Discerning Emotional Abuse in Relationships

As a heads up, this post will discuss emotional abuse tactics in detail. I encourage you to take care of yourself as you engage with it. If you get triggered while reading this post, this emergency emotional safety plan may be useful in managing that. (It’s a downloadable PDF.)

About nine months ago, partly in response to that notorious fuck off fund article that made the rounds, I tweeted a bunch about the importance of taking space for yourself, especially as a strategy for getting clear about potential abuse in intimate relationships. When I posted the storify on tumblr, I got an anonymous ask from someone who said that my storify helped them get a bit more clear about the emotional abuse in their recent relationship. This anon talked about how hard it is to discern emotional abuse. In my response, I discussed this as well, saying:

“In my experience, emotional abuse is particularly difficult to discern. For me, it has helped to look at patterns, instead of individual instances of behavior. It has also helped to think about how a behavior might be rooted in an attempt to control. But these are larger over-arching things. Part of what makes it hard to discern emotional abuse is that it is hard to get clear on what it might look like. Especially since we get so many messages from media that a lot of these behaviors are romantic and a sign that someone loves you. Especially when many of us come from families where emotional abuse is present.

So, what I want to do is to put together a post describing some common tactics of emotional abuse, describe what it can look like. My hope is that such a post might be useful. I will post it here on tumblr, and will tag it “emotional abuse”. I can’t promise to put that together right away, as I may not have the spoons. But it is my intention to do it.”

This post is for that anon, and for anyone who might be trying to discern whether emotional abuse is occurring in a relationship. As someone who values multiple sorts of relationships, I am attempting to write this in an inclusive way, so that it might be useful for discerning common emotional abuse tactics in friendships, in familial relationships, and in intimate relationships.

This post will not discuss what to do if you read this and recognize that emotional abuse may be present in your relationship. These things are too complex, risky and situational for me to make useful general recommendations. Instead, this post will focus on assisting you to discern emotional abuse tactics, because it is often difficult to get clear about them.

For context, my perspective on this comes from my own (rather vast) personal experience in abusive relationships where emotional abuse was one of the main types of abuse, my close relationships with survivors of emotional abuse, and my work in the field of intimate violence and trauma, which began over 20 years ago, and included a decade of full time employment.

For further context, you may wish to read my post on discernment of abusive dynamics and behavior. It is a good companion to this post.

One of the general things I want to recommend is that you look for patterns of behavior, when trying to figure out if an abusive dynamic is happening. So, if you recognize tactics here, think about whether they fit together into a pattern. I have found it to be particularly helpful to think about whether there is a pattern that is oriented toward setting up non-consensual control.

Emotional abuse can occur in relationships that do not include other forms of abuse, but it often goes hand in hand with things like physical abuse, stalking, sexual abuse, and threats. That said, it is not uncommon for folks to be in abusive relationships where the primary modes of abuse are psychological. I am going to talk about emotional abuse tactics in a rather wide way, because I think that will be more helpful. I am going to break it into categories, using language that will hopefully help you google things and get good resources. There are other tactics, and not all tactics need to be present for a relationship to be emotionally abusive.

Ten Common Emotional Abuse Tactics

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list. I did want it to have enough examples to be useful. My guess is that it is likely overwhelming to read all at once. I encourage you to go at your own pace.

  1. Coercive control: this is about establishing control over things that seem kind of small. (This excludes things you consented to as part of a D/s dynamic; it is about non-consensual control.)  It’s hard to spot at first, and often grows incrementally, kind of a like a web, where you don’t see right away til you are caught. Examples:
    • Setting up specific rules for how things are done around the home (there is only one right way and specific time to do the dishes or clean the toaster and you must do it perfectly)
    • Expecting you to account for how you spend your time, when you leave the home, who you talk to
    • Criticizing the way you do things in specific detail, and demanding that you change them or refusing to engage with you until you change them (how you dress, how you speak, how you prepare food)
    • Giving you presents that are oriented toward changing something about you that they have decided needs changing (how you dress, the music you like, the kind of sex or kink you are into, the way you take care of your body, your grammar)
    • Not allowing you to have time alone, or space away from them. This may take the form of granting you time and space that somehow usually gets disrupted or is a special privilege that you seem to keep losing.
    • You frequently avoid doing everyday things or change how you do them, so there won’t be a fight or you won’t upset them
  2. Gaslighting: This tactic is about intentionally working to get you to doubt your experience of reality, make you feel like you cannot trust your perceptions, memories, experience, or knowledge. In short, it is a tactic that is built on making you feel like you have new or more intense mental illness. It is a tactic that uses ableism targeting folks with psych disabilities as a weapon both against folks who have psych disabilities and folks who do not. (The term comes from the film Gaslight). Examples:
    • Lying, especially about small things (like when something happened, or whether they turned the lights off, whether they hear a noise)
    • Making contradictory demands, and acting like it’s your fault you don’t understand.
    • Doing unrequested favors for you and insisting that you asked for the favors or owe them favors in return.
    • Insisting that your memory of events or perception of reality is incorrect, that you are imagining things
    • Searching for inconsistencies in your stories and talking about how they can’t trust your memory, you could not possibly be correct about how that happened.
    • Insisting that you consented to kink or sexual activities you do not remember consenting to. Blurring or confusing the lines between when you are in D/s dynamics or not, or when you are in scene space or not.
    • Hinting or outright saying that they have doubts about your sanity, particularly as a response to you talking about the abuse. Similarly, suggesting that you need mental health support or acting worried about your mental health as a way to change the subject or blame you for something. (This can be particularly confusing to discern for folks with mental illness; what is genuine concern vs. gaslighting?)
    • Following the letter of polyamory agreements while violating the spirit of them, and insisting that this is not a problem.
    • Deliberately triggering your psych symptoms repeatedly. (Remember, we all get triggered inadvertently; this is about a pattern where someone knows the trigger, and uses it as a weapon.)
  3. Verbal Abuse: This is a tactic that is a bit easier to recognize, particularly as a pattern over time. This is about someone using words to hurt you. Examples:
    • Calling you names (e.g. racial or ethnic slurs, homophobic, misogynist, or transmisogynist slurs, ableist slurs, sexual or whorephobic slurs, calling you ugly or worthless)
    • Saying negative things about a trait you like about yourself
    • Contradicting or undermining positive things others say about you
    • Telling you no one else would want you
    • Constantly accusing you of infidelity. Belittling your sexuality, your kink desires, or your polyamory practices.
    • Insulting or belittling your values and beliefs
    • Using things they know about your past as a weapon
  4. Manipulation: This is one of the harder things to recognize. There are so many different kinds of manipulation tactics, and they are generally oriented towards control, particularly around getting you to do specific things, orienting you towards them and away from your own well being, and keeping you off balance so you can’t think clearly. Examples:
    • Hinting at or threatening suicide when called on abuse, or as a response to you leaving or talking about leaving the relationship
    • Denying that your basic physical and emotional needs exist or are important
    • Asking you high stakes questions, often in a leading way that has only one “right” answer (e.g. don’t you trust me? you want us to have an open relationship, don’t  you? do you even love me? can’t you do this one thing for me? will you marry me? you want to push your BDSM limits for me, right?) at inappropriate times (e.g. when you only have a couple minutes to decide, immediately after you ask them for something important you need, during a BDSM scene, right after an instance of abuse, in a chaotic public place where it would be hard to decide, immediately after sex, right before you leave for an important family event or a date with another partner)
    • After abusing you, expressing so much sorrow, guilt or self-hate, that you become the one who comforts them
    • Refusing to assist or threatening to leave when you get sick or are in crisis
    • Hinting at the probability of drinking or using again, unless you do what is required and be certain not to upset them
    • Raising the stakes when you talk about the abuse, or refuse to do something, or do something for yourself, so it becomes about whether they are going to end the relationship
    • Telling you that if you really loved them you would…(do X, or be X or want them to do X)
    • Ignoring you or grunting absentmindedly when you begin a conversation. Groaning, complaining or ridiculing you, when you cry, worry, or ask for emotional support
  5. Humiliation: This is a common tactic, and rarely talked about, because it can be so painful to share with others. This is about making you feel ashamed or degraded. (This excludes consensual humiliation within the context of BDSM; it refers to non-consensual humiliation.) Examples:
    • Forcing you to do things that are against deeply held religious or moral values
    • Revealing or threatening to reveal private information about you to others
    • Making you do, say or witness things that you find disgusting
    • Using the wrong pronoun, using misgendering words to describe you or your body, criticizing or joking about your gender expression, or doing other things to belittle your gender identity or misgender you
    • Saying or implying that they find you or your body disgusting
    • Talking you into doing something and then making you feel ashamed about doing it
    • Deliberately embarrassing you or belittling you in front of people who are important to you
    • Jabbing at your soft spots, even if it seems to be lighthearted teasing or joking (making fun of things you feel particularly vulnerable or ashamed about)
  6. Sabotage: This is about a pattern of behavior where your well-being, basic needs, important events, and obligations are disrupted or ruined, often in an indirect way. It can be difficult to spot, and often involves an emotional roller coaster. Examples:
    • Becoming angry or upset, or dampening your enthusiasm, just before a social event you’ve looked forward to
    • Interrupting your work, your creative process, your time with your family, or other things that are important to you, to get their own needs met
    • Keeping you up late, asking about real or imagined sexual or romantic incidents
    • Getting upset, wasted or suicidal while you are at an important event, so that you miss much of it or need to leave early
    • When you are preparing for an upcoming test, job interview, evaluation, or important event, you are often distracted and worried by a crisis in their life or work that seems more important
    • Having an emotional meltdown right before you are supposed to leave for a date with another partner
    • Forgetting to do the thing they offered to do to take stuff off your plate while you focused on something important to you
  7. Minimization, Denial, Blame, and Justification: This is about the tactics they use to make the abuse seem unimportant, not a problem, or all your fault. This is an incredibly common tactic, and it’s goal is to shift responsibility away from them for the abuse and make you question whether the abuse is happening. Examples:
    • Making light of the abuse. Minimizing the seriousness of abuse, saying “it wasn’t that bad”. Ignoring your concerns about the abuse. Belittling you for being upset about abuse, says you are “overreacting”.
    • Denying that abuse has occurred
    • Apologizing for the abuse in a way that doesn’t take responsibility for it, or turns it around on you
    • Blaming others for the abuse (their boss, their family, the kids, mutual friends, etc.)
    • Saying the abuse is your fault, that you deserve the abuse because…
    • Using jealousy, trauma history, gender, drugs, or oppression to justify or excuse abuse
    • Accusing you of “mutual abuse”, or saying you are the abuser, not them
  8. Using Privilege and Oppression: This is about them using your experiences of oppression as a weapon, exercising their privilege in the relationship, or using the realities of the oppression they are targeted by as a way to manipulate you. This is one with wide and varied tactics so I am going to list more of them. Examples:
    • Refusing to allow you to participate in cultural events or express your identity
    • Threatening to report drug use, sex work, polyamory, kink, criminal history to ACS or police
    • Treating you like you are inferior or a servant because they have more privilege
    • Shaming, infantilizing, hypersexualizing, or desexualizing you based on your identity
    • Taking away disability aids (crutches, wheelchair, hearing aid) or medication, denying access to medical care
    • Telling you that nobody would believe you because of your identity, and there are no services to help people like you, that nobody else would want you because of your identity
    • Threatening to out your HIV status, gender identity, sexual identity, kinkiness, polyamory, disability, immigration status, drug, crime, or sex work history to others, or threatening to use it to gain custody
    • Using oppression to justify abuse, as a way to get you to avoid others, or as a reason to not seek support, medical care, or call the police.
    • Belittling your culture, language, educational background, race, gender, sexual identity, religion. Using epithets.
    • Criticizing, joking about, or belittling your ability (or inability) to pass, offering unwanted advice about how to pass better
    • Questioning your status as a “real” member of your community, religion, or identity
    • Threatening to report to immigration, get you deported. Threatening to report you for parole violation, or to the police.
    • Denying that your illness or disability is real, belittling you for being disabled or ill
  9. Isolation: This is about keeping you alone and away from others. Both because that makes you more vulnerable and reduces your support, and also because it cuts you off from other sources of information. Without others to help you to reality check what you are experiencing and hearing from them, it can be more difficult to get clear about the abuse that’s going on. Examples:
    • Denying phone, mail, email, or internet access
    • Limiting, disrupting, or sabotaging your time with others
    • Insulting the people close to you, warning you about the ways other people will or have betrayed or hurt you
    • Talking about how they are the only one who understands you, who doesn’t judge you, the only one who would want you
    • Not allowing you to leave the home, sabotaging your access to transportation
    • Monopolizing your time. Refusing to spend time with you in social situations so you are forced to choose between them and spending time with others. Wanting to spend every moment together with just you.
    • Talking a lot about how terrible or cliquish or judgmental or oppressive or unwelcoming the community is, discouraging you from seeking out others who share your identities and beliefs
    • Gossiping about you, spreading rumors. Insulting you to folks who are close to you. Embarrassing you in front of your friends and family.
  10. Occasional Indulgence: Emotionally abusive relationships rarely feel bad all the time. Part of how this works is that abuse is intertwined with the things that are often part of relationships that feel good: love, affection, thoughtfulness, care, great sex, and sweetness. That’s one of the tactics that keeps you confused, that creates doubt about the abuse, that makes it easier to let the abuse go. Examples:
    • Giving you presents, right at a time when you are doubting the relationship or thinking about leaving
    • Being sweet to you sometimes, in unpredictable ways, so it’s hard to know whether you will be met with compassion and sweetness or an abusive response
    • Making big romantic gestures at a time when the relationship feels particularly shaky, or right after an abusive episode
    • Ignoring your requests for emotional support for a long time and then offering it at a random time, like it’s a special treat
    • Doing something you particularly love, as a surprise after a fight
    • Reminding you of that one time when they did something you needed or wanted or were particularly good to you, as a kind of leverage to make you feel small, or ungrateful, or doubt your sense of what’s happening in the relationship

I encourage you to take care of yourself after reading this, and to be gentle with yourself as you think about whether it resonated with you. If you got triggered while reading this post, this emergency emotional safety plan may be useful in managing that. (It’s a downloadable PDF.)

8 thoughts on “Discerning Emotional Abuse in Relationships

  1. *expression of (argle, want better word than admiration? But very much so) re the work and the importance of both these kinds of lists and the warnings/support bookends you have*

    (Hope it’s not out of place for me here? Talking in second person because not sure how else to, and apologies if I’m saying things wrong or badly) –

    since this post repeatedly mentions consensual d/s (which is important!) I wanted to say – this is (importantly) the ‘you want and and feel good and right with it, etc’ definition of consent. If you find yourself feeling/thinking things like ‘this doesn’t feel like really something I want to be doing, but I said yes to it/haven’t objected/it’s similar to things I feel I want so that means I everything is ok/I can’t object’ – that is not true and not a good situation*

    In a positive relationship, that kind of thing can be brought up, and talked about, and recognized as mattering, and you can talk about it and stop the thing, or implement changes (sometimes in a trial and error approach) so that you *can* feel good and right in your dynamic. Because that matters.

    *(Which to be clear doesn’t *have* to mean abuse etc – sometimes a not good situation does in fact arise despite no one doing or intending anything bad, and can in fact be resolved by relationship conversations, making sure everyone knows about the problem, etc. But it’s still a negative situation that, in a desirable situation, can be addressed, the way ‘I keep tripping over this table’ is something that in a desirable situation can be addressed, even if my partner didn’t put the table there to trip me).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for this. These things can be very difficult to parse out, and this kind of discussion of the complexities of consent is so important. I know that when I was in an abusive D/s relationship, this was part of what felt so confusing and difficult to discern.


      • They really can. And our culture often doesn’t give us good words or tools, and even more so for people already on the margins. (Who often end up with an extra amount of internalized victim blaming, for that…) (I’m glad I was able to express what I was trying to say well enough!)


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