Are You In An Abusive Relationship? Here’s How to Tell

Don't ignore these abusive relationship signs.

How do you know if your relationship is unhealthy or just complicated? 

Every relationship is complicated — even healthy ones. Think about it: bringing together two people with different backgrounds, personality traits, and goals (just to name a few dynamics) to form a healthy, mutually enriching connection is no easy feat. So how can you tell if the conflict in your relationship is unhealthy?

There’s an overwhelming amount of information about what constitutes a healthy versus unhealthy relationship, especially on social media where words like “toxic” and “gaslighting” are tossed around at an alarmingly frequent rate. As a mental health therapist, I’ve noticed that there is some confusion out there about what emotional and verbal abuse looks like in a relationship. 

For example, a client will tell me that their significant other was gaslighting them — but what they are describing to me sounds more like poor communication skills and defensiveness, rather than gaslighting behavior. This kind of conflict can be incredibly distressing in a relationship, but it’s important to distinguish it from emotional and verbal abuse. 

So let’s set the record straight — because knowing the signs of verbal and emotional abuse can be lifesaving, literally. And these signs can apply to any relationship, whether romantic, family, friend, or work-related. Here’s what you need to know about the signs of an emotionally abusive relationship:

Signs of abuse

The National Domestic Violence Hotline describes the most common signs of emotional and verbal abuse as behaviors that are “meant to control, isolate, or frighten” a person:

  • threats (i.e., harm to themselves, you, or others)
  • insults
  • constant monitoring
  • excessive jealousy
  • manipulation
  • intimidation
  • dismissiveness
  • demeaning or critical comments
  • yelling
  • name-calling
  • controlling behaviors (i.e., controlling what you wear, who you see, where you go)
  • isolating
  • punishes
  • “love bombing” (i.e., showering you with gifts and compliments to “make up” for their behavior)

Power displaces respect

Power is a key dynamic in relationships where emotional or verbal abuse is present. The person who is engaging in abusive behavior in the relationship is trying to shift the power differential in the relationship from one of mutual respect and equality to one where they are “in control” of what happens. 

The abuser doesn’t respect the other person in the relationship and views them as someone to control in order to achieve their own goals, rather than someone who is an equal partner deserving of love and respect. The signs of emotional and verbal abuse mentioned above are all ways in which someone can try to exert their power over the other person in the relationship. 

Gaslighting is a real thing

Gaslighting is definitely a buzzword these days, so it’s important to understand its role in emotional and verbal abuse. The term originally stemmed from a 1938 play called Gas Light, and the title has come a way to describe behavior in which one person denies the other person’s reality to such a degree that they start to doubt their own experience. 

For example, in an abusive relationship, gaslighting might look like one partner saying, “I never said that. You obviously weren’t paying attention. If you were, you’d know that I would never say something like that. Plus, you’re making a big deal out of nothing. I didn’t mean anything by it, anyway.” 

When someone hears this from their partner, friend, or family member over and over again, they start to question their own memory, and wonder whether or not they can trust their own experience. While it’s common to be forgetful or to zone out during a conversation, gaslighting behavior is a form of manipulation and control, not just a communication error.

No one deserves abuse

Healthy relationships are built on respect and love. In a relationship where verbal and emotional abuse is present, the person on the receiving end of these behaviors starts to question whether they even deserve respect in a relationship. It gets harder and harder to hold onto the truth that you are worthy of love if you keep hearing how worthless you are, how no one else would want to be with you, how you would be nothing without your current partner. 

This loss of self-worth can make it challenging to end the relationship. Cutting off all the ways the relationship touches your life can be intimidating, and it can be easy to make excuses for your partner’s behavior. 

If you are in an abusive relationship or if you have a friend who is, you need to know that no one deserves to be treated in an abusive way. Full stop. There is nothing about who you are, or what you have done or not done, that means you deserve to be treated in this way. You deserve to be happy, healthy, loved, and respected. 

Know how to get help

If you need help leaving an abusive relationship, there are many resources available to you. Here are just a few:

  • If you are in imminent danger: Call 911 (in the U.S.)
  • SafeHorizon: Live chat is available on the website, or call 1-800-621-HOPE (4673).
  • WINGS: call 847-221-5680.

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