It’s easy to think that if you were in an abusive relationship, you’d know it. But abuse isn’t always easy to spot. “Most people only conceptualise domestic violence as acts of physical violence that result in injuries,” says Mindy B. Mechanic, PhD, a professor of psychology at California State University, Fullerton.
And emotional abuse—which is centred on one partner trying to control the other—doesn’t leave broken bones, black eyes, or bruises, she says. Emotional abusers, instead, try to undermine their victim’s sense of self-worth, self-control, and agency, effectuating control in non-physical ways, she explains.
Of course, that’s only half of the story. The other half? “The abusive partner being deeply apologetic, romantic, charming, and doing everything and anything to make the abused partner to forgive and forget the bad behaviour,” explains Diane Gehart, PhD, a professor at California State University, Northridge.
Sound familiar? Spotting tactics of emotional abuse is crucial. “The impact of emotional abuse is profound and insidious, with some victims reporting that acts of [this kind of] abuse felt more painful to them than incidents of physical violence because it erodes and degrades one’s essential sense of worthiness and competence,” says Mechanic.
Not all emotional abuse ends in physical violence, experts say, but the risk exists. “Some research has indicated that early signs of emotional abuse in a relationship can be a precursor to the eruption of physical violence, in part because they signal one partner’s attempts to dominate and control the other partner,” says Mechanic.
Any behaviour that involves control, as well as acts that instil fear or leave you with feelings of shame, humiliation, diminished self-worth, or depression—especially when the behaviour is recurrent—can be signs of emotional abuse, says Mechanic. Here, seven warning signs of emotional abuse to look for and what to do if you notice them in your own relationship.
Your partner is controlling
Control is a hallmark of emotional abuse. To this extent, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services notes that the below are all indications of emotional abuse—an attempt to exert control.
- Prevents or discourages you from seeing friends and family
- Tries to stop you from going to work, school, or seeing a doctor
- Constantly needs to know where you are and what you’re doing
- Demands passwords to personal accounts, like your phone, email, or social media
- Exhibits intense jealousy or even accuses you of cheating
- Completely controls your finances and how you spend your money
- Makes decisions you should be making yourself, like what you wear or eat
Your partner might also withhold affection to punish you—“clearly an attempt to control rather than work through issues as an equal,” says Gehart.
...and mean or degrading
Emotional and verbal abuse can include insults—another way to take a stab at your self-esteem and enforce control. This means he or she will intentionally humiliate you in front of other people or call you degrading names, such as “stupid,” “disgusting,” “worthless,” or “fat.”
You feel threatened
“Threats and ultimatums are unfair tactics to control one’s partner, clearly putting the other in a powerless position,” says Gehart. Your partner might threaten to harm you, your possessions, loved ones, pets, or your property, explains Mechanic. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services also notes that he or she might threaten to call authorities to report you for wrongdoings or threaten to hurt themselves if they’re upset with you. “Threats to harm can be effective in controlling a victim without having to resort to actual physical violence,” Mechanic says.
Anger escalates into violence
Ever get in a fight with your partner only to have them punch a hole in a wall or destroy a table? “This can be sufficiently intimidating to cause a victim to relent or capitulate to the abuser’s demands, or to engage in behaviours intended to keep him from escalating his level of violence,” says Mechanic. If he or she gets angry in a way that really scares you, that’s a sign of emotional abuse.
Your partner won’t take responsibility—and turns things on you
Find yourself apologising without your concerns actually being acknowledged? “A clear sign of emotional abuse is when you approach your partner with a complaint and your partner not only does not accept responsibility but suddenly twists the conversation to an attack on you,” says Gehart. Again, it’s a power play.
Often, emotional abusers also accuse victims of being too sensitive or taking things too seriously to avoid blame—a way to maintain their dominance and create a sense of insecurity and self-doubt in a victim.
Gaslighting techniques are common
Feel like your partner is making up conversations that didn’t happen? Notice things moved around in your home in a way you don’t recognise? Find yourself questioning your memory or things that have or have not happened in the past? “Gaslighting involves presenting false information to the victim to make them doubt their own memories, perceptions, and ultimately sanity,” says Gehart.
It’s a technique aimed at confusing a victim, ultimately allowing the perpetrator to maintain power: If you’re questioning your memories, you might feel more dependent on your partner—something that keeps you in the toxic relationship.
You feel like you’re walking on eggshells
“Abused parties typically describe themselves as ‘living on eggshells,’ trying to avoid upsetting their partners,” says Gehart. Abusive acts can leave people living in fear, not wanting to rock the boat—a sign of an emotionally abusive relationship.
How to get help if you are in an emotionally abusive relationship
If you think you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, seek out a therapist who can help you to first identify the behavior as abuse and then heal from it, which could mean guiding through you through important personal decisions, such as if you want to stay in the relationship, if you should separate, or if the abusive partner could benefit from therapy (where they might learn to become accountable for their behaviours and pick up non-violent relationship skills), says Mechanic.
Make sure to seek out a therapist who has experience with the relational dynamics you’re experiencing, says Gehart. Simply researching the therapist’s site or scheduling a brief introductory call to ask about their history can help.
Couples therapy can be risky, Mechanic notes. It’s usually only helpful when both people have decided to work on preserving their relationship and after both people have worked on their own individual issues, she says. If there’s any kind of physical abuse in your relationship, couples counselling is not recommended, she says.
“Relationship counselling begins from the premise that both persons in the relationship have equal power and are on equal footing—and that each takes responsibility for their own actions and behaviours. Abuse tips the scales in favour of the abuser, so, it’s generally not recommended,” she explains.
Besides therapy, every community has free or very low-cost services for victims of intimate partner abuse, such as local shelters and groups. Books—Mechanic recommends Invisible Chains or Healing from Hidden Abuse, which can be purchased as e-books as well as in print—can also help you understand what’s going on and provide tools for recovery.
This article originally appeared on Prevention US.