Emotional abuse has many definitions, but is best characterized by typical patterns of behavior and relationship dynamics. Emotional abuse tends to revolve around a power imbalance, where at least one person in the relationship seeks psychological and sometimes physical control of another. But on its own, emotional abuse does not involve physical aggression. Interestingly, although it often is, this abuse is not always conscious, obvious, or intentional.

Someone brought up in an emotionally abusive environment may not recognize their own abusive ways. Or they may not recognize the abuse they suffered as valid. Someone may also confuse control with care, and see their domineering or invasive attitude as not only appropriate and necessary, but as a sign of affection.

Emotional abuse in relationships and marriages can be characterized in two ways. The more aggressive form of emotional abuse is overt, and leaves you with an explicit understanding of the experience. You know what they think, feel and say about you, as do the other people in your life.

The more passive form of emotional abuse is less about domination, and more about needling. Small, seemingly insignificant digs or corrections that build up into somewhat of a master and subordinate relationship over time. And you may not ever truly know what the abuser really thinks, feels or says about you - or even what the abuse is doing to you.

So how do you know if your spouse, partner, or someone else in your life is emotionally abusive?

More aggressive signs of emotional abuse

Name calling

She might use name calling, whether during an argument, as a reprimand, or as a regular course of life, is childish and disrespectful. You are not stupid, worthless, ugly, or any other degrading name.

Belittling and condescension

You're always beneath him. He needs to make you and your accomplishments worthless and insignificant. And he may inflict embarrassment in front of people who care for and respect you.

Condemnation and criticism

You can't do anything right. You are wrong no matter what. You're a bad person, parent, friend, follower. You name it. Or at the very least, you're not as good, or as good at it, as she is.

Control and possessiveness

He micromanages your day, whereabouts, appearance or priorities. You can't go anywhere without him, without his permission, or without informing him first. If you do, there's a long lecture or intense fight to come.

Accusations and paranoia

Accusations of infidelity are the most typical. But the accusations may be as outlandish as cheating with a friend, family member or for money. She might accuse you of stealing from her, or even trying to harm her or your children.


He might threaten violence, humiliation or abandonment, which silences objections to the torturous treatment.

Manipulation and corruption

She will push an agenda that only benefits or pleases her. Or one that is detrimental or offensive to you. She will often convince you to comply, or come up with the idea that appears to be your own, but isn't.

Bribery and extortion

He will use a secret, such as the abuse itself, for example, as a means to continue and escalate control.


She Keeps you from friends, family, co-workers, and others who care about your health and well-being, and really anyone else in the world. This helps maintain her control. The only person you need is her.

Exhibition and voyeurism

He flaunts his abusive ways, freedom and independence, and even his affairs, in front of you and others. He may watch you suffer through his control and humiliation, and invite others into it. Hi might stand over you and film you as you scrub the floor on your hands and knees.

More passive signs of emotional abuse

Guilt and shame

She tries to make you feel bad about something that is really out of your control. When things go wrong, and they always do, it's always you. And even if you try your best to keep things together, or fix them, your effort is still not up to par.


The problem is all you, and he does nothing wrong. You deserve the way he, and others, treat you. Again, you're responsible for what is in another's hands.

Comparison and disapproval

You are not good enough the way you are. You need to change. Or you need to be more like someone else. And even then, this probably won't be good enough.


Mistakes are forbidden. She makes the rules and decides when and how you break them. Warranted or not, she will find something you did wrong and let you know about it.


He speaks negatively or pityingly about you behind your back. Especially to other people who respect you to degrade their opinion of you, or to people who already view you negatively, adding fuel to the fire.


She overtly or discretely discredits, refuse to assist, or hinders you and your accomplishments.


He uses the silent treatment. Usually administered as a punishment for doing, saying, or even thinking or being something he disapproves of.

Rejection and neglect

She willfully withholds love, affection, support, intimacy, quality time or any relationship need.

Crowding and imposition

He is a constant intrusion into your life, and even the lives of others around you. He wants complete access. He always needs you to be near him, in contact with him, or readily available to him. He tells you what you should and should not do. He asks your friends, family, co-workers or even employers about every detail of your life.

If you think you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, seek professional help. Or, at the very least, talk to someone you trust about it. Go on-line and research what it is, what it looks and feels like, and how to stop it. Decide that you deserve to be in a healthy, happy relationship. Work toward building that relationship with whoever wants to build it with you.

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