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When people think about abuse they typically picture bruises and broken bones, but abuse in a relationship does not have to be just physical. Emotional abuse occurs more often than we realize, and it is far more difficult to detect. In fact, emotional abuse within a relationship is probably more common and longer-lived than physical because it is easily overlooked. 


Emotional abuse is sneaky. Seemingly happy couples can be living in a relationship that is rife with controlling and emotionally manipulative behavior. 

It is true that two individuals sharing their lives together will not always agree. Nor will they always make each other happy. Arguments and conflict are normal, but when does normal conflict or arguing cross the line into emotional abuse?

It may seem like that line is a clear one, but often times it isn’t, not even to the person suffering the abuse. 

So what qualifies as emotional abuse?

Controlling behavior. 

This type of behavior is often over-looked as a form of abuse, but controlling behavior can definitely reach abusive levels. When one individual within the relationship exercises control over the other in any form this upsets the balance and negates the idea that you are two equal individuals sharing, and building a life together. Controlling behavior can come in many forms. Money, access to technology, access to friends, interrogation regarding daily tasks, and scrutinizing phone calls or social media are all forms of controlling behavior and can qualify as emotional abuse.

Name calling and labeling. 

Calling someone nasty names is clearly an abusive thing to do. We can all recognize that telling someone they are stupid or worthless will have a detrimental effect on them. What people don’t always realize is that name calling doesn’t always have to be so direct or obvious. Labeling someone in a derogatory way can influence the way they see themselves. Phrases like, “you are irresponsible with…,” “you are too quiet to…,” “you aren’t strong enough for..,” “you aren’t good at…,” are all things that can start to negatively define a person in their mind and the minds of others. 

Undermining of self-esteem or self-worth. 

This can go hand-in-hand with name calling and labeling. The undermining of someone’s self-worth goes a step farther though. This can happen when one partner is dismissive of the other’s attributes, efforts, or contributions. Pointing out physical flaws, difference in income, or diminishing their accomplishments can cause a person to question their worth in the relationship, as a person, and possibly in society. 

Manipulation of affection. 

Leveraging affection is one of the most common forms of emotional abuse. When one partner uses their love (either emotional or physical) to get the other to behave in specific ways, or to get what they want, it is qualifies as abusive. 

Punitive behavior. 

If one partner punishes the other for behavior they don’t like, they have crossed a line. Punishing can come in the form of withholding affection, the silent treatment, insults, or refusal to participate in household chores or activities. These are not the only ways one person might punish the other, just a few of the most common. 

It can be tricky to tell if you or someone you know is being emotionally abused. The abuse can be very subtle. Often the person being abused doesn’t even recognize it. They often believe that what they are experiencing is love. Abusers often convince their partners that they are doing things “for their own good.”

Emotional abuse eats away at a person’s self-worth. 

Over time they come to see themselves only in the way the abuser describes them. If the abuser tells them they are stupid, wrong all the time, not good at certain things, they will begin to believe it, especially because it is coming from the person who loves them. Emotional abuse can be hidden more effectively than physical abuse since there are no obvious signs like bruises or broken bones. There are, however, signs. If you see any of the following in yourself or someone you care about, take a closer look at what is going on.

Constant self-doubt. 

People dealing with emotional abuse will begin to doubt themselves and their value to others. They may often say things like, “oh, I’m not good at that,” “no one would want me there,” “I’m sure I did this all wrong.” We all occasionally say things like that, but someone being abused will make these statements frequently. They may not attempt to do or participate in certain things assuming they won’t do it correctly or that no one wants them to. 

Walking on eggshells around their partner. 

Someone being abused will go to great lengths not anger or upset their abuser. They will try hard to avoid any triggers that may initiate the abusive behavior. They may also try to keep others from engaging in those behaviors as well saying, “oh, don’t talk about that, he/she won’t like it,” or “don’t bring that up, it will make him/her angry.”

Looking for permission before speaking or answering questions. 

Emotional abusers exert control their over their partners. As a consequence the person being abused often looses their sense of self and any semblance of independence. They are afraid to offer opinions, answer questions or engage with others without their partner’s approval. You may see them hesitate and look toward their abuser before speaking, or defer to him/her allowing them to speak on their behalf.

Isolation. 

Because of the impaired sense of self-worth many people dealing with abuse will isolate themselves. They may believe no one wants them around and that they have nothing to offer, or feel their partner would disapprove. Depression is also common among people dealing with abuse. This can compound the feelings of isolation and cause many additional complications.

If you recognize these behaviors in yourself or someone else it is time to seek help. Know that the problem in the relationship is the abuser and not the person suffering. It can be difficult to convince the one suffering of this, however. It will take a strong support network to help them establish personal boundaries and feel strong enough to push back or leave. Ultimately their mental and physical health is the concern. If you are concerned that you are someone else is dealing with emotional abuse there are resources available. Counselors, local organizations or the national victim abuse hotline can provide information and help. 

Emotional abuse is tricky. The damage to a person can be substantial and can go unnoticed for a long time, or gradually increase over time being noticed too late. The effects of emotional abuse are difficult to reverse once the abuse has stopped, so getting help at the earliest possible point is crucial. If any of the above resonates with you it’s time for a change. We all deserve to be loved with respect and decency. In fact, if those things are not present it is probably not love at all.