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How to Recognize an Emotionally Abusive Relationship


How to Recognize an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

Emotional abuse is just as real as physical abuse.

By Molly Thomson

When I hear the term “abusive relationship,” my mind jumps to hidden bruises, dark sunglasses, and limp figures crumpled on the floor like discarded napkins. It’s an image that’s portrayed over and over again in movies, TV, and literature, so we all know the narrative. As common as it is, we all think we can pick up on the warnings and speak out if a friend or family member struggles with a physically abusive partner. After all, the signs are all right there on their bodies.

But sometimes these signs are invisible. Sometimes relationships are not physically abusive, but emotionally, and this is a far less recognizable problem. 

What is emotional abuse?

Part of the reason emotional abuse is so underreported is because many people don’t know what it is. Amanda Cubit, Family Law Attorney at Sodoma Law, P.C., explained that emotional abuse is defined by its “damaging effect on the victim’s emotional and psychological well-being.” Emotional abuse also isn’t as cut-and-dry as physical abuse, making it harder to identify. 

According to Cubit, emotional abuse is “behavior that is used to control and dominate the victim.” It can make the victim anxious or depressed or hurt their confidence and self-worth. Some concrete examples that the Court may recognize include “demeaning the victim in front of others, controlling the household finances…or threatening the victim.”

This also isn’t a rare phenomenon. 62% of girls age 11-14 say they know friends who have been verbally abused by a boyfriend or girlfriend, and more than 1 in 4 teen girls in a relationship reported repeated verbal abuse. It’s not just women, either: nearly half of women and men in the U.S. have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

How do I recognize the signs?

Again, emotional abuse is much harder to detect than physical abuse, often because “victims’ reactions are so different,” Cubit explains. If you have a friend who is desperate for their partner’s approval, afraid of making even the smallest decisions without said partner, or who has a general change in demeanor, he or she could be involved in an emotionally abusive relationship. He or she may not even know that they are in such a harmful relationship, or may be defensive of his or her partner, which can make it even harder to speak up.

How do I report it?

In many states the law does not mention or define emotional abuse, so it is difficult to report. The law does identify “continued harassment…that rises to such a level as to inflict substantial emotional distress” as worthy of the Court’s protection but, as Cubit said, “it may be difficult to prove.”

If you have a friend who is in an emotionally abusive relationship, the best thing you can do is speak up—to them. “Describe what you are seeing and hearing that is causing you concern.” Expect your friend to defend their abuser, at least at first; many abusers isolate the victim from support systems, which can make it even harder to maintain or trust friends. 

Direct your friend to resources and professionals “who can help safety plan and work through the lasting effects” of the relationship. Offer them a safe haven if you can so that they have somewhere to stay without feeling in danger. “Don’t expect the victim to jump at the chance to make big changes,” warned Cubit. “It will take time.”

If you think you might be in an emotionally abusive relationship:

I’m so, so sorry you had to go through this.

Cubit advises the following:

1. Confide in friends and loved ones; know that you are not alone. 

2. Make a plan to leave with your close ones supporting you every step of the way. 

3. Contact local domestic violence agencies in your area: there are people who can help you come up with a safety plan. 

4. Talk to an attorney about getting a protective order or working through legal issues if you have children with your abuser. And once you are in safe environment, 

5. Talk to a therapist who can help you address these issues and overcome the long-term effects.

She also recommends asking your local courthouse and/or governmental assistance agency for resources and phone numbers that can help.


Remember, emotional abuse is just as “real” and just as legitimate as physical abuse. You are never wrong in any way for recognizing it and detaching yourself from it. As Cubit said, “Demand the best for yourself. Your abuser does.”


If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

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