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Emotional Abuse

Recognising Emotional Abuse in Relationships

Emotional abuse is a form of mistreatment that can harm your mental and emotional well-being. Unlike physical abuse, it doesn’t leave visible marks, but its effects can be just as serious. Emotional abuse includes behaviors like constant criticism, belittling, manipulation, intimidation, and isolation. It aims to control and undermine you, making you feel powerless and worthless.

Recognizing emotional abuse is the first step towards healing. It’s important to understand that it’s not your fault and to reach out for support from friends, family, or a professional. Healing from emotional abuse involves rebuilding your self-esteem and developing emotional strength, and it’s entirely possible with the right support.

What is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse is when a person controls another person by using feelings to hurt, embarrass, blame, or control them. It happens a lot in dating or marriage, but it can also happen between friends, family, or at work.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines emotional abuse as non-physical behavior or attitudes that are intended to control, isolate, punish, or subdue another person through fear or humiliation.

Emotional abuse involves a recurring series of non-physical actions characterized by aggression or manipulation, which detrimentally impact the recipient’s well-being. Those enduring emotional abuse frequently face mental health challenges such as diminished self-esteem, increased self-doubt, depression, and anxiety.

Simply, it’s when someone keeps saying or doing mean things that make the other person feel bad about themselves over and over again. It can really mess with how someone feels about themselves and can make them feel really down.

According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, emotional abuse is reported more frequently than physical or sexual abuse among the over 12 million adults who suffer abuse from an intimate partner each year in the United States. Almost half of violence against women is emotional abuse. It happens to people from all backgrounds—no matter their race, religion, or financial situation. This goes for all types of domestic abuse. Sometimes, verbal attacks can eventually turn into physical or sexual violence.

Signs of Emotional Abuse

There are several red flags of emotional abuse. Abuse can be tricky because it’s often subtle. Even if someone you’re close to only shows a few of these signs, your relationship might still be emotionally abusive. It’s important to pay attention to how you feel around them. If you’re unsure whether your relationship is abusive, think about how your interactions with them affect you. Your feelings can give you important clues.

Avoid convincing yourself that “it’s not that bad” and brushing off the other person’s actions. Everyone deserves to be treated kindly and respectfully, including you. Acknowledging this truth can empower you to break free from the cycle of emotional abuse.

Unrealistic Expectations
One of the signs of emotional abuse is when the other person expects too much from you in an unrealistic way. Here are some examples:

Asking for things that are impossible or unfair
Wanting you to always prioritize their needs over yours
Insisting that you spend all your time with them
Never being satisfied, no matter how hard you try or how much you give criticizing you for not doing things exactly the way they want – not allowing you to have your own opinions—they expect you to agree with them all the time requiring you to remember specific dates and times when talking about things that upset you, and dismissing your feelings if you can’t recall them exactly.

How to Recognize it ?

Recognizing emotional abuse can be challenging because there are no physical signs like bruises or broken bones. Here are some signs that might indicate emotional abuse:

  • Your partner frequently swears or yells at you.

  • Your partner constantly belittles, interrogates, or humiliates you.

  • Your partner uses name-calling, insults, or mockery towards you.

  • Your partner insults or threatens your loved ones, including family and friends.

  • Your partner threatens harm to you or your family.

  • Your partner threatens or harms pets.

  • Your partner controls your behavior by limiting your access to communication or socializing.

  • You’re not allowed to leave the house or room freely.

  • Your access to money is restricted, and you’re required to justify your spending.

  • Your partner monitors or restricts your phone calls.

  • Your partner deliberately disturbs your sleep or prevents you from sleeping.

  • Your partner blames you for their mistreatment of you.

  • Your partner forces you to do demeaning tasks, such as begging for money or kneeling.

  • Your partner criticizes your thoughts, feelings, opinions, beliefs, and actions.

  • Your partner treats you like a servant regarding household chores and decisions.

  • Your partner is excessively jealous and accuses you of flirting or cheating.

  • Your partner insists that you’re mentally ill or crazy.

  • Your partner denies events or twists them to make you doubt your memory; this is known as gaslighting, a form of emotional abuse that undermines your confidence and independence.

Impact of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse can hurt just as much as physical abuse, even though you can’t see any bruises. Instead, it leaves you feeling really bad about yourself, like you’re not good enough. If emotional abuse keeps happening a lot and is really intense, it can make you forget who you are. The constant accusations, mean words, and making you doubt yourself can make you feel like you’re not seeing yourself clearly anymore. They might say nasty things or make you doubt yourself so much that you start believing them. This can make you feel stuck in the relationship, thinking you’ll never find someone better. You might even stop hanging out with your friends because you’re convinced they don’t like you. Emotional abuse can make you feel really sad or worried, and it can even make your body feel sick, like having stomach problems or trouble sleeping.

Key Elements of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse can manifest in various forms, each with distinct yet equally damaging effects on the victim’s mental and emotional well-being. Understanding these different types of abuse is crucial in recognizing and addressing them. Broadly, emotional abuse can be categorized into five main areas: Fear of Vulnerability, Distrust, Lack of Allowance, Lack of Gratitude, and Dishonoring. Each category encompasses specific abusive behaviors that an abuser uses to exert control and inflict psychological harm. By exploring these categories in detail, we can better identify the signs of emotional abuse and take informed steps toward healing and recovery.

Fear of Vulnerability

Exploiting Insecurities: Emotional abusers pay close attention to the weaknesses and insecurities of their victims, such as insecurities about appearance, intelligence, or past traumas. They may use this personal information to hurt the victim’s feelings or make them feel bad about themselves. For instance,if someone tells their abuser they feel bad about their weight, the abuser might use that information to criticize their appearance and make them feel worse and make them depend on the abuser for reassurance and approval.

Isolating the Victim: Abusers may capitalize on a victim’s vulnerability by isolating them from external support networks, such as friends and family. By fostering dependence on the abuser for emotional support, they create a situation where the victim feels they have nowhere else to turn. For example, if a victim expresses anxiety about social situations, the abuser might discourage them from spending time with friends or attending social events, claiming they’re only looking out for the victim’s well-being.

Gaslighting: Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation where the abuser denies the victim’s reality, making them doubt their perceptions and memories. When a victim is vulnerable, they’re more susceptible to gaslighting tactics. For instance, if a victim is already feeling emotionally fragile due to a recent loss, the abuser might gaslight them by denying events or conversations that actually took place, causing the victim to question their sanity and memory.

Feigning Support: Emotional abusers might initially appear supportive and understanding when their victim is vulnerable, only to later use this vulnerability against them. For example, if a victim opens up to their abuser about struggling with depression, the abuser might initially offer comfort and reassurance. However, as time goes on, they may weaponize this vulnerability by blaming the victim for their own mental health struggles or using it as an excuse for their abusive behavior.


Repeatedly Breaking Promises: Emotional abusers often make promises or commitments to their victims, whether it’s about changing their behavior, seeking help for their issues, or improving the relationship. However, they consistently fail to follow through on these promises. For instance, an abuser might promise to stop yelling or insulting their partner during arguments but continue the same behavior shortly afterward. This pattern of broken promises erodes the victim’s trust in the abuser and makes it challenging for them to believe in any positive changes.

Betraying Confidences: Abusers might exploit the trust of their victims by betraying their confidences or using sensitive information against them. For example, if a victim confides in their abuser about past traumas or vulnerabilities, the abuser may weaponize this information during arguments or manipulate the victim’s emotions by bringing up these sensitive topics. This betrayal of trust not only damages the victim’s confidence in the abuser but also makes them hesitant to confide in others in the future.

Lack of Allowance

Financial Control: One way emotional abusers exercise disallowance is by controlling the victim’s access to finances. This could involve limiting the victim’s ability to work or earn money independently or giving the victim an allowance while the abuser retains control over the majority of financial resources. By controlling the purse strings, the abuser maintains power over the victim’s financial independence, making it difficult for them to leave the relationship or assert their autonomy.

Social Interactions: Emotional abusers may also restrict the victim’s social interactions as a form of disallowance. This could include isolating the victim from friends and family members, monitoring their communications, or dictating who they can spend time with. By controlling the victim’s social circle, the abuser prevents them from seeking support or validation from others, further reinforcing their dependence on the abuser for companionship and approval.

Behavioral Dictation: Abusers often dictate the victim’s behavior and choices, micromanaging their actions to maintain control. This could involve setting strict rules and expectations for the victim’s conduct, such as what they wear, how they speak, or how they behave in public. For example, an abuser might insist that the victim always defer to their opinions or desires, effectively erasing the victim’s autonomy and individuality.

Permission-Based Living: Emotional abusers may require the victim to seek permission for even the most mundane activities, such as making plans with friends, pursuing hobbies, or spending money. This permission-based living creates a dynamic where the victim feels like they need the abuser’s approval for every decision, no matter how trivial. By controlling the victim’s choices and actions in this way, the abuser reinforces their power and dominance in the relationship.

Lack of Gratitude

Excessive Demands for Gratitude: Emotional abusers often demand an unreasonable amount of gratitude or appreciation for even the smallest gestures or acts of kindness. They may expect constant praise and recognition for their actions, regardless of how minimal or routine they are. For example, an abuser might expect the victim to express effusive gratitude for doing household chores or providing basic necessities, framing these actions as exceptional favors rather than normal responsibilities.

Manipulation through Guilt and Obligation: Abusers use gratitude as a tool to manipulate the victim’s emotions, fostering a sense of guilt or indebtedness. They may exploit the victim’s natural inclination to reciprocate kindness by framing their actions as selfless sacrifices. For instance, an abuser might remind the victim of all the things they’ve done for them in the past, creating a sense of obligation for the victim to comply with their demands or overlook their abusive behavior.

Guilt-Tripping Tactics: Emotional abusers employ guilt-tripping tactics to coerce the victim into expressing gratitude or complying with their wishes. They may use phrases like “After all I’ve done for you” or “You should be grateful that I put up with you” to guilt-trip the victim into submission. By framing themselves as martyrs or victims who are unappreciated or taken for granted, abusers manipulate the victim’s emotions and undermine their sense of self-worth.

Undermining the Victim’s Autonomy: By demanding excessive gratitude, emotional abusers undermine the victim’s autonomy and agency, making them feel dependent on the abuser for validation and approval. The constant need to express gratitude can create a dynamic where the victim feels like they owe the abuser something in return, perpetuating the cycle of abuse and control.


Threats of Shame and Disgrace: Emotional abusers often leverage the fear of social stigma or dishonor to control their victims. They may threaten to tarnish the victim’s reputation or bring shame upon their family or community if the victim speaks out about the abuse or tries to leave the relationship. For example, an abuser might warn the victim that disclosing the abuse would result in their family being ostracized or that their reputation would be irreparably damaged, creating a sense of fear and isolation that keeps the victim trapped in the abusive dynamic.

Cultural or Religious Pressure: In some cases, emotional abusers use cultural or religious beliefs about honor and respect to manipulate their victims. They may exploit traditional values or societal expectations to justify their abusive behavior and silence the victim’s protests. For instance, an abuser might claim that speaking out against them would bring dishonor to the family or go against the teachings of their religion, effectively using these beliefs to suppress the victim’s autonomy and agency.

Isolation and Dependency: By threatening the victim’s honor or reputation, emotional abusers further isolate them from sources of support and reinforcement. The victim may fear judgment or condemnation from their social circle or community if they disclose the abuse, leading them to believe that they have no choice but to remain silent and compliant. This sense of isolation and dependency reinforces the abuser’s control over the victim and makes it difficult for them to seek help or escape the abusive relationship.

Gaslighting and Manipulation: Emotional abusers may use gaslighting tactics to convince the victim that they deserve the abuse or that their perception of reality is flawed. They may manipulate the victim into believing that speaking out about the abuse would be selfish or dishonorable, further eroding their sense of self-worth and agency. By distorting the victim’s reality and undermining their confidence, abusers maintain control over the narrative and perpetuate the cycle of abuse.

What Doesn't Work With Emotional Abuse

Arguing with the Abuser: Engaging in arguments with an abuser can worsen the situation and even lead to violence. Trying to reason with them is futile as they often deflect blame, shame, or criticize endlessly. They may also manipulate the situation to portray themselves as the victim.

Trying to Justify or Understand the Abuser’s Behavior: It’s natural to seek reasons or excuses for the abuser’s actions, but attempting to rationalize or minimize their behavior can make it harder to leave the abusive situation. Trying to sympathize with them can cloud your judgment and prolong the abuse.

Attempting to Appease the Abuser: While it may seem like appeasing the abuser could calm the situation, it typically backfires and enables further abuse. Changing yourself or your behaviors to meet their demands only reinforces their control. Instead, focus on setting clear boundaries and avoiding engagement whenever possible.

Strategies to deal with Emotional Abuse

By acknowledging and being truthful about your experiences, you empower yourself to regain control of your life. Here are additional strategies, totaling seven, to help you reclaim your life, which you can implement starting today.

Prioritize yourself : Focus on your mental and physical health instead of trying to please the person who’s hurting you. Do things that make you feel good about yourself and try to stay positive. Also, make sure to get enough rest and eat well. These simple acts of self-care can help you handle the everyday difficulties of dealing with emotional abuse.

Quit Self-Blame: If you’ve lived through emotional abuse in a relationship, you might start feeling like it’s your fault. But it’s important to realize that you’re not to blame. Abuse is a decision made by the abuser. Stop holding yourself accountable for something you can’t control.

Set Boundaries: Clearly communicate to the abusive individual that certain behaviors, such as yelling, name-calling, insults, or rudeness, are no longer acceptable. Then, outline the consequences if they continue with such behavior.

For instance, explain that if they use derogatory labels or insults, the conversation will end, and you will leave the room. It’s crucial to uphold these boundaries consistently. This sends a strong message that emotional abuse will not be tolerated.

Understand you Can’t Make Them Better: You can’t control their behavior, and you’re not responsible for their decisions. The only thing within your power is how you react to emotional abuse.

Avoid Engaging In Conflict: Refrain from interacting with an abusive individual. If they attempt to initiate an argument, insult you, make demands, or display jealousy, avoid providing explanations, appeasing them, or apologizing for things you’re not responsible for. If possible, remove yourself from the situation entirely. Engaging with an abuser only perpetuates further abuse and distress. Despite your efforts, you cannot rectify the situation in their eyes.

Establish a Support System: While it may be challenging to disclose that you’re experiencing emotional abuse, confiding in someone can be beneficial. Open up to a trusted friend, family member, or counselor about your situation. Whenever possible, distance yourself from the abusive individual and spend time with those who care about and support you. Having a network of supportive friends and confidantes can alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation. They can also offer valuable insights and help you gain perspective on your circumstances.

Create an Exit Strategy: If your partner, friend, or family member shows no willingness to change or address their harmful behavior, it’s crucial to recognize that you cannot sustain the abusive relationship indefinitely. Over time, it can severely impact your mental and physical well-being.Depending on your circumstances, you may need to take steps to terminate the relationship. Every situation is unique, so it’s essential to discuss your thoughts and plans with a trusted friend, family member, or counselor. Emotional abuse can lead to severe long-term consequences and may even escalate into physical violence.


Recognizing emotional abuse is a crucial step toward reclaiming your life and well-being. Emotional abuse can slowly erode self-esteem, disrupt mental health, and create a sense of helplessness and isolation. By understanding the various forms and signs of emotional abuse, you become equipped to identify these harmful behaviors in your relationships, whether they are with a partner, friend, family member, or colleague.

Emotional abuse is not a reflection of your worth, but rather a tactic used by the abuser to exert control and power. It’s essential to internalize that the abuse is not your fault and to reach out for support. Confiding in trusted friends, family, or a professional can provide the validation and perspective needed to break free from the cycle of abuse. Establishing clear boundaries and prioritizing your mental and physical health are fundamental steps in the healing process.

As you move forward from emotional abuse, it’s essential to focus on reclaiming your sense of self and rebuilding your life on a foundation of self-respect and empowerment. Engage in activities that bring you joy and fulfillment, and reconnect with your passions and interests that may have been suppressed during the abusive relationship. 

Inner Child Therapy and Family Constellations can be a valuable tool in this process, helping you to process your experiences, develop healthy coping mechanisms, and establish new patterns of thinking and behavior. Cultivating a strong sense of self-worth and practicing self-compassion are key elements in your healing journey. Surround yourself with positive influences and supportive relationships that reinforce your value and contribute to your well-being. Remember, recovery is a gradual process, and it’s okay to seek help and take the time you need to heal fully. 

Moving forward from emotional abuse involves not only escaping the abusive environment but also embarking on a path of personal growth and resilience, where you prioritize your happiness, mental health, and future.


Natasha Arora, Clinical Psychologist and Research Executive at Treta Foundation and Sonali Mittra, Director, Treta Foundation

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