Am I being emotionally abused?

It can be hard to admit that another person is hurting you, especially if you might not even realise they’re doing it. It's even tougher when it's coming from friends, family or co-workers. The Mix gives you a guide to recognising if you are being emotionally abused and the tools to break free.

A group of young people are sitting in a gym chatting about emotional abuse.

T/W: Discussion of abuse

What is emotional abuse in a relationship?

Emotional abuse is one of the hardest types of abuse to concretely define, but it’s a serious issue that’s just as damaging as physical violence, no matter what your gender is. It’s important to remember that no one has the right to control, force or threaten you, and what’s happening is not your fault. In fact, emotional abuse within intimate or family relationships is now illegal and punishable by a sentence of up to five years in prison.

So what is emotional abuse in a relationship? Warning signs of an emotionally abusive person include if they:

  • Repeatedly humiliate you
  • Always criticise or put you down
  • Use emotional blackmail to control you
  • Never allow you to have a say
  • Give you the silent treatment for prolonged periods of time
  • Intimidate and/or threaten you with physical violence
  • Try to control your life, including your social media accounts
  • Withhold money from you
  • Isolate you from friends and family
  • Tell you what you can and cannot wear

Ammanda Major, head of clinical practice and service quality at relationship charity Relate, says that it can be hard to notice emotional abuse at first, but it will often intensify over time: “Victims can feel so worn down by what has happened that they can believe that they’re powerless or even a waste of space, which often assists the perpetrator as the victim is less likely to leave or feel able to get help.”

Who could emotionally abuse me?

Emotional abuse in marriage or an abusive partner is not uncommon. But we should note that whilst controlling behaviour is usually associated with intimate relationships, you can also be emotionally abused by:

  • Friends
  • Family
  • Colleagues
  • People you interact with in daily life

How can it affect me?

Being in relationships with abusive people can take a toll on your health and lead to problems such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Suicide
  • Self-harm

If you, or someone you know, is dealing with any of these mental health struggles feel free to contact us through our 24/7 support services. 

How do I know someone is an emotionally abusive person?

While you’re in the situation it can be hard to know if you’re being emotionally abused. You might even find yourself thinking ‘Am I being emotionally abused?’. Something that might help is looking out for red flags such as:

  • If someone is stopping you seeing your friends and family
  • When you no longer feel like you can express yourself or trust your own judgement
  • If your health is affected and you start to feel stressed, angry, and/or depressed
  • Someone telling you they’re showing their love for you through controlling behaviour
  • Other friends or family telling you the abuser’s behaviour is not right
  • The abuser shouting or screaming at you for no reason

You can also use our relationship tool to understand your relationship dynamic, and what you can do if it’s not as healthy as it should be.

What is gaslighting?

On-going cases of emotional abuse can lead the victim to start to doubt their own sanity. This is called gaslighting – a form of emotional abuse where the abuser is psychologically manipulating a person to gain power. The victim can become so controlled by the abuser that they stop questioning the abuser’s version of reality. For example, the abuser could deny they did something, and even though you had proof they did it, you start believing their lies. See our article ‘what is gaslighting‘ for more info.

How do I know when it’s abuse?

It can be difficult to identify abuse. Often if we have feelings for other people, we try to forgive and understand their behaviour. You might find yourself thinking: “There’s no way I’m being emotionally abused by my girlfriend”. Or, “They didn’t know how it would hurt me”.

The deciding factor on whether behaviour is abuse comes down to how it makes you feel, as Amanda explains: “Does it make you feel worthless or bad about yourself? Then it could be fair to say that someone who means something to you, or even someone who doesn’t, is abusing you emotionally or mentally.”

It’s important to remember that your feelings are valid and you deserve to have a voice, to feel confident and to be treated well.

How do I get out of an emotionally abusive situation?

If you think you’re in an emotionally abusive situation, the first step is to tell someone. Speak to a trusted close friend, family member or even a counsellor about how you feel. This will give you a little perspective. The behaviour you thought was normal may seem unreasonable to an outsider.

You could also:

  • Keep a diary of everything that happens so you have a record of the abuser’s behaviour
  • Write your concerns in a letter and give it to a trusted adult, friend or family member
  • Contact the police. Coercive control within intimate and family relationships is a crime
  • You can seek professional help from any of the services listed at the end of this article.

How can I help someone else who I think is being emotionally abused?

It can be hard to help a friend going through an abusive situation, especially if they don’t recognise the abuse themselves. If you see emotional abuse in a marriage or any other relationship you can try talking to them. Do it gently and be sure to stress that you’re coming from a place of love, not malice.

Tell them you think they’re not being treated right and that it might be emotional abuse. Let them know you’ll always be there for them, but this might be a good time to seek professional help.

If you need support for toxic relationships

If you are worried about your safety or concerned that you or a friend may be in danger, you can speak to someone on Solace’s Advice Line. Call 0808 802 5565 or follow this link to get support.

You can also head to the Your Best Friend website for resources and information on how to support a friend with an abusive/toxic relationship.

Check out our tool below to understand your relationship dynamic, and what you can do if it’s not as healthy as it should be.

Next Steps

  • The Men's Advice Line offers support for men experiencing domestic violence from a partner, ex-partner or other family members. Call the confidential free helpline on 0808 801 0327, Monday to Friday 9am-5pm.
  • Women's aid protects women from domestic violence. Call their 24-hour helpline on 0808 2000 247.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.



By Nishika Melwani

Updated on 27-Nov-2021