Emotional Abuse Checklist: How To Proceed From Red Flags In A Relationship

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox
Updated November 8, 2023by Regain Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide or abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Emotional abuse in relationships occurs through behavioral patterns meant to break down a person's self-esteem through unhealthy power dynamics and is a form of domestic violence. Domestic violence does not necessarily involve physical violence or control. Domestic violence may also include controlling, manipulative, disrespectful, and dangerous emotional behaviors. 

Emotional abuse may be challenging to recognize in romantic relationships, leaving survivors feeling trapped, scared, or invalidated. The cycle often continues until a survivor can reach out for support or decide to leave. Understanding the red flags that may indicate abuse in a relationship can help you know when you're facing abuse and how to get support. You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline anytime for free resources and advice.

Nobody Deserves Emotional Abuse

Why Emotional Abuse Often Goes Undetected

Actions associated with emotional abuse may not be understood as abusive behaviors by someone experiencing them. As emotional abuse can make a survivor feel that they are in the wrong or experiencing the situation incorrectly, they may initially believe that their partner's behaviors are normal or justified. Others might not know the signs of emotional abuse due to limited media coverage or education. 

Actions related to this form of abuse are persistent and can affect both young and older individuals. They don't necessarily leave visible wounds or marks on one's physical appearance but can cause emotional wounds and mental health challenges like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

The long-term effects of emotional abuse may be felt for many months or years and can cause distinct changes in an individual's self-perception and self-esteem. These symptoms may be kept inside out of shame or ignored due to social stigma about traumatic experiences. In addition, individuals may feel guilt if others tell them the abuse was their fault or that they "should have just left before it occurred." These messages can be harmful and don't consider the psychological trauma and cycles of abuse that can occur to anyone, regardless of background, mental health, age, gender, or sexuality.

You're not alone if you're experiencing emotionally abusive patterns in your relationship. One in four women and one in nine men experience intimate partner violence, sexual violence, or emotional impacts such as stalking, fear, PTSD, or another concern. For many, emotional abuse leads to physical or sexual abuse and can be as dangerous. 

Domestic violence survivors often feel trapped in an abusive relationship due to worries about what may occur if they leave. They may have also lost financial or independent resources, social connection, or self-esteem through their relationship, which could make leaving the relationship seem impossible to them. Paired with threats of self-harm, suicide, physical harm, stalking, or other consequences from the abusive individual, survivors may feel that leaving is not an option. However, there are ways to form a safety plan and start the process of leaving if you're ready to do so. One way is by calling a hotline and speaking to a counselor for resources. You can also consider long-term counseling from a licensed professional. 

20 Signs Of Emotional Abuse In A Relationship

Often, those experiencing emotional abuse may question whether the behaviors their partner is showcasing are abusive or not. To understand if domestic violence in the form of emotional abuse is present in your relationship, consider how your partner interacts with you and others in their life. 

How do you feel when your partner interacts with people you know? How do your partner's actions leave you feeling afterward? Do you feel hurt, anxious, confused, frustrated, depressed, or worthless? If so, emotional abuse may be the cause. Below are 20 red flags to look out for in a relationship: 

  • You avoid partaking in activities or using clothes that make your partner angry. For example, you might avoid posting on social media or wearing a low-cut top.  
  • Your partner often opposes your opinions and perceptions, telling you that your perceptions are incorrect or false (gaslighting). 
  • You are asked to check in with your partner at all times to let them know where you are and who you are with, even when spending time with close relatives.
  • Your partner blocks you during conversations or changes the subject to reflect it onto you and your behavior. 
  • Your partner cracks hurtful jokes and tells you that you are "too sensitive" if you don't laugh or find it funny.
  • Your partner makes you feel as if your feelings are wrong or don't matter. 
  • Your partner makes you apologize for what you didn't do. 
  • Your partner puts words in your mouth or speaks for you without consent. 
  • Your partner has heightened mood swings. One moment they may seem distant, the next, they are unavailable, and then they are loving. You may feel you don't know what to expect or what version of them you get, so you try to change your behaviors to receive love and affection, often to no avail. 
  • Your partner denies what they've said or actions that took place, including actions from a previous relationship.

  • Your partner puts you down and won't acknowledge your accomplishments. They may use a happy moment of yours to make you feel worse. 
  • They withhold money, affection, sex, attention, or acknowledgment from you. 
  • They treat you as a sex object or use sexual abuse to get their way. 
  • Your partner makes you feel that you are the abusive partner and that you are making them act how they are acting.
  • Your partner has unrealistic expectations or standards and criticizes or harms you if you don't meet them. 
  • They invalidate you, claim you're too sensitive or emotional, refuse to accept your perceptions or opinions, and suggest you are wrong. 
  • They frequently argue or create conflict and may change their emotional stances or opinions. 
  • They use emotional blackmail through manipulation, being in control, lying, or using compassion, fear, and other emotions to control the situation.
  • They act entitled or superior while acting condescending, using sarcasm, treating you as inferior, and acting as if they are always right. 
  • They control you through isolation by taking away possessions, making fun of your loved ones, or using envy or jealousy to keep you from others.

If you are experiencing sexual abuse or rape, note that the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) has a hotline dedicated to supporting individuals experiencing sexual assault, harassment, or intimate partner violence. You can contact them anytime by calling 800-656-HOPE (4673) or using the online chat.

Although they can help you create a safety plan, the National Domestic Violence Hotline and RAINN are not a replacement for medical care or long-term professional counseling and therapy services.

Nobody Deserves Emotional Abuse

How Emotional Abuse May Change Your Perspective

Emotional abuse can have various emotional and mental impacts on survivors. If you are experiencing the above signs of abuse, you might also notice the following impacts. 

Shame 

Often, what a partner says during abusive behaviors can cause shame in survivors. Shame is a feeling that transcends guilt because it involves internalizing guilt and feeling that you are to blame for what occurs to you and that you are a "bad" person. You might feel that you are the one abusing your partner or that if you acted "better," they would treat you better. However, note that abuse is not your fault.

A Loss Of Motivation 

Abuse may cause you to struggle to care for yourself or feel competent in daily tasks. You might lose your social connections, job, or hobbies and feel lost. 

Isolation 

If your partner asks you to spend less time with your social network, you might feel isolated, lonely, or scared of what might happen to you. You may think that you can't repair your relationships with the people you've isolated from, and they may not know what's going on in your relationship if the individual acts differently around them. 

Feeling Out Of Control 

You might feel you have lost control if your partner tries to control how you dress, the people you see, or your finances. 

You're Told No One Understands You 

Your partner might tell you that no one else can love you like they can or that no one will understand you as they do. In these cases, you might feel stuck in your relationship or alone if you choose to leave your partner. 

Anger 

In some cases, those experiencing abuse may feel angry and retaliate to stop their partner from harming them. Although it can feel that your angry behaviors are a form of abuse, note that abuse can drive individuals to act in ways they might not act in a healthy situation. 

How To Find Support And Relief 

There are several ways to find support during or after abuse, including the following. 

Prioritize Your Health 

Abuse can have physical health impacts, including heart problems. Take care of your health by eating well and resting when you can. Partake in research-backed activities like mindfulness or meditation to reduce stress. Finding safe locations like a safe park, local nature spot, or family home can be beneficial. 

Acknowledge What Cannot Be Changed 

Note that you are not responsible for "fixing" or helping someone acting abusively. Although you may love and care for them, their actions are their responsibility. Instead, do what you can to make the healthiest choices for yourself and stay true to your boundaries. A skill like radical acceptance from dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can be beneficial for accepting that your partner won't change for you. However, partaking in this skill with a mental health professional for the first time can be beneficial to ensure you have someone to talk to if difficult emotions arise. 

Maintain Healthy Boundaries 

Setting boundaries can be challenging if an individual does not respect them. Set and stick to boundaries by reinforcing that you will not stay in a relationship if behaviors continue. Following through on boundaries can feel scary. However, note that a healthy partner respects boundaries. If your partner is not respecting you, speaking to a professional can help you take steps to receive respect. 

Know Who To Reach Out To 

Talk to people you trust, such as family or friends. They can help you understand the situation and offer reassurance about social support if you're unsure where to go after abuse. 

Try The Gray Rock Method 

One tactic that may be used when experiencing abuse is the gray rock method. The method involves giving no negative or positive reinforcement and remaining neutral in all communication with a partner. It can include responding to messages with one word or ignoring attempts for escalation. Talk to a therapist to learn more about safely participating in this method. 

Seek Professional Guidance 

Many resources and human services like the National Domestic Violence Hotline and RAINN staff trained professionals that are available and offer support 24 hours a day via web chat and phone. The professional staff can provide crisis support for survivors of domestic violence and their families. You can reach out at any time. 

If you're interested in receiving long-term support, a counselor can also be a beneficial resource. Therapists can help you find resources in your area, practice self-care, and learn more about abusive and unhealthy relationships. If you're worried about seeing a therapist in person or feel unsafe in your community, you can also try online counseling. 

Online counseling through a platform like Regain can allow you to connect with a licensed relationship therapist with education in domestic violence and emotional abuse. You do not have to have a mental illness or diagnosed concern to speak to a therapist online; internet-based platforms are often more cost-effective than in-person options. Studies have also found that internet-based therapy is as effective as in-person interventions in treating those that have experienced domestic violence or sexual violence. 

Takeaway

Abuse can cause many emotional, physical, and mental health challenges; you're not alone if you believe you may be experiencing it. Note that support is available in the form of hotlines and counseling interventions. If you're ready to seek guidance, consider contacting a therapist in your area or online for further information.

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