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Emotional abuse isn’t always easy to spot.
If we’re used to prioritizing others’ needs, we might not realize when abuse happens.
Our upbringing and trauma can blind us to red flags. And our grand capacity for empathy makes it hard to know when people take advantage of us.
Sometimes, we abuse our partner without realizing it.
It’s normal to fight once in a while. But we need to take note when behaviors become destructive.
Learn about emotional abuse and its 10 signs below to set better boundaries and improve your relationships.
Not just simple conflicts
“Emotional abuse is one of the prime factors in creating dysfunctional relationships and one of the major causes for separation or divorce.” —Beverly Engel
In The Emotionally Abusive Relationship, psychotherapist Beverly Engel underlines a crucial fact—people who become emotionally abusive and people who tolerate emotionally abusive behavior often have abusive or neglectful childhoods.
This resonates deeply with me.
Years ago, I realized that my partner and I suffered from traumatic childhoods. And we projected that pain onto one another, turning each day into a battleground.
This revelation didn’t always de-escalate arguments. But it helped us reframe conflicts as key healing opportunities (once we shook off our egos!).
Of course, that’s not to excuse toxic behavior.
We can take responsibility and understand that unintentional and subconscious reasons might motivate our actions or others’ actions.
Basic knowledge of how trauma works goes a long way. It helps us take things less personally and foster more compassion. Trauma profoundly changes our brains and how we function and relate to the world.
We tend to think there’s an abuser and a victim in a relationship. Many self-help books focus on this dynamic.
Yet I had to wake up to sobering news: my victim mindset, which was valid and understandable, kept me from seeing that I also abused my partner.
Ultimately, if we want to salvage our relationship, each person must take responsibility for their healing process.
A vicious cycle
Emotional abuse slowly degrades a relationship, as disrespect and hatred grow in each partner.
It creates a vicious cycle that constantly activates our stress response, leaving little room for rest and understanding.
This list of signs aren’t reasons to blame or feel guilty about being a horrible person. Again, that doesn’t mean the behavior is okay. It’s essential to now take responsibility and change your behavior.
That process involves acknowledging suppressed emotions in childhood, learning what may have contributed to your behavior and finding healthy ways to manage stress and anger.
My EFT Tapping packages can support you in this process.
10 main patterns of emotional abuse
These patterns are adapted from Engel’s book. A few examples clarify each pattern to give you an idea of how it can show up.
- Domination: ordering a partner around, restricting social activities, excessive jealousy and possessiveness
- Verbal assaults: belittling, criticizing, humiliating, name-calling, screaming, shaming
- Constant criticism/continual blaming: always finding fault, never able to be pleased, using humor to put you down
- Abusive expectations: expecting a partner to prioritize your needs, demanding constant sex, obliging your partner to spend all their time with you
- Emotional blackmail: giving the silent treatment, threatening to end the relationship to get what you want, withholding sex/affection
- Unpredictable responses: drastic mood swings, sudden emotional outbursts for no apparent reason, saying one thing and the opposite the next
- Constant chaos/creating crisis: deliberately starting arguments, “addicted to drama”
- Character assassination: exaggerating someone’s mistakes, gossiping about someone’s failures, humiliating
- Gaslighting: continually denying that certain events occurred or that they said something you both know was said, suggesting that you’re lying or exaggerating
- Sexual harassment: pressuring your partner to have sex, any unwanted physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature
Keep in mind that complaining about your partner, for example, isn’t necessarily abusive. But when it’s constant and meant to belittle and control them, that’s a different story.
Not all signs of emotional abuse are obvious.
Some can be subtle.
I used to think, This is just what couples do when they get into arguments. My upbringing taught me to expect certain behaviors in a relationship.
Now I know these behaviors were abusive. And as an adult, I unintentionally reinforced or accepted them.
The kindest thing we can do is to forgive ourselves for being unaware.
Then we can take conscious strides toward recovery.
P.S. Would you like some free support? Get quick stress relief in a free EFT Tapping session in exchange for a short interview. Learn more.
Annie Moussu is a certified EFT Tapping Master Practitioner helping women build confidence, set boundaries & enjoy healthy relationships. Get her free EFT meditation & guide for people-pleasing.
Further reading to improve your relationships: