Emotionally abusive relationships can be hard to spot. Emotionally abuse IS not synonymous with domestic violence.
And just because you fight a lot, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re being emotionally abused.
These relationships have predictable patterns of behavior that range from the subtle to the blatant.
These relationships may include high levels of contempt, harsh and heavy criticism, name-calling, blaming and shaming, intimidation, insults, (including insult “humor”), ridiculing, abusive language, gaslighting, lying and distorting, mocking and extreme withdrawal, and especially various tactics in pursuit of dominance, secrecy, and control.
The Fog of an Abusive Relationship
It might surprise you to know that many spouses in an emotionally abusive relationship are completely unaware of it. They have been living under the dominance of their partner for so long, that it seems normal. Here are 14 behaviors that clearly indicate that you are in an emotionally abusive relationship.
In emotionally abusive relationships, the abusive partner defines reality for you. Gaslighting is an example of how this is done. When you know something is true, and your partner insists that it isn’t, they may be gaslighting you. Emotionally abusive partners seek to enforce their own version of reality so that it successfully crowds out your own. And you are always too stupid, forgetful, unreliable, (fill in the blank) to know better. Respect in marriage just isn’t there.
Gaslighting can be either subtle or blatant. If your spouse is chronically denying the obvious, revising or distorting conversations, or offering wildly implausible explanations, you’re a victim of emotional abuse.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological terrorism that seeks to undermine your confidence in your own memory and senses. You are asked to subordinate your lived experience to your partner’s whims.
Your partners’ perceptions dominate your decision-making process. This is because when you’ve made your own decisions in the past, even minor ones, your partner became extremely upset. Over time, you’ve gradually reined in your agency. Now you’re frozen in chronic self-doubt. You are always focused on pleasing or appeasing your abusive partner. You can never relax, you can never trust your own thoughts and feelings.
Emotionally abusive spouses run you down instead of building you up. If you struggle with a personal setback, they can pile on abuse that is onerous and sometimes vicious. The ways your spouse engages with you during moments of triumph or tragedy is critically important. It’s an essential litmus test for the relative health of your relationship.
That’s why we’re in intimate relationships in the first place, isn’t it? Does she find fault with you, or shame you? Does he minimize or marginalize your talents and skills? A common feature of emotionally abusive relationships is a profound lack of support in both good times or bad.
Emotionally abusive spouses often cloak their vices as virtues. They are often anxious about who you are socializing with, or how you spend money. They may frame this as a “concern” when in reality it’s more about establishing and maintaining control.
If your spouse is secretive about family money, or texts you relentlessly when you’re away from home, these preoccupations are seeking to control your freedom and agency.
Two of the most potent sources of control in emotionally abusive relationships are who you can see and what you can spend. Ideally, the abusive partner wants you isolated and without resources.
Money can be a stressor in any relationship, but in an emotionally abusive relationship, it becomes a focus area for an abusive spouse to strategically exert authority.
Emotionally abusive relationships are often characterized by allowances, demanding receipts for even trivial purchases, seizing a spouses’ paycheck, and depositing into an account that the abused spouse cannot access. Emotionally abusive partners may also deny their spouse access to even the most basic family financial information.
This is another of the very subtle indications of an emotionally abusive relationship. It’s easy for the all-purpose therapist to recognize the naked aggression of making constant unreasonable demands. But the sly “under the radar” habit of completely changing a previously agreed upon activity or itinerary is a common feature with emotionally abusive relationships that is much harder to tease out.
Another indication of this volatility is that your spouse is wildly unpredictable.
They’re all lovey-dovey one moment, and as cold as ice in the next. You can’t predict their mood swings, and that’s how they want you; off-balance, insecure, and anxious. Typically in emotionally abusive relationships, the abused spouse becomes fretful and anxious to please. And that was their calculated goal all along
Abusive partners may unilaterally reverse a mutual decision. They will explain away their decision as “having found something better” or “wanting to surprise” you.
“The problem with you is that you’re too sensitive. I’m just joking, I have a good sense of humor, and you’re just a crybaby.” Sarcasm is typically a way of getting at a “truth” in a passive-aggressive way. Sarcasm offers a plausible deniability wrapped in a fresh new criticism about your neurotic over-sensitivity.
You go through life in a fog, daydreaming almost constantly. Reality is optional. You are perpetually distracting or entertaining yourself. You are in permanent escape mode. The hallmarks of being trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship are dismissing, denying, and distracting yourself from your unhappiness.
Loneliness is part and parcel in emotionally abusive relationships. Your world has gradually become very small, and so you go inward to escape.
This is one of the most subtle and elusive signs of an emotionally abusive relationship. The active withholding of material or emotional support is not always understood as an emotionally abusive relationship.
The chronic, controlling, or conditional withholding of what a spouse both desires and deserves to experience in a relationship renders the behavior abusive.
Sharing is essentially voluntary. With the exception of rebuilding trust after an affair, most spouses expect to be able to keep their email, Facebook, and other social media account and other internet passwords private.
One of the major hallmarks of an emotionally abusive relationship is intense jealousy and relational anxiety.
If your partner is constantly pestering you for passwords or is stalking your social media activity for no apparent reason, you could be in an emotionally abusive relationship.
Emotionally abusive spouses often bare their scars and parade a litany of past hurts. They avoid responsibility because they are too “wounded” by what you allegedly said or did. They use their inconsolability as a bludgeon to beat you into compliance. They manipulate you into caring more for their pain than for your own. You feel bad…so you focus on making them happy even while their demands are unreasonable.
There is no acceptance of influence by abusers in emotionally abusive relationships.
Let’s be direct here. If your spouse uses abusive language and you’ve asked them to stop, and they won’t, you are in an emotionally abusive relationship. But that doesn’t mean you are powerless. You have to refuse to attend any outbursts of verbal abuse. If you’re being screamed at, leave the house. Stay with a friend or relative, or get a hotel room.
One of the most obvious indications of inhabiting an emotionally abusive relationship is that your confidence and self-esteem has hit rock bottom. You get used to the idea that you are the problem. You can never do anything right.
Dr. Marni Feuerman puts it plainly and succinctly;
“All abuse takes a severe toll on self-esteem. The abused person starts feeling helpless and possibly even hopeless. In addition, most mental abusers are adept at convincing the victim that the abuse is his/her fault. Somehow, the victim is responsible for what happened.”
In an emotionally abusive relationship, love is a battlefield. Some partners withhold intimacy as a way of punishing their spouse, while others may seek to coerce or guilt-trip their partner into sexual behavior against their will. The arena of intimacy becomes a constant exercise of control either through withholding or manipulation. In emotionally abusive relationships, physical intimacy is never mutual, relaxed, or loving.
One of the most obvious signs that you are in an emotionally abusive relationship is that you have absolutely no power or influence over decisions large or small. You have to “go along to get along” or there will be hell to pay.
When your partner doesn’t give a tinker’s damn for anything that you cherish or desire, you are in an emotionally abusive relationship. If you advocate for yourself, you will be marginalized and belittled.
And if you press the issue, you will be coerced or controlled. If that doesn’t shut you up, you will be intimidated and threatened. But you will never have influence. Period.
You may need help figuring it out. Seek out a good individual therapist first. You may need a fresh perspective on your relationship. Remember that just because your relationship is at a low point, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s an emotionally abusive relationship. Couples therapy is not always the first pit stop in an emotionally abusive relationship.
I’ve heard far too many horror stories over the last few years from spouses married to narcissistic and borderline partners. Extreme examples of Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder are profoundly difficult to treat, even with science-based couples therapy. I’m not saying we can’t help. I’m saying that we may not be able to.
That’s why a State of the Union Clinical Assessment is so important. We call them as we see them.
The problem with living in an emotionally abusive relationship is that we humans can adapt to almost anything. For victims of emotional abuse, there’s often a quality of learned helplessness, and, on the other hand, a materially constricted world on the other.
Victims of emotional abuse often have considerations beyond themselves; the safety and welfare of children, reputation, and the looming question of their paucity of options. Sometimes emotional abuse becomes so extreme that it crosses over into domestic violence.
The politics of emotional abuse, and even physical abuse cuts across class and gender.
Susan Weitzman’s brilliant book, Not to People Like Us explores the overlooked population of abused wives who are well-educated and upper-income women who rarely complain and remain trapped by their own silence. Because people like us don’t have problems like that.
And it’s equally important to remember that just because there is no violence doesn’t mean that you are not in an emotionally abusive relationship.
The critical paradox of emotional abuse is that we become acclimated to it. We expect it. We excuse it. We may even defend it.
An emotionally abusive relationship is dead…but we aren’t allowed to bury it.
In the end, it all unravels like a mummy on a merry-go-round. Then we are left with a handful of dust and a bitter taste in our mouths. I know. I’ve been there.
Reflect on these 14 signs of an emotionally abusive relationship, and ask yourself the uncomfortable question “does this apply to me?” You are not alone. Read about abuse, and talk confidentially to someone on the National Domestic Abuse hotline.
As a rule, emotional abusers don’t play nice in couples therapy. This is not good news for many long-suffering spouses…but it is the truth. If you’re being emotionalized abused on a continual basis, couples therapy will probably not help you.
But Hopeful Spouse counseling with a trained science-based couples therapist can help you unpack these experiences, keep your sanity, and work toward establishing more firm, healthy boundaries…whether you stay married to your abuser or not.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.