How to Tell if You're in an Abusive Relationship

Not all abuse is physical, and it can often be hard for victims of emotional and psychological abuse to identify it as what it is especially in the early stages. Here are some things to look out for that can be signs that you may be in a toxic or abusive relationship. Remember that all people have toxic moments, and one or two of these things happening over a multi-year relationship and being worked through in a healthy and understanding way (depending on which of the following points they are) can be very normal. However if your relationship matches many of the following points and/or when you try to work through and resolve the issues it is met with conflict, that could be a large red flag that you are in an abusive relationship.

We will break down the types of emotional abuse into categories. This list is majorly inspired by a article, but is condensed and simplified.

Humiliation and Over-the-top Criticism

  • Name-calling and insults
  • Yelling and generally violent behavior. This may include punching walls, breaking things, etc. While emotionally abusive relationships may not be physically violent it’s important to recognize they are violent in other ways.
  • Patronizing/Dismissiveness
  • Public Embarrassment
  • Excusing their hurtful behavior as a joke and blaming you for taking it too seriously/making you feel small.
  • Putting down your interests/accomplishments.

Control and Shame

  • Making threats. These threats might be direct or vague.
  • They always need to know where you are and need you to respond to their calls/texts immediately. They might even show up to your house/work/school/etc to make sure you’re “where you’re supposed to be”. 
  • Require they have your passwords to your devices.
  • They Gaslight you. They may deny you ever had certain conversations or that things happened the way that they did, leaving you feeling crazy and doubting your own memories.
  • They make all the decisions. They might even make huge decisions on your behalf without consulting you (quit your job for you, enroll you in school, decide you’re moving, etc.) They might control what you wear, what you eat, etc.
  • They might require control of your finances and require that you request money when you need it from them. 
  • They keep a list of all the mistakes you’ve made and when you make a new mistake they monologue at you a reminder of all your previous mistakes to pile-on and make your current mistake feel much bigger. 
  • They give orders and demands.
  • They stonewall you and shut down, refusing to communicate.

Accusing and Denial

  • They are constantly accusing you of flirting or cheating even if it’s clear that’s not the case. They make guilt-tripping requests or demands for your time to ‘prove your love’. 
  • They deny any concerns you bring up and get defensive about them instead of working on them together. Defensiveness can be normal but instead of only getting defensive, they turn it around on you and they blame you, perhaps saying you’re irrational or difficult or have ‘impossible standards’. 
  • They blame you for their own problems.
  • They break your things and then claim it was an accident.

Emotional Neglect and Isolation

  • Keeping you from socializing.
  • Invalidating you – saying your wants, needs, and boundaries don’t matter to them.
  • Trying to come between you and other loved ones/make you dislike or distrust your loved ones.
  • They use the silent treatment.
  • They tell others that you’re unstable/they sabotage you with others.
  • They dispute your feelings. (i.e. “You shouldn’t be sad about that”)

How to Get Out of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

Don’t Try to Fix Them

It’s not your job to fix your abuser and if anyone is going to be able to do it, it’s not going to be their victim. That’s simply not how the power dynamics work, and while you may want to help, it’s unrealistic and you’re just going to get hurt in the process and going to be feeding their toxic behavior and belief that what they’re doing is how it’s supposed to be. They need a professional to help them change, not you.  

Avoid Engaging with Them

Don’t reply to their texts or calls, try not to be alone so they can’t get you alone, and limit any conversations with them to only essential topics.

Set Personal Boundaries (And Stick to Them!)

Express limits and stick to them. Remember boundaries come with your personal consequences – stick to those. They’re not threats, they’re you taking personal responsibility for your boundaries. For example, “If you yell at me, I’ll go home immediately.” 

Build a Support Network

Reach out to loved ones – it can be scary but tell them what’s going on so long as that’s safe to do. Find a therapist and get that support. Also search for resources in your area based on your specific situation.

Exit the Relationship

Be clear that the relationship is completely over and cut all ties if that is possible. Block them on all social media and their phone number, and ignore any attempts they make to reach out.

Give Yourself Time to Heal

Healing doesn’t happen overnight. Take time to focus on yourself and your needs. Talk to a therapist, spend time with friends, and allow yourself time to heal.

Last updated on October 27, 2023
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