Am I in an emotionally abusive relationship? How to tell — and how to get help

Over the past year, domestic abuse of all kinds increased as people were forced to spend more time at home. One big, often overlooked part of that problem is emotional abuse.

“Emotional abuse is one of the hardest forms of abuse to recognize,” says Dr. Jill Amos, licensed behavioral health psychologist for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “Because it’s a pattern of bullying and abusive language, it wears your self esteem down over time. And because it happens little by little, it undermines your mental health long before you even identify it.”

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is a way of controlling another person by preying on their emotions. Emotionally abusive people seek to:

  • Criticize
  • Embarrass
  • Shame
  • Blame
  • Manipulate
  • Gaslight
  • Isolate

Any relationship with a consistent pattern of hurtful words or damaging behavior is considered emotional abuse.

What are the signs of emotional abuse?

”Emotional abuse includes verbal abuse, as well as anything from making you feel guilty to withholding affection to the silent treatment,” says Dr. Amos. “It can touch every element of your life, which makes it very damaging. It’s overwhelming when you feel like there’s no safe place to go, or that you’re not worthy of a better situation.”

Signs of emotional abuse include:

  • Verbal abuse — anything from calmly delivering an insult to screaming or swearing at you
  • Making you believe you’re crazy
  • Giving you the silent treatment
  • Withholding attention and affection
  • Making jokes at your expense
  • Embarrassing you in public
  • Nitpicking your appearance
  • Talking down to you
  • Constantly rejecting your thoughts, ideas and opinions
  • Gaslighting you — making you doubt your own feelings, thoughts or sanity by manipulating the truth
  • Isolating you from family and friends, or insisting you spend all your time with them
  • Using your insecurities to control you

“Emotional abuse is often so subtle that we brush it off as everyday stress on the part of the perpetrator, but can be very destructive over time,” says Dr. Amos. “For example, if you say something like, ‘I’m too fat to eat at the party,’ and your partner agrees, that’s damaging. Or, if they’re often saying things like, ‘I can’t believe you’re wearing that,’ or ‘Don’t embarrass me tonight,’ instead of encouraging and supporting you, that’s suggestive of abusive behavior.”

How can you tell if you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship?

“If you leave every interaction feeling bad about yourself, feeling demeaned or just totally drained, you’re probably experiencing emotional abuse,” says Dr. Amos. “And remember: emotionally abusive relationships can be with a partner, friend or family member, but also in social or work situations.”

Ask yourself: Do I feel any of these emotions when I interact with this person?

  • Wounded
  • Frustrated
  • Confused
  • Misunderstood
  • Depressed
  • Anxious
  • Worthless

“If you have any of those feelings on a regular basis, that relationship has some element of abuse in it,” says Dr. Amos.

How can emotional abuse affect your health?

Emotional abuse can cause chronic stress, which leads to mental and physical health problems, including:

“Emotional abuse can also lead to physical violence,” says Dr. Amos. “It may start with controlling finances or hiding car keys, and then evolve into social isolation or physical abuse. For long and short-term reasons, we all need social support to be resilient. If you lose that support, what do you draw from?”

How can you address emotional abuse?

“First off, know that you’re not going to change the abuser by making changes to your behavior,” says Dr. Amos. “Emotional abuse is something that person is doing that has nothing to do with you. Changing your actions may temporarily change some of theirs, but it is not your responsibility to do that for them.”

When you feel a person is being emotionally abusive, don’t:

  • Appease them
  • Validate their emotions
  • Engage in an argument
  • Make excuses for them

“The more you accept the current pattern of behavior, the more ways you give them to be abusive,” says Dr. Amos. “Also, if you’re in a dating relationship and already seeing signs of this, take heed because it’s unlikely to change as the relationship progresses. Anyone can be very emotionally abusive, and often the signs are there from the beginning.”

4 steps for addressing emotional abuse

1. Establish some boundaries

“The next time the abuse starts, say, ‘I’m not going to tolerate this behavior.’ ‘I’m going to leave the room,’ or ‘I’m going to leave and take a drive,’” says Dr. Amos. “Setting boundaries lets the other person know that you’re serious about them changing their behavior.”

2. Ask for help

Another way to ensure the behavior won’t be tolerated is counseling. You might say, “This relationship has become unmanageable, and I want to get help.” If they refuse, ask yourself: How satisfying is this relationship?

“Don’t be afraid to get counseling on your own, or to talk to loved ones for support,” says Dr. Amos. “You always have a choice, and it’s never too late to make a plan to exit an abusive relationship.”

3. Don’t make excuses

“It’s easy for kind, empathetic people to make excuses for abusers,” says Dr. Amos. “For example, if I know my husband’s father was emotionally abusive and now my husband is abusing me, understanding where he’s coming from can be enough to make me think I can’t leave him. But understanding why someone acts a certain way is not a reason to stay. It’s not healthy, and it’s not safe.”

4. Know your worth

“Say to yourself:

  • I deserve to be treated with kindness.
  • I’m not being treated kindly.
  • I need to set a boundary and possibly end the relationship.

“Reminding yourself of your worth and knowing that you’re not alone is the first step toward building and protecting your mental health,” says Dr. Amos.

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Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also use tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the in the Member Wellness Center under the Managing Your Health tab.

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Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).