couple in toxic relationshp arguing

Romantic relationships can be many things — exciting, terrifying, fulfilling, and difficult. Even healthy relationships can have difficult spells. However, some relationships involve hidden abuse that affects a person’s psychological and emotional state.

How can you tell the difference between a rough patch and emotional abuse? First, learn what constitutes emotional abuse. Then, evaluate yourself and your partner for common behaviors found in both victims and abusers. Finally, talk to a therapist to get a clearer understanding of the situation and your options.

What Is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse is abusive behavior that does not involve physical harm. Abusers may use tactics like humiliation, manipulation, gaslighting, isolation, and intimidation to hurt their victims. Emotional abuse, which is also called psychological abuse, can occur in many types of relationships, including romantic ones.

Because emotional abuse does not leave physical evidence, it can be difficult to detect. Furthermore, tactics like gaslighting make victims question their own sanity and wonder if they were ever subject to abuse at all. That’s why it’s vital to know the signs of psychological abuse and what to do if you think you might be in such a relationship. We spoke to three LifeStance Health therapists to get answers to these important questions.

What Are Common Signs of Emotional Abuse?

“Many times, emotional abuse does not show itself in clear or transparent ways,” Adam Russo, LCSW, said. “In my experience, it comes from themes in clients’ stories about specific incidents, or a way they describe themselves in relation to their spouse.”

Sometimes, people come to therapy for anxiety or depression, then discover the source of the issue is an abusive relationship.

“Often times, someone initially identifies signs of depression and anxiety as a result of emotional or verbal abuse,” Rebecca Sartor, LICSW, elaborated. “However, also common to someone who is experiencing emotional or verbal abuse, is overwhelming insecurity, difficulty with making decisions, inability to trust their own instincts, thoughts, and feelings. They may feel tired all the time, physically and emotionally exhausted, and lose interest in things.”

Another LifeStance Health provider, BreAnna Talley, DBH, LMHC, said that people who are victims in abusive relationships often:

  • Make excuses for the abuser
  • Isolate from friends and family
  • Show signs of low self-esteem

“This may be manifest by them continuously apologizing or accepting responsibility for difficulties or problems that do not belong to them, difficulty with decision making, feeling incompetent or not good enough,” Talley explained.

What’s The Difference Between Emotional Abuse and “Normal” Arguments?

Disagreements are normal and even healthy in all types of relationships. Sometimes, these disagreements can be passionate and emotional without being signs of emotional abuse. Sartor recommends looking at the patterns in the relationship, rather than one individual disagreement.

“Are there patterns of name-calling, put downs, constant comparison or competition, bringing up the past, or even controlling behaviors?” Sartor said. “Are you allowed to have your own voice and opinion? Is there a theme of blaming, manipulation, or control?”

Some of the manipulative and controlling behavior patterns to look for include:

  • Threats
  • Name-calling
  • Physical intimidation
  • Lack of respect
  • Shaming and guilting
  • Gaslighting

“A common sign that emotional abuse is occurring whereby the abuser manipulates and twists reality in order to serve their purpose,” Talley said. “This is evident by the abuser not accepting responsibility for their own actions and twisting reality to hold the abused person responsible for the abuser’s own negative behaviors. This may be seen as the abused person feeling as if anything negative that occurs in the relationship or to the abuser is their fault.”

How Can Someone Cope with an Abusive Relationship?

The first step to coping with the stress of an emotionally abusive relationship is to acknowledge that it is, in fact, abusive. This can be the most difficult part of healing.

“This is difficult for many people,” Russo said. “First, most people don’t believe they are in an emotionally abusive relationship even when they are. Because there is nothing tangible like physical abuse or something like gambling or adultery, most people believe they just have a poor marriage.”

When you think you may be in an abusive situation, the most important thing to do is find support and reduce your isolation where possible.

“Identify positive people and outlets in your life that improve your self-esteem, sense of self-worth, and value,” Sartor advised. “Focus on your overall health and wellness: taking care of your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs are all critical. This can take many different shapes and forms. If the emotional abuse is severe or other types of abusive behaviors are present, seek support from a specialist who can help support you, move you through a process of change, but knows how to address safety as well.”

Can Therapy Help People in Emotionally Abusive Relationships?

Therapy can be an important part of getting the support you need during and after an emotionally abusive relationship. “Therapy can help people who have been emotionally abused how to set appropriate boundaries, work on their self-esteem and learn healthy coping skills,” Talley explained.

Sometimes therapy gives someone the tools they need to identify the abuse and see its impacts. Russo talked about one client he helped through a difficult situation.

“With one client I worked with, for months, she journaled the interactions each day with her husband until she finally was able to recognize the patterns of behaviors that were occurring at home, the lack of respect she and her kids were consistently given by him, and this allowed her to set a plan that would be helpful to her,” Russo said.

Therapy is not a one-size-fits-all approach to the situation either. There are many types of providers and techniques that can help.

“Therapy can be a safe place where judgment does not occur,” Sartor said. “Psychoeducation, empowerment, mindfulness, and cognitive behavioral therapy are all great tools in treatment for someone in an emotionally abusive situation.”

Ultimately, it’s all about finding the right therapist for your unique needs. “Finding a therapist who understands the dynamics of emotional abuse, power, and control, and possible safety concerns is critical,” Sartor explained.

If you or someone you love is struggling with a difficult relationship, don’t be afraid to reach out to one of our compassionate experts. We offer online and in-person appointments to put your safety first.