Many years before, I cycled between men who were only nice to me in the beginning. The worst part was, I always thought I was the problem.
However, those relationships failed spectacularly, not because I was a bad person, but because I was with bad people. It took me years of therapy, and my current healthy relationship to come to terms with my emotional abuse.
The emotional abuser may act in ways that are considered loving and attentive to their partner. But in reality, this period is part of their grooming process — a manipulative behavior that is intentional and tailored to set the victim up for future use.
After all, most people will feel positive emotions towards someone who lavishes them with gifts, time, understanding, and special experiences. If there were ever troubles, surely they weren’t caused by someone who was showering you with unbridled love and attention.
But this is often why emotional abuse is more difficult to recognize and can often go undetected. Licensed clinical social worker and educator Lisa Ferentz said, “It’s a lot more confusing to victims, as it typically is couched in behaviors that can initially be perceived as caring.”
It targets the emotional and psychological well-being of the victim, and it is often a precursor to physical abuse.
Unfortunately, emotional abuse is just as detrimental as physical abuse, the consequences of which I have suffered to this day. To help us understand, navigate, and identify this pervasive form of abuse, here are some of the oft-cited red flags that may indicate an emotionally abusive partner, as stated by experts.
They Constantly Check in on You
Generally, healthy couples make time in their routines to connect with one another. However, an emotionally abusive partner may want to exert control by checking in on you at all times.
According to Ferentz, “They may keep tabs on your schedule and whereabouts through excessive texting or phone calls, continually offer unsolicited advice about what’s in your best interests, or ask you to run everything by them before making any decisions.”
At first, I found it sweet that an ex-boyfriend always went out of his way to pick me up or call me whenever he can. Even my friends envied how overprotective and involved he was in my life. Little did they know that he would quickly escalate into toxic jealousy and possessiveness whenever I missed his calls.
“Before you know it, you feel trapped, confined, no longer a free person as they become more and more controlling.”
— Beverly Engel, psychotherapist and author of The Emotionally Abusive Relationship
They Undermine Your Strengths
Healthy and supportive partners acknowledge and respect each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Conversely, an emotionally abusive partner may intentionally minimize their partner’s accomplishments and exploit their weaknesses.
According to Carol A. Lambert, psychotherapist, and author of Women with Controlling Partners, “The ways your partner reacts to your accomplishments or positive feelings about something can be telling.”
Do they show little interest in your interests? Do they ignore, belittle, or put-down your accomplishments?
Admittedly, I was invalidated in most of my past relationships that I quickly learned to be silent and submissive. It didn’t help that it was so much easier to believe them, in large part because I never believed in myself.
Backhanded compliments are also common red-flags that further target your weaknesses. In fact, there were so many instances where I was complimented on my new heels or new dresses, not because they looked nice on me, but because they made me look slimmer in their eyes.
“Over time, confronted with hurtful responses, your sense of confidence and trust in your own competence can slowly diminish,” said Lambert.
They Are Overly Critical of Your Actions
For the most part, partners can appreciate when the other person corrects them — whether it’s leaving your dirty dishes on the sink, or misplacing the keys to the car. But an emotionally abusive partner is often hypercritical and attacks your character, which can make you feel like you can never do anything right.
For instance, it is emotionally abusive when your partner makes a huge deal out of a minor mistake. Instead of being a healthy and helpful partner, they may choose to berate you just for the sake of it.
However, it’s a common power play that attempts to establish their dominance. They may often lead you to believe that they are a saint for accepting someone flawed like you.
They Never Take Responsibility for Their Actions
Instead, they deny bad behavior and blame you for it. In fact, I got so used to taking the blame that I would often second-guess my actions, and consequently, feel afraid to do anything around an ex-boyfriend.
According to Lambert, “It’s extremely rare for an emotionally abusive partner to take responsibility for their behavior. Their tactic is to project responsibility or fault onto their partner.”
I was dealing with narcissists, and true enough, constant denial is commonly displayed among them. Oftentimes, narcissists prove they did nothing wrong by playing the victim.
In turn, you may find yourself feeling sorry all the time, for the stuff you didn’t even do. Sometimes, even to the point where you start to believe you deserve your own abuse and unhappiness.
They Make You Question Your Reality
Gaslighting is a common form of psychological manipulation that causes victims to doubt their memories, judgment, and sanity. It is dangerous, in that you may never know it is happening to you.
So much so that I had an ex-boyfriend convince me he wasn’t cheating, even when I caught him multiple times. I would defend him at every turn, despite the evidence staring me in the face. It took my friends and family to snap me out of it. And even then, it was still difficult to believe anyone else but him.
According to psychotherapist Jeremy Bergen, “One of the big warning signs is this persistent sense that what you saw, you didn’t really see. And what you experienced, you didn’t really experience. What you felt, you didn’t really feel.” In other words, they make you feel crazy.
This tactic builds up gradually — so it may start as simply denying your perception about certain instances, before denying your perception about your feelings.
In some cases, emotionally abusive partners believe that gaslighting is the only way to sustain the relationship. However, most of the time, they genuinely just find pleasure in having control over others.
“In time, self-doubt creates a loss of trust in your perception and judgment, making you all the more vulnerable to a partner who wants to control you.”
— Carol A. Lambert, psychotherapist and author of Women with Controlling Partners
They Withhold Things to Punish You
For an emotionally abusive partner, withholding things such as affection, communication, money, or even sex, are means to an end. They often think to punish you when you are unable to meet or conform to their standards.
Today, I still suffer from major abandonment issues because an ex-boyfriend would go for weeks on end without talking to me. Frankly, it was quite maddening. I would rack my brain for any sign of wrongdoing on my part. But because I was usually left in the dark, I had no other choice but to profusely apologize for something I don’t know about and hope for him to come back.
Consequently, an emotionally abusive partner expects you to do whatever you can to get back in their good graces, even when you probably didn’t do anything to warrant such treatment.
“Most people equate abusive behavior with the infliction of harm. In this case, it’s the withholding or absence of what a person deserves to experience in a relationship that makes it abusive,”
— Lisa Ferentz, licensed clinical social worker and educator
They Isolate You From Everyone You Know
Healthy partners know when to spend time together, and when to spend time apart. They are also constantly surrounded by friends and family to support them. In contrast, an emotionally abusive relationship is isolated from a support system of any kind. In fact, an emotionally abusive partner may insist on spending as much one-on-one time with you as possible.
At one point, an ex-boyfriend took so much of my time that I unknowingly destroyed my relationships with my friends. I became so wildly dependent on him because it felt like I had no one in my life anymore. It got so bad that I would become unsettled and unhinged whenever we weren’t together.
“The more a victim is isolated, the harder it is for them to be connected to the resources they need to escape the relationship,” said Ferentz.
The abuser may convince you that no one cares about you, except them. As a result, this alienation may cause you to disassociate from yourself and a healthy support system.
Before You Go
Difficult as it is to acknowledge and admit, it is important to know when you’re trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship. It isn’t that a healthy relationship is devoid of disagreements, but a healthy relationship also doesn’t make you feel bad all the time.
To determine the courage to leave one is to want and accept that you deserve better. No one willingly chooses to be abused, so practice some self-compassion and remember your worth.
The hardest pill to swallow is that difficulties and adversities are what builds our strength and character. It is only when we choose to learn and grow from our experiences that we can come out on the other side of it — stronger and more resilient than ever to stand up to whoever thinks they can take away our power from us.