emotional abuse

Signs of Emotional Abuse

What are the signs of emotional abuse?

More times than I can count, I've had a woman come into my office with a description of relationship plagued with signs of emotional abuse (to be fair, this happens to men as well, but I mostly work with women). When we think of violence we usually think of physical violence, but that is only one behavior on a spectrum of behaviors that constitute violence in a relationship. Interpersonal violence or intimate partner violence  consists of multiple forms of non physical abuse

Emotional abuse is defined as any nonphysical behavior or attitude that is designed to control, subdue, punish, or isolate another person through the use of humiliation or fear ( Engel 2002).

Emotional abuse is always a part of physical abuse, but physical abuse is not always a part of emotional abuse. 

Still, emotional abuse is just as much abuse as physical abuse Research shows that emotional abuse is a more common form of violence, is identified even by those who have been physically abused as more detrimental, and occurs just about equally among the sexes. Also, symptoms of emotional abuse can often be  precursors to physical violence. If you recognize these signs of emotional abuse please understand you are in an abusive relationship (Outlaw 2009).

Just to highlight this again. Emotional Abuse is:

  • Often not recognized
  • Reported by victims of both forms of abuse to be worse than the physical abuse
  • Experienced equally by men and women

Symptoms of Emotional Abuse: Categories

What are the signs of emotional abuse that include your partner's behavior?

  • Verbal assault ( insults, put downs, public embarrassments, accusations).When another person raises their voice and yells at you or calls you names this can easily be identified as abusive for most people. However, something like constant sarcasm, or speaking with condescension can be more subtle. Language that is used with an intent to hurt and strip you of your self esteem on a regular basis qualifies as emotional abuse. 
  • Attempts at dominance
  • Attempts at control
  • Attempts at isolation
  • Attempts at ridicule  
  • The use of intimate knowledge for degradation (Follingstad, Coyne, & Gambone, 2005)
  • Some physical behaviors
  1. throwing objects
  2. kicking a wall,
  3. shaking a finger or fist at the victim,
  4. driving recklessly while the victim is in the car,
  5. or threatening to destroy objects the victim values.

Property damage is considered a form of emotional abuse considered “symbolic violence” (Engel, 2002) that results in serious psychological, social, and economic costs.

Harm inflicted on victim’s pets can be emotionally abusive, causing suffering in both humans and animals (Faver & Strand, 2007).

Other Non Physical Forms of Violence

Psychological abuse

 Psychological abuse is when your partner essentially convinces you you're crazy and your thinking is incorrect. We often refer to this as "gas lighting".

This term comes from the  1944 American mystery-thriller film gaslight, about a husband who slowly and deliberately tries to drive his wife insane. Watch the clip below to get a good sense of it.

Social abuse

Social abuse consists of isolating you from those you love. Either by threat , trickery or persuasion.

Economic abuse

Economic abuse consists of creating a situation where you must ask the abuser for money, or they are in control of the finances and they decided how much and how often you will get the money. 

I am going to lump all of these forms of abuse under the category of emotional abuse.

Because emotional abuse can be so subtle, you might be far into the relationship before you start to recognize something is wrong.

You don't expect someone you love to be trying to hurt you, and as with physical abuse, they will often tell you the behavior is born out of love, or for your own good. THIS ISN'T YOUR FAULT.

Often the people who will recognize it are your healthy friends ( Outlaw 2009). Unfortunately, emotionally abused people will start to isolate themselves from their healthy friends, either because they feel a sense of shame, or because their partner is encouraging them subtly or directly not to spend time with friends. 

One major tip for you to keep  in mind in your current relationship or as you move on to a new one is love does not include behaviors that have anything to do with humiliation or fear. 

Here is a list of possible signs of emotional abuse that I have assembled from various checklists that are used for assessing abusive behaviors. The amount of these behaviors and the frequency with which they occur determine the severity of the abuse. For example, at some point in even good relationships we may criticize our partners (although we should refrain from doing it). If you are criticized daily however, your relationship is considered emotionally abusive. 

Signs of Emotional Abuse: 46 signs that your partner is abusing you

  1. Has your partner called you a name or criticized you?
  2. Tried to keep you from  going out with your friends?
  3. Given you angry threatening glares?
  4. Prevented you from having  access to money?
  5. Threatened to throw or hit you?
  6. Put down, discouraged contact with or threatened to hurt  your family or friends? 
  7. Tried to turn your family and friends and children against you?
  8. Accused you of paying too much attention to someone or something else?
  9. Used your children to threaten you?
  10. Become upset with you because dinner, housework or laundry was not ready or done the way it was expected ?
  11. Said something bad would happen or threatened to commit suicide if you didn't do what they wanted?
  12. Made you do something humiliating or degrading?
  13. Checked up on you by looking through your email, checking your mileage or something like that? 
  14. Drove recklessly with you in the car?
  15. Pressured you to have sex in a way you didn't like?
  16. Threatened you with a weapon?
  17. Told you that you weren't good enough?
  18. Kept you from getting medical care?
  19. Blamed you for their emotionally abusive behavior?
  20. Harassed you during a phone call or upset you by calling you names on the phone while your were  at work?
  21. Told you you were crazy or stupid worthless a loser or something similar?
  22. Told you no one would ever want you but them?
  23. Left you stranded somewhere and took your wallet or phone?
  24. Not wanted you to socialize with your female friends?
  25. Ignored or made light of your anger or other feelings?
  26. Ridiculed or insulted your intelligence, religion, race, heritage, class or most valued beliefs?
  27. Withheld approval, appreciation or affection as punishment?
  28. Punished or deprived children to hurt you when angry at you or abused or threatened to abuse or take pets to hurt you?
  29. Broke or destroyed something important to you when angry?
  30. Criticized your intelligence, physical appearance, sexual attractiveness, or other parts or strengths about yourself that you value or are insecure about?
  31. Belittled or criticized you in front of other people?
  32. Mocked you during an argument?
  33. Said someone would be a better partner than you?
  34. Became so angry they just became unwilling to talk with you at all, acted cold and and distant or refused to discuss anything with you when there was a problem to be resolved?
  35. Becomes angry enough to frighten you or put their face right up into yours when arguing ?
  36. Threatened you or thrown, broken or hit something in front of you?
  37. Hovered over  you in a threatening manner during an argument?
  38. Tried  to make you feel guilty or shameful  for not spending time with them or used guilt and shame  in some other way to get you to do what you want?
  39. Had sudden shifts in Moods or dramatically changed the way they treat you from hour to hour?
  40. Tried to sabotage or undermine your success rather than celebrate it?
  41. Blamed you when he or she acts badly, rather than taking responsibility for him or herself?
  42. Apologized after terrible behavior, or buy you flowers only to repeat the cycle again ?
  43. Used information you have told him or her in confidence to later hurt and belittle you?
  44. Frequently asked you questions about who people are on social media, or engaged in stalking like behavior/
  45. Threatened  to leave the relationship if you don't do what they want?
  46. Accused  you of cheating or wanting to harm and betray him or her, or otherwise engage in jealous and insecure behaviors, even though you've never done anything to make him or her jealous?

Signs of Emotional Abuse: 12 signs in yourself that you may have an emotionally abusive partner

  1. Are you constantly afraid of your partner's reaction or do you feel like you are walking on eggshells?
  2. Do you hide things from your partner that you shouldn't have to?
  3. Do you feel stupid like you cant do anything right?
  4. Do you feel embarrassed to bring your partners around your friends and family because they don't like the way he or she treats you?
  5. Did you once think of your self as an okay person but since being with your partner you feel much less stable and worse about yourself?
  6. Do you feel like you can't get away from your relationship instead of being happy?
  7. Do you feel like your partners behavior is controlling, or have others mentioned it is?
  8. Have you started to become depressed because of all the put downs and terrible things your partner says to you?
  9. Do you frequently have to apologize when you haven't done anything just to keep the peace?
  10. Do you start to believe the terrible things your partner says about you?
  11. Do you find yourself thinking you are crazy and not trusting your own thoughts?
  12. Have your friends and family expressed their concerns about your relationship?

This page is specifically designed to help you identify if you are in an emotionally abusive relationship with a PARTNER, however, many of us have been raised in families where we were emotionally abused and go on to form emotionally abusive relationships with our mates because of those patterns. 

Think back to the definition of emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse is any nonphysical behavior or attitude that is designed to control, subdue, punish, or isolate another person through the use of humiliation or fear (Engel 2002).

This is actually a popular way of parenting children, from what I see in a lot  of families, and in my opinion, many children are emotionally abused. You don't have to look far to understand why you might fall easily into a pattern of emotional abuse in a friendship, a romantic relationship or even a job arrangement. So often we are abusive to ourselves, and we are even unaware of it. These pages will be updated to reflect more writings and research on emotional abuse in these other relationships.

I hope this has been helpful for you in determining signs of emotionally abusive relationships.

Learn more about other relationships issues


Ellin, A. (2016, Jul 12). When abuse is psychological. New York Times Retrieved from  http://nclive.org/cgi-bin/nclsm?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1802999968?accountid=13217 B. The emotionally abusive relationship: How to stop being abused and how to stop abusing. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons; 2002.

Faver C, Strand E. Fear, guilt, and grief: Harm to pets and the emotional abuse of women. Journal of Emotional Abuse. 2007;7:51–70. 

Follingstad, Diane & Coyne, Shawn & Gambone, Laura. (2005). A Representative Measure of Psychological Aggression and Its Severity. Violence and Victims. 20. 25-38. 10.1891/088667005780927674.

Karakurt, G., & Silver, K. E. (2013). Emotional abuse in intimate relationships: the role of gender and age. Violence and victims28(5), 804–821.

Outlaw, Maureen. (2009). No One Type of Intimate Partner Abuse: Exploring Physical and NonPhysical Abuse Among Intimate Partners. Journal of Family Violence - J FAM VIOLENCE.

  • Abusive Behavior Inventory
  • Composite Abuse Scale (CAS)
  • Index of Psychological abuse
  • Multidimensial measure of emotional abuse

Medical information obtained from this website is not intended as a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you have a problem, you should consult a healthcare provider.