Emotionally abusive relationships

An introduction to emotional abuse

When we hear someone say, ‘I’m in an abusive relationship,’ we automatically assume they are being physically abused and begin to imagine the kind of physical pain they are in. We hardly ever associate abuse in the psychological or emotional way.

Emotional abuse is often used as an attempt to control the other person in a relationship, without physically harming them, although in some situations, physical abuse may accompany emotional abuse too. Emotional abuse is most common in romantic relationships, yet it can occur in friendships and family relationships.

Here are 10 examples of emotional abuse:

  1. Constant criticism or attempts to manipulate and control
  2. Shaming and blaming with hostile sarcasm or outright verbal assault
  3. The use of shaming and belittling language
  4. Verbal abuse such as name calling
  5. Withholding affection as punishment
  6. Punishment and threats of punishment
  7. Refusal to accept their own part in the dynamic
  8. Mind games e.g. gaslighting (made to question their sanity)
  9. Refusing to communicate at all
  10. Isolating them from supportive friends and family

The victim may fall into a cycle of emotional abuse and may want to leave their abuser. When this happens, the abuser could become temporarily apologetic and romantic, deceiving the victim to think the abuser has changed and causing them to think what they initially believed was true is false. When the victim starts to build trust again, the abuser might fall back into old habits and patterns of abusing their partner.

How does emotional abuse impact one’s mental health?

Emotional abuse can lower one’s self-esteem and negatively affect their mental health. The scars from emotional abusers in some cases can be much deeper than those who experienced physical abuse. Victims may lose their sense of self when they are trapped in their relationship and begin to manifest thoughts such as they are not good enough for anyone else.

Abuse by degradation, fear and humiliation is psychologically damaging in the long term. It can lead to the victim being consumed by self-doubt, depression and low self-esteem.

Further into the destructive relationship, the victim may be constantly anxious, fearful of what the abuser would do next. Physical symptoms may start to appear, such as fatigue and loss of appetite. Mental illnesses could also arise from emotional abuse, such as depression, anxiety or PTSD.

Recognising you are in an emotionally abusive relationship and getting help

Adina Claire, the Co-Chief Executive of Women’s Aid stated –

‘If you find yourself walking on eggshells, or changing your behaviour to keep them happy, then you may be in an abusive relationship. Healthy relationships are built on mutual trust and respect, not power and control.’

The most important thing in dealing with an emotionally abusive relationship is to recognise it is happening. Some red flags in your relationship you should look out for are:

  • Displaying unreasonable expectations
    • Expecting you to put everything aside to meet their needs
    • Always dissatisfied and critical of what you do
  • Invalidating you
    • Refusing to acknowledge your opinions as valid
    • Accusing you of being selfish, needy, materialistic if you express your wants or needs
    • Defining how you should feel and suggesting your perceptions are wrong
  • Creating chaos
    • Drastic mood changes and emotional outbursts
    • Starting arguments for the sake of arguing
  • Emotional blackmail
    • Manipulating or controlling you by making you feel guilty
    • Punishing you by withholding affection
    • Using your fears/values against you for control
  • Acting superior or entitled
    • Doubting everything you say
    • Acting as if they are always right and blaming you for their mistakes
  • Isolate and control you
    • Controlling who you see and spend time with, even friends and family
    • Accuse you of cheating, being jealous of outside relationships
    • Demanding to know where you are at all times

When you are in a relationship with a person as such, make your mental and physical health a priority. Self-care and self-love are important, remember who you are and be reminded of your independence.

Stop blaming yourself. Realise that you can’t fix the abuser or control their actions and choices, no matter what you do.

Building a support network is crucial. Talk to friends, family, or anyone you trust. This can help make you feel less lonely and isolated, and they can also help put things into perspective, especially in regard to what is happening in your relationship.

And finally, work on taking steps to end the relationship. Every situation is different for every person so there are no set steps to ending them. You deserve better than this!

Note: If you feel like you are in danger, call 999 immediately. If you are not in immediate danger, reach out to a trusted individual or contact the support organisations/hotlines below.

For more support, please visit the following webpages:


Mathews, A. (2016) When is it emotional abuse? Psychology Today.

Stein, L. (2016) He didn’t hit me. It was still abuse. The Washington Post.

Fraga, J. (2019) Experts say there’s a difference between ‘toxic’ and ‘abusive’ relationships. Here’s how to tell. The Lily.

Gordon, S. (2019) How to identify and cope with emotional abuse. Verywell Mind.

Jordan, S. (2017) Emotional abuse: the silent killer. The State Press.

Editor’s note: For more guidance on seeking help, click here.