12 Subtle Signs You’re In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship

The signs of physical abuse are pretty cut and dried because they always involve unwanted bodily contact or physical force of some kind that’s meant to harm or intimidate.

If he touches you physically in any way that harms or traumatizes you, it’s physical abuse. The most obvious example of physical abuse is hitting, but other forms of unwanted contact also apply, such as pushing, grabbing, kicking, pinching, restraining, and even unwanted sexual contact when you’ve said no or are being coerced into doing things with your body that you don’t want to. Physical abuse often starts with the use of less immediate violence meant to intimidate, such as reckless driving, throwing things, and hitting walls, but this is usually a prelude to more direct violence against you like hitting.

Emotional abuse takes a much more subtle form and isn’t so easy to detect. Since there isn’t physical evidence, we can rationalize and reframe experiences to fit the reality we want instead of the reality we have, keeping ourselves in a state of denial.

Perhaps one reason we might not see what’s happening is we don’t want to admit it to ourselves. When we’re in a relationship, we become invested. We have an interest in making things work out, and we become attached to the idea we initially had of what the relationship was like, even when it’s changed.

But even more importantly, women in abusive relationships often think that if they just change their own behavior, it will change their partner’s behavior, too. They think if they do everything perfectly, the way he likes, his behavior will change. But that’s not the way abusive relationships work. He is who he is, and how you behave won’t change that.

When we take responsibility for someone else’s bad behavior, by placing the blame either partially or entirely on ourselves, it’s a sign of a very unhealthy dynamic. We are not responsible for other people’s behavior. We do not “cause” our partners to somehow lose control and treat us badly. A person who’s abusing you will try to make you think that, but remember: he is responsible for his own behavior, just as you are responsible for yours.

Before we get into the signs of emotional abuse and how you can recognize it when it’s happening to you, let’s briefly go over why you might be staying in an emotionally abusive relationship even though you’re in pain.

  • Emotional abuse can have a lasting and devastating impact on your emotional health and sense of self, and it can take years to undo the damage. If you were emotionally abused as a child, or even in a later significant relationship, your self-esteem was affected as well as your ability to recognize what’s normal or healthy. You may stay because it feels comfortable to you, or because you don’t really know that it’s not normal.
  • When we’re hurt or upset by how we’re being treated, we may worry that we’re overreacting or being overly dramatic. Abusers trivialize the feelings and thoughts of the people they abuse, and if you’ve gotten trapped into playing that role then you will begin believing whatever he believes, including that your feelings don’t matter very much.
  • You know things don’t feel good right now, but you hold onto the hope that it will all change at some magical point in the future. This can happen in dysfunctional relationships that aren’t technically abusive, too. The stakes are just higher when there is abuse because the resulting emotional damage will be worse.
  • When you’re in it, you can’t see clearly. Even though things are horrible, they start to feel normal. Once you get out (and stay out long enough to clear your head), you wonder how you could have ever let yourself get so deeply entrenched in something so awful.

Now let’s look at signs of emotional abuse you should never ignore. If you’re experiencing any of these situations, you are likely suffering from emotional abuse, and you need to seek some support to help you regain control of the situation and take care of yourself.

12 Signs of Emotional Abuse

1. You don’t trust yourself anymore

Once upon a time you probably had a sense of what was acceptable and what wasn’t, of what happened and what didn’t, of how you felt … now you’re all jumbled and confused.

This is how you feel when someone tries to make you feel crazy by insisting something you know is true isn’t. This is known as “gaslighting” and is a common feature in emotionally abusive relationships. Basically, it means he manipulates you by causing you to question your own sanity.

He makes you doubt your memory and perception of events, claiming certain things didn’t happen when you feel certain they did. He makes you doubt the validity of your feelings, saying you have no right to be upset or feel hurt. He makes you doubt your feelings altogether, telling you that you were angry with him during a conversation when you know you weren’t.

Little by little you begin to doubt yourself and eventually you don’t trust yourself or your own perceptions of things anymore … maybe you are emotionally unstable like he says, maybe you do have a selective memory, maybe you are just totally messed up in the head.

2. It’s never his fault

He takes no responsibility for any issues in the relationship. If you have a problem, it’s your problem. He’s not unhappy with the way things are, so you need to get over it or deal with it, and his participation is not required.

If he does something that crosses the line, he justifies it by saying that if you hadn’t been acting so annoying/needy/demanding/difficult, then he wouldn’t have said or did what he did. Basically, it’s always your fault and never his.

But it doesn’t stop at the relationship. All of his failures lead back to you. If he loses his job or has a falling out with a neighbor or upsets one of your kids, you can bet he will twist what happened and use gaslighting to turn you into the one deserving of blame and him into the victim.

3. You feel like it’s your fault

Not only does he never take responsibility for any failure or problems in his relationship with you or in his life—you end up taking full responsibility for all the problems.

Abusers are master manipulators, and since he knows how to push your buttons you will buy into his twisted reality. You’ll feel shame, like you brought it upon yourself, like you deserve to be treated this way, like you just can’t do anything right.

Because your self-esteem is shot, you’ll think you’re lucky to have a man at all, even if you’re not happy, so you need to just suck it up and deal. Emotionally abusive relationships can deeply penetrate our psyches and change the way we think about ourselves. If we think this is what we deserve, it can be hard to walk away.

4. Puts you down a lot

The criticism is endless. You constantly feel put down and humiliated, like you’re not good enough. This can be overt or subtle, from telling you outright that you’re stupid to simply ignoring you or rolling his eyes when you say something.

The put-downs and cruelty can be in private or in front of other people. Some abusers keep their horrible side secret, only turning on you when nobody else is around to see it. This can be very isolating, since who would believe such a nice guy would ever be cruel to you?

Other abusers turn on you in public, which is isolating in a different way when people ignore it or pretend like nothing wrong has taken place. They may be embarrassed, unsure if they should interfere, or not know what to do. Unfortunately, this can make you question yourself even more and give him more ammunition to gaslight you with. After all, if he’d said or done something wrong, why would everyone act like everything was okay?

When you get upset, he says he was just “joking” or that you’re being too sensitive or acting like a drama queen. Jokes should be funny, not hurtful, and this is a classic line of an abuser.

He will rarely acknowledge your accomplishments or your strengths, and even when he does he’ll always finds a way to stick a jab in there. Maybe he’ll congratulate you on your promotion at work, even taking you out to celebrate, but “joke” about how it was only due to your neglect of your children or him, or imply you got the promotion because you’re a woman or because your boss is attracted to you, not because of your accomplishments or because you truly deserved it.

5. He won’t hear you out

He gets annoyed anytime you try to talk about the relationship or how you feel. Your feelings don’t matter, and so he’s not interested in hearing about them.

He shows no empathy or compassion for your pain and your hurt, and has no interest in understanding what caused it or how he can prevent it from happening again. This can be very hard for the abused person to understand. She thinks she only needs to explain clearly, to make him understand, and once he does he will change and behave in a way that shows love instead of contempt.

That is what a rational person does when they realize they’re hurting someone they love and have the power to stop it. The problem here is she’s trying to be rational with someone who’s not coming from a place of reason. An abuser does not want to make you happy, he wants to control you.

He may stonewall, meaning he shuts down and withdraws completely from the interaction. He may stop responding to your texts, refuse to take your calls, or even block your number or give you the silent treatment, refusing to acknowledge your existence even when you’re right in front of him. You feel like you’re coming against a brick wall, or like you’re invisible.

Or he might get angry and accuse you of constantly being unhappy or of always nagging him about whatever you brought up, when that isn’t the case. Maybe you haven’t tried to initiate a heart-to-heart about what’s bothering you for a year or more, but he says you’ve been nagging him about it for weeks.

You feel guilty for even having issues because it upset him, and you question your own judgment about how valid your feelings are … maybe you are crazy and too dramatic … maybe you should just keep your mouth shut …

6. He’s controlling

He needs to know exactly where you’re going, who you’ll be with, what you’ll be doing, and for how long. And you can be sure he’ll call or text multiple times during your outing … or he’ll ignore you during the outing and long after (the silent treatment) in order to punish you for going out to begin with.

He shows no respect for your privacy. He will read your texts and emails and go through your things. He doesn’t view you as a person separate from him deserving of privacy—you are just an object to him, one he has to control.

He may convince you that it’s because he cares, or maybe you convince yourself that this is his way of showing love, but it’s not. This isn’t care; it’s control.

He not only controls your communications with other people and the time you spend with them, he controls how you dress. He’s prone to jealousy and will fly off the handle if you step outside the bounds of what he deems acceptable, whether in how you dress or what you say to someone.

7. When he’s good, he’s so good

Emotional abusers aren’t all bad 100% of the time, and this is what makes them so dangerous! When times are good, they are so good. They are experts at seeing when you’re about to throw in the towel and they’ll modify their behavior to make you stick around.

Most of the time an emotional abuser will dismiss your feelings, but then every now and then he will apologize profusely and validate your feelings. This can cause you to think that maybe you really didn’t have a right to be upset all those other times he wouldn’t apologize. After all, he’s being reasonable now, so maybe he was those other times, too?

His good behavior once again scrambles your mind and your memories. He becomes super loving and affectionate. He gives you nice gifts, he’s sweet, he compliments you. But then he takes those things away, swiftly and without warning, and since he was being so great before, you’ll think the sudden change is your fault. That you did something to push him away.

8. He’s Jekyll and Hyde

You’re never sure who is going to show up—the mean, cold, distant partner, or the kind, loving, affectionate one. His moods seem totally beyond your control. You try your best to please him and do exactly what you know he wants, but his reaction isn’t consistent: sometimes you’re rewarded and other times you’re belittled

He is hot and cold to the extreme. He does this because he wants you to be insecure and fearful, the better to control you and ensure he always has the upper hand. He may even be nice to you much of the time, because if he treated you badly all the time or the majority of the time, you might leave. So he treats you well just enough to give you hope that he’s on the way to loving you the way you want to be loved, and you stay.

9. You are always on edge

You’re walking on eggshells. You don’t feel comfortable in the relationship, and you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Again, this is because he wants you to be insecure and fearful because he can better manipulate you that way.

You’re scared to say anything at all because no matter what you say, everything turns into a huge fight. You’re afraid of his anger and what he’ll say or do if you provoke him, and the punishment may be severe, whether public humiliation or the silent treatment.

Basically, you’ve learned that his behavior is erratic—Jekyll and Hyde—and so you can’t relax because you don’t know who you’ll be faced with at any given moment.

10. You are always saying sorry first

Because you question your sanity and because he is so strong in his convictions that he did nothing wrong, you always seem to be the one apologizing first, and he acts like he’s doing you some grand favor by accepting your apology.

Maybe you’re apologizing to restore the peace, or maybe you’ve reached the point of genuinely believing all the awful things he says to you. If you’ve internalized his beliefs that you are a terrible person, you’re selfish, you’re a drama queen, you’re too emotional, and whatever other insults he’s been feeding you, you’ll be the first to say sorry because you’ll genuinely think you should be.

11. Your friends and family are concerned

You probably don’t want to hear it, and you may think they just don’t understand how your relationship works or what kind of stress he’s under. You may even think that they’re jealous or trying to ruin your life … but hear them out anyway.

They have objectivity and you don’t. They care about you. Listen to what they have to say, really listen. If everyone in your life doesn’t approve, if they’ve noticed you’ve changed for the worse, if they are able to articulate the way you feel, even though you don’t want to admit to feeling that way yourself, then they probably know you pretty well and are onto something.

12. You’ve changed

Your friends and family aren’t the only ones who notice—you notice it, too.

You just don’t feel like yourself anymore, and you’re even confused about who you are when you stop to think about it—what you like, what you believe in, what matters to you. You are no longer the fun, confident, happy girl. You are dark and sad and insecure and on edge.

It may not happen right away, but after enough emotional abuse, you will become a shell of your former self, someone you don’t know or like anymore.

But there is always a way back to who you really are. When you recognize the signs that you’re being emotionally abused and stop denying it, that is the first step towards regaining control of your identity and your life. The next step is seeking help, whether from family, friends, support groups, or by calling a hotline. It takes a lot of bravery to ask for help and to pull yourself out of an abusive relationship, one that probably took a very long time to get trapped in.

In summary…

The top 12 most common signs of emotional abuse:

  1. You don’t trust yourself anymore
  2. It’s never his fault
  3. You feel like it’s your fault
  4. Puts you down a lot
  5. He won’t hear you out
  6. He’s controlling
  7. When he’s good, he’s so good
  8. He’s Jekyll and Hyde
  9. You are always on edge
  10. You are always saying sorry first
  11. Your friends and family are concerned
  12. You’ve changed

About the author

Sabrina Bendory

Sabrina Bendory is a writer and entrepreneur. She is the author of You’re Overthinking It, a definitive book on dating and self-love.