17 Signs Your Partner May Be Emotionally Abusive
Gaslighting, isolation, and manipulation can all point to a toxic relationship.
We all want to believe the best about the person we love, but they say "love is blind" for a reason. After a certain amount of time, we may find ourselves putting up with more and more, stuck thinking our woes are just normal relationship troubles—and not actually signs of something worse. Whether it's them having too much input on who and how you spend your time, or even restricting what you post online, these toxic traits can point to an emotionally abusive partner. Thankfully, recognizing these signs can actually help you get out of the relationship and take back control of your life.
You've found yourself distanced from loved ones.
One of the most common ways someone tries to take control of you and your life is by getting you isolated and distancing you from friends and family. After all, they want you all to yourself, says Belinda Ginter, an emotional kinesiologist.
"They try to manipulate you into believing they don't feel your love unless you are spending the majority of your time with them," she says. And this is also a tactic to stop your loved ones from being able to voice their concerns about your potentially emotionally abusive partner.
You're punished when you spend time with other people.
If you do find yourself still able to spend time with your friends and family, you're certainly not going to escape that unpunished. According to Ginter, emotionally abusive partners will go out of their way to make you feel guilty for spending time with other people.
For example, if you were to return from seeing a movie with friends, they might resort to giving you the silent treatment. Ginter says this is a form of manipulation they use to make you second guess spending time with others over them again. If this is the case, she recommends confiding in multiple friends and family members. Your partner may be able to distance you from some of your loved ones, but with an army on your side, they'll find it hard to keep everyone at bay.
You feel as if you're held to an impossible standard.
It's not uncommon, or unexpected, for your partner to have high standards and hold you to some of them. But if you often feel as if your partner is holding you to an impossible standard—one that they themselves couldn't reach—that may be a warning sign.
"If you don't meet those standards, are you ridiculed or made to feel small?" asks Brian Wind, PhD, a clinical executive at JourneyPure. If so, your partner may be purposely holding you to these standards so that, when you don't reach them, you feel bad about yourself and sorry that you couldn't perform in the way they wanted. Wind recommends counting how many times you apologize to your partner. If it's every day, you should seek help. Whether that means reaching out to a loved one, a therapist, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233), talking to someone outside of your relationship is the first step toward understanding if you are in an unhealthy relationship.
Their needs always seem to be more important.
In a relationship, everything is not always going to be 50/50. There are times you may feel as if you need to go above and beyond to meet the needs of your partner, sometimes at the expense of your own. But if some days turns into every day, and your partner is never giving you the same respect in return, that's not normal.
"Is your partner expecting you to drop whatever you are doing in order to go and do activities that they like, follow their rules, and spend all of your time with them?" asks Diana V, a certified life and relationship coach. "Everyone needs personal time to recharge and do what they love, and if you are constantly at your partner's beck and call, then you are not living your life to the fullest." Diana recommends scheduling more time for yourself and what you want to do, as well as talking to your partner about "being supportive of what you want to do" as well.
Everything always seems to be turned back on you.
Couples argue, that's life. But that doesn't mean everything is always your fault. With an emotionally abusive partner, it may feel like it is.
"Emotional abusers are amazing at turning the tables on you," Ginter says. "Say you are mad at them for their negative behavior—for instance, maybe they were openly flirting with someone right in front of you. You bring this situation up to them to tell them how their actions made you feel, but when you speak to them, they instantly attack you verbally, saying that you are insecure, jealous, and have issues with trust. They are deflecting your attention away from their behavior and instead get you to feel bad and focus on their interpretation of your behaviors, which are not reality."
Your partner constantly displays jealous or insecure behavior.
A little jealousy here or there is common within any relationship, but if your partner's green eye is coming out more often than not, you need to take a step back and revaluate the relationship.
"It's normal to feel jealous and insecure from time to time; however, when your partner's personal feelings of constant inadequacy require [you] to change how you behave, that's a huge red flag," says Diana. "Your partner's insecurities should not dictate what you can and can't wear, who you can and cannot talk to, how much affection you should show, and other things that limit your normal personality and behavior."
What should you do in this situation? Diana says you should step back and evaluate all the things you've had to change about yourself since entering the relationship. Any relationship may bring about some compromises and changes here or there. But do you like the person you've become? If your personality has changed so much that you are someone you don't recognize or like, then it's time to separate yourself from your partner.
They have rules for what you can and cannot post on social media.
And when it comes to their jealousy controlling what you do, many emotionally abusive partners will actively monitor their significant other's social media. Carmel Jones, a sex coach with The Big Fling, says that this form of abuse may go overlooked at first because a person might "feel flattered that a significant other gets protective of their public appearance." However, this need to shame someone from posting certain things on social media is "an abusive act of control."
Jones recommends taking control of this by talking to your partner. Perhaps they have a reason for why they're feeling more insecure, like they were cheated on in a past relationship. You can compromise by agreeing to "always hear your partner out about why a certain image on social media is bothersome to them," but remind them that they never have full control of what you do. You have the final say in what you do or do not post online.
They always describe you as overly sensitive.
Some of us are naturally more sensitive than others, but if your partner is always dismissing your concerns as you being "overly sensitive," that's not a good sign. Sonya Schwartz, a dating advice columnist with Her Norm, says toxic partners will purposely "say hurtful things in the name of the joke" and often, "in the presence of other people."
"And when you complain, then they just avoid arguments by saying things like 'you are overly sensitive,' 'get a better sense of humor,' or 'I was joking,'" she explains. "In reality, you are not over-sensitive, but they need to change their behavior."
They insult your physical appearance.
Don't dismiss insults as a joke. Jones says emotionally abusive partners will purposely "use physical appearance to cut their partners down." This, in turn, makes their significant other feel insecure so that they rely more on their abusive partner. Jones urges people to understand that these insults most likely stem from your partner's own insecurities, and that they're not an actual reflection of you.
She also recommends people never let an insult from their significant other slide. Instead, confront your partner head on about why they felt the need to attack your appearance. By "questioning the comment itself and taking it as serious as your partner intends for it to be taken, you negate its validity because there is none."
Or they slyly undermine your confidence.
Insults don't have to be straightforward either. Relationship coach Jessica Elizabeth Opert says many abusive partners engage in "negging," which is when a person purposely undermines someone's confidence in order to "destabilize their self-worth." They often use backhanded compliments like "You look nice today, but are you sure you have the legs for a skirt that short?" or "Who would want to date someone who has legs like that? You're lucky I love you."
This emotional abuse, while less recognizable than a straightforward insult to your appearance, will have you questioning your own worth and ability to meet anyone else who will love you. Once it's gone this far, Opert say it's a red flag for deeper issues, and the only way to restore your self-worth is to leave the relationship.
They belittle or humiliate you in public.
A loving partner is never going to purposely go out of their way to make you feel embarrassed in public. However, according to Raffi Bilek, LCSW, director of the Baltimore Therapy Center, a toxic partner will constantly look for ways to humiliate you or belittle you in mixed company. This act is a deliberate way to "make you look bad in front of others" as a way to destroy your self-esteem.
You never know what mood they're going to be in.
People experience mood changes within their life. After all, not every day is going to be a good one. But there's a big difference between your partner having mood changes every so often and you never knowing what mood they're going to be in.
"If you are distracted and always on edge—not knowing when an argument will happen—then you won't have time to realize that the way that you are being treated is wrong," says Diana. "If your partner can keep you wrapped in drama and constant arguments, then you are completely under their control, and after a while, you will start to do whatever they want, and do outrageous things for them just to have some peace."
Diana recommends putting some space between you and your partner. Do you feel significantly less on edge and less anxious about what the day is going to bring? Then you might be in an unhealthy, abusive relationship.
They threaten you or aspects of your life, especially financially.
Has your partner threatened—or issued an ultimatum on—your friends, family, job, or finances? It could be something as small as threatening to tell your friends something you told your partner in confidence, or as big as withholding shared finances when they are upset with you. While this may not be a physical threat, it's still a tactic to harm you, says Jones. Like most forms of emotional abuse, this is how they control you and make you feel as if you cannot leave the relationship.
One of the first steps to combat this is to make sure you have some sort of separate finances. Having your own funds that your partner cannot control can help you find the freedom to leave a relationship if that is what you want to do.
They try to control what you think or feel.
Abusive partners are always trying to control you, and that includes controlling what you think or feel. Certified wellness coach Lynell Ross, founder of Zivadream, recommends imagining a common, everyday problem, and thinking about how your partner would react to it.
Perhaps you were cleaning the house and accidentally broke something. If your partner would respond by yelling at you and then, when you get emotional, saying something along the lines of "you aren't hurt, there's nothing to cry about"—that's a controlling tactic. They're trying to condition you into not being upset when they treat you poorly. Ross recommends setting boundaries for arguments, like refusing to engage with them if they're yelling at you.
They've turned into a person you don't recognize.
Oftentimes, emotional abuse goes unnoticed because your partner doesn't come outright with this behavior in the beginning of the relationship. Instead, relationship consultant Chris Seiter says many abusive partners appear "attentive, caring, and kind" at the start of a relationship.
This phase is considered a "grooming stage," where they gain your trust and love so it's harder for you to leave after they start to show their abusive side. If you look at your partner now and see a totally different person than who they were when you first started dating them, that may be a clear indicator that something's not right.
They make you feel like you're crazy.
Do you feel as if you don't have an accurate perception of reality anymore? This can be caused by gaslighting, an abusive tactic many toxic partners use, says Opert. They will "tell you your feelings are not true, blatantly deny facts and evidence you have seen with your own eyes, and generally discount your interpretation of what is happening in the relationship." This can make you question your "own judgement, sanity, reality, and even eyesight," unable to trust yourself or others—only what your partner says is real.
Your friends have voiced their concerns about your partner.
Sometimes, your loved ones truly do know best. If you have more than one of your friends or family members voicing their concerns about your partner, it may be time to listen. When you're stuck in the relationship, it can be hard to see the manipulative and emotionally abusive tactics a toxic partner has been using. However, talking it through with a third party—or several of them—can make it easier to see an unhealthy relationship for what it actually is.