10 Signs of Emotional Abuse in a Relationship

Jen Grice

Crosswalk Contributing Writer
Updated May 20, 2022
10 Signs of Emotional Abuse in a Relationship

Any relationship can include emotional abuse. At the core of all abuse is the need to have power and control. Any one of us can feel the need to control things or someone else. It becomes a real problem when someone is being emotionally or physically hurt because of that need for power and control. This is when a relationship has reached a toxic level and needs an intervention. Toxic relationships left to escalate could lead to dangerous situations where no one is safe.

What is Emotional Abuse?

Barbara Shaffer, Ph.D. in Christian Counseling, defines emotional abuse as "an attitude of entitlement and profound disrespect that discounts at every turn the inherent right of the other person to dignity, separateness and autonomy. Out of entitlement and disrespect spring various overt behaviors that use anger, violence and/or contempt to induce fear, guilt and shame. The other person is controlled, punished or demeaned."

Harsh words and selfish actions coming from someone who should love you and protect you, kills a spirit slowly and methodically. If you live with someone or are close to someone with this kind of behavior - a parent, spouse or friend - you will begin to lose track of reality and truth. Am I really crazy? Am I really an idiot? Maybe if Idid this, things would get better? Maybe if I cooked better, dressed better, spent less, served more, spoke less, I wouldn't deserve to be treated this way? But maybe I really do deserve this? 

If you’re experiencing any of these signs, especially more than one, you need to take your situation very seriously. Safety should be top priority even if there has never been any physical violence. Resources are provided at the end of this article.

Now let's take a look at the 10 most telling signs of emotional abuse to be aware of:

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1. Uses threats and coercion to manipulate.

1. Uses threats and coercion to manipulate.

Emotional blackmail is a manipulation tactic where someone uses phrases that they know will cause an emotional response in order to get their way or to keep themselves at the center of all of the attention.

Making threats that he or she is “going to kill himself/herself” when you want to be alone or do something for yourself is abusive. They are using this phrase, not because they're seriously suicidal, but because they know you’ll turn your focus back to him/her, feeling the need to help keep him/her alive and show you care. We should always take threats for suicide seriously unless we know it’s just a threat from an emotional abuser.

Another common manipulative phrase is, “(s)he’s going to leave you, divorce you, and take your children, leaving you with nothing,” each time you have a disagreement. (S)he throws the word divorce, or similar phrases meaning the same thing, around like it’s no big deal. But really it destroys the security of your relationship. (S)he often has no way or desire to carry out these threats but (s)he uses them because they succeed at giving him/her what (s)he wants: power and control.

Lastly, (s)he may even use verses from the Bible to get his/her way. 1 Corinthians 7:3-4 was not written as a weapon to coerce the other spouse. Using the Bible in such a way is sexual and emotional abuse, as well as manipulation.

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2. Uses intimidation to control.

2. Uses intimidation to control.

When you know you can’t say no because you see the looks and gestures. When you fear anger or punishment for whatever you say or do. When you feel scared, like you’re walking on eggshells not to upset him/her most of the time, you might be dealing with emotional abuse. (S)he doesn’t have to use physical abuse because intimidation is working to control you. His/her unspoken threats of punishment and violence are enough.

Need some more warning signs? When you make decisions based on what would make your partner happy. When you stop working, stop participating in things you love to do, or getting your education because of someone else’s unhappiness with what you’re doing to better yourself, that’s a huge red flag that you’re not an equal partner in the relationship. You’re being controlled and emotionally abused.

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husband and wife arguing with each other on couch looking angry, emotional abuse in relationship

3. Blaming or making you responsible for his or her problems.

Do you feel like it’s your job to take care of everything? When your partner has a problem (not related to you) or is angry with someone else, do you feel you get brought in the middle of the entire situation, to fix everything and make him/her happy. Does (s) he make you do illegal things or cover for his/her illegal or immoral behavior?

When your entire family is mad at your partner and you’re supposed to tell them (s)he’s not that bad. When (s)he screams at the kids, it’s your job to tell them (s)he didn’t really mean it and that mommy/daddy is sorry. Or when (s)he blames you because his/her life is a mess and expects you to make it better. These are your red flags.

It’s not your job to make someone else happy, fix their problems, cover their sins, or make their life easier. Each of us is responsible for our own loads, our own conduct, and our own feelings. But an emotional abuser tries to make you responsible so (s)he doesn’t have to be. Then (s)he may blame you for not fixing things how (s)he wanted them fixed.

“For we are each responsible for our own conduct.” – Galatians 6:5 NLT

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4. Using the children and male privilege.

4. Using the children and male privilege.

An emotional abuser often wants to be the center your life, even before God. They expect your world to revolve around them and often expect to be worshipped. When children come along and they see you caring for them, as you once did them, they may become very jealous of that bond. They may say things like, “you love them more than you love me” to make you feel guilty for caring for and loving your children.

Once the kids are older, they will say things to them or to you in front of them to cause division between your children and you. (S)he will treat you with disrespect, which teaches the children how you should be treated. Keeping secrets while going against your wishes just to make themselves the fun parent while you’re the mean one.

There’s never a united parenting plan and children are often drug in the middle, used to relay messages, treated differently by both parents, and used as pawns to keep her under his control. When the man is the abuser, he may even say, “I’m the head of the household,” to excuse his abusive behaviors and need for power and control. He expects her to be the servant while he’s the master of the castle with all the privilege – defining the roles.

This is what often leads abuse victims to escape. We often assume that children are never involved in an abusive marriage, and that he’s a good father besides the abuse, but that’s not true. A child witnessing this is learning how men act and how women are to be treated. A child, who grows up in this type of environment, is at risk for repeating the patterns in his or her own marriage.

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5. Controlling all the household money.

5. Controlling all the household money.

If you have to beg for money, if money is hidden from you, or money is spent on illegal or immoral acts but there is nothing you can do about it, you may be dealing with financial abuse, for which the main purpose is to hurt you emotionally.

Someone who is cruel to allow you and your children to go hungry or without your basic needs being met is an abuser. When (s)he doesn’t feel bad about making you beg for money or stand in the food bank line to eat, while (s)he’s well fed. When (s)he abandons you and then refuses to pay the bills (s)he’s always paid. When (s)he doesn’t pay child support unless (s)he’s forced. Lying about and hiding money to keep you from getting any of it (when you’ve always been trustworthy with money), are all forms of financial abuse.

“Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” – 1 Timothy 5:8 NIV

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6. Sabotages other relationships and decides who you spend time with and who you talk to.

6. Sabotages other relationships and decides who you spend time with and who you talk to.

Remember, if the goal of emotional abuse is to have power and control over you, an abuser doesn’t want you to have a support system of people who love you, who you love more than you do him/her, or who may help you escape his/her control.

(S)he often seeks to be the center of attention so if you have other relationships, better relationships even with your children, then (s)he wants to ruin them. (S)he may do what we call triangulate – which means to tell two different people, two different stories about the other person – to cause a problem in that relationship.

For example, in the case of a male abuser, he may tell his mother you don’t like her while telling you that she doesn’t like you. Now you and his mother are no longer friends because he’s lied to both of you and neither of you are talking. He’s now gained all of the control and he’s in the center of it all.

He’ll move her away from her support system. He’ll limit her outside involvement with other people, friends, and church. He’ll tell her that talking to her friends is hurting their relationship. And he’ll use jealousy and say he’s neglected to justify his actions.

I’m not talking about him advising you about unhealthy relationships and having boundaries. I mean when someone purposely ruins healthy relationships that were helping you getting the support you need to see unhealthy, abusive behaviors for what they are.

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7. Prevents you from working or attending school to better yourself.

7. Prevents you from working or attending school to better yourself.

An abuser doesn’t want you to get an education, make more money, or become a better or smarter person. (S)he will either vocally say that you can’t work or go to school. Or (s)he’ll deliberately sabotage your efforts.

Covert sabotage happens when you’re trying to get an education or work but his/her needs or wants have to come first. (S)he won’t allow you time away from him to work on projects. (S)he might show up at your job, which could get you fired. (S)he might use guilt to make you feel bad for working or going to school so you’ll want to quit. Whatever (s)he needs to do to turn your focus away from working or going to school and back onto him/her.

In healthy relationships, both partners make sacrifices while one partner is doing what is best for them – self-care, educational goals, career goals, and more. Emotional abusers like to control when, if ever, you does something for yourself. His/her goal is often to keep you trapped in the relationship and always putting him/her first and yourself last.

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parents yelling at each other

8. Verbal attacks, insults, demeaning or degrading words or actions.

Raising your voice and yelling is not emotional abuse since all of us yell at some point. Having feelings and emotions, especially about how someone is hurting you, expressing them forcefully, or being angry is not emotional abuse. Screaming inches from someone’s face in a fit of rage, using profanity and insults, especially while you're crying and asking him/her to stop, is. It’s attacking and demeaning.

To demean someone is to be mean, unconcerning, and even cruel. Calling you fat when you’ve put on a few pounds, especially if (s)he knows that extra weight bothers you. Calling you ugly because you haven’t put on makeup today. Saying you’re stupid because you don’t understand something as quickly as (s)he does or because you spelled something incorrectly. Calling you curse words when you have a disagreement and crazy when you have feelings (because all humans do). These are all ways someone demeans you to feel bad about yourself. Most times this makes him/her feel superior to you, which gives him/her the feeling of power. And (s)he’s now been able to control your emotions, too.

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9. Blames you for the abuse, calls you the abuser, or gaslights you to believe you’re crazy for thinking you’re being abused.

9. Blames you for the abuse, calls you the abuser, or gaslights you to believe you’re crazy for thinking you’re being abused.

Psychological abuse is the more sinister and hidden form of emotional abuse. These are often covert words or actions that are hard to see and explain. You know something is going on, you know your relationship is dysfunctional, but you can’t quite describe it.

Have you tried to share your feelings or a problem you have only to end up feeling like you’re crazy for feeling that way? Or if only you were a better person, not so abusive, there wouldn’t be a problem in the first place? Are you’re made out to be hysterical for even thinking there is an issue to talk about?

Every person is entitled to his or her feelings. Each of us should take the time to listen to the feelings of others, even if those feelings have to do with something we’ve done. When conversations seem to go in circles, when you’re blamed, called abusive for having feelings about his actions, and when (s)he tells you your feelings are invalid because (s)he doesn’t understand or any other reason, you could be experiencing emotional abuse.

If you feel blamed each time you try to express your feelings or when you address a problem, this might be something worse than a communication problem. Instead, this other person might be trying to control you, your mind, and your feelings.

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10. Destroys your property, break things, abuses pets or threatens to.

10. Destroys your property, break things, abuses pets or threatens to.

Often people think that if they are not being punched, kicked, or beaten then they are not experiencing domestic violence. That’s just not true. Violence and abuse includes physically harming animals, punching walls, pushing, standing in your way when you’re trying to leave, and all the other points mentioned before this.

It is a huge red flag when the abuse is escalating to things getting broken or someone else getting hurt. It’s time to seek help from someone trained to help victims of abuse. Physical violence towards you could be next, especially if you’re trying to escape. His/her anger is not the problem; it’s his/her need for power and control. And no amount of good behavior on your part is going to stop that need.

“Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn their ways and get yourself ensnared.” – Proverbs 22:24-25 NIV

Both women and men should stand up against any type of abuse on any human being or animal. If not married, then a marriage should not be planned until we know the abuse will not continue in the future. If married, then seek out professional help via a counselor or even the local domestic violence agency. Their services are not just for women or for those experiencing physical violence. You don’t need a physical bruise to get help from a domestic violence shelter. They know that sometimes the abuser’s first act of violence is his/her last.

For further assistance, in the United States, contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online or call 1-800-799-7233.

Resources used to write this article: Abuse Defined and The Power and Control Wheel.

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Originally published Saturday, 09 October 2021.