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What is Emotional Abuse?

When you love someone, it can be hard to notice the warning signs that normally alert you to toxic and unhealthy behaviors. And even if you’re already worried about how you’re being treated, sometimes it’s tempting to minimize or “brush off” your concerns (which is actually something an emotionally abusive partner encourages—more on that in a bit).

But emotional abuse should never be brushed under the rug; it can be just as traumatic and damaging as physical abuse, something that emotional abuse often precipitates or co-occurs with. And unlike physical abuse, emotional or psychological abuse can be much harder to recognize. Sometimes the abuse is caused by a personality disorder like NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder).

The pain of psychological mistreatment can be just as intense as the pain of being physically assaulted, even though the former isn’t always quite as “obvious.” In many cases, a person doesn’t even realize they’re deep within a toxic relationship until the emotional abuse becomes much more severe.

You don’t have to wait until your mistreatment becomes extreme in order to get help. That’s why it’s important to learn the warning signs of emotional abuse—especially the earliest and most subtle ones.

10 Signs of Emotional Abuse That Should Never Be Ignored

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes emotional abuse within the scope of “intimate partner violence,” and defines it in part as “the use of verbal and non-verbal communication with the intent to harm another person mentally or emotionally and/or to exert control over another person.” Here are ten ways a person may attempt to emotionally abuse their partner:

  1. They “love bomb” their partner. Love bombing is the use of excessive and often lavish affection and adoration in an attempt to “hook” a person within a relationship. Love bombing has long been recognized as a stage in the cycle of abuse. An abusive partner will use this technique in an attempt to reconcile and soothe the partner after a significant display of abuse in order to downplay or obscure the incident.
  2. They insult, embarrass, humiliate, and/or put down their partner. They often make mean-spirited jokes about their partner, even in the presence of other people, but will try to downplay it as “sarcasm.”
  3. They give ultimatums, unreasonable conditions, or threats. This may sound like saying, “I love you, but…”, “I’ll only do ______ if you _______”, or “If you don’t _________ then I’ll ___________.” They often use guilt as an attempt to maintain control.
  4. They are unreasonably jealous, suspicious, and controlling. They may tell their partner what they can and cannot wear, and who they can and cannot talk to. They may also attempt to limit their partner’s access to finances or communicate with them excessively via text or phone when their partner is away from them.
  5. They “gaslight.” Gaslighting describes a psychological and emotionally abusive tactic used to exert control over someone by making the person constantly question their memory. An abusive partner can try to gaslight their partner by calling them crazy or extremely sensitive, denying past events, or describing past events as completely different from what actually happens.
  6. They attempt to distance their partner from the partner’s closed love ones and family members. An emotionally abusive partner may say disparaging things about their partner’s family members or attempt to isolate the person from them.
  7. They exhibit wild mood swings, which often leaves the other partner feeling as if they have to “walk on eggshells” around them. An emotionally abusive partner often attempts to intimidate their partner or make them feel afraid.
  8. They engage in inappropriate behaviors with other people outside the marriage, which may include excessive flirting and/or extramarital affairs.
  9. They withdraw affection, use the silent treatment, ignore their partner, or appear neglectful.
  10. They may threaten to harm or kill themselves if their partner expresses a desire to leave.

Realize that this list isn’t all-inclusive. Other examples of emotional abuse exist, and they can fluctuate depending on the nature and stage of a relationship.

What To do If You Think You’re Being Emotionally Abused

Emotional abuse can occur in any type of relationship. If you suspect that you’re being emotionally abused, know that it’s not your fault. A person’s decision to act abusively toward their partner is a reflection on them, not on the person being subjected to the abuse. Nobody “deserves” to be abused—no matter what—and anyone who is abused does deserve to get help.

When you’re in a safe environment, research and find a therapist who can give you tools and support. You can also contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or through their website https://www.thehotline.org for assistance. If you suspect that you are married to someone with a narcissistic personality disorder, we can help. Educating yourself and using any available resources is key for getting out of an unhealthy relationship. It may be appropriate for your partner to undergo therapy as well, either with you and/or on their own—just be sure that you’re safe before bringing this up to your partner.

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