A version of this article was originally written and published by One Love.
People in abusive relationships often don’t understand that they are being abused—especially if there’s no physical violence involved. But emotional abuse has major consequences, and it’s often hard to recognize. This form of abuse deteriorates a person’s self-esteem, independence, and dignity.
Knowing how to recognize emotionally abusive behavior is the first step to empowering yourself (and others). We want you to understand that these behaviors are not healthy, so we’ve put together some stages and signs of an emotionally abusive relationship.
1. A “perfect” start
At first, many abusive relationships feel incredibly romantic—seemingly perfect. Your new partner will go out of their way to show their attention, devotion, and affection for you. They’re charming, and you can’t help but be lured to them. But the romantic gestures and gifts are ploys to captivate you and distract from what is to come.
2. Picking up speed
The relationship often moves very quickly. It can feel overwhelming, but also romantic and flattering. You’re constantly texting and talking to one another. They might surprise you with a visit when you’re not expecting it. The relationship quickly becomes intense, but you excuse it because it feels like love.
3. No space allowed
At first, it’s sweet how protective they are of you—how they get a little jealous of the idea of you with anyone else. But then the protectiveness turns into possessiveness. They start to get paranoid. Any time that they text or call you, they expect you to answer right away. They’re always questioning your whereabouts, who you were with, and what you did. They may accuse you of cheating. The intensity of the relationship starts to feel more like smothering.
They make excuses to justify their mistrust or dislike of a classmate, friend, or family member. They claim to be worried about you and your safety. They rationalize their possessiveness based on their past relationships, a difficult upbringing, or irreconcilable differences with people close to you.
In an effort to prove your devotion to them, you work harder to appease their fears: spending less time out with friends, cutting off communication with anyone who could be seen as romantically interested, and sacrificing family gatherings to avoid conflict. You become increasingly isolated from your support systems. As a result, you become more and more dependent on your partner.
4. Unpredictable affection
If you don’t comply or agree with your partner, they withdraw their affection or become irritated and hostile. Their love is based on your willingness to conform to what they want. A lack of submission will result in them either becoming cold and detached, or aggressive and angry. They use affection as a tactic to exploit and control you. You find yourself feeling like you need to be overly careful when dealing with them to avoid offending, upsetting, or enraging them.
5. Shifting the blame
Arguments with your partner are turned around and made to seem as though it’s your fault. Somehow, other people are always to blame for your partner’s problems, and they never accept responsibility for issues in their life. They use you and those around them as an outlet to vent their anger.
Eventually, you may start to believe them. Maybe if you just tried harder not to upset them, things would be better—and you could get back to what the relationship was when it first started. You take their emotional outbursts as proof of how intensely they care about you. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t get so angry… right?
Criticism is common in your relationship. Your partner might ridicule your spending habits, lifestyle choices, what you eat or drink, or your appearance. When you try to confront them about it, you are met with gaslighting—they question your account of the incident, make you second-guess yourself, or tell you that you’re overreacting or being “crazy.”
7. Putting on an act
Your partner acts charming and personable in public, but behind closed doors they behave very differently. You feel as though no one would believe the mistreatment that you endure, because of the outward persona that your partner depicts.
8. The guilt trip
To keep you in the relationship, they make threats to blackmail you, harm or kill themselves, or hurt someone you love. They use whatever manipulation tactics they can to prevent you from leaving them. You feel like you don’t deserve better or will never find anyone who cares for you as much as they do. The idea of finding new love doesn’t seem possible. Being single seems daunting and lonely.
You might also think: shouldn’t you stick it out? While you fight with each other, you know it’s normal to disagree sometimes. You stay with them because you believe that you can save them or get them to change their ways. You remember the better days and cling to the idea that things will turn around.
If you recognize any of these behaviors in your partner (or in your friends’ relationships), you should know that it is not normal. These behaviors are commonly associated with an emotionally abusive relationship. Even if you aren’t being physically harmed (yet), the abuse takes a toll on your mental health. (Taking a free and confidential mental health test can help you understand how your relationship is affecting your mental health.)
Abusive relationships rarely start with physical violence. Instead, they start with an unhealthy and emotionally volatile relationship. In time, emotional abuse can escalate in severity, turning from verbal attacks and mental manipulation to physical violence—possibly even death.
Recognizing that these behaviors are unhealthy could help you or someone you know get out of a dangerous relationship. If you or someone you know may be in an abusive situation, One Love’s resources can help.