I've been lucky enough to never have had partner put their hands on me. I came from a family where the threat of physical violence was always there and so I swore that if I ever found myself in another physically abusive relationship, I would leave it immediately. It was my red line in the sand. However, when it came to emotional abuse, as it turned out, I wasn't as prepared; I didn't know how to spot the red flags of an emotionally abusive relationship. Some might be obvious, but others are much more subtle — but every bit as damaging.
I've had a partner who messed with my head by repeating a cycle of love-bombing and withdrawing so that I never could feel secure. And one whose gaslighting twisted up my psyche so hard, it took months of therapy to feel like myself again. And another partner who constantly critiqued my body from head to toe, out of "love" and "concern" — which was absolute bullsh*t. None of these behaviors were as glaring as, say, a slap or a push, but the lingering emotional scars were just as real. Fortunately, all of these relationships ended and with each one I learned new important lessons that would serve me as I moved forward and found better partners.
If any of this sounds familiar, or you suspect you're in an emotionally abusive relationship, here's what you should be looking out for.
1. Your partner is casually manipulative.
Manipulation — a technique in which someone uses dishonest or misleading means of getting what they want — plays a big role in emotionally abusive relationships.
Because emotional abuse stems ultimately from a place of selfishness and entitlement, they are less inclined to compromise, and manipulation is the best way to get what they want regardless of the effect it has on their partner.
"Manipulation is second nature to emotionally abusive partners," warns relationship expert and matchmaker Alessandra Conti of Matchmakers In The City. "It is just the way that they are used to communicating so that they are not held accountable for their actions."
One of the most common forms of manipulation is gaslighting, which is when someone manipulates you into questioning your own sanity. "When a [partner] makes you second-guess your interactions with them, or makes you feel guilty for something that was objectively their fault, you may have a seasoned emotional abuser on your hands."
One of the ways that this manifests is that you may begin blaming yourself for everything wrong in the relationship. If this is happening, Conti says it’s time to take step back and recognize that your partner may actually intentionally "planting these unsettling emotions within your psyche."
2. Your partner feels entitled to all of your time.
It's totally natural to want to spend a lot of time with your partner, especially early on in the relationship when it seems impossible that you could ever get enough of each other. But that becomes a problem when you need to do other things or just would like a little space and your partner finds that unacceptable. They may insist you spend time with them or guilt you into abandoning other plans. This isn't love, it's control, and it's totally unhealthy for the relationship.
"Having your own autonomy is so critical to not only your overall happiness, but for your relationship's as well," explains Kali Rogers, a licensed therapist and founder of Blush Online Life Coaching.
So don’t feel guilty about setting boundaries and having time for yourself. Anyone who doesn't accept that is not a partner who makes your needs and happiness a priority.
3. Their "passion" makes you feel bad about yourself.
Passion is something we crave and want in a relationship. It makes your feel alive, wanted, and reaffirmed. However, sometimes unhealthy things can hide behind a veneer of "passion." There are so many examples of false passion in movies and books like Fifty Shades or Twilight that it's easy to confusion obsession and control for passion. But here's how you tell the difference. Passion feels good. If it doesn't, it ain't passion, it's abuse.
But what does that mean in practice? Conti gives the following example: "He loves me so much, and that is why he freaks out at me if a guy looks at me when I am walking down the street. Or he loves me so much and that is why he tells me that I look like a slut when I am wearing a dress." Jealousy is not a compliment.
4. They frequently put you (or your friends and family) down.
Emotional abusers tend to undermine their partners. Their thinking is the lower your self-esteem is, the easier it is to maintain control of you. Conti explains, "When your SO makes underhanded, negative comments about your weight or physical appearance, or highlights your weaknesses consistently, they are attempting to tear you down so that you will become dependent on their praise and assurances. These little comments will often be offset by compliments, which can be a total mind game."
Along these same lines, emotional abusers will also target your friends and family, or anyone in your support system. Relationship coach Monica Parikh of School of Love NYC says the do this because "the goal is to isolate you from your support network, making you an easy target for emotional manipulation and abuse." It's a highly effective one-two punch of undermining your self-esteem and distancing you from anyone who could offer support and bolster your self-worth.
Here's how to get out of an emotionally abusive relationship.
While all of the things your abusive partner does to keep you in an abusive partner’s control can make it seem impossible to get out of the situation, it's not. You can get out. You are strong enough and you deserve better.
You are strong enough and you deserve better.
If you've come to the realization that your relationship is emotionally abusive, Conti advises that it’s time to seek the help of a professional. "Research the different therapists within your healthcare plan, and select one that is nearby and commit to going and being brutally honest about your situation,“ she says. But if going to a therapist isn't an option for you, don’t worry you, still have options. “You can also call your local church, temple, etc. where they can usually provide you with local organizations who will help you for free,” adds Conti.
Most importantly, you need to consider your safety. While not all emotionally abusive partners will become physically dangerous, it's a possbility you should be aware of. Conti advises protecting yourself by "alerting your friends and family about your situation, and if you have a trusted neighbor, you can even let them know that you are going through a breakup, just so they can be an extra set of eyes."
Ending a relationship is never easy, especially with an emotionally abusive partner, but you can do it. You deserve better and the first step in achieving that is believing and setting yourself free.