5 Signs You are in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

Emotional abuse can be defined as any nonphysical behavior or attitude that is designed to control, subdue, punish, or isolate another person through the use of humiliation or fear.

Abuse of any kind is complicated, and it can be difficult to identify. This is especially true for emotional abuse: With physical abuse, there is often tangible evidence of violence, but emotionally abusive relationships can be very subtle, involving sophisticated and toxic mind games.

Most people only conceptualize domestic violence as acts of physical violence that result in injuries. Emotional abuse is centered on one partner trying to control the other. It doesn’t leave broken bones, black eyes, or bruises etc., but it leaves more damage to the victim. Emotional abusers try to undermine their victim’s sense of self-worth, self-control, and agency, effectuating control in non-physical ways.

In a nutshell, you are in an emotional abusive relationship when your partner subjects you to consistent pattern of abusive words and bullying behaviors that wear down your self-esteem and mental health.

Why Emotional Abuse Is Difficult to Identify

If you’ve ever experienced unpredictable displays of affection, you may have felt the effects of emotional abuse (even without knowing it). Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell whether you’re having normal relationship problems or being manipulated.

If someone is physically violent, that is overt, and many times obvious. Emotionally abusive relationships are more subtle. These relationships usually begin exceptionally well before problems worsen over time. Often, the victim gets more adapted to the negative patterns, so it gets more difficult to see as well as to leave.

“There’s this popular story of a frog that says if you toss a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will scramble to get out. However, if you put the frog in while the water is still cold and slowly raise the temperature, the frog will stay until it is boiled to death without knowing. This is the so similar to how emotional abuse affect people.

Examples of Emotional Abuse:

  1. Insults.
  2. Putting down someone’s intellect or physical appearance.
  3. Using fear to control someone.
  4. Using emotional outbursts or guilt to gain the upper hand.
  5. Humiliating or degrading someone.
  6. Keeping resources to yourself or withholding love to get your way.
  7. Convincing someone they are “defective” or “unlovable.”
  8. Convincing someone they are “crazy” or “too sensitive.”

Negative impact of Emotional Abuse:

There are many negative effects of emotional abuse, however in most cases, Victims of emotional abuse frequently experience:

  1. Diminished self-worth
  2. Fear of abandonment
  3. Anxiety
  4. Depression
  5. Shame and guilt
  6. Difficulty sleeping
  7. Inability to concentrate
  8. Nightmares
  9. Low Self Esteem
  10. Drug Addiction
  11. Suicide.

Victims of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

Anyone irrespective of gender can be the victim of an emotional abuse. It depends on who dominates in the relationship, or is seen as the superior in the relationship. In a clime like Nigeria, the woman often times tends to be at the receiving end of an abuse.

Emotional abuse isn’t peculiar to romantic relationships. Children could be victims of emotional abuse in the hands of their parents or guardians, employees could be victims in the hands of their bosses, as long as it’s about inter-personal relationship.

However, our focus in this article is based on romantic relationships.

The Signs

Emotional abuse usually takes place as a means for one person to control another. If you’re worried that you may be experiencing this with your partner, there are classic signs to look out for to help determine if your partner is emotionally abusive.

Sign #1: Superiority & Controlling Attitude

It may look as if your partner may seem overly-invested in your social life; however, it is in a bid to control your life. These abusers do this to police your day-to-day routines without acknowledging your desires. You don’t have the freedom to make your own choices. Even little comments that undermine your independence are a means of control. Emotionally abusive partners don’t respect boundaries. They are always nosey, trying to know what you are doing. It may seem like caring, but such people are emotionally harming you.

Many of these controlling abusers have the tendency to be the naturally jealous type or obsessed about their partner, hence suffer from insecurity. This kind of partner would even accuse you of cheating which is done as a means of manipulating you.

They may also control you buy isolating you from people close to you such as your families. They make you see reasons why such people aren’t needed in your life, whereas it is a bid to have you all alone to themselves. There have been reports of wives separating the husband from his family. This is also emotional manipulation through control.

This also pertains to financial control where your partner demands passwords to personal accounts, like your phone, email, or social media. This happens often when the abuser is a man and the financier of the relationship.

Sign #2: The Silent Treatment

Another sign of emotional abuse is when your partner decides to stop talking to you when disagreements or conflict occur. Having healthy conversations in a relationship is important to the longevity of such relationship. However, in an emotionally abusive relationship, you find it very difficult to communicate with your partner when there are issues to discuss. The abusive partner decides to hurt your feelings by not talking to you; they give you your space even when you don’t need one. This is called Stonewalling

Using silence or withholding affection puts someone in an uncomfortable situation. They can either go along with the silence and emotional restriction or they can break the silence, the latter which can lead to confrontation and violence. Many people in this kind of relationship are starved of affection after a disagreement. This is not an act of love; rather, it’s a tactic to have control over you in the relationship. This is also called Emotional withholding. The reverse also is important to look out for. If your partner uses their love as a way to coerce you, that’s not OK. “But I love you” or “I’m the only one that could ever love you” aren’t excuses for their crappy behavior.

Again, not all silence in relationships is abusive or done intentionally. Sometimes a break is necessary for both people to do some self-reflection. However if it is done to blackmail you, then it is a sign of emotional abuse.

Never forget, what the abuser wants is to put you in a state of manipulation, hence the silent treatment, where you begin to crave for their love and affection.

Sign #3: Gaslighting

Do you go into an argument confident about how you feel and leave questioning yourself? Do you think you know the truth of what happened but, once you talk to them, you feel like you remembered things wrong? If you find that your concerns or opinions are constantly dismissed as “false,” “stupid,” or “crazy,” you may be experiencing gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation which causes victims to doubt their memories, judgment, and sanity.

It is a popular technique for emotionally abusive people. It’s when someone uses tactics to make you feel crazy and question your reality. Emotionally abusive people do this to deflect responsibility off them. This kind of abuse tends to make you lose your mind, which will have a great effect on your mental health.

But not only is this unhealthy for a relationship, but it’s also very psychologically damaging for the person it happens to. Not knowing what is real from what is a lie will take a toll on your mental health.

Sign #4: Criticize or Body Shame You

One thing emotionally abusive partners do is to constantly criticize you, making you feel less worth of who you really are and constantly body shame you. Such abuser is usually a naturally critical person who is hard to please; if you are now a human pleaser ( a phlegmatic), you will fall into this trap. There is nothing you wear or do that will be appropriate to him/her.

Many of these abusers aren’t proud of walking in the public with their partners but would rather always compare your body with other people. Nursing mothers, fat people and very slim people are often victims in this regards.

Many victims of this kind of abuse tend to become obese from worrying, lose self-confidence or fall into depression.

Know this – what you choose to wear and how your body looks is only your concern. Someone who is emotionally abusive will attempt to shame you or insist they’re trying to protect you. Neither is ok. This is an attempt to control your behaviors and potentially tear down your self-confidence.

Sign #5: Use of Threats

This is a very popular sign in virtually most relationships I have seen. The abuser would use threats to manipulate their partners. These coercions could be in form of:

  1. Threatening to break up with you
  2. Threatening to commit suicide if something goes wrong or during disagreements
  3. Threatening to withhold help or something valuable from you, etc.

These kinds of abusers are fond of using your feelings against you, therefore giving them control.

If your partner often uses threats to get what he wants, he is an emotional abuser. And it could make you do things you never intended to do.

Sign #6: Micro-Cheating

Micro-cheating is a form of cheating where the partner isn’t physically cheating but through other means such as calls, giving more attention to an opposite sex they crush on, or through chats. Many people in relationships are guilty of this especially when the plan is just to play along, popularly called ‘catching cruise’ on the streets of Lagos. In a more precise term, micro-cheating happens when your partner gives room for affectionate behavior outside your relationship.

Even though your partner isn’t cheating on you, he/she may do things that could whisper infidelity. There may be no physical intimacy, but little things like dirty chats with the opposite sex is a form of emotional abuse. Most times, you may not know that your Partner is Micro-cheating, but some of the signs are; dressing decently or attractively when meeting the opposite sex, lying by omission, not telling you who he or she is hanging out with after work. Read more about cheating from our recent article on signs of a cheating partner (link)

Whenever your partner does any of the mentioned behaviors and it tends to hurt your emotions, you are being emotionally abused. Nothing breaks someone heart than knowing that your partner is keeping secrets from you.

If you complained but it keeps recurring, then you have found yourself in an emotionally abusive relationship.

Remedies if found in this condition

  1. Make Your Mental & Physical Health A Priority
  2. Keep Boundaries with such partner.
  3. Always Walk Away From an Abusive Situation
  4. Seek Help: It’s not advisable to be lonely and isolated when in an emotionally abusive relationship. You need to share your experience with a friend you trust, family member, or counselor.
  5. If your abusive partner has no intention to change for good, call off the relationship.

When to leave?

Think about how your partner makes you feel in such relationship, think about how you want your dream relationship be look like, think about the mental & emotional sufferings you have been subjected to. These should help you determine when to leave; part of deciding to leave is understanding what you need.

Does your current partner make you feel better about yourself? Your relationship should make you feel secure, supported, and connected, and if that’s not what you’re getting, you’re probably getting more pain than love and growth.


Emotional abuse can leave trauma inside you that lasts a lifetime. No one deserves to be mistreated in this way, no matter the argument or situation you find yourself in. It’s always advisable you fight for your sanity in a relationship. It’s better to be without a relationship than dating someone who makes you feel worthless.

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