4 Signs of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship — and How to Get Out

Editor's Note: There are varying experiences of abuse, and the following information provided by one psychologist pertains to emotional and psychological abuse.

Abusive relationships can look different, but if you clicked on this article, maybe you've asked yourself, "Am I in an emotionally abusive relationship?" For me, there was no question I was being verbally and psychologically abused. I personally went so far as to seek therapy with my ex, hoping for a change. The question was: why did I stay?

Sarah Schewitz, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and the founder of the therapy practice Couples Learn, sheds some light on this issue for me in one eye-opening remark: "The thing I see over and over again from women leaving these types of relationships is their lack of insight about how important it is to do their own healing work. Yes, they were a victim, and yes, their partner was in the wrong for treating them the way that they did. But if they only focus on the victim mentality and pathologizing their partner, they don't look at why they were attracted to this insecure love in the first place. They are then at risk of repeating the same patterns over and over again and feeling even more broken and hopeless than before."

Dr. Schewitz is referencing an idea that many of us resist: we play an active part in our own abuse. In reading this far, you've already shown up for yourself and acknowledged that fact. Now, let's take it one step further. Ahead, you will learn some red flags of emotionally abusive relationships, according to Dr. Schewitz, and figure out how to process the abuse and move on so that you can find the type of love you deserve.

Emotionally Abusive Relationship Definition

Emotional abuse in the context of a romantic relationship can include belittling your partner, name-calling, saying things to manipulate your partner into feeling insecure, calling them crazy, cheating, and/or lying. While all of this treatment sounds destructive (and like the very opposite of love), both parties tend to make excuses, focus on the highs of the relationship, and live in denial, which is how the abuse cycle continues. These actions don't necessarily have to all be present for your relationship to be considered abusive. And, as Dr. Schewitz points out, "abusive behavior is often the result of an inability to regulate one's nervous system, unhealed trauma from the past, and a lack of education about how to maintain a healthy relationship." You can seek professional guidance about a potentially abusive relationship through trauma-informed therapy and couples therapy, so long as both parties are willing to do the work and self-reflect honestly.

Emotionally Abusive Relationship Warning Signs

If any of the following signs resonate with you, you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship.

  • Love bombing: This is how an emotionally abusive relationship often starts. It is the attempt to establish a close bond and trust through a promise of commitment and connection. On a scientific level, it floods your body with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good but can actually lead to somewhat of an addiction to your partner.
  • Inconsistency: Here, we are looking at the difference between the things someone says and does. Dr. Schewitz points to empty phrases like, "I love you, I would never hurt you," when the person's actions suggest otherwise. They may also promise you something, fail to follow through, and then get defensive, angry, or insinuate that you're crazy when you bring up your concerns. Alternatively, they may shut down and refuse to talk about the issue altogether, thereby invalidating your feelings.
  • Belittling: If your partner subtly or blatantly insinuates you are not good enough, smart enough, or pretty enough, they are exerting control. My ex often told people he didn't like to give me compliments because it would give me a big head. Dr. Schewitz explains why this is a common manipulation tactic: "Abusers often tell women they are worthless, unloveable, unattractive, etc. as a way to control them and make them scared that no one else will want them if they leave." He also constantly put down my family and made fun of my dad. I vividly remember him telling me, "Not one person in your family has a smart bone in their body." Looking back, it seems like he was trying to deter me from trusting the people who would have been able to convince me to leave.
  • Denial: In this case, you are probably the one in denial. Dr. Schewitz recommends asking yourself the following questions and trying to answer them honestly: Do the feelings in my current relationship remind me of feelings from my past relationships (both with romantic partners and parents)? If so, am I willing to talk to a professional about how my past attachment trauma might be keeping me in an unhealthy dynamic? Am I avoiding telling friends and family about how bad our fights get because I am embarrassed or afraid it will change the way they look at my partner? Am I afraid friends and family will tell me to leave or judge me for staying if they know the truth about our relationship/my partner's behavior? Do my friends and family have concerns about my partner? Have I asked them to share honestly about this? If not, am I afraid of what I might hear? How do I feel around my partner most of the time? Sad, scared, anxious, and angry, or safe and secure?

The Cycle of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

As mentioned previously, an emotionally abusive relationship often starts with love bombing, then gradually feels less romantic as you begin to feel devalued. You may feel insecure and notice a push-and-pull pattern, where you're searching for the gratification that comes from the smallest nudge of emotional reinforcement from your partner. Even if it doesn't happen often, when it does, Dr. Schewitz points out that it literally gives your brain that hit of dopamine that is connected with addiction. During the moments you are considering leaving, fear may show up to tell you no one else will want you and that it would be easier to continue the life you have already started with this person.

How to Leave an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

When you're finally ready to leave the relationship (for me, it happened when I was made aware of lying and cheating), you should cut all ties as soon as possible. Unfollow and block your ex. Depending on how the breakup went, your abuser may use family members to get in touch with you, so consider blocking their family's phone numbers and accounts on social media as well. As Dr. Schewitz notes, "Engaging with them in any way (including looking at what they are doing on social media) reactivates the trauma bond and makes it harder to heal." Of course, if the possibility of leaving the relationship feels life-threatening or beyond your capability, and/or if physical abuse is involved, you should seek resources at the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

How to Heal From an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

At least in my experience, leaving the relationship was so much easier than healing, as healing must come with the realization that you have inner work to do. It's important to note that being abused is traumatic. Trauma can cause low self-esteem, trouble sleeping, anxiety, difficulties with trust and paranoia, depression, physical health issues (like chronic pain), autoimmune disorders, and more. When you finally feel safe after dealing with stress for so long, your body will need to regulate itself and recover. You may crave lots of sleep and even get sick. During this time, you should treat yourself with love, whether that's through yoga and meditation, eating healthy foods, or setting your phone background to a picture of yourself as a small child as a reminder to be gentle and ignore any self-criticism.

When you are ready, Dr. Schewitz says you should find a trauma-informed therapist (she recommends attachment-focused EMDR; I benefitted from somatic experiencing therapy). If you had a challenging upbringing, such as living with an abusive parent or a guardian with mental illness or addiction, your therapeutic work is critical in breaking the pattern of attraction to emotionally unavailable or abusive loved ones. Just because that feels familiar doesn't mean it's what you deserve.

Dr. Schewitz recommends waiting at least six months before you begin dating. "This only distracts you from the feelings you need to process and prevents you from the insights you need to make a change," she says. It is instead most important to devote your feelings and energy toward your personal progress. As Dr. Schewitz puts it: "What matters the most is healing the wounds from your past that set you up to miss the red flags, stay in an abusive relationship, and ultimately put the needs of someone else before yourself."

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 to get help.