There are many signs, big and small, that can show you if you are in an emotionally abusive relationship. Here are some of the biggest red flags to look out for.

Imagine you've met your partner and you think he or she is going to be the one you want to spend your life with. You start dating, get engaged, and you may even get married, have kids, etc. But you soon realise that not everything is perfect.

There might be things about your partner that come to the surface that you didn't clock initially. They might be very critical of you or often put you down for no reason at all. It doesn't strike you as a huge issue at first.

"They're not physically abusive, they just have a short temper," you might think to yourself.

But then it hits you. Months or years later, when your self-esteem and self-worth is in the gutter: you've been in an emotionally abusive relationship.

Emotional abuse is hard to detect, as its wounds are mental, and not much scientific data has been collected on the issue. Some research suggests that potentially 1 in 5 people may experience emotional abuse.

If you are or have been in an emotionally abusive relationship, you are not alone. And if you're not sure if you are, below we've compiled some key signs that indicate emotional abuse.

Your partner is possessive

It's very easy to mistake possessiveness for love or concern. If your partner constantly needs to know what you're doing or who you're with at any given time, they may have issues with possessiveness.

Of course, your partner checking in every now and then to see where you are is no big deal, but if they require that you check in with them several times a day and even lose their temper when you don't, it quickly turns into harassment.

If they also prohibit you from hanging out with certain people or going to certain places because of their jealousy, that is a form of emotional abuse.

Your partner says mean things disguised as jokes

A friendly ribbing is no big deal most of the time. But if your partner is always making jokes about you being fat, lazy, unattractive, or whatever your biggest insecurity may be, you might be in an emotionally abusive relationship.

It is especially damaging if you express your hurt over these "jokes" and your partner dismisses you for being "too sensitive" or "humourless."

It may not seem like a huge issue, but emotional abuse like this is no different than schoolyard bullying and it has serious long-term effects on your mental health.

Your partner "Gaslights" you

Gaslighting is a technique wherein an abusive person will manipulate you into questioning your own sanity. A gaslighter will dictate your reality for you, telling you that things didn't happen as you remembered them, or lying about certain facts of your relationship so that your view conforms to theirs.

It is a technique used by dictators, cult leaders, narcissists and abusers alike. It is a tactic deployed covertly over a long period of time that can have a disastrous net effect.

If you and your partner get into fights and your partner insists that you don't have the facts straight, that you're making things up, that you don’t know what you’re talking about, or that you're being crazy, they may be gaslighting you.

Your partner is withholding

A common tactic people in emotionally abusive relationships use is the intermittent withholding of love and affection.

If your partner is lovey-dovey with you in one moment, and then frigid with you in the next, they may be doing it on purpose. This is especially true if they provide no explanation for their behaviour. In the absence of an explanation, you may blame yourself and begin to mine reasons why you're not enough for them or that you deserve this treatment.

Over time, giving too much in a relationship and your partner giving you far too little can erode at your self-esteem.

Your partner lords their money or status over you

Even though it is 2018, and men and women have equal financial footing and education in a relationship most of the time, there is still an occasional imbalance in either direction.

Your partner may make more money than you or you may not make any money at all. If your partner takes advantage of this inequality by denying you money or resources unless you cooperate with them, they're being emotionally abusive. You shouldn't have to feel like a hostage or a trick pony in your own relationship. Money shouldn't be a dominating factor in your relationship.

Your partner is always "Surprising" you

Planning a surprise is ostensibly a good thing. But if your partner is always changing plans you've already made together in order to make the plan "better" than the original, they may be exercising something called "stealth control," a common tactic used by narcissists.

Narcissists need to make everything about them, and so they don't usually like mutually agreed upon decisions, even for the smallest things. For example, imagine you and your partner agree to go to a small cafe for lunch. Then, at the last minute, your partner actually informs you that they've made reservations at a fantastic 5-star restaurant. If this is something they do frequently, they could be using stealth control.

If you're not sure if it's kindness or narcissism, test them on it next time. Tell them you'd rather stick to the original plan. If they fight you on it every time, chances are they just want to make the decision about them, and what they want to do.

Are you in an emotionally abusive relationship?

Emotional abuse is hard to detect and getting out of an emotionally abusive relationship can be even harder.

If these warning signs sound familiar to you, and you're not sure how to get out of your relationship, there are resources out there for you.

If these signs don't sound familiar at all and your partner treats you with the loving kindness and respect every human being deserves, count your blessings.

I would love to hear your comments or answer any questions you might have about this post.

Yours sincerely,   


Dr. Carissa Coulston, Clinical Psychologist

BSc(Hons), MPsychol(Clinical), PhD, MAPS