What are the signs of emotional abuse?
Emotional and mental abuse involves a person acting in a way to control, isolate, or scare somebody else. The form of abuse may be statements, threats, or actions, and there may be a pattern or regularity to the behavior.
Learning more about the signs and situations in which emotional abuse may occur can help people identify their situation and seek the help they need.
Where does it happen?
Emotional abuse can take place in a number of different relationships, including in business partnerships or families.
Abusive people tend to abuse those they are very close with. For example, it may be their partner that they are abusing.
However, emotional abuse may also take place in other types of relationships. These include:
- with a business partner or close team member
- with a parent
- with a caretaker
- with a close friend a person relies on
As the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse note, emotional and mental abuse can be very subtle at times. The person may not even notice that someone is manipulating them. It is essential to identify these patterns and try to put an end to them.
Emotional abuse takes many shapes but may fall into one of several categories depending on what the abusive person is attempting to do.
We cover some of these types of abuse in the sections below.
Controlling behavior is a red flag in any relationship. Examples of controlling behavior include:
- making demands or orders and expecting them to be fulfilled
- making all decisions, even canceling another's plans without asking
- continually monitoring another person's whereabouts
- insisting on regular calls, texts, or pictures detailing where the person is, and even showing up to these places to make sure they are not lying
- requiring immediate responses from calls or texts
- exerting financial control over the other, such as by keeping accounts in their name or only giving the other person an allowance
- spying by going through the person's phone, checking their internet history, or looking through their communications with others
- having a rule in place demanding the person's passwords for their phone, social media accounts, and email at any time
- treating the person as though they are a child, including telling them what to eat, what to wear, or where they can go
- yelling, which is frequently a scare tactic and can be a way for an abusive person to let the other know who is in control
- using the other's persons fears; abusive people will often manipulate a person's fears to control them
- withholding affection; abusers may punish a person for "bad" behavior by withholding affection or making them feel they are undeserving of love
- giving excessive gifts with the implication that these gifts may disappear at any time, or as a reminder of what they would lose if they left the relationship
An emotionally abusive person may try to shame the other person about their behavior.
Abusive people may try to make a person feel shame for their shortcomings or feel as though they are much worse for these shortcomings.
This takes many forms, including:
- Lectures: The abusive person may give lectures about the other person's behavior, in a way to make it clear that the other person is inferior.
- Outbursts: This involves aspects of control, as well. Not doing what an abusive person wants may result in an outburst of angry behavior from them. It is both a way to control the person and make them feel shame for "not listening."
- Lies: Abusive people may blatantly lie, telling the person false opinions from their friends about their "bad" behavior.
- Walkouts: Abusive people may leave a situation rather than resolve it. In a disagreement at home, for example, they may remark about how the other is "crazy." This can put all the blame on the other person and make them feel ashamed while also never solving the issue.
- Trivializing: If the other person wishes to talk about their issues or problems, the abusive person may criticize them for even having the issue or tell them that they are making a big deal out of nothing.
Blame typically stems from the abusive person's sense of insecurity. By blaming others, they do not have to feel their shortcomings.
This may take many forms, such as:
- Jealousy: Jealousy can be an abuse tactic. The abusive person may regularly confront the other for talking to or "flirting with" other people. They may accuse the other person of cheating on them regularly.
- Playing the victim: The abusive person may try to turn the tables on the other person by blaming them for the issues the abusive person has not dealt with. They may even accuse the other person of being the abusive one in the relationship.
- Egging the person on: The abusive person typically knows how to get the other one angry. They may irritate them until the person becomes upset, and then blame them for getting upset.
Much of the time, an abusive person's actions or words seem to serve no purpose other than to humiliate the other. This type of behavior includes:
- Blatant name calling: Abusive people may blatantly call the other stupid, "an idiot," or other harmful names. If confronted, they may try to pass it off as sarcasm.
- Joking or sarcasm: Although sarcasm can be a tool for comedic release if both people enjoy the joke, sometimes, abusive people disguise their derogatory remarks as sarcasm. If the other person feels offended, the abusive one may make fun of them further for "lacking a sense of humor."
- Harmful nicknames: Nicknames or pet names may be normal in relationships. However, a name that hurts is unacceptable.
- Public displays: Abusive people may openly pick fights in public, only to blame the other person if they become angry. They may also pick on the other person or openly make fun of them in a social setting.
- Patronizing: This may include talking down to another person for trying to learn something new, or making it obvious that the person is "not on their level."
- Insults on appearance: An abusive person may insult the other's appearance around others.
- Cheating: Abusive people may cheat on their partners to hurt or humiliate them, or to imply that they are highly desirable.
Abusive people may seem to make situations chaotic for no other reason than to keep the other in check. Unpredictable behaviors may include:
- drastic mood swings, such as from being very affectionate to full of rage and breaking things
- emotional outbursts
- starting arguments for seemingly no reason
- self-contradiction, such as making a statement that contradicts the one they just said
- gaslighting, such as denying facts or making the other feel as though they do not remember the situation correctly
- acting two faced, such as being charming in public but completely changing the minute they get home
Abusive behavior may include isolating a person or preventing them from leaving the house.
Abusive people also act in many ways to make the other feel isolated from others, including:
- telling another person they cannot spend time with friends or family
- hiding the person's car keys
- stealing, hiding, or even destroying the person's cell phone or computer
- making fun of or belittling the person's friends or family, making the other person feel bad for spending time with them
- taking up all of the person's free time
- locking the person in a room or the house
What to do
Anyone who feels that they are in immediate danger of physical harm should try to call 911.
Anyone who is seeing the signs of emotional abuse but is not in immediate danger should seek help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers anonymous help by phone, text, or even online chat.
The hotline is available 24/7 and can help a person find a shelter or other services.
If a person feels uncomfortable reaching out to services such as these immediately, they can reach out to a friend or family member. Telling a trusted person may help them feel supported and less isolated.
Some people feel that they can deal with the abuse, or they may try to justify it by saying that it is not as bad as physical abuse. However, as the Office on Women's Health note, emotional abuse has its own long term affects, and it is also often a sign that physical abuse will follow.
Because of this, it is important to take action toward stepping away from an emotionally abusive situation.
This includes steps such as:
- Setting boundaries with the abusive person: This includes standing up for oneself to any degree necessary to get the abuse to stop. In many cases, this includes ending a relationship or cutting ties with a partner and never speaking to them again.
- Changing priorities: Abusive people manipulate a person's sense of sympathy, often to the point that they are neglecting themselves while taking care of the abusive person. It is important to end this habit and begin putting one's own priorities first.
- Get professional help: Seeking long term professional help in the form of therapy and support groups can strengthen a person's resolve and help them believe that they are not alone in recovering from abuse.
- Exit plan: Anyone who feels that they are in an emotionally abusive situation should also have a plan for getting out of the situation when the time comes. Working with those that love and support them may help this plan feel stronger, and it may help the person take action when the time is right.
Emotional abuse takes many forms and can be much more subtle than other forms of abuse. Anyone seeing the signs of emotional abuse should seek help in any manner they feel comfortable with.
Confiding in a professional or a close friend may help them move toward a future in which they can step away from the situation.