The Warning Signs of Emotional Abuse

emotional abuse in couples

Good Intentions 

"He didn't mean it that way...."

"She just has a temper."

"That's just the way we fight."

Do you know the difference between normal arguments and emotional abuse? October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so today, I'd like to share some information with you about the warning signs of emotional abuse, which is by far the most common form of abuse in relationships. Anyone can become the target of emotional abuse, regardless of your background.

In my Atlanta counseling office, my clients rarely ask me about emotional abuse, because they rarely suspect that their own behavior or their partner's behavior is abusive. Why? Well, the main reason is that most people living within abusive dynamics do not suspect or believe it's "abuse". It's just "normal" to them, even if it's completely harmful.

According to Dr. John Gottman, my favorite relationship researcher, the following questions can help you determine whether or not you may be experiencing emotional abuse in your relationship. I ask all of my couples these questions, because the existence of any one of these abusive dynamics is harmful to any relationship and need to be addressed immediately.

If you answer "yes" to any of the following questions, you may want to consider seeing a trained mental health clinician to discuss it further.

Emotional Abuse - Questions To Ask Yourself

1. Do you have to do things to avoid your partner’s jealousy?
2. Does your partner try to control who you spend your my time with?
3. Does your partner repeatedly accuse you of flirting with other people?
4. Is your partner overly suspicious that you are unfaithful?
5. Does your partner act like a detective, looking for clues that you've done something wrong?
6. Does your partner keep you from going places you want to go?
7. Does your partner threaten you to take away money if you don’t 'do as you're told'?
8. Does your partner forcibly try to restrict your movements?
9. Does your partner try to control all your money?
10. Does your partner try to control all of your freedom?
11. Does your partner try to convince other people that you're crazy?
12. Has your partner told you that you are sexually unattractive?
13. Does your partner insult your family?
14. Does your partner humiliate you in front of others? 
15. Does your partner make you do degrading things?
16. Does your partner intentionally do things to scare you? 
17. Does your partner threaten you physically during arguments?
18. Does your partner warn you that if you keep doing something, violence will follow?
19. Does your partner make you engage in sexual practices you consider perverse?
20. In bed, does your partner make you do things you find repulsive?
21. Do you feel pressured to have sex when you don’t want to?
22. Does your partner threaten to hurt someone you care about?
23. Does your partner intentionally damage things you care about?
24. Does your partner do cruel things to pets or other animals?

25. Does your partner threaten to hurt your children?

Where's The Line?

During arguments, we've all crossed some lines. Perhaps you acted childish, throwing a temper tantrum when you didn't get your way. Maybe you said something really hurtful. And maybe you even said it on purpose, because you know exactly what to say to get under their skin.

When you've been in a relationship long enough, we all come to know our partner's pet peeves, their weaknesses, and insecurities. All's fair in love and war, right? Well, no. There are some clear lines that should never be crossed. Not if you want a healthy relationship that lasts long-term.

The first thing to know about emotional abuse is that it is so much more subtle than physical abuse. Most people can remember whether we've been hit, pushed, punched, shoved, grabbed, shaken, slapped, kicked, choked, etc. Even if you deny physical abuse, you remember it.

Physical abuse seems more black and white in our memory. But most people aren't so certain about emotional abuse, which can seem more "grey". We can learn to rationalize any kind of abuse, but especially emotional abuse. 

If you've been emotionally abused, you may have not even realized it when it was happening because you may have never considered it "abuse". Especially if it never got physical. Many people are mistakenly taught that "abuse" is only "abuse" if it gets physical. That's 100% wrong. Emotional abuse can eventually lead to physical abuse, and it often does. Even if it doesn't ever lead to physical abuse, it can have just as damaging effects on you.

Why Does It Happen?

Abuse is almost always about gaining control and power over another person. Abusers use their words, attitudes and actions against their victim to control them and feel more powerful, especially when they feel anxious, insecure, entitled, or "the victim". It can happen between girlfriend and boyfriend, husband and wife, parent and child, among relatives and between friends. 

Most abusers have not dealt with their own childhood wounds. They are usually living out what they learned as a child, having watched the way one or both of their parents treated the another. As cliche as it sounds, hurt people hurt people.

Generations of families live unhealthy, abusive dynamics, passing it on to their children like a cursed hand-me-down. Without getting professional help, abusers will keep hurting people. Fortunately, we do not have to inherit our parents' bad behaviors forever. With education and support, anyone can intentionally and consciously choose a different way to live.

Sticks and Stones

Words are powerful. Emotional abuse can be more harmful than physical abuse because it can slowly destroy the way you think about yourself. Words can be the most harmful weapon an abuser uses. The abusive way someone talks to you or treats you can warp the lens through which you see yourself. Here are some examples of abusive language:

  • Why in hell would you wear that? You look like a slut.
  • You're so stupid.
  • You're a bitch.
  • You're disgusting. 
  • You're not good enough.
  • Where the fuck have you been?
  • You're nothing without me.
  • If you ever leave, I'll kill you. 
  • I hate you. Just kidding.

...Etc. Etc. Whatever lie(s) an abuser has created about you can lead you to believe them, too. Lies may turn into insults. Insults into threats. The abuse usually starts small, and becomes more and more horrible as time passes. 

If abuse exists in your relationship, it does not mean that your relationship cannot be helped. There is always hope. Because I'm a therapist, of course I'm biased, but I truly believe that all people can be helped, and the research supports that, too. But people have to be willing to get help, and often, people who have severe abusive tendencies usually refuse to get help. 

If You're Abusive

If you have been the abuser--the one being emotionally abusive--you may not have realized you were doing it, either. On the other hand, you may have been fully aware of what you were doing. But I can tell you one thing--If you don't get help to change the way you treat you're partner, you'll most certainly keep doing it. 

If You're Being Abused

#BreakTheSilence #DomesticViolence #ShareYourStory #Awareness

If you are currently experiencing abuse in your relationship, please consider getting help. If you need help now:

Call 911 for all emergencies.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline
1.800.799.SAFE (7233)

National Child Abuse Hotline
1-800-4-A-CHILD (2-24453)

National Sexual Assault Hotline 
1.800.656.HOPE (4673)


Please feel free to comment on this article. I'm always looking for feedback, new topics, and suggestions! 

ABOUT: Stephanie Cook, LCSW, provides in-person and online counseling services to adults, teens, couples, and families; she specializes in working with young adults and couples on improving themselves and their relationships. Stephanie owns a small private practice, Counseling ATL, LLC, located in Decatur, an intown-suburb of Atlanta, GA, near Emory University. Her blog is dedicated to helping people improve their lives and relationships.