Being in an emotionally abusive relationship can be incredibly difficult and take a serious toll on your self-esteem and happiness. What makes this particularly hard though, is that it is often not obvious what is going on at first.
Physical abuse is very easy to spot. While it can still be hard to come to terms with or to appraise logically (it’s incredibly hard to end even a physically abusive relationship, which is why so many people remain in them), there is at least a clear ‘line’ that gets crossed when someone raises a hand to you.
Emotional abuse on the other hand is more complicated. This tends to take the form of belittling, isolation and manipulation. And while this is not okay, it’s also true that everyone acts less than perfectly in a relationship from time-to-time. We’ve all had times when we’ve been jealous, when we’ve been unfairly critical, or when we’ve had harsh expectations.
So the question is: at what point does a ‘difficult relationship’ become abuse? How do you know when to say enough is enough and to walk away?
How to Spot Emotional Abuse
Ultimately, there is no definitive answer to this question. Abuse can take a million different forms and every single relationship is different.
However, the simple thing to assess is whether or not you’re happy, whether you feel safe, whether you feel free and whether you feel loved in a healthy way. If you can’t say yes to all of these things, then you deserve better and there is better out there. Don’t settle for any relationship where you feel trapped, unhappy or unsure! Even if most people wouldn’t class what you’re going through as ‘abuse’, the fact of the matter is that you would likely be happier on your own or with someone else. It can be scary to leave a relationship but in this case, the best case scenario otherwise is that you remain stuck in an unhappy and emotionally painful relationship for the rest of your life. The worst case scenario is that the abuse develops further, or you find yourself suffering from major depression or anxiety.
Note as well that not all emotionally abusive relationships are romantic. It is certainly possible to be on the receiving end of emotional abuse in many other types of relationship – whether that’s a parent/child relationship or your relationship with your boss or friend.
Common Signs of Emotional Abuse in a Relationship
You Feel on an Emotional Rollercoaster
One common sign that you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship is that you feel on something of an emotional rollercoaster, in which you never really know where you stand. It is normal for all relationships to have their highs and lows. In physically abusive relationships, this is sometimes called the ‘elastic band effect’. Either way, the problem is that tension can grow and grow in a relationship, as can resentment or jealousy. Eventually, this is released, at which point the relationship can turn very sour. This is when a physically abusive partner might strike their victim, while in an abusive relationship it might simply mean berating and belittling.
Either way, this is normally followed immediately by tears and apologies on both sides of the relationship and the promise that it’s not going to happen again. However, once in an abusive relationship, it is incredibly rare for this cycle to ever break and in all likelihood, it is only a matter of time until it comes to a head again.
Either way, the feeling of not knowing where you stand is one that can be incredibly stressful and that can remove the foundations from under you. If your relationship is constantly fluctuating between extremes, then you should consider finding a way out.
You Feel Isolated
A very common form of emotional abuse is manipulation – and often this takes the form of isolation. This can be a result of a partner being very possessive, jealous or protective. Either way, the result is that they make it hard for you to speak with your friends and family and you ultimately find yourself cut off from those around you. This then allows them to mold you more easily too – as you only have their viewpoints and their opinions as inputs. It can become easy to lose sight of what’s normal and ultimately to lose your own identity.
This is incredibly important. It is healthy in any relationship to have friends and family outside and apart from your partner. A good, loving partner will support you in that and encourage you to have a broader life – they might even become good friends with your friends!
But if you find yourself being cut off from your network, then something is wrong. Ask yourself: how many of your friends are you still in regular contact with?
You Feel Controlled
This attempt at control can also extend into other areas of your life and result in your partner trying to change the way you dress, the way you look and even your career aspirations. Abusive relationships often result in the abuser wanting to control the victim and this takes all manner of forms. If you feel as though you don’t have space, independence or the ability to control yourself, you may well be in an abusive relationship.
Your Confidence Is Damaged
A healthy relationship should make you feel on top of the world and should fill you with extra confidence. Your partner loves you and so they should tell you why they love you and help you to achieve your goals and become the best version of yourself.
In an abusive relationship, this love can take a twisted form in which your partner is intimidated by your good qualities and scared they’re going to lose you. This can result in them constantly putting you down and degrading your sense of self-worth.
It is a terrible thing to lose your self-confidence and can completely strip you of your autonomy and independence. Nobody should be making you feel worse about yourself, least of all a romantic partner. If you feel this way, then get out of the relationship as soon as possible.
You Feel Guilty/To Blame
There are many means through which an abusive partner may try to exert their control and manipulate you. In some cases, they may use fear tactics and threats – threatening to take unpleasant action if you don’t do what they say. This might involve threats of violence or it might involve blackmail or humiliation.
Alternatively, an abusive partner may use emotional blackmail to get you to fall in line. They might make you feel responsible for the situation you’re in, they might cry and act upset, or they might accuse you of being cruel or unfair.
This is part of the head games that can make getting out of an abusive relationship – or identifying one – so difficult. And this is why it’s so crucially important that you take a logical and distanced approach to assessing your situation.
Because even if you do have any responsibility for the situation (which is unlikely, seeing as you are reading this article), this still suggests a toxic relationship. This only gives you all the more reason to want to leave – to protect both of you.
If you’re unhappy, if you feel controlled and if you honestly believe that you would be happier alone or with someone else, then it doesn’t matter about anything else. All that matters is that you exit a relationship that is making you unhappy as soon as you possibly can and before it gets any worse. Because the sad reality is that 99.99% of the time, it doesn’t get better.