There’s a good chance that you know the apparent signs of emotional abuse. For example, you probably recognize that it isn’t appropriate for someone to scream at their partner or threaten to kill them. You also probably understand that it isn’t safe if one partner tries to control their other partner’s entire life.
But domestic violence lies on a spectrum, and it can be easy to overlook subtle signs of emotional abuse. However, these individual indicators can be even more dangerous than the more obvious ones. That’s because you’re less likely to recognize the issue, seek help, or end the relationship.
Here are some covert signs of emotional abuse you need to know.
1. Lack of Privacy
Does your partner demand access to all of your accounts of passwords? Do they barge into the room without knocking first? Do they act as if they own your body at all times?
Abusers don’t respect your need for privacy. To them, everything is inherently their property, and they can take ownership over what they want, when they want.
As a result, abusers might make it seem like you are overreacting if you have a problem with their behavior. They might even accuse you of having something to hide should you set a limit.
Unfortunately, this controlling behavior could be even worse than you think. For example, emotionally-abusive partners might stalk your whereabouts or install tracking software onto your electronics.
They can be sneaky with their actions. So, even if you think you’re relatively safe, they may be watching your every move.
2. Perpetual Blaming
No matter the issue, it’s always your fault. Even when they are obviously wrong, an emotional abuser can contort every situation to make you look like the bad guy.
This ongoing blaming is a significant red flag because it continuously places you in a lose-lose situation. On the one hand, you tend to feel defenseless and discouraged. It feels pointless to try to stand up for yourself when they’re already primed to show you why you’re wrong.
On the other hand, it can become easy to internalize their blame. For instance, if you already struggle with low self-esteem, you might believe their accusations are actually true. And after a while, no matter how confident you feel, their harsh behavior will likely tear you down.
3. Emotional Coercion
Maybe your partner doesn’t make direct threats, but you feel like you have to do what they want. Or, even if they don’t outwardly tell you to do something, you just know what you can and can’t do.
If this feels familiar, your partner likely uses some form of blackmail to control you. For example, they might drop many comments about how much they hate a certain friend of yours. As a result, you feel guilty spending time with that friend and start turning down their invitations.
Or, let’s say you two are looking for a home together. When you mention that you like a particular house, they reply with all the issues they have identified. Then, they make a comment about how only a fool would buy a house with all those problems. So, even though they haven’t told you what to do (or not do), you already feel inherent pressure over how to proceed.
4. Fake Apologies
Emotional abusers may apologize for their wrongdoings. However, the apologies are not sincere or even authentic.
Instead, fake apologies may include justifications and more blame. The abuser will often only use them to show remorse and attempt to move on. Their statements may sound like this:
- “I’m sorry you were mad that _____”
- “I’m sorry, but I had to act that way because _____.”
- “I don’t even know why I’m apologizing right now….”
- “You think that’s bad? Other people would have done much worse!”
- “I said I’m sorry already. Can we just move on?”
The apologies often lack substance or accountability. The abuser won’t recognize they have done anything wrong. Even if they do show some responsibility, they will be quick to defend their choice and still attack your character to protect their ego.
The famous relationship psychologist, Dr. John Gottman, became renowned for predicting divorce with over 90% accuracy. In his impressive research, he found that contempt was one of the leading indicators of a couple’s demise.
Contempt essentially refers to believing that a person is worthless, incompetent, or even sub-human. It’s a driving factor in many cases of despicable acts of abuse seen in war crimes or genocides.
Contempt can happen in a relationship when your partner looks down on you. In other words, they basically believe that they’re more intelligent or capable than you. As a result, they don’t respect you, which can lead to ongoing criticism, mocking, sarcasm, and insults.
6. Intentionally Triggering You
Does it seem like your partner or family member knows exactly which buttons to press to irritate you? Worse, does it seem like they sometimes enjoy pressing those buttons?
Some abusers, especially malignant narcissists, get a thrill from harming other people. They love to exploit their power and control in their relationships.
An emotional abuser might intentionally trigger you by:
- Joking about leaving the relationship when they know you have abandonment fears.
- Telling you horrible news (only to then tell you that they’re just joking).
- Consciously engaging in behaviors when they know you don’t approve of them.
- Acting as if the relationship doesn’t matter at all to them.
- Stirring the pot by discussing controversial issues when you’re with friends or family.
You might be wondering why they act this way. After all, why would someone choose to be so cruel when it could be easily avoided.
Unfortunately, some people aren’t in relationships for the best reasons. They aren’t looking for mutual love and connection. Instead, they only care about their own needs, and they find other people who will help them with their mission.
7. Forgetting Important Details
This is one of the classic subtle signs of emotional abuse. Your partner didn’t pick up the kids after work because they forgot. Or, even worse, they didn’t mail in that important form because you never told them.
Anyone can be forgetful, but pay attention if this is a recurrent trend. It could mean that they aren’t really paying attention to you or your needs. That means they likely tune out when you’re talking and don’t care about making you happy.
Some abusers are even more insidious. For example, when they don’t do something important, they will insist that you never told them about it.
This behavior is a form of gaslighting. Their comments are intended to make you second-guess yourself and question your reality. Indeed, you might want to give them the benefit of the doubt, causing you to ask yourself, Did I really tell them? Maybe I forgot…
Isolation isn’t always as extreme as people assume. It doesn’t mean you’re literally locked in a cage in your bedroom while your partner abuses you every day. That said, isolation can certainly feel like you’re trapped in prison.
Isolation usually starts slowly. An emotional abuser might comment how they don’t want you working. They may even have a convincing argument. For example, they will emphasize how much they know you hate your job. They will also point out that you deserve better working conditions and pay.
At first, you may not even mind the isolation. If your partner is skilled at love-bombing, they may have you convinced that you don’t need anyone else in the world. You may feel so obsessed with them that you want to spend every moment together.
Unfortunately, once the love-bombing ends, many people realize just how much they’ve drifted apart from old friends or hobbies. You may even feel like you don’t know your identity (which is precisely what your partner wants).
9. Walking on Eggshells
Maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you always feel anxious around your partner. You worry about saying or doing the wrong thing. You feel like their behavior is unpredictable, and you’re always trying to gauge how they might react.
If this sounds familiar, it could indicate that you’re in an abusive relationship. Your partner may use a combination of abusive techniques like coercion, threats, gaslighting, and emotional outbursts to maintain power over you.
Instead of communicating clearly, they have no problem keeping you on your toes. They would rather you “squirm and guess” rather than have you feel confident in your relationship.
What if You’re in a Relationship With These Subtle Signs of Emotional Abuse?
No relationship is perfect, but you should never feel unsafe or emotionally violated. Healthy relationships are built on a foundation of mutual trust and empathy- both parties should strive to be the best versions of themselves.
Subtle signs of emotional abuse rarely go away on their own. Many times, they worsen as the relationship progresses. Unfortunately, once an abuser knows you aren’t going anywhere, they have little incentive to change their toxic behavior.
Emotional abuse can quickly spiral and lead to other forms of sexual, financial, and physical abuse. In these instances, ending the relationship and avoiding all contact is your best strategy for moving forward.
The best thing you can do for yourself is to claim your healing and stop doubting yourself over your decision to restore your life. This is exactly what I and other brave fighters have done with my therapist-approved program for narcissistic abuse recovery.
You can check it out by clicking this link.
And, as always, I look forward to answering your comments and questions below.