Emotionally Abusive Relationships

Sarah Scheckter, M.A.

Emotional abuse in romantic relationships (also called verbal abuse or psychological abuse) occurs when one partner attempts to control the other partner through emotional, rather than physical, means. Other forms of intimate partner abuse include financial (controlling or withholding financial resources), physical (physically hurting or threatening the partner), and sexual (forcibly having sex with the partner against his/her will).

Both men and women can be emotionally abusive, as can people of all ages, from teens to older adults, and people from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds. Emotional abuse can be difficult to identify, especially if you are in an abusive relationship yourself, because it can be subtle and build up gradually over time. However, it can be just as harmful as more visible forms of abuse.

Q: What are the warning signs of emotional abuse? 

A: A common sign is for one partner to feel they have to “tiptoe” around their partner, that anything they do or say can make their partner angry with them – in other words, for one partner to fear the other partner. In media portrayals of abusive relationships, we commonly see physical violence rather than emotional abuse, so it may take partners longer to recognize the signs of abuse when it is not violent. Additionally, it is common for abused partners to blame themselves, thinking that if only they worked harder or acted differently, their partner would become happy. All of these things make it difficult for the abused partner to recognize the relationship patterns as abusive and to tell others or seek help.

Abuse can take many forms, for example, name-calling, insults, threats, intimidation, coercion, isolation from friends/family, withholding of affection, restricting or monitoring freedom (use of phone, computer, car), lying, and shaming. Abused partners may feel depressed, less interested in their work or hobbies, have trouble sleeping, feel lonely or isolated from family and friends, feel worthless or unattractive, feel very dependent on their partner, feel afraid and anxious or helpless, feel their partner is unpredictable, and begin to worry that no matter what they do their partner will not be happy. You may hear an abused person talk about their partner’s anger and jealousy; they may seem to do everything their partner tells them to do; they may be frequently “checked up on” by phone/email by their partner; they may seem afraid of their partner, they may show changes in their mood (e.g. timid when they used to be confident, or sad/numb when they used to be happy).

Q: I think my friend/family member is in an emotionally abusive relationship. How can I help?

A: One of the most important things that you can do for a loved one who may be in an abusive relationship is to stay in touch. Just letting them know that you care about them and that you are not going anywhere no matter what happens, can be encouraging. You can let them know you’re concerned and why, but allow them to make their own decisions and let them know that you respect their right to make choices for themselves.  Do not blame them, tell them what to do, offer judgment, or pressure them to make a particular decision. Emotional abuse can be shaming and embarrassing, which means that people are often reluctant to tell friends and family how bad it is. This can cause the abused partner to feel very alone. Letting your friend know that s/he is not alone is the best first step, because abused partners often feel socially isolated and lonely and this adds to feelings of helplessness. Also, it is important to keep in mind that because emotional abuse can build up slowly, some abused partners are not ready to hear that friends/family believe their situation is abusive. If your friend seems to want to talk about the relationship you can listen, and let them know that there are resources out there where they can get help (see the “Resources” section below).

Q: I think I am being emotionally abused by my partner. What can I do?

It takes courage to recognize a pattern of abuse in your relationship. An important first step is to assess whether you feel safe continuing to spend time with your partner. If not, you should tell a friend/family member, call 911, or call one of the hotlines listed below to make a safety plan and get help.  It is important to know that you did not cause or deserve the abuse. You deserve to be safe and to be treated with respect. You are not alone and there are people who can help you.

Your own safety and well being is paramount. Staying with the abuser is likely going to be difficult and to perpetuate the abuse. Don’t let fear of the unknown keep you from moving out or finding a safe place to stay. You may want to seek a confidential and safe place for you to talk about what you have been through, such as meeting with a social worker, psychologist, or religious leader.  Emotional abuse can take away someone’s confidence and sense of what they want, so you may benefit from having someone to talk to about what you would like for yourself now that you are healing.

If you would like to confront your partner about the abuse, know that s/he may deny the abuse and refuse to get help. Even for partners who are willing to get help for their abusive behaviors, it can take a long time for an abusive partner to change. Treatment for abusive partners may include anger management, communication and conflict resolution skills, and understanding and dealing with their emotions in a healthy way.

Q: What causes people to be emotionally abusive?

Researchers have identified many potential causes but each person is different, and no one of these is the “right” or “only” answer. Also, it is important to remember that none of these is an excuse for abusive behavior. Some contributing factors to abusive behavior include the abuser’s

  • Experience of abuse, neglect, exposure to violence or trauma in childhood
  • Substance abuse
  • Stress
  • Mental illness
  • Feelings of powerlessness
  • Lack of ability to manage anger


These are just a few of the many free phone numbers and websites that can give you help and support:

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