How to recognise emotional abuse in relationships

It can be hard to recognise if you’re being emotionally abused by a boyfriend or girlfriend. It's even harder to spot when it's coming from friends, family or co-workers. The Mix gives you a guide to recognising emotional abuse and the tools to break free.

Two women sit outside holding hands looking down.

Speaking to someone is the first step in breaking free from emotionally abusive relationships

What is emotional abuse?

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

Signs someone is emotionally abusing you include if someone is:

  • Repeatedly humiliating you
  • Always criticising or putting you down
  • Using emotional blackmail to control you
  • Never allowing you to have a say
  • Intimidating and threatening you
  • Controlling your life, including maybe your social media accounts
  • Withholding money from you
  • Isolating you from friends and family
  • Telling 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. She says victims: “Can feel so worn down by what has happened that they can believe that they’re powerless or useless people, which often assists the perpetrator as the victim is less able to leave or feel able to get help.”

Who could emotionally abuse me?

Although 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 emotionally abused can take a toll on your health and lead to problems such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Suicide
  • Self-harm

How do I know someone is doing it to me?

While you’re in the situation it can be hard to know if you’re being emotionally abused. Make sure to look out for signs such as:

  • If someone is stopping you seeing your friends and family
  • If 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, diminished and depressed
  • Someone telling you they are showing their love for you through controlling behaviour
  • Other friends or family telling you the abuser’s behaviour is not right
  • The abuser shouts or screams at you for no reason

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 to an extreme. The victim can become so controlled by the abuser that they stop believing what is real. For example, the abuser could deny they did something, and even though you had proof they did it, you start believing their lies.

How do I know when it’s abuse? 

It can be hard to identify abuse. Often if we have feelings for other people, we try and forgive and understand their behaviour. You might find yourself thinking: “They only shouted at me a few times”. 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 Ammanda explains: “Does it make them feel worthless or bad about themselves? Then it could be fair comment that someone who means something to them, or even someone who doesn’t, is abusing them 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 as behaviour you thought was normal may seem unreasonable to an outsider.

You can 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 as coercive control within intimate and family relationships is a crime
  • Get professional help from any of the services listed in the next steps box

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

It can be hard to help a friend going through something like this, especially if they don’t recognise the abuse themselves. To help them you can:

  • Let them know you’ll always be there for them
  • Tell them you think they’re not being treated right and it might be emotional abuse
  • Encourage them to get professional help and speak to any of the services listed below

Next Steps

  • Read articles on a range of relationship topics on The Mix's Relationship Support Page in partnership with Click.
  • 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.
  • You can talk to Childline about anything. Call them for free on 0800 1111 or visit their website.
  • Relate is an affordable relationship and sex counselling service. 0300 100 1234
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.




Updated on 14-Jun-2017

Image courtesy of Shutterstock