Signs of Emotionally Abusive Relationships

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    I counsel many people who are in an emotionally abusive relationship and don’t see the signs. It’s not just women who are in this situation though. You might be surprised to know that men can be victims too.

    When it comes to emotional abuse in relationships, both men and women can be the perpetrators as well as the victims. This is one of the factors that can make seeing the signs of an emotional abuse so difficult since it can manifest in many different ways.


    Signs of emotionally abusive relationships aren’t just difficult for outsiders to see, though, as they can be very subtle and difficult to recognize even for the person suffering. Most often these relationships start off in a fairly normal manner, but over time things change. Actually, in most cases abusive behavior is there from the start. It's just milder and masked by the feelings of being in love.

    Many abusers are skilled manipulators or narcissists and have their partners (victims) convinced that the abusive behavior is actually love, for their own good, or even their fault. Of course, these things aren’t true, but a victim who’s been conditioned to think and feel otherwise can be difficult to convince.


    Common Signs Of Emotionally Abusive Relationships

    Emotional abuse is one of the top reasons husbands and wives feel trapped. To illustrate this I’ve included excerpts below from the article Expert Advice on Surviving Abuse written by Steven Stosny, Ph.D. who appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. These excerpts depict some of the key signs you may see if you're in an emotionally abusive relationship. See if you can see yourself, or someone you know, in these descriptions

    • Anger in relationships is about blame: "I feel bad, and it's your fault." Even when he recognizes his anger, he'll blame it on you: "You push my buttons," or, "I might have overreacted, but I'm human, and look what you did!"
    • Angry and controlling husbands are very anxious by temperament. From the time they were young children, they've had a more or less constant sense of dread that things will go badly and they will fail to cope. So they try to control their environment to avoid that terrible feeling of failure and inadequacy. But the cause of their anxiety is with them, not in their environment.
    • The sole purpose of your husband's anger and abusive behavior is to defend himself from feeling like a failure, especially as a: Protector, Provider, Lover, Parent.
    • Not all emotional abuse takes the form of shouting or criticism. More common forms are "stonewalling" and "disengaging." The man who stonewalls does not overtly put you down. Nevertheless, he punishes you for disagreeing with him by refusing to even think about your perspective.
    • The disengaging husband says, "Do whatever you want, just leave me alone." He is often a workaholic, couch potato, he may cheat or obsessive about things like Fantasy Football, sports or some other activity. He tries to deal with his inadequacy about relationships by just not trying.

    Verbal, emotional, mental and psychological abuse can be very sneaky and hard to spot, especially if you're the victim of the abuse. So, glance over the above descriptions again -- can you see yourself, or someone you know, in these descriptions?

    What You Can Do If You Suspect An Emotionally Abusive Relationship

    Emotional abuse can be hard to combat because it can be tough to define. As mentioned above, many victims mistake abuse for love or something they’ve brought on themselves. Knowing the signs of an emotionally abusive relationship can help you identify the truth, but once you have then what do you do?

    The answer to this question is complex. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to handling emotional abuse since there are so many factors to consider in each situation. There are, however, some steps you should consider taking once you’ve determined you’re in a situation that needs to change.


    • Define and write down examples of behavior you think is abusive, mean, unloving, or just unnecessary.
    • Determine how you want things to change.
    • Decide what you consider acceptable and set boundaries.
    • Be clear in your own mind what you are prepared to do if the abusive behavior continues.
    • Consider counseling for yourself alone and then, later on, couples counseling for you and your partner.

    Of course, these things are not always easy to do. If you have seen the signs of emotional abuse in your relationship and they’ve been happening for a long time it can be very hard to initiate the necessary changes. And once you do sticking to these changes can be even harder. There is hope, however. Just don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

    This is the first article of two examining emotional abuse. In the next article, How An Emotionally Abusive Relationship Traps You, we'll look at the effects on the victim of abuse. Sign-up for our blog at the bottom of this page and be sure you don't miss the next article.

    Editor's Note: This post was originally published March 13, 2010 and has been updated with new information for accuracy and comprehensiveness.


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