5 Signs You’re In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship, According To Therapists
I have been in an emotionally abusive relationship, though if you were to ask me if I thought it was abusive at the time, I would have said, “Absolutely not. Sure, we have problems. Sure, I'm miserable and walk on eggshells constantly. Sure, I cry all the time and seem to have lost all my self esteem, but abusive? No way.” Spoiler alert: I was wrong and all the signs were there. What I know now, but didn’t know then, was that some of the most painful and damaging forms of emotional abuse are subtle. Sure, they can be loud and bombastic and completely obvious, but emotional abuse can also be a quiet, slow undermining of your confidence and psychological health, like I experienced.
For me, the emotional abuse didn't come in the form of shouting matches — rather it was the slow drip, drip, drip of gaslighting and subtle forms of contempt. It was also the fear that at any moment my partner would pull away and break my heart — again. Eventually, when we did separate, it took years for me to feel like myself again, and only then, when I fought to regain my confidence and self worth, was I able to (in hindsight) see the methodical way that my ex had undermined me and broken my spirit. I had always thought emotional abuse was screaming, and verbal cruelty, so I missed the red flags in my relationship. In honor of October's Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and to make sure this doesn't happen to you, I reached out to therapists to ask what signs to look out for if you suspect your relationship is emotionally abusive. Here's what they had to say.
1. They treat you with contempt.
One of the signs of an emotionally abusive relationship, according to dating and relationships expert and licensed marriage and family therapist Anita A. Chlipala, is that your partner treats you with contempt. But what does that mean? “Contempt comes in many forms, including hostile humor, sarcasm, mockery, and name-calling,” she tells Elite daily.
Licensed psychologist and relationship expert Dr. LeslieBeth Wish agrees with Chlipala that if your partner is exhibiting this kind of behavior, the relationship is emotionally abusive. She asks, “Does your partner criticize you in public? Or get sarcastic — and tell others negative and embarrassing things about you?” If so, you should consider these red flags, because as Dr. Wish explains, “This behavior is a powerful sign because it shows you that your partner ignores or doesn’t even detect the rules of social decency. So, it is likely that he or she will act with even more abusive behavior at home.”
2. They make you feel like you’re going crazy.
One of the most insidious and powerful tools in an emotionally abusive partner’s arsenal is gaslighting. If you aren't familiar with the term, Chlipala explains that it’s “a technique used to have a person doubt their own reality. A lot of my clients use the term ‘crazy’ to describe how they’re feeling.” For example, your partner may deny something you can see with your own eyes, to the point where you begin to believe them. The whole point of gaslighting is to control you by tipping you off balance and make you mistrust your own instincts and beliefs — and it’s toxic AF.
3. They punish and control you by withholding.
Sometimes, the emotional abuse isn’t about what the partner does, but rather about what they don’t do, says Chlipala. They inflict emotional suffering by holding back, and it’s called “punishment by withholding,” she explains. “Whether it’s withholding affection, attention, sex, or money, they use withholding as a means of punishment.”
4. You’re afraid of their anger.
It's normal for someone to get angry and lose their temper once in a while, but for it to happen constantly is a classic sign of emotional abuse, and, unlike some of the other signs, it's one that is easier to spot but no less damaging. While we all get angry and lose our temper from time to time, there is a difference, and to recognize the difference, Dr. Wish says to pay attention to how your partner handles disagreements.
“Signs to look for include temper outbursts, criticism and sarcasm, and walking away,” explains Dr. Wish, adding, “More serious signs are breaking and punching things — and doing the same to you. Pay special attention to whether the behavior escalates in violence, such as breaking things — especially if your partner breaks something intentionally near you to frighten you.”
Dr. Gary Brown, licensed marriage and family therapist, agrees. In an article on his blog, he says that, “Someone who is prone to fits of anger, with little to no provocation, can be especially dangerous. This is a big Red Flag.” The reason being, he writes, is that “The potential for things becoming physical is real. Their need to be ‘right’ seems more important than their need to be close. Deep down they can’t believe that there is something wrong with them.”
5. They make threats when you argue.
Arguments are unavoidable and are actually healthy in relationships. They are how we set and learn our boundaries. So, it’s not a matter of if you fight, so much as how you fight, according to Dr. Brown, who warns that the use of threats in arguments is a clear sign of emotional abuse. On his blog, he writes, “When you are with someone who is this toxic… in addition to fits of anger, they may resort to making threats. The threats can come in many forms: threatening to leave, financial abandonment, disownment, divorce, physical punishment, emotional punishment, denying access to other loved ones, permanent estrangement, vowing to punish those who do not agree with them.” If that sounds familiar, it's time to start thinking about if this is a relationship you even want to be in anymore and what your next steps are. But what should you do?
What To Do If You're In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship
If these signs are sounding painfully familiar, and you're in an emotionally abusive relationship, the first thing you need to realize is that their behavior is totally unacceptable and you are worthy of better. It’s time for things to change — immediately. In some cases, Chlipala says the relationship is salvageable, provided your partner is willing to own up their behavior and do the work to change it. She says to “be very clear and concise about what you find unacceptable behavior. If they don’t make the necessary modifications, end the relationship. People sometimes stay in abusive relationships because it’s not always bad — there can be really good moments and then people get hooked because they see ‘how things could be.’ You have to take the entire relationship into consideration and not just the good parts. It’s not up to you to change your partner, they have to be able to do it.”
Dr. Wish adds that the most important thing to remember is to never minimize any of their abusive behaviors. “It’s easy to do because you might feel you are being too picky or too sensitive. Don’t fall into that trap," she warns, but adds that, “if the behavior becomes verbally cruel or physically threatening, seek counseling just for you to learn about developing a safe plan. Never threaten to leave — that is most often when abuse gets worse.”
I know that advice is easier to give than to take, especially if you love your partner or are afraid to leave them. Just know that you are not alone. Reach out to your friends and loved ones for support, and if you need more advice, there are services available. Contact the folks at The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. There is a way out and there is happiness on the other side.
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