Emotionally abusive relationships can be insidious and difficult to recognize, even for those experiencing the abuse firsthand. While emotional abuse and domestic violence often go hand-in-hand, they are not synonymous. Frequent fighting alone does not necessarily indicate emotional abuse. Rather, emotional abuse is characterized by a pervasive pattern of behaviors employed by one partner to gain and maintain power and control over the other. These toxic dynamics can manifest in myriad ways, ranging from subtle manipulation to overt cruelty.

Emotionally abusive relationships often feature high levels of contempt, harsh criticism, name-calling, blaming, shaming, intimidation, mockery, gaslighting, and extreme withdrawal. They are often mired in lying, distorting the truth or minimizing the impact of their harmful behaviors. The abusive partner will use various tactics to establish dominance, maintain secrecy, and exert control. Recognizing the signs is the first step in breaking free from the fog of an emotionally abusive relationship.

These relationships have predictable patterns of behavior that range from the subtle to the blatant.

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 think that their relationship is simply “complicated.” 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.

1. Reality is defined for you.

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.

2.  You’re always too hesitant to act on your own thoughts and feelings.

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, or simply ignored you and acted in ways that blocked your goals. 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.

You may not consciously be aware of this, but you’ve been systematically conditioned to avoid bringing up things that may upset your spouse. It happens gradually and worsens over time. Perhaps earlier on, you talked about an upset, and you were talked out of it. “That’s not how you really feel” you might be told. Later, when you object to something your partner does, they stop talking to you for days or weeks. If you attempt to confront them with their silence and withdrawal, they will tell you how “hurt” they were by your “criticism,” or will deny any feelings at all. You gradually learn not to say anything about their behavior.

3. Your spouse undermines your accomplishments, minimizes your abilities, and mocks your dreams.

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. But sometimes it just isn’t as blatant. Sometimes the abusive spouse simply ignores your successes, or responds with his or her own. Sometimes they respond, by sharing a concern about their own physical symptoms or worry about your child’s school success. There is no joy in you reaching your dreams. Or their response is a “Yes, but” as in “Yes, but you would have gotten a larger raise if you weren’t late so much.”

We’re in intimate relationships in the first place, to have someone who can rejoice in our successes. A common feature of emotionally abusive relationships is a profound lack of support in both good times or bad.

4. Your spouse has an obsessive need to control your access to money or mobility.

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. Your spouse invests in risky stocks without ever mentioning it to you. They come home with an expensive purchase for themselves, after telling you that your necessary purchase “isn’t in the cards” because you are both cash-strapped. Bring up the unfairness, and they begin to attack you or withdraw into stony silence.

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.

5. Your spouse changes plans at the last minute.

This is another of the very subtle indications of an emotionally abusive relationship. The sly “under the radar” habit of completely changing a previously agreed upon activity or itinerary is a common feature in emotionally abusive relationships.

Another indication of this volatility is that your spouse is wildly unpredictable. Your life is in chaos and you never know what drama will happen next.

They’re affectionate one moment and as cold as ice 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 their decision as “having found something better” or “wanting to surprise” you. Or they simply will go in a completely different direction and act surprised when you bring up what you agreed to.

6. Your spouse is chronically sarcastic and won’t own it.

“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 plausible deniability wrapped in a fresh new criticism about your neurotic over-sensitivity.

7. You distract yourself 24/7

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 of emotionally abusive relationships. Your abuser always has something more important to do than spend time with you. That might be work, sports, family, or social events.

Your world has gradually become very small, so you go inward to escape.

8. They withhold whatever you specifically told them you need.

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 desires and deserves to experience in a relationship renders the behavior abusive. They may withhold affection or sex.

9. They demand access to all of your social media accounts while offering no willingness to do the same.

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 accounts 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 stalking your social media activity for no apparent reason, you could be in an emotionally abusive relationship.

10. You feel more connected to your partner’s pain than to your own.

Emotionally abusive spouses often bare their scars and parade a litany of past hurts. These hurts can be from their childhood or from you and your behavior. 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.

 11. You ask for courtesy and respect but all you get is a barrage of emotional abuse instead.

There is no acceptance of influence by abusers in emotionally abusive relationships.

Your spouse uses abusive language. 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 to 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.

12. Your self-esteem has hit rock bottom.

One of the clearest indications of inhabiting an emotionally abusive relationship is that your confidence and self-esteem have hit rock bottom. You get used to the idea that you are the problem. You can never do anything right. You feel unattractive and unworthy of love.

13. Sex is either too little or too much.

In an emotionally abusive relationship, love is a battlefield. Some partners withhold intimacy as a way of punishing their spouses. 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.

14. You never get heard, and what you want is irrelevant.

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. The exception is a decision that your partner is completely disinterested in. Otherwise, you have to “go along to get along,” or there will be hell to pay.

When your partner doesn’t care about 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 Deserve Better

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, it 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.

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.

Emotional abuse cuts across class and gender

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 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.


If you recognize your own relationship in these signs of emotional abuse, know that you are not alone and you do not have to suffer in silence. Seeking outside support and perspective, such as through individual therapy, is often an important first step. Remember, adapting to mistreatment does not make it acceptable. You deserve to be treated with respect, kindness, and dignity. While leaving an abusive relationship is rarely easy, it is possible with the right help and resources. No matter your circumstances, you have the right to safety, healing, and a life free from abuse. Reaching out to a trusted friend, therapist, or domestic violence hotline can help you explore your options and empower you to prioritize your own well-being. Breaking the silence is an act of profound courage and the first step on the path to reclaiming your life. Read about abuse, and talk confidentially to someone on the National Domestic Abuse hotline.