Elizabeth and Ryan, both in their late 30s, have been married for 10 years. From the outside, they seem to have a stable relationship. But behind closed doors, their dynamic is quite different from their friends Christina and Timothy. While Christina and Tim engage in open, supportive communication, Elizabeth often finds herself feeling small, dismissed, and emotionally unfulfilled by Ryan.

The difference lies in the subtle yet pervasive patterns of emotional abuse present in Elizabeth and Ryan’s marriage. While Ryan rarely raises his voice or lashes out in obvious verbal attacks, he frequently employs more insidious tactics that undermine Elizabeth’s self-worth and autonomy.

Withholding affection and engagement

One common form of emotional abuse is withholding – when a partner deliberately withdraws affection, attention or engagement. Ryan routinely does this when Elizabeth tries to share her thoughts or feelings with him.

While Tim thoughtfully engages when Christina wants to talk, saying things like, “I’m listening, what’s on your mind?,” Ryan often brushes Elizabeth off with curt responses:

Ryan: “Can we talk about this later? I’m in the middle of something.” or

Ryan: “There’s nothing to discuss. Everything’s fine.” or

Ryan: “You’re always needing to talk. It’s exhausting.” or

Ryan: “WHAT! (continues to watch TV)

Over time, these dismissals leave Elizabeth feeling unimportant and alone. She begins to believe her needs don’t matter. Ryan’s withholding sends the hurtful message that Elizabeth is not worthy of his time and attention.

Deflecting responsibility and blaming

Another insidious tactic Ryan employs is deflecting responsibility and turning things around on Elizabeth. Whenever she expresses hurt or frustration with his behavior, he’s quick to flip the script:

Ryan: “I couldn’t be more affectionate because you’ve been so cold lately.” or

Ryan: “Maybe I’d want to spend more time with you if you weren’t always nagging me.” or

Ryan: “If you weren’t so insecure, my comments wouldn’t bother you so much.”

Rather than acknowledging the impact of his actions, Ryan makes Elizabeth feel like she is the problem. It’s a manipulative way to avoid accountability.

In contrast, when conflicts arise for Christina and Tim, Tim owns his part:

Tim: “I realize I’ve been distracted lately. That wasn’t fair to you.”

Tim: “I can see why my comment came across as critical. I could have phrased that better.” or

Tim: “You’re right, I said I would handle that and I dropped the ball. Let me make it up to you.”

Tim’s willingness to be introspective and apologize allows them to resolve issues as a team. There’s no blame or deflection, just shared responsibility.

Disregarding consent and autonomy

Ryan also regularly disregards Elizabeth’s right to make independent choices. He questions her spending habits, pushes her to change plans with friends, and makes unilateral decisions for the household. There’s an undercurrent of “I know best.”

Ryan: “I know I said I’d have dinner with your family this Sunday, but I didn’t realize that the game was on.”

Ryan: (looking at the credit card bill) “Hey, Elizabeth, are you a shopaholic?” (when his words are challenged, he responds angrily) “I was only kidding. Jeez, you really have no sense of humor. I’ll just work until I’m 100!”

(When Elizabeth suggested, as she has repeatedly before, that they set up a budget)

Ryan: “What, so you can try and control every penny I spend? No way.”

Around seeing her friends:

Ryan: “Jody is a slut, Elizabeth. No one will say that, but I’m just being honest. I have no idea why you insist on seeing her.”

Regarding the riding mower and new computer he brought home:

Ryan: “Look, this isn’t a luxury. It is a necessity. I have to work from home in order to get ahead. And if I spend all day Saturday on the lawn, how can I work?”

In the bedroom, he often pressures her to be intimate, saying things like:

Ryan: “If you really loved me, you’d want to have sex more.” or

Ryan: “Why are you always rejecting me? You must not be attracted to me anymore.”

Ryan: “Other wives don’t turn down their husbands like this.”

In contrast, when Tim began feeling neglected by Christina, he said this:

Tim: “Hey, honey, let’s go to bed early tonight. I’ve been missing you and really want to make love.”

When Christina reminded him that she had a presentation tomorrow, he replied:

Tim: “Oh darn, I forgot! What does this weekend look like?”

While Elizabeth is left feeling guilty and coerced, Christina feels loved and respected. While Elizabeth’s “no” doesn’t feel like a real option, Christina comfortably refuses because she knows he’ll respond with warmth and understanding.

Tim and Christina’s relationship is rooted in mutual respect for each other’s autonomy. They make decisions collaboratively and ensure both partners enthusiastically consent to intimacy. Tim would never want Christina to feel pressured or obligated. Her voice matters just as much as his.

Recognizing emotional abuse

So how can someone in Elizabeth’s position recognize they are experiencing emotional abuse? Here are some key signs to look out for:

Pervasive inequality

Emotional abuse creates an unbalanced dynamic where the abusive partner’s needs and opinions seem to matter more.1 You may feel like you’re always walking on eggshells, trying not to rock the boat. A healthy relationship makes space for both partners’ thoughts and feelings. Notice that Ryan buys non-essential items that he labels “necessities” while he suggested that his wife is “addicted” to shopping and forcing him to work well beyond retirement age.

Emotional abandonment

Withholding affection, attention and engagement is emotionally devastating. If you frequently feel shut out or invisible, like your partner has put up a wall against your attempts to connect, it’s a red flag.2 A loving partner will show interest in you and make an effort to be emotionally present.

Ryan stopped talking to or engaging with Elizabeth, after she objected to his cancelling dinner with her family. He went, but was rude and sullen, and blamed her for being controlling. He stopped talking to her for the rest of the week.

Chronic blame-shifting

Abusive partners often twist things around to make you feel responsible for their behavior. You’re the “too sensitive” one, the “overreacting” one, the one who “pushed them” to act a certain way.3 In reality, your partner is responsible for managing their own conduct. Chronic blame-shifting is a way to control you and erode your self-trust.

When Elizabeth objected to the expensive riding mower Ryan bought, he told her that he would return it and “she can mow the grass from now on.” Asking him to keep his commitment to eat with her family caused her to suffer a long week of being snubbed and ignored by him. She thought long and hard about “insisting” that he keep his commitments to her in the future.

When Ryan was caught sexting with a female friend, he angrily accused Elizabeth of “spying” and driving him to “harmless amusements” because she was so “sexually unresponsive.”

Dismissal of your “no”

If your partner steamrolls your boundaries, pressures you to change your mind, or makes unilateral decisions, they are communicating that your consent and autonomy don’t matter.4 A respectful partner will welcome your “no,” collaborate with you on plans and priorities, and ensure you feel empowered to make your own choices.

Despite reminding him over the last two months of her upcoming “girls’ weekend” with college friends, Ryan was shocked that he was going to have to “disappoint his boss” because he had promised to complete a big assignment over that weekend. He “allowed” her to go, despite the “potential cost to his career.” Elizabeth simply stopped planning these types of get-aways.

Ryan had decided to store his “overflow” office equipment in Elizabeth’s private space, despite her objections. His “little pile” kept growing until the chaos was intolerable to her otherwise organized office. Elizabeth was confronted with having to get a babysitter for her night classes after Ryan decided that fitness was his new priority and went to the gym on the nights she had classes.

So what should you do if these signs feel all too familiar? Here are some action steps:

Individual therapy

Working with a counselor one-on-one can help you process the emotional abuse, set boundaries, and determine your path forward. Therapy provides a safe, objective space to validate your experiences and rebuild self-worth eroded by the abuse.5 Look for a counselor who specializes in emotional abuse recovery. You can’t respond to emotional abuse if you can’t recognize it. You can’t enforce boundaries unless you feel entitled to have boundaries to begin with. Emotional abuse wears on the target and becomes invisible over time.

Couples counseling

If your partner is willing to accept responsibility, commit to change, and put in the hard work, carefully consider couples counseling. It’s critical to choose a therapist trained in abuse dynamics who will keep the sessions constructive and balanced.6 Couples work is not advisable if you are being pressured into it or if abuse is severe.

Prioritize your safety

If trying to address the abuse results in escalating danger, control or retaliation, individual safety must be the priority. Reach out to domestic violence support services for guidance on protecting yourself and any children involved.7 Remember, you are not responsible for your partner’s abusive choices and you deserve to feel safe.

How to deal with emotional abuse

If any part of Elizabeth and Ryan’s dynamic resonated with you, know that you are not alone and you are not to blame. Emotional abuse can be incredibly insidious and disorienting. But the more you learn to recognize it, the more empowered you become to stand up for the treatment you deserve, both within yourself and within your relationship. Change is possible. Healing is possible. And you are so extremely worthy of it.


Recognizing emotional abuse when it’s subtle can be challenging, especially when you’re in the thick of it. But learning to identify the red flags – the inequality, emotional abandonment, blame-shifting, and boundary violations – is so vital. You deserve a relationship rooted in mutual care, respect and consideration. Whether through individual counseling, carefully approached couples work, or prioritizing your immediate safety, there are steps you can take to reclaim your voice and your relational well-being. You are worthy of love and partnership that uplifts you.