Abusive relationships can be difficult to escape for lots of reasons—fear, denial, and dependence being just a few. And abuse can come in many forms. Some types of abuse, like hitting and sexual violence, are physical. Other types, like psychological and emotional abuse, can be harder to recognize, yet may be just as damaging.
Psychological or emotional abuse is “the use of power to hurt the other and to control the other, and early signs are often the same as early signs of any abuse,” says Health contributing psychology editor Gail Saltz, MD. And just because it doesn’t leave bruises or scars, Dr. Saltz says, doesn’t mean it can’t have a lasting impact. Here are some of the warning signs that your partner is emotionally abusive.
They always want to know your whereabouts
Psychological abuse can take the form of obsessive monitoring, Lori Ann Post, PhD, professor of emergency medicine and medical social sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, tells Health. Early on in a relationship, however, it can be easy to dismiss this as attentiveness and caring; it can even be flattering.
“Maybe your partner starts showing up at your work unannounced and wants to take you to lunch,” says Post. “They want to know what you were doing and who you were doing it with.” But this can progress into unhealthy territory, she adds—installing spyware on your digital devices, for example, or insisting that you spend less and less time apart.
“Examples are the partner who removes you or creates distance in your friendships and other family relationships by expressing jealousy and dislike of time you spend with them,” says Dr. Saltz, “pulling you further into a place of only you and them.” They may insist that you report your whereabouts regularly, and get angry if you aren’t available to them.
They're mean…and then suddenly nice
Abusive partners can also exert control over their victims by harming their self-esteem. “They say undermining or critical things to you, commenting on clothes, appearance, and what you do,” says Dr. Saltz. They may also obsessively track things like your weight, and they get upset if you don’t conform exactly to their standards.
But then, they can make sudden shifts—especially if they feel they might be losing you. “After being hurtful or mean, it’s often followed by apologies and professions of love, like ‘I can’t live without you,’ ‘I’ll never do or say that again,’ or ‘I didn’t mean that,’” says Dr. Saltz.
This sudden reversal is sometimes called honeymooning, says Post. “We can all say and do hurtful things in our relationships, and as long as we have empathy and truly apologize for what we did, we can work past it,” she says. “But for abusers, they don’t have empathy—it’s just another form of manipulation to keep their victims under their control.”
Everything leads to an argument
All couples fight—but in an abusive relationship, the balance of power is always one-sided. “If every disagreement ends in your partner winning, or upping the ante until he or she wins, that’s abusive,” says Post.
“You should be able to disagree and have a conversation,” agrees Dr. Saltz. But an abusive partner will be less concerned with discussing things rationally than in maintaining control over you and your opinions. “The point is to intimidate you into not disagreeing, but going along,” she says.
You're afraid to talk to them
You can learn a lot about your relationship not just by how your partner acts, but also by how you feel. You may be scared to bring up serious topics for fear of how he or she will react, for example.
Feeling uncomfortable is another red flag, says Post. “Maybe they’re showing up at your office unannounced, or they’re asking you to do certain sexual acts you don’t want to do,” she says. “If you don’t feel comfortable discussing these things, you need to ask yourself why.”
Being able to talk openly is important, not just for your own mental health but also for the health of your partnership. “Having the expectation that anything will set them off is a clue that abuse is going on,” says Dr. Saltz. “But also, it vastly limits your intimacy, such that you aren’t having much of a real relationship anyway.”
…Yet they're your first priority
Perhaps the trickiest thing about emotional and psychological abuse is how gradual and insidious it can be. Often, people don’t realize they’ve become victims until their entire life has changed, and they’re completely under their abuser’s spell.
“The abusive partner needs to be the center of your universe at all times; when you comply, you slowly start to dissolve until you are just their appendage,” says Dr. Saltz. “It’s harder to get out once you have lost yourself. No one who loves you in a healthy relationship should want you to always put them before yourself.”
What to do about it
Dr. Saltz says being able to spot the problematic behavior is crucial since the abuser will try to convince you that all of this is your fault. Then, she suggests that you continue your other relationships and “point out when your partner has been critical or undermining. Be clear you respect yourself and that you expect the same respect from them.”
If the abuse continues, ask your partner to go to therapy. If your partner refuses, or can’t or won’t change the pattern in therapy, it’s time to leave. “Painful as breakups are, they are less damaging than staying in an emotionally abusive relationship,” she says.
Whatever you do, don’t blame yourself, says Post. Victims of emotional and psychological abuse are often gaslighted into doubting their own sanity or believing that they are responsible for their partner’s bad behavior. If you need help getting out of a difficult situation, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233.
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