25 Signs of Emotional Abuse

Sometimes, emotional abuse can be so subtle that we don’t even realise we’re being emotionally and mentally abused by someone’s words or actions. Even though there are no visible bruises, the damage should never be underestimated.


How can it be abuse if it is so subtle? This kind of conduct systematically undermines your dignity and leaves you utterly vulnerable and defenceless. Being bullied by a person close to you whom you trust and love dearly, is probably one of the most difficult things to make sense of and can erode one’s self-esteem to a life-threatening extent. Abuse does not only happen between couples – parents abuse children, children abuse their parents and it is common among scholars, siblings, friends and colleagues. Here is a list of common abuse tactics that you need to take very seriously, if they are occurring on a regular basis:

1. Blame

Any problems in your day to day living somehow always end up being your fault – even things you have no control over.


  1. When you run out of milk, it is because you don’t do proper grocery shopping.
  2. If the children are late for school, it’s because you didn’t get them out of bed early enough.
  3. When your partner neglects their duty, it wouldn’t have happened if you reminded them.

2. Buying Make-Up Gifts

Some people will avoid addressing an issue or resolving a conflict, by buying a gift to make up for it. This does not allow you to sort out stuff, but only brushes the problem under the rug, from where it will emerge time and again.


  1. A classic example is arriving with a bunch of flowers or some other gift, when they have a guilty conscience or plan to tell you something that they know will upset you.
  2. When you have an unresolved argument, your abuser will offer you a gift and expect all to be forgiven and forgotten.
  3. Instead of apologising for hurtful behaviour, abusers will expect a gift to make up for it and even be insulted if it is not accepted.

3. Control of Resources

Any attempt to control your access to joint resources such as finances, transportation, means of communication etc., should be seen as abusive because it robs you of your independence and freedom.


  1. If you are in a relationship where you share a joint bank account and you don’t have direct access to that money or money of your own, it is not fair.
  2. Anyone who insists on checking your phone and itemised bills, is possessive and aims to have control over your interaction with other people.
  3. Those who always insist on driving (even if it’s your car) because they say they’re a better driver than you, are being disrespectful.

Read Economic Abuse

4. Criticism

Being constantly criticised, leads you to believe you can’t do anything right and that everything is your fault. It wears you down to the extent of believing you do not deserve any better.


  1. Whenever someone helps you with something, but they tell you how incompetent you are for not being able to do it yourself, you are being bullied.
  2. If you do something or take time for yourself, you are accused of being selfish.
  3. When you are driving, you are being bombarded by instructions and criticism, which is insulting and only makes you nervous.

Check out the Family Contribution Calendar to see how much care work you do for your family.

5. Demands

In emotionally abusive relationships, one partner makes demands which the other partner feels obliged to meet.


  1. The abusive partner will expect to be served when hungry or thirsty.
  2. The abused partner will perform most of the household chores due to a sense of obligation.
  3. The one who always decides whether and when you are intimate, is abusing the other.

6. Disloyalty

An unfaithful partner does not respect the commitment you made to each other. Multiple affairs are a clear sign that promises made are blatantly disregarded.


  1. You are blamed for the affair because you are so horrible your partner is driven into the arms of someone else.
  2. Your partner claims to be so lonely in your relationship that they turn to others for love and affection.
  3. The cheater accuses you of withholding sex or denying intimacy, giving them an excuse to satisfy their needs elsewhere.

7. Distrust & Jealousy

Does your partner get overly jealous whenever you socialise, check your text messages or read your e-mails? Are you constantly being accused of cheating? Then you are dealing with abusive behaviour and an attempt to control you.


  1. “You left me by myself all evening and chatted to so and so for hours. Is there something going on between the two of you?”
  2. “We shouldn’t have any secrets between us, so I have every right to read your messages, not so?”
  3. “Why don’t you want me to see who called? Do you have something to hide?”

8. Excessive Rules

Rules that dictate how you should live your life, do certain things or run the household, are another common way bullies attempt to overpower and control you.


  1. The house has to be perfectly tidy and quiet before your partner gets home at the end of the day.
  2. You are only allowed to go to certain places if accompanied by your partner.
  3. There are normal activities like reading, listening to certain music or eating a treat, which you have to do secretly or when you are alone, because this person does not like you doing it.

9. Fear

If you live in constant fear of upsetting this person’s mood, because they are so unpredictable that you never know how they’re going to react, their reign of terror is a clear sign of abuse.


  1. A healthy relationship is based on mutual love and respect. If you are in any way afraid of someone, or afraid of what they might do in a particular situation, you are being abused already.
  2. If you and everybody else in your household are walking on eggs all the time, for fear of upsetting someone about the smallest things, it is an abusive situation.
  3. When you’d rather not do something that is important to you, or refrain from doing what seems like the right thing to do because you are afraid of someone’s reaction, you are being bullied.

10. Gaslighting

This is a very dangerous form of manipulation, which eventually makes you doubt your own sanity. Has your partner ever said something or done something and at a later stage tried to convince you that they didn’t do it and you remembered it wrong? If you allow this to happen regularly, you will start questioning your own ability to recall events and eventually doubt whether you can be trusted to remember anything.


  1. “I did tell you about it, you just don’t remember it.”
  2. “I never did that, you are imagining things.”
  3. “You said it was fine when I checked with you. Don’t try and deny it now.”

11. Guilt

Abusers will pretend to feel guilty about something they’ve done, to manipulate you into minimising the transgression and focusing more on feeling sorry for them, so that you will forgive them and even console them.


  1. “I am so sorry I totally ruined your party. I didn’t mean to be such an idiot.”
  2. “I will never forgive myself if you don’t get that promotion because of me.”
  3. “Will you ever be able to find it in your heart to forgive me?”

12. Holding Grudges

Abusive people often like being the victim. When they feel wronged by you, they regard you as “bad” and themselves as “good”. This way, they can justify their disproportionate anger towards you as well deserved punishment and therefore hang on to it for a very long time.


  1. When your partner feels you have been emotionally withdrawn, they might withhold affection or avoid intimacy as punishment.
  2. If your spouse feels left out because you had an enjoyable outing without them, they might refuse to go anywhere with you for a period of time.
  3. An abusive partner would feel justified to keep secrets from you indefinitely, if you neglected to tell them something which they regarded as important.

Read How to Deal with Toxic Family Members

13. Isolation

One of the oldest tricks in the book, is forbidding you to see your friends, convincing you to sever ties with your family or getting you to move far away, thereby systematically isolating you from the rest of the world and making you dependent on them for social interaction.


  1. There is “something about your friends” and your partner does not trust them, so you feel obliged not to see them anymore.
  2. A family member is accused of wrongdoing and no longer welcome in your home.
  3. Your spouse has an argument with someone close to you, refuses to resolve it and leaves you in an awkward position not being able to maintain contact.

14. Keeping Score

A person who keeps score of wrongdoings between partners for the purpose of constantly reminding you of it and also for justifying their current righteousness, is abusive. It becomes a competition to determine who has messed up the most and owes the other one more.


  1. I always have to wait for you when you’re late, so don’t complain about me being late.
  2. You were not available when I needed you, so don’t expect me to support you now.
  3. You were unfaithful to me, so I have every right to cheat on you now.

15. Lies

Abusive & manipulative personalities will lie about simple, everyday things for no reason. They will also lie about the big important stuff, without blinking. These lies are used to maintain control of the information that you get, thereby keeping you in the dark when and where they want to. When confronted about their lies, the usual response is incredible anger.


  1. White lies are told about their whereabouts and plans.
  2. A very impressive picture might be painted of themselves, which is not entirely true.
  3. Details of a past life might be omitted completely.

Read Signs that Your Spouse is Hiding Assets

16. Manipulation

A manipulator is a master at getting you to do things you wouldn’t normally do. They manage to convince you to act out of character, go against your beliefs or compromise your boundaries, because that would be better for you.


  1. They will invite people to your home, whom you don’t like or trust and force you to socialise with them.
  2. They will convince you to forgive an indiscretion, regardless of the hurt it caused you.
  3. They might lead you to believe that ending a meaningful friendship is the right thing to do for the sake of your relationship.

17. Name Calling / Labelling

Although this is one of the most obvious signs of abuse, name calling is often excused with “they didn’t really mean it”. Beware when this becomes a habit and when an abuser goes as far as to “label” you with some mental disorder, there should be red flags.


  1. Calling you derogatory names in a moment of anger is not acceptable, even if they apologise for it afterwards.
  2. Sometimes an abusive person will give you a nasty nickname and pretend that it is only a joke when you dislike it and accuse you of being too sensitive.
  3. Beware when someone attempts to pin a dysfunction or personality disorder on you, such as: “you’re obsessed” or “you’re a psychopath” or “you need help”. They are in no position do so.

18. Neglect

Abusers love to neglect people by giving them the silent treatment, withholding affection or disappearing for days on end. In severe cases, they might even deny you access to basic supplies such as electricity, water or food.


  1. Ignoring or not responding to you for whatever reason, is not acceptable in a healthy relationship, especially if it persists for a prolonged period of time.
  2. Rejecting your affection or denying you affection, is a sure sign of calculated manipulation with the purpose of hurting your feelings or making you feel guilty.
  3. In severe cases of abuse, a victim might be punished by having to go without a meal or having other basic needs not met.

19. No Reciprocation

In a healthy relationship, both partners would spend time and energy to make each other happy. However, if you are spending the majority of your time trying to keep your partner happy and they hardly ever put in any effort, you are being bullied.


  1. You are always the one to create an opportunity for the two of you to do something romantic together.
  2. Every birthday or anniversary, you go to a lot of trouble to make a special occasion but your spouse does not even remember the dates.
  3. Little spoils like making coffee, showing affection and offering to help with something are always initiated by you while your partner hardly ever reciprocates.

20. Passive Aggression

Instead of communicating openly, your partner drops hints or makes insinuations to taunt you until you get upset or angry. When you respond in this frame of mind, they feel justified to complain and attack you with full force.


  1. Rather than tell you what they’re upset about, they’ll give you the silent treatment until you confront them, which they use to make it seem like you’re the one who has a problem.
  2. Instead of asking for help directly, they’ll do the task in a loud and exaggerated manner, to draw your attention and when you offer help, they’ll blow up about you never helping them with anything.
  3. When you’ve had an unresolved conflict, they’ll suppress their anger but treat you abruptly and find petty ways to irritate you until they elicit a reaction out of you, which they’ll use against you.

Read Silent Treatment is Emotional Abuse

21. Permission

Some abusive people expect you to ask their permission before doing certain things that adults would normally do independently, in order to control you.


  1. You need their permission whenever you want to leave the house on your own.
  2. You need your partner’s approval before buying anything.
  3. Before meeting with certain friends or family, your partner has to grant you permission.

22. Rage & Remorse

Some bullies display predictable patterns of outrage, followed by deep remorse and promises that it will never happen again. These cycles repeat and escalate every time.


  1. If a person has a habit of temper tantrums and profuse apologies thereafter, only to be repeated about the same issues, it is abuse.
  2. A regular cycle of arguments, which always end in tears and self-pity, is manipulation and a sign of bullying.
  3. If you are afraid to upset someone, for fear of incurring their wrath, you are in an abusive situation.

23. Responsibility for Emotions

If someone is feeling down and expects you to cheer them up, or blames you for their emotional state, you are being bullied. If they resent the fact that you are in a better state of mind and demand that your life revolve around their emotional well-being, the situation is abusive.


  1. “I am feeling sad and you know you’re the only one who can cheer me up.”
  2. “See how you have upset me now.”
  3. “You make me feel this way or that way.”

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24. Threats

Comments and actions that threaten your well-being and the relationship whenever you have a disagreement, is emotional blackmail and undermines the sense of security we all deserve within a healthy union.


  1. A person who turns their back on you and walks out of a conversation or disagreement, is abandoning the relationship, leaving you feeling hopeless.
  2. When someone is lashing out at you in anger and threatens to hit you, it should be regarded in a very serious light, because it might become a reality one day.
  3. Threatening to harm or even kill themselves, is a very mean way of keeping you tied to them through an unhealthy sense of obligation.

25. Ultimatums

When someone tries to force you into doing something or face negative consequences if you don’t, you are being controlled with an ultimatum.


  1. “If you don’t do this right now, I’ll never forgive you”.
  2. “You have to help me, otherwise I’ll be ruined for life.”
  3. “Give me one more chance, unless you want me to go away and never see me again.”

No-one should tolerate this kind of treatment! Behavioural patterns like these are abusive, manipulative and not conducive to healthy, happy relationships. It is very difficult to free yourself from an abusive relationship, but it can be done. Seek professional help if you feel that you are being abused. You need to learn how to identify abusive conduct, take a strong stand against it and acquire the necessary skills to protect yourself from future abuse.


Written by Sinta Ebersohn (Creator of fairdivorce.co.za – Stellenbosch RSA)