It may be challenging to recognize emotional abuse, but knowing the signs can help.

While the signs of physical abuse can often be more obvious, emotional abuse can be just as hurtful.

This type of abuse is often overlooked and can be the hardest to recognize.

Emotional abuse can be subtle and covert. It can come in the form of words or actions. The abuse can come from your spouse or romantic partner.

It can also come from a parent, caregiver, boss, or co-worker.

No matter what form it comes in or whom it comes from, emotional abuse is never OK. It’s not your fault, and you don’t deserve it.

Learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of emotional abuse can be the first step to finding ways to navigate this situation.

Emotional abuse is a way to control someone by using emotions to shame, manipulate, or embarrass them.

It can also be a way of discrediting, isolating, and silencing another person. The person who is being abused emotionally often feels stuck, isolated, and unworthy, which sits and maintains the cycle of emotional abuse.

The person can often be unsure of where to turn and whom to reach out to for support, so they often decide to stay in that situation.

Emotional abuse can come in various forms. Two significant forms that influence emotional abuse are:

  • Gaslighting: This type of emotional abuse increases self-doubt and confusion, making the person question themselves and have trouble making self-directed decisions.
  • Projection: This type occurs when one person shifts responsibility and blame from themselves to someone else.

Though emotional abuse can be more covert than other types of abuse, there are some signs you can look out for that you may be experiencing this type of abuse.

  • Control and isolation: You may be told whom you can see and how much time you can spend with others. This may also involve constant monitoring of your social media, texts, and phone calls. Jealousy tactics may be used to keep you away from friends and family.
  • Stonewalling: Stonewalling is a nonverbal form of emotional abuse. This looks like refusing to respond or answer questions, not making eye contact, dismissing one’s feelings, or walking away from a discussion.
  • Withholding emotions: Withholding emotions occurs when one is trying to display their anger by not showing any emotion. This increases anxiety in the person experiencing the abuse because it feeds into the fear of not being worthy to be loved, isolation, and abandonment.
  • Love bombing: This is when you’re overloaded by compliments and gifts by your partner, which can then be turned around and used later on as tools of manipulation. Love bombing often comes after an intense rage of irrational behavior displayed by your partner.

If you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, you’re not alone. According to the National Domestic Hotline, 95% of callers in 2020 reported being in an emotionally abusive relationship.

If you can’t immediately leave, there are ways you can try to navigate this situation.

  • Don’t blame yourself. Remember that abuse is a choice. It’s not your fault that someone is choosing to hurt you.
  • Try to build a network of support. You may find that friends and family can offer help. A trusted healthcare or mental health professional can also be helpful.
  • Try to establish clear boundaries to keep yourself safe as well as let your partner know what type of behavior you will and won’t tolerate. For instance, let your partner know that you will no longer tolerate name calling, and if it does happen, you will exit the room. The key is to follow through and be consistent with your boundaries.
  • Try to avoid engaging in tense arguments or debates. If it’s safe, try to leave. When you do, consider stopping all communication with the person. This includes social media, location sharing, and calling. If you require assistance to leave, create a clear safety plan and use your support network and resources.

Emotional abuse has both short-term and long-term impacts.

In the short term, emotional abuse can lead to feelings of:

  • shame
  • confusion
  • fear
  • hopelessness

It can also cause some physical and psychological issues, such as:

  • racing heart
  • gastrointestinal issues, such as stomach ulcers
  • nightmares
  • difficulty concentrating
  • muscle tension
  • changes in mood

Studies have found that over time, emotional abuse can contribute to these mental health conditions:

If you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, there is help for you.

You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 (SAFE) or text “Start” to 88788. They also provide chat services.

If you need additional assistance, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. You can use our find a therapist tool to help.

Here are some other helpful resources you can try:


DRK Beauty is a mental health and wellness platform that’s a home for Women of Color to discover, experience, and build their unique well-being journey. Their community can access a broad range of affordable resources (live group sessions, curated content, paid-for courses, etc.) from culturally responsive therapists, faith-based teachers, and practitioners of various spiritual, healing, and occupational modalities. They also offer free therapy to Women of Color through their nonprofit initiative DRK Beauty Healing. They believe their holistic approach to healing will ultimately empower the global to forge a unique path to wellness.