7 Signs of Emotional Abuse (that may surprise you)

Emotional abuse is hard to spot and it’s even harder to know what to do about it. Most people in an abusive situation don’t know that they’re being abused.  

Below are 7 signs of emotional abuse that might surprise you. If you feel like you might be in an abusive situation, you can find helpful resources below.

1. You have to ask permission for everything.

Do you find yourself asking for permission for things big and small? Permission to go to the store? To cuddle? To go out with your friends? To see your family? To further your education or get a job? Buy the kids basic things they need? 

Are you worried that if you make a decision without consulting your partner there will be hell to pay? Do you question your ability to make a decision? 

With emotional abuse, the abuser subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) conveys to their partner that they can’t be trusted to make good decisions. The one being abused feels like they used to be a relatively smart person, but now they’re not sure. When you’ve heard a million different times and in a million different ways that you do things wrong, you don’t trust yourself anymore.

You have to ask for permission for everything.


2. Your partner is constantly complaining and blaming. 

The emotional abuser will complain about you, the way you do things, your family, your friends, their job (if they have one), the people around them who hate them and are out to get them (or so they think) and anything else that annoys them. 

Emotional abusers are amazing fault finders. When something doesn’t fit with their version of ideal, they blame you for it. Things are NEVER good enough for them. There is always something about which to complain and something for which to blame you, even the smallest things. 

You could have the entire house cleaned, laundry done, an amazing dinner cooked (their favorite!), a delicious dessert lined up, and you found a babysitter for tomorrow night so the two of you can go out. They complain that the shirts hanging up the dry are on the wrong hangers and you should have known better.

3. Your partner is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 

Is your partner one person outside the home and a completely different one at home? With others they’re charming, affable, seen as prestigious and put together or sweet and innocent, then they come home and rage. Tearing into you for little things. Giving you a three-hour lecture for how selfish you are because you used their side of the sink.

Sometimes they do this two-faced routine in the privacy of the home. One minute sweet and caring and the next they’re ripping you apart. You never know what version of them you’re going to get, never sure how to act or what they may do. And if you don’t react appropriately to each version, you’re in trouble. They’re volatile and unpredictable. You live in fear of their reaction, fear of setting them off.  

4. When you bring up something important to you, the emotionally abusive partner will deflect, minimize, change the subject, or ignore you.

When you try to have a conversation about something important to you, does your partner say something like, “How can we discuss that when last week you messed up on…”? Does your partner tell you you’re too sensitive when you try to talk about something that hurt your feelings? Have you tried to discuss something you wanted to resolve, only to have them change the subject, and maybe even make you feel guilty for even bringing it up? Does your partner ignore you or refuse to negotiate on issues? 

I know a person whose abusive partner refused to discuss birth control with them and would bristle every time they brought it up and shut the conversation down. It seemed like such an important topic, but was never given airtime because the abuser said so.

Emotionally abusive partner’s can’t engage in a good will, mature discussion about things that are important to you. To learn more about why, refer to modules 3-5

5. You’re told you remember things wrong or “It didn’t happen like that.”

Often, emotional abusers will forget earlier agreements or will have a different version of events. You wonder how you could have seen the situation so differently when they are adamant that it didn’t happen as you recalled it. They may say things like, “That’s not how it happened.” Other phrases might be, “I didn’t do that,” or “No way. I’m not that kind of person,” after you mention something they did.  

A woman whose husband threw her phone at the car window the day before said, “I didn’t throw it, I flipped it.” This slight change is enough to make you wonder if that’s really what happened, even though you were sure they threw it. 

They might also have creative stories for strange events. For example, Lori (name changed) noticed all the money in the joint bank account had been transferred to a separate account, one with only her husband’s name on it. When she asked him about it, he said, “Oh, it’s just a misunderstanding.” 

Another common tactic is to fabricate a story about someone of the opposite sex. “Relax. They’re just a friend.” But you know in your heart something else is going on. You desperately want to believe your partner, but your heart is telling you a different story. 

6. Your partner calls you names, belittles you, or uses phrases like, “Everyone knows…” “No one else would do it that way” or “Ask anyone and they’ll tell you…” 

Each of these tactics and phrases is a use of shame, a prime tool of an emotional abuser designed to put you down. More than anything else, the emotional abuser wants you to feel small and unvalued, so you’ll submit to their authority. They want you to feel inferior. They want you to doubt your worth. They want you to make efforts to gain their approval. Shame is a powerful tool to get each of those reactions from the abused person who wants nothing more than their partner’s approval. 

Frequently, the abusive partner will put down, scream at, mock, or demean their “loved one.” Since this is so contrary to the way they were while you were dating – charming, attentive, caring, sweet, complimentary – it can be extremely difficult to know what’s going on.

7. Something is wrong, and you don’t know what it is.

Do operate in a fog? Sometimes it’s hard to order your thoughts or to clearly think through what’s happening in your relationship? Do you have a pit in your stomach, an unsettled, sinking feeling, but you can’t quite put your finger on it? Have you taken steps to improve yourself and the relationship only to have those efforts fall flat or backfire and you’re not sure why?

 Listen to your heart. Pay attention to your gut. If you know something isn’t right but you can’t put your finger on it, you might be in an emotionally abusive relationship.

You know something is wrong, but can’t put your finger on it.


To find out if you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, take the questionnaire here.

If you need help recognizing or relating to a relationship bully, check out the all-inclusive online course here to help you understand what’s happening and what do you about it. 

For help with an abusive situation, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or visit thehotline.org.