In movies and TV shows, abusive relationships are typically characterized by physical violence or other blatant acts of aggression, like screaming or hurling insults. Those are common red flags, to be sure, but they’re not the only ones, and the warning signs aren’t always so obvious, particularly when it comes to emotional abuse. In fact, it’s pretty easy to miss subtly manipulative patterns like love bombing or insidious criticism, for example, which can quickly evolve into something more dangerous.
There’s no hard and fast definition of what qualifies as emotional abuse. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, it involves any non-physical behaviors that aim to control, isolate, or scare you, which can include things like threats or humiliation. The Department of Justice also adds the “undermining of an individual’s sense of self-worth and/or self-esteem” to its definition. The experts SELF spoke with agree on one thing though: Emotional abuse is a complex and serious form of intimate partner violence that deserves more attention.
“What these actions have in common is that they can erode your sense of value as a human being, and it can happen silently, slowly, and even without your awareness,” Mindy Mechanic, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor at California State University, Fullerton, tells SELF. Sometimes you can just tell when a friend’s overly jealous partner is exhibiting controlling tendencies, for example. Other times, emotional abuse can hide behind seemingly sweet words like, “Your friends are a bad influence on you, but hey, I’m just trying to protect you.”
All that to say: It can be incredibly difficult to know when your—or a loved one’s—relationship is turning emotionally abusive, especially if you’ve been led to believe that certain not-okay behaviors are “normal.” Here, two psychologists break down some of the most common yet subtle warning signs to look out for.
They try to control what you do, say, or wear.
One of the telltale characteristics of an emotionally abusive dynamic is coercive control, which doesn’t rely on physical violence, but rather psychological tactics to manipulate and intimidate.
You might be aware of more obvious versions of this, like the person monitoring your finances or constantly offering unsolicited feedback about your “too revealing” outfits. But it could also take the form of someone who gives you the silent treatment if you don’t do what they want, for example, or insists that they need to know about every little detail in your life “because that’s what love is.” “By trying to control what you say or how you act, they leave you feeling powerless and dependent on them,” T.K. Logan, PhD, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Kentucky whose research focuses on intimate partner violence, tells SELF.
Another sneaky control tactic is disguising irrational demands as normal boundaries, adds Dr. Mechanic, who studies the psychosocial consequences of violence and trauma. Certain rules and limits can, of course, be rooted in protecting a person’s well-being, but there’s a big difference between “Do you mind texting me whenever you get home from your runs so I know you’re safe?” and “I need you to call me every 15 minutes so that I know you’re okay.” Healthy boundaries are empowering and purely about the person setting them, while unhealthy (and potentially abusive) ones are about dictating others, limiting their independence, and justifying harmful behavior, Dr. Mechanic says.
They don’t respect your boundaries.
Speaking of boundaries, everyone has theirs, whether that’s needing a little alone time on the weekends, say, or not wanting to share passwords. Regardless of what your specific needs are, though, your partner should respect them (again, as long as they’re about you versus controlling someone else).