Understanding Emotional Abuse, Recognizing The Signs

Los Alamos Police Department

Domestic violence is often characterized as physical and sexual abuse; however, there are many ways a partner may attempt to control the other that are not easily identifiable, such as, manipulation, gas lighting, and psychological attacks. Many victims only recognize the physical aspect of domestic violence, overlooking emotional abuse and downplaying the seriousness of other forms of abuse. 

Emotional abuse may start at any time in a relationship. Often, it starts at the beginning of the relationship, in which the abuser’s actions may seem sweet, creating the illusion of a strong bond. These behaviors include buying gifts, sending flowers, checking on your whereabouts, who you’re talking to, texting constantly, saying they can’t live without you, and wanting to spend every moment with you. Once this control is established, the abuser will mistreat their partner, leading to an escalation of the abuse. 

Emotional abuse will often break down the victim’s self-esteem and self-worth. When the victim loses all sense of his/her identity, the offender gains power and control. The victim changes their behavior without recognizing what they’re doing and often questions their behavior, thinking they are going crazy, or questioning their own judgement. The abusive partner may use a practice called, “gas lighting” or manipulation. The abuser may claim the victim is going crazy, losing their mind, or has a bad memory, often making comments that it never happened, leading the victim to believe they were merely exaggerating. 

If you believe you are being emotionally abused or think a friend or loved one may be experiencing emotional abuse, it is important to learn and recognize it early, as it is often difficult to spot.

Here are signs that you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship. Keep in mind that even if your partner only does a few of these things, you are still in an emotionally abusive relationship:  

Gas-lighting:  The abusers lie or downplay the impact of an abuse or event. They may say something like, “It’s not that bad” or “You’re overreacting” or even, “I never said that.” All of this can create doubt in your mind, or make you second-guess yourself.  The end goal is to ensure that you’re the “crazy” one for ever questioning his/her behavior or actions. 

IsolationThe abuser may attempt to control your whereabouts and may demand you stay at home and quit your job. Abusers may monitor your text messages, social media, or email and accuse you of cheating.  They may become extremely jealous of outside relationships with co-workers, family, and friends.

Over-ProtectionThe abuser may refuse to let you go anywhere or do certain things because he/she is “worried” for your safety.  He/she wants to be with you always. 

Blaming OthersThis is a classic abuse tactic. Perpetrators rarely take responsibility for their actions, often placing the blame on you for causing the way they acted.

Separation AbuseThis could include forms of stalking, especially after the relationship has ended. The perpetrator will continually send flowers, or gifts, showing he/she can always find you. This can be a particularly effective tactic because from the outside, the gestures seem kind and caring.

Manipulation of Social SystemsSuch as court systems or child protective services (CYFD) . This is a way of wielding systemic power over you, and the consequences are dire (such as custody of children).

Emotional ManipulationBeing on a “roller-coaster” emotionally. One moment he/she is loving, kind and caring; the next he/she is angry and aggressive. Victims often say they feel like they’re, “walking on eggshells” in their own home to keep from trying to set off the abuser. This can also include things like degradation and undercutting your achievements, or making you feel bad about yourself.

ThreatsMaking threats to harm your family, friends, and pets (this is extremely common, and a huge barrier for women trying to leave the relationship).

Financial AbuseMaking sure you have zero control, knowledge, or access to finances. This is also a large barrier for women leaving the relationship. Often women must choose to stay, and live in violence, or leave and live in poverty. The first step towards solving this problem is to recognize the behavior of the abuser, as well as the symptoms created by the abuse in their partner. Support from friends, family, or a qualified therapist and/or professional can be instrumental in helping the abused partner overcome their experience.

Cyber abuseThis includes hacking, stealing passwords, reading emails, or demanding that you eliminate social media. 

Emotionally abusive people display unrealistic expectations. Some examples include:  

  • Making unreasonable demands of you
  • Expecting you to put everything aside and meet their needs
  • Demanding you spend all your time together
  • Being dissatisfied no matter how hard you try or how much you give
  • Criticizing you for not completing tasks according to their standards
  • Expecting you to share their opinions (i.e., you are not permitted to have a different opinion)

Emotionally abusive people invalidate you. Some examples include:  

  • Undermining, dismissing, or distorting your perceptions or your reality
  • Refusing to accept your feelings by trying to define how you should feel
  • Requiring you to explain how you feel over and over
  • Accusing you of being “too sensitive,” “too emotional,” or “crazy”
  • Refusing to acknowledge or accept your opinions or ideas as valid
  • Dismissing your requests, wants, and needs as ridiculous or unmerited
  • Suggesting that your perceptions are wrong or that you cannot be trusted by saying things like, “you’re blowing this out of proportion” or “you exaggerate”
  • Accusing you of being selfish, needy, or materialistic if you express your wants or needs (the expectation is that you should not have any wants or needs)
  • ​Create chaos/drama

Emotionally abusive people create chaos. Some examples include:  

  • Starting arguments for the sake of arguing
  • Making confusing and contradictory statements (sometimes called “crazy-making”)
  • Having drastic mood changes or sudden emotional outbursts
  • Nitpicking at your clothes, your hair, your work, and more
  • Behaving so erratically and unpredictably that you feel like you are “walking on eggshells”
  • ​Using emotional blackmail

Emotionally abusive people use emotional blackmail. Some examples include:  

  • Manipulating and controlling you by making you feel guilty
  • Humiliating you in public or in private
  • Using your fears, values, compassion, or other hot buttons to control you or the situation
  • Exaggerating your flaws or pointing them out in order to deflect attention or to avoid taking responsibility for their poor choices or mistakes
  • Denying that an event took place or lying about it
  • Punishing you by withholding affection or giving you the silent treatment
  • Acting superior

Emotionally abusive people act superior and entitled. Some examples include:  

  • Treating you like you are inferior
  • Blaming you for their mistakes and shortcomings
  • Doubting everything you say and attempting to prove you wrong
  • Making jokes at your expense
  • Telling you that your opinions, ideas, values, and thoughts are stupid, illogical, or “do not make sense”
  • Talking down to you or being condescending
  • Using sarcasm when interacting with you
  • Acting like they are always right, know what is best, and are smarter
  • Controlling and isolating you

Emotionally abusive people attempt to isolate and control you. Some examples include

  • Controlling who you see or spend time with including friends and family
  • Monitoring you digitally including text messages, social media, and email
  • Accusing you of cheating and being jealous of outside relationships
  • Taking or hiding your car keys
  • Demanding to always know where you are or using GPS to track your every move
  • Treating you like a possession or property
  • Criticizing or making fun of your friends, family, and co-workers
  • Using jealousy and envy as a sign of love and to keep you from being with others
  • Coercing you into spending all of your time together
  • Controlling the finances

Tips for Dealing with Emotional Abuse

The first step in dealing with an emotionally abusive relationship is to recognize the abuse. If you can identify any aspect of emotional abuse in your relationship, it is important to acknowledge that first and foremost. By being honest about what you are experiencing, you can begin to take control of your life again.

Make Yourself a Priority

When it comes to your mental and physical health, you need to make yourself a priority. Stop worrying about pleasing the person that is abusing you. Take care of your needs. Do something that will help you think positively and affirm who you are. 

Stop Blaming Yourself

If you have been in an emotionally abusive relationship for any amount of time, you may believe that there is something severely wrong with you, but you are not the problem. 

Everyone deserves a relationship free from domestic violence. If you need someone to talk to the National Domestic Violence hotline is a confidential support line available 24/7/365.


Local Resources:  

Los Alamos Victim Assistant:  505-663-3511

Crisis Center of Northern NM:  505-753-1656

Esperanza Shelter:  505-473-5200 or 1-800-473-5220

New Mexico Crisis and Access Line:  1-855-662-7474