So much has been written and discussed about physical abusive relationships that we tend to forget that there is something even more insidious and damaging. It’s called emotional abuse, and its effects are really damaging to your self-esteem.

What is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse can happen between anyone, not just a man and woman. Some of the most damaging abuse is between parent and child, but it can also happen in friendships and with other relatives, as well as between a man and woman.

In the movie Gaslight, Ingrid Bergman’s character is being systematically emotionally abused until she can’t tell the truth from a lie. She comes to believe that she is the things that her “loving” husband is trying to convince her of – losing her mind, unpredictable, and unreliable. She’s ashamed and consequently starts isolating herself. This is what it is like living with or loving an emotionally abusive person.

It can be easy to get trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship. The abuser is often charming, showing a phony façade to the world. Because you are “in love” you may downplay his inconsiderate behavior. Or you can come to believe, as Ingrid’s character did, that you are crazy, because your partner claims you are when you confront him on his questionable behaviors. Alternatively, he may push you until you get angry, and then you become the “bad guy.”

Sometimes the abuse is obvious – there may be threatening, bullying, or constant criticism. These are easier to spot than the more subtle ones – shaming and manipulation. Emotional abuse is used as a control tactic no matter what form it takes – and it can take many forms.

Here are 10 signs of emotional abuse (there are many more but this will give you the idea):

1. They humiliate you in front of other people.

2. They are sarcastic at your expense – they call it “teasing,” but it is designed to make you feel bad about yourself.

3. They will try to make you believe they are always right, and that you are wrong. One husband once said, “there is only one right answer, and it’s always mine.” He was serious.

4. They are quick to point out your flaws and mistakes.

5. They can’t stand to be laughed at, but are quick to laugh at you.

6. They are emotionally unavailable most of the time.

7. They refuse to accept blame for their unhappiness and quick to point the finger at you – name calling, or making remarks under their breaths designed to put you down.

8. They will control the finances and question every expenditure.

9. They will withhold something you may want as a way to control and manipulate you. Sex is often used in this way. Forgetting things that are important to you is another way of controlling you – forgetting to fix the leaky faucet, or book a vacation. They may refuse to make eye contact or they may give you the “silent treatment.”

10. They will threaten you with abandonment or act like they don’t care about you. They don’t seem to care about your feelings.

People in emotionally abusive relationships often refuse to recognize the signs, or habitually minimize them. If you feel guilty all the time in a relationship but don’t know why, it may be your partner making you feel that way.
If you are used to minimizing or denying the abuse, it can be a difficult step to take to make the changes necessary to stop the abuse. It may mean the loss of a friendship, a spouse, or family. If your boss is abusive, you may lose your job when you start to change.

If you decide to end the relationship, your abuser may try to manipulate to stay by threatening suicide. If you believe your partner is capable of that, tell someone close to them about it, but don’t stay in the relationship.

If you have been living with anxiety, stress, depression or physical illness with no obvious underlying cause, it might mean that you are in an emotionally abusive relationship. Because abusers didn’t learn healthy coping skills as children, they don’t know how to have healthy relationships, and it is very hard for them to change. They are often fueled by feelings of inferiority and powerlessness, and the only way they can feel better is by treating those close to them badly. Often male and female abusers have a high rate of personality disorders – narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder and even antisocial personality disorder.

If you recognize yourself in any of this, there is help. As a Christian counselor, I am here to help you heal and find peace.

“Clouds at Dawn,” courtesy of Dan Fador,, CC0 Public Domain License; “Autumn Leaves,” courtesy of stevepb,, CC0 Public Domain License; “Haze,” courtesy of Pexels,, CC0 Public Domain License; “Bridge,” courtesy of Larisa-K,, CC0 Public Domain License 


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