcome this problem — and improve the overall health of the relationship — by talking about it and going to therapy. "There are circumstances where a couple can overcome emotional abuse, particularly in situations where the relationship is healthy other than when the couple is fighting in the heat of the moment, and bad behaviors come out," licensed psychologist Dr. Danielle Forshee, tells Bustle. "In those circumstances, couples counseling could be effective."
It's important, though, to tune into your feelings and be honest with yourself about the state of your relationship. If it feels toxic, or you feel unsafe, it may be best to get out. Often a friend, family member, or therapist can help you in the process. So if you notice any of the signs of emotional abuse listed below, don't be afraid to reach out to others for help, or call a hotline, to help you get out of the relationship.
1They Make You Second Guess Yourself
It may not seem like a big deal if your partner says things like, "you're remembering it wrong" or "that's not what we were arguing about." But comments like these are often a subtle manipulation tactic known as gaslighting. And since it can mess with your head, it's definitely a form of emotional abuse.
Gaslighting is when you are made to question the nature of your reality, Dr. Forshee says. "This happens when you come to your partner with a problem, and you point out observable behaviors or situations you’ve seen in with them, and you let them know how you felt about it. The individual then responds by telling you that did not happen, and convinces you that you are the one who is wrong in the end."
It can be a tough form of abuse to spot, especially since the very aim is to make you doubt yourself — and thus be more readily accepting of your partner's opinion. But if something seems fishy, try to trust your gut, and seek help to get out of the situation.
2They Call You Names
Name calling is another habit that may not seem toxic at first. But since it can wear you down over time and impact your wellbeing, it certainly counts as emotional abuse.
"Calling you lazy, stupid, or worse is emotional abuse because it erodes a partner’s self-esteem," clinical psychologist Dr. Helen Odessky, tells Bustle. It's not so much about the name itself, but the fact your partner is saying it as a way of hurting your feelings. So if this is happening, it may be best to move on from the relationship.
3They Give You The Silent Treatment
If your partner needs to walk away during an argument, or take some time for themselves, that's 100 percent OK. Some people need a little room to process their feelings, so this isn't a sign of emotional abuse.
What does count as emotional abuse is the silent treatment, which is also called stonewalling. "People use the silent treatment occasionally, however if this is a regular tactic and has a manipulative quality — they refuse to speak to you until you give in — this is emotional abuse," Dr. Odessky says. "It creates a power imbalance in the relationship through manipulation." If this is happening in your relationship, it's something to seriously evaluate.
4They Attack Your Character
If your partner attacks you as a person during an argument, it's not only toxic, but incredibly emotionally abusive.
"When there is a disagreement or dispute between you and your partner, and your partner resorts to character assassination or criticizing your character, this means that they stopped focusing on the issue at hand and instead transitioned their focus to negative aspects about your personality, how you see things, behaviors you engage in, etc.," Dr. Forshee says.
It's no longer about disagreeing and trying to understand each other, but about them lashing out and "winning" the fight — and the expense of your mental health. And if this is the case, it may be time to leave.
5They Compare You To Others
What may start off as a joke or a few offhanded comments, can quickly turn toxic and even ruin your self-esteem. So if your partner is constantly comparing you to others, don't let it slide.
"Admiring another person’s physical attributes or talents is OK, but if your partner makes reference to you not being [as good] as another person that is a red flag," Dr. Henry says. "Your partner should choose you exactly as you are and not on a conditional basis [...] If your partner always points out things you lack, this could be emotional abuse."
6They Constantly Blame You
It's fine if your partner wants to point out something in the relationship that isn't working for them, as a way of having a conversation about it. But if they blame you for everything that's going wrong, that can easily cross over into emotional abuse.
"You know you are experiencing emotional abuse if every relationship issue and/or all of your partner's problems are some fault of yours," Dr. Henry says. "Nobody can make anybody else do anything." So if your partner is always pointing fingers at you, it may be time to rethink your relationship.
"If [they say] 'you made me lie to you,' 'you made me yell at you,' 'you made me not come home,' they aren’t taking accountability for their own choices," Dr. Henry says. "This is never OK nor is it a sign of a healthy relationship."
7They Tell You What To Do
It's common to fall into the trap of thinking it's romantic when a partner tells you what to do, or when they act jealous when you're talking to other people. But this type of controlling behavior is a major red flag.
"Emotional abuse is about power and control," couples therapist Theresa Herring, LMFT, tells Bustle. "If your partner is dictating who you can and cannot hang out with that could be an indicator that this relationship is abusive. The more restrictions you have on your decisions, the more power and control your partner has over you."
This can lead to a sticky situation, especially if your partner isolates you from family and friends. If you feel like that's the case, don't be afraid to reach out for help. A therapist can be a great person to turn to, as well as friends. There are also hotlines to call for advice, if things truly get out of hand.
8They Don't Support Your Goals
Sometimes partners lets us down due to a busy schedule, or because they don't recognize how meaningful their support would be. If you notice your partner is leaving you hanging, when it comes to cheering you on or offering support, point it out to them.
If they can't change, or don't seem interested in your goals — or worse, if they try to prevent you from reaching your goals — it may be a sign of emotional abuse.
"Be wary if your partner frequently puts you down or belittles you," Herring says. "Tearing [a] partner down is the cornerstone of an emotionally abusive relationship. The worse you feel about yourself, the more dependent you become on them."
9They Always Have Doubts About Your Relationship
Another insidious way to turn a relationship from healthy and supportive, to toxic and abusive, is to constantly doubt it — to the point where you feel unsafe and insecure.
If your partner is doing this, they may see your whole relationship through a negative lens, and constantly remind you of their doubts.
"They have doubts about themselves, their relationship with you, the world, and their future," Joshua Klapow, PhD, clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle. "They are looking for the next problem, the next let down, the next thing to go wrong. They want you to feel the same way and as a result take you from a place of relative happiness to sadness and despair."
This is something you can address in therapy, and may improve once you've brought it to their attention. But if at any time you feel like your partner is wearing you out or dragging you down, it may be time to rethink whether or not this relationship is truly healthy for you, and seek help getting out.
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org