In movies and TV shows, abusive relationships are typically characterized by physical violence or other blatant acts of aggression, like screaming or hurling insults. Those are common red flags, to be sure, but they’re not the only ones, and the warning signs aren’t always so obvious, particularly when it comes to emotional abuse. In fact, it’s pretty easy to miss subtly manipulative patterns like love bombing or insidious criticism, for example, which can quickly evolve into something more dangerous.
There’s no hard and fast definition of what qualifies as emotional abuse. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, it involves any non-physical behaviors that aim to control, isolate, or scare you, which can include things like threats or humiliation. The Department of Justice also adds the “undermining of an individual’s sense of self-worth and/or self-esteem” to its definition. The experts SELF spoke with agree on one thing though: Emotional abuse is a complex and serious form of intimate partner violence that deserves more attention.
“What these actions have in common is that they can erode your sense of value as a human being, and it can happen silently, slowly, and even without your awareness,” Mindy Mechanic, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor at California State University, Fullerton, tells SELF. Sometimes you can just tell when a friend’s overly jealous partner is exhibiting controlling tendencies, for example. Other times, emotional abuse can hide behind seemingly sweet words like, “Your friends are a bad influence on you, but hey, I’m just trying to protect you.”
All that to say: It can be incredibly difficult to know when your—or a loved one’s—relationship is turning emotionally abusive, especially if you’ve been led to believe that certain not-okay behaviors are “normal.” Here, two psychologists break down some of the most common yet subtle warning signs to look out for.
They try to control what you do, say, or wear.
One of the telltale characteristics of an emotionally abusive dynamic is coercive control, which doesn’t rely on physical violence, but rather psychological tactics to manipulate and intimidate.
You might be aware of more obvious versions of this, like the person monitoring your finances or constantly offering unsolicited feedback about your “too revealing” outfits. But it could also take the form of someone who gives you the silent treatment if you don’t do what they want, for example, or insists that they need to know about every little detail in your life “because that’s what love is.” “By trying to control what you say or how you act, they leave you feeling powerless and dependent on them,” T.K. Logan, PhD, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Kentucky whose research focuses on intimate partner violence, tells SELF.
Another sneaky control tactic is disguising irrational demands as normal boundaries, adds Dr. Mechanic, who studies the psychosocial consequences of violence and trauma. Certain rules and limits can, of course, be rooted in protecting a person’s well-being, but there’s a big difference between “Do you mind texting me whenever you get home from your runs so I know you’re safe?” and “I need you to call me every 15 minutes so that I know you’re okay.” Healthy boundaries are empowering and purely about the person setting them, while unhealthy (and potentially abusive) ones are about dictating others, limiting their independence, and justifying harmful behavior, Dr. Mechanic says.
They don’t respect your boundaries.
Speaking of boundaries, everyone has theirs, whether that’s needing a little alone time on the weekends, say, or not wanting to share passwords. Regardless of what your specific needs are, though, your partner should respect them (again, as long as they’re about you versus controlling someone else).
You might already know that reading your texts without your permission or touching you in ways that make you uncomfortable crosses the line. But you should also be wary of someone who keeps pressuring you to move quickly even though you told them you’re not ready for anything serious, or who shows up at your friends-only night uninvited—and then berates you for not appreciating the “above and beyond” surprise gesture that you never even asked for. Because if they’re willing to breach your boundaries and ignore your blatant noes, they’re also probably not afraid to strip you of your autonomy and independence.
They guilt-trip you when you spend time without them.
Not only do emotionally abusive people tend to push your personal limits, but they may also make you feel guilty about having them in the first place, Dr. Mechanic says. For example, it’s one thing if your significant other gets a little upset when you cancel at the last second or forget their birthday. But if they tend to take advantage of the moments you “mess up” and weaponize your guilt as a means to manipulate you, that’s a major warning sign, she says.
So let’s say you decided to stay at an impromptu work happy hour longer than you expected and don’t inform your partner (who was expecting to hang with you later) right away. A response like, “I wish you had told me earlier because I could’ve made other plans tonight” is pretty expected, but something more along the lines of “I can’t believe you’re ditching me. You should feel terrible for leaving me all alone” is more of an attempt to get you to feel bad and stay home with them, Dr. Mechanic says
“The overall goal of guilt tripping is to make the other person think they’re responsible for your distress, even when it’s not their fault,” Dr. Mechanic says. As a result, victims of this type of manipulation may falsely assume they have to do whatever it takes to alleviate the perpetrator’s anger, disappointment, or sadness. It’s yet another sneaky way to make you do exactly what they want, she says.
They use your private details (a.k.a. things you trusted them with) against you.
Your partner has probably seen you in your most vulnerable moments, and anyone who really loves you should protect the sensitive information you share with them—whether that’s about your history with trauma or the reality of your financial struggles—even when you’re fighting or going through a rough patch. However, an abusive lover may strategically use the stuff you disclosed in confidence and turn it against you, Dr. Logan cautions.
For example, if you’ve told them you were cheated on by a former lover, they might try to win an argument by saying something like, “See, this is why they left you.” “You’re sharing these personal things with someone you trust and who you believe will support you,” Dr. Logan says. So if your partner intentionally uses intimate details as ammunition for hitting you where it hurts and making you feel bad about yourself, that’s a major warning sign, she adds.
They bring you down with belittling “jokes.”
No, we’re not talking about the occasional playful jab about the time you fell up the stairs or ongoing banter about your “overrated” favorite sports team. This is about a more insidious pattern of humiliating insults and sarcasm that don’t feel all that funny to you even though your partner insists they are “just joking.”
“Criticism that isn’t constructive may be emotionally abusive, especially when it involves public embarrassment or even private behaviors that are meant to make you feel less than,” Dr. Logan says. And just because they brush off these cruel comments as “kidding” doesn’t make them any less harmful or serious.
They react with anger or immediately shift the blame onto you whenever you voice a concern about the relationship.
The way your partner reacts when you tell them they’ve hurt you can be a good indicator of whether or not they actually have your best interest in mind, Dr. Logan says. The next time you confront them about something they did that upset you, consider: Do they acknowledge your perspective with empathy? (“You’re right, I’m sorry.” “I see what you mean and I won’t do it again.”) Or is their immediate reaction anger and denial? (“It was just a joke!” “You always make me the villain.”) The latter is definitely something to pay attention to, especially if it’s a regular occurrence.
Also, think more generally about what happens if you don’t do what your partner wants, Dr. Logan suggests. In an abusive dynamic, you may fear they’ll lash out if you spend the night at a friend’s instead of chilling with them, for instance, or worry that they’ll leak your nudes if you suggest taking a break. “If fear of retaliation or punishment is one of your first reactions to any conflict, that’s your body telling you that you don’t feel safe,” Dr. Logan says.
They threaten you or issue ultimatums.
Threats can be as direct as, “I’ll break up with you if you don’t let me see your phone,” or as subtle as a certain look when you order the burger and fries instead of a salad. On its own, the latter may not immediately qualify as abuse, but consistently using nonverbal cues to intimidate you or make you second-guess your decisions can indicate coercive control, Dr. Mechanic says.
Even if the threat isn’t actually carried out, “the point of intimidation is to induce fear in the victim, who will then change their behaviors just to avoid triggering their partner,” she explains. In other words, it’s all about maintaining power over you and ultimately making it more difficult for you to leave the relationship.
If any of the above warning signs of emotional abuse feel all too familiar—or perhaps you’ve seen some of these dynamics play out in a loved one’s relationship—it’s important to seek help. (There are plenty of great resources out there, some of which we’ve linked below.) Genuine love should make you feel seen, valued, and, most importantly, safe—it doesn’t come with strings attached or leave you feeling scared or small.
If you or someone you care about may be in an abusive relationship, confidential help is available. To talk it out, make a plan to stay safe, or figure out next steps, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1-800-787-3224, text “START” to 88788, or chat live here.