The Signs of an Abusive Relationship

Are you in an abusive relationship?

There are many signs of an abusive relationship, and a fear of your partner is the most telling. If you feel like you have to walk on eggshells around them constantly watching what you say and do in order to avoid a blow-up—chances are your relationship is unhealthy and abusive.

Other signs include a partner who belittles you or tries to control you, and feelings of self-loathing, helplessness, and desperation.

To determine whether your relationship is abusive, answer the questions below. The more “yes” answers, the more likely it is that you’re in an abusive relationship.

Your inner thoughts and feelings

Do you:

  • feel afraid of your partner much of the time?
  • avoid certain topics out of fear of angering your partner?
  • feel that you can’t do anything right for your partner?
  • believe that you deserve to be hurt or mistreated?
  • wonder if you’re the one who is crazy?
  • feel emotionally numb or helpless?

Your partner’s belittling behavior

Does your partner:

  • humiliate or yell at you?
  • criticize you and put you down?
  • treat you so badly that you’re embarrassed for your friends or family to see?
  • ignore or put down your opinions or accomplishments?
  • blame you for their own abusive behavior?
  • see you as property or a sex object, rather than as a person?

Your partner’s violent behavior or threats

Does your partner:

  • have a bad and unpredictable temper?
  • hurt you, or threaten to hurt or kill you?
  • threaten to take your children away or harm them?
  • threaten to commit suicide if you leave?
  • force you to have sex?
  • destroy your belongings?

Your partner’s controlling behavior

Does your partner:

  • act excessively jealous and possessive?
  •  control where you go or what you do?
  • keep you from seeing your friends or family
  • limit your access to money, the phone, or the car?
  • constantly check up on you?

An emotionally abusive relationship is harmful to your confidence and self-esteem, and you may not even be aware of the abuse. Unlike physical abuse that causes physical pain and leaves visible markings, the signs of emotional abuse are not as apparent.

Research shows that emotional abuse is as damaging to a person as both physical and sexual abuse. The study that followed 846 at-risk children over a 14-year period shows that the most common abuse is the psychological threat to safety and security.

The reason emotional abuse is so harmful is because it affects how we think about ourselves. It comes in the form of actions, attitude and words that are meant to demean and humiliate. It is used as a form of control often leaving the victim feeling confused, powerless and afraid.

All abuse directly attacks our self-esteem, but emotional abuse does it directly by linking our self-worth to being loved. You might be surprised to learn that several studies show emotional abuse occurs at the hands of men and women at equal rates. It can happen in any relationship.

20 Warning Signs of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship


  • They constantly humiliate you in front of other people.
  • They criticize your actions as being less than perfect making you feel as if you can’t do anything right.
  • They tell mean, inappropriate and demeaning jokes.
  • They want to be in control of everything including your actions.
  • They constantly remind you of your shortcomings and failures.
  • They do not value your feelings and often will tell you that you are wrong and that you are too sensitive.
  • They give disapproving and dismissive looks that leave you fearful of being alone with them.
  • They withhold displays of affection and sex as a form of punishment.
  • They belittle your dreams and accomplishments.
  • They share your private moments and your secrets with others against your wishes.
  • They do not think you are capable of knowing what is best for you.
  • They blame you for their problems, their mood, and their overall unhappiness.
  • They can’t laugh at themselves, and they get extremely sensitive when others laugh at or make fun of them.
  • They make you feel wrong for wanting to see your friends or do anything fun without them.
  • They make you feel as if you aren’t good enough for them and that you should be thankful to be in the relationship.
  • They insist on always being right while you are always wrong.
  • They make subtle threats that are disguised as a suggestion to help you.
  • They control the finances so they can control your actions and how you spend money.
  • They constantly call or text to check up on you, who you are with and what you are doing when you are not together
  • They accuse you of things that are not true, so you are forced to prove your love.

This list isn’t comprehensive by any means. But when there is a feeling that we can’t be our authentic self and that we are constantly in fear of doing or saying the wrong thing; we need to evaluate if the relationship is emotionally abusive.

Emotionally abusive people are conditioned to make us feel that they are superior and that we don’t deserve them. They make us feel like we deserve to be treated the way we are and that we are lucky to be in a relationship with them. They are masters at manipulating the way we feel.

This is not our fault. We are not to blame. There is probably little that we can do to change the behavior or improve the relationship. Recognize it for what it is, abuse.

Left alone, the stress of an emotionally abusive relationship can manifest itself in the form of illness, depression and even long-term emotional trauma. That’s why it is important first to recognize the behavior and then seek help.

Recognizing the behavior can be difficult because we are so attached to the relationship, that we don’t want to think about letting it go. That’s why we need to be aware of some key signs that the relationship isn’t serving us.

Since it is so hard to see from the inside of a relationship, as a friend we should be looking for these signs in the relationships of those we love. It might take an outside eye to spot emotionally abusive behavior. Proceed with caution because it can be a challenging conversation to have. If you begin to notice the signs of an emotionally abusive relationship, whether it’s you or someone you care about, seek professional help. Just because the relationship isn’t violent yet, doesn’t mean it won’t escalate and you should get a clear understanding of the situation from someone trained to help everyone stay safe.

Economic or financial abuse: A subtle form of emotional abuse

Remember, an abuser’s goal is to control you, and they will frequently use money to do so.
Economic or financial abuse includes:

  • Rigidly controlling your finances
  • Withholding money or credit cards
  • Making you account for every penny you spend
  • Withholding basic necessities (food, clothes, medications, shelter)
  • Restricting you to an allowance
  • Preventing you from working or choosing your own career
  • Sabotaging your job (making you miss work, calling constantly)
  • Stealing from you or taking your money