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.

While emotional abuse is never acceptable, it may be easy to understand more about why your spouse behaves in that way. Take the Maximizer/Minimizer relationship quiz to understand his/her behavior.

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. Love Bombing. 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. Hurt & Confusion. 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. Asserting Control. 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. Jealousy & Suspicion. 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. Gaslighting. 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. Alienating. They attempt to distance their partner from the partner’s close 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. Emotional Rollercoaster. They exhibit wild mood swings, which often leave 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. Flirting & Cheating. They engage in inappropriate behaviors with other people outside the marriage, which may include excessive flirting and/or extramarital affairs.
  9. Abandonment. They withdraw affection, use the silent treatment, ignore their partner, or appear neglectful.
  10. Suicidal Threats. 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.

Emotional abuse can be defined as behavior that may “result in psychological trauma.  Here, we explore what emotional abuse can look like in marriage. 

More Emotional Abuse Examples

Look out for the signs of emotional abuse below in your relationship.

  • Overly criticizing and blaming – e.g. nothing is ever good enough, finding fault, never noticing/commenting on positive things you say or do
  • Constantly disregarding or distorting – e.g. aversion to recognizing or acknowledging your good points
  • Initiating and perpetuating repetitive periods of prolonged silent treatment, often for trivial reasons
  • Frequently denigrating your achievements, skills, and potential
  • Habitually assuming a superior air e.g. by way of sarcastic comments or subtle insinuation
  • Regularly isolating and invalidating you e.g. refusing to remain in your presence– walking out of the room when you enter, acting as if you don’t exist
  • Persistently speaking and acting disrespectfully towards your family/ friends
  • Repeatedly withholding love, affection, and support
  • Overriding your choices e.g. demanding that you cut ties with family/friends, or dress a certain way, do things a certain way
  • Regular shouting and name-calling are more obvious examples of emotional abuse in marriage but the above behaviors are offensive forms of emotional abuse which often overlooked.

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.

Emotional Abuse: What You Should Know

What is emotional abuse in marriage? It can be hard to quantify since it differs greatly from physical abuse but can be the slippery slope that leads to it. Emotional abuse is a topic we get questions about often. So many relationships are suffering from emotional abuse. Stopping emotional abuse should be an affirmative action for each family. We want to make you aware of the signs of emotional abuse, and what it looks like, because many spouses- both the perpetrator and the victim, often do not realize that their marriage is an emotionally abusive one. Emotional abuse, in particular, is one of the trickier marriage issues because it can often slide into other forms of abuse.

Emotional Abuse Effects

How Does Emotional Abuse Affect Victims?
Emotional abuse is when a person uses negative language and behavior to manipulate and control another person. Although it may be subtle and difficult to detect, it can still cause the person on the receiving end of it to routinely feel isolated, upset, bewildered, confused, crazy, lacking in confidence, drained, angry, paranoid, nervous, frustrated and/or traumatized.

Unfortunately, many behaviors that constitute emotional abuse are accepted as a matter of course in relationships. Further, it may be the case that the person executing the abuse is unaware of what they are actually doing but likewise the person on the receiving end of the abuse can be unaware that they are being manipulated, not realizing why they feel they must always tiptoe around their partner.

When emotional abuse persists in a marriage or relationship, the groundwork is laid for long-term detrimental consequences. Bonds are broken and unhappiness prevails.

Emotional abuse can be just as devastating as physical or verbal abuse.  Indeed some people who have been subject to physical, verbal, and emotional abuse have found the emotional element the most challenging to deal with.

Distinguishing between Emotional Abuse and rare/atypical eruptions of rage

It’s important to note that most everyone has an off day once in a while, perhaps due to stress, sickness, or exhaustion.  At such times people may exhibit uncharacteristic shows of anger, antagonism or impatience towards their nearest and dearest but such occasional and manageable outbursts do not constitute emotional abuse. That said, if angry flare-ups are on the increase, do take conscious steps to reduce the contributory stress so that it does not significantly sour on the relationship.

In cases when continued emotional abuse, angry outbursts, and behavior like the examples given at the beginning of this article are the “norm” rather than an infrequent event, you may want to reach out to a domestic violence hotline for help.

If you are concerned that emotional abuse that is present or escalating in your relationship you may wish to consider exploring this through couple counseling with a suitably qualified professional.

For some of you, the signs of emotional abuse provided here may seem obvious. Others however, may have just realized that you are victims of emotional abuse.


email application for consultation

  • Hidden
  • Hidden
    You will receive our free 60 Second Plan to a Happy Marriage, along with transformational emails that will help you with your marriage.

Jennifer Long

Jennifer Long is a writer, author, and multiple hat wearer with experience across many different industries.