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Signs of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse can be difficult to identify because of the subtle and varied forms it can take, and things that are emotionally abusive are sometimes explained away as loving behaviour. Think of the times you may have heard people say things like, “I act like this because I’m so in love”. People may use different terms for emotional abuse, such as psychological abuse or mental abuse. At times, emotionally-abusive behaviour may be connected to psychological terms that may describe an abuser’s mental state (e.g. “narcissistic abuse”).

All these terms and issues can be confusing. But the signs and effects of the abuse can be clearer. According to the Department of Justice, emotional abuse happens when a person uses words or actions to control, frighten, or isolate someone or take away their self-respect.”

Emotional abuse is a very common element of gender-based violence and it can go hand in hand with physical forms of abuse. But it doesn’t only occur in romantic relationships; like other forms of abuse, emotional abuse can occur in platonic, familial, or any other relationship structure. In any context, it’s often connected to power imbalances in our society that put some people at higher risk of experiencing abuse.

Below are some of the signs of an emotionally-abusive relationship. This list is not meant to be exhaustive as individuals can have different experiences of emotional abuse.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911. If you are in need support services such as counselling or safe housing, please click here.

Humiliation and derision

Healthy relationships involve both parties feeling safe, respected, and free to express their thoughts, pursue their interests, and change their appearance without fear of being embarrassed. Emotional abuse can include humiliation in order to dismiss and minimize your own feelings and worth. This could take the form of: 

  • Calling you names
  • Making patronizing comments
  • Publicly embarrassing you (including online) 
  • Making “jokes” at your expense; which may also include dismissing any hurt feelings you incur as being “unable to take a joke” 
  • Belittling your accomplishments 
  • Making insults about your appearance 
  • Putting down your interests 
  • Insulting or trying to control your clothing, hairstyle, or any physical changes  
  • Infantilizing you or acting as though they know what’s best for you 
  • Deliberately putting you in physically- or emotionally-uncomfortable positions (such as locking you out of your home or making a scene in a social situation) 

Gaslighting and manipulation 

In a healthy relationship, your feelings, thoughts, and perceptions of reality will be validated. While disagreements arise in all relationships – including healthy ones – your feelings should always be validated regardless of what the other party intended. An emotional abuser may try to erode your faith in your own perceptions and feelings in the following ways: 

  • Gaslighting, which “refers to the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings. Targets of gaslighting are manipulated into turning against their cognition, their emotions, and who they fundamentally are as people” 
  • Defining and trying to exert how they think you should feel 
  • Dismissal of your feelings as “crazy,” “dramatic,” “overreacting,” or “emotional” (sometimes, abusers will use others to validate their point of view and invalidate your belief in yourself: such as, “everyone thinks you’re crazy”) 
  • Refusing to take responsibility for their actions or how they made you feel (they may try to frame everything, including your pain, as “your fault”) 

Isolation and control 

Healthy relationships involve both parties supporting one another in their respective interests, relationships, and goals outside of the relationship. Emotional abusers will often work to make the relationship the most important thing in your life in order to isolate you from things that might threaten their control. This might include: 

  • Demanding to know your whereabouts and who you are with all the time 
  • Monitoring your communication channels such as text messages or email 
  • Using technology or other methods to track your movements 
  • Making uni-lateral decisions for all parties such as changing plans or creating joint bank accounts (more broadly, abusers may seek to control the finances as a form of dominance and to restrict your freedom) 
  • Withholding affection as a form of punishment 
  • Coercing or intimidating you to spend all your time with them (emotional abusers can often be jealous and try to disguise jealousy or insecurity as love and passion, when it is used as a mechanism to guilt you into spending all your time with them) 
  • Isolating you from family, friends, and/or coworkers (emotional abusers often try to ensure they are the main or the only influence in your life)

Erratic or chaotic behavior 

You should never fear for the safety of yourself, your loved ones, or the other person in the relationship  even if you leave them. You should never feel as though you must walk on eggshells around the other person in order to protect yourself or those around you; in healthy relationships, both parties feel physically as well as emotionally safe and don’t feel coerced or guilted into remaining in the relationship. Emotional abuse may involve: 

  • Threats about your safety, your loved one’s safety, or the safety of the other person should you leave them (emotional abusers may attempt to guilt the other person into staying with them through feigned helplessness, threatening what may happen if you leave, or acting as though you owe them your affection) 
  • Blackmail 
  • Mood swings or unexpected outbursts 
  • Deliberately picking fights 
  • Destroying or hiding your belongings (especially those which allow for mobility and independence, such as your car keys, wallet, and phone) 

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12 Responses to “Signs of Emotional Abuse”

  1. Avatar Harrison says:

    This is a great guide to helping women understand the dangers of emotional abuse. It is so prevalent and insidious. There are people out there who can help. http://emotionalabuseintervention.com/

  2. Avatar sandra olson says:

    my husband started mocking and degrading me, inviting my daughter to join him when she was nine, I told him to stop,, His reponse was whats the matter,, no sense of humor? Then it kept going,, it has damaged our relationship, my daughter is now dismissive of me, and listens to whatever he says, I really want to stop this, and get off this rollercoaster from hell, How can I do this, He is very controlling, ridiculing, and insists on violating my boundaries, Now it seems I have lost my daughter as well,

    • Kate Hawkins Kate Hawkins says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your story Sandra, this kind of behaviour is not ok. If you’re looking for support, we have some resources here that may be helpful: https://canadianwomen.org/support-services/ – just be aware that when using the Internet your abuser may attempt to check your search history. You can learn how to make your searches safe by erasing your tracks and you can find out more about that at http://www.awhl.org/security.

      Additionally, if you live in Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, or British Columbia, we would suggest calling 211 – this is a free provincial referral number for thousands of agencies across these provinces.

      If you live in Ontario, another great resource is the Assaulted Women’s Helpline which can be reached online at http://www.awhl.org or by phone at 416.863.0511 or 1.866.863.0511.

      We hope one or more of these suggestions will lead you to the help you are seeking.

  3. Avatar Renata says:

    I always knew how difficult it would be when I want divorce my husband, but I have never imagined how really hard it would be when I got there. He blamed me for everything, emotionally and mentally abused me so much that I almost killed myself on overdose of medications. I was private, so my colleagues had no idea what went on at my home, because I was always happy and cheerful. Of course I was, my work place was the heaven for me after living in hell. Slowly making progress, still fragile, but started to see the light at the end of tunnel. Wish me luck and good luck to you all as well!

  4. Avatar Violet says:

    I feel like my boyfriend is emotionally abusing me.

    We have been extremely up and down for 2 years now.

    It started as a one night stand and then we grew into FWB. It was super casual and open as I was not looking for a relationship at the time, having just gotten out of a long-term common-law relationship. He moved into my house as a roommate as he needed a place to stay and was down on his luck. We were sleeping in separate bedrooms and seeing other people but living together in a platonic fashion. However, he admitted that he had feelings for me and I asked him to move out because I didn’t want a boyfriend and I didn’t want anything serious. He moved out but we continued sporadically sleeping together. He began to get extremely possessive and controlling, ie. going through my phone while I was sleeping, telling other men to stay away from me, and acting like we were exclusive, etc. Even though I made it very clear that we were not.

    We started officially dating after this, because he refused to leave me alone and would often threaten suicide if I didn’t see him or answer his calls. I broke up with him in August of 2019 because he broke into my house and we stopped seeing each other but a few months later he started coming around again – which I allowed, because I cared for him, was lonely, and did truly miss him. There was a break down of the relationship because he slept with someone else without telling me and ended up giving me an STI which is the only way that I had found out about it. I was able to forgive him for seeing someone else as I had made it clear that we were not exclusive and I didn’t want a boyfriend, but I was still very upset about the STI.

    On Christmas Eve of 2019, I fell asleep at around 8:00PM, which is very early for me. I woke up to hundreds of messages and missed calls from him, accusing me of sleeping with other people and ignoring him. He proceeded to threaten suicide on Christmas Day and sent me a suicide note via text message – include what I could tell his daughter with regards to it. I ignored him and didn’t speak to him until the new year. We started seeing each other again in 2020 when the COVID pandemic started in Canada, he asked me if we could quarantine together, I agreed reluctantly, and now he is pressuring me to have him move in and for us to be exclusive. I don’t know what to do because I do want him in my life, because it does take two to tango and I continue going back to him – so it’s not all his fault with respect to this volatile relationship. But I feel like he still abuses me emotionally even in the calm of things as they are now.

    He still periodically goes through my phone, even though I have changed my password multiple times. He makes off-handed comments that I don’t love him, or that I am a slut, whore, etc. He love bombs me and it makes me feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable. He showers me with gifts that I don’t ask for and just overall does not respect any of my boundaries, including my sexual boundaries. I don’t know how to get him to change. And I don’t know how to break up with him because even when I try to do so he stalks and threatens me.

    • Avatar Emma Partridge says:

      Hi Violet, thank you for reaching out to us. We recognize how hard it can be to speak up in situations like the one you’re going through and how much courage it takes to share.

      We’re glad you found this article and we hope it has provided some helpful information. If you would like to speak to us about more resources and organizations that could help or guide you, please email us at info@canadianwomen.org or call us at 1-866-293-4483. Unfortunately, we are not a direct service organization so we do not provide counselling or other services directly but we hope we could direct you to the appropriate organization. We also have a breakdown of different services by province that you can access anytime here: canadianwomen.org/support-services/

      Please be aware of your safety as you try to change this situation. Whoever you speak to, ask them about how to best ensure safety. And if you are using a computer or other device, others might check the history – learn how to make your searches safe by erasing your tracks – you can find out more at http://www.awhl.org/security.

      If you are in immediate danger, though, please call 911 immediately.

  5. Avatar Cindy says:

    im going through a similar situation and i don’t know what to do , he is constantly blaming me for everything and making threats to me and my mom. I’m scared to go to the police and get blamed for ruin his career .i’m so overwhelmed with this situation.

    • Stacey Rodas Stacey Rodas says:

      Hi Cindy – thanks for sharing your story, I know it is very hard to know what to do. Please remember that there is help out there for you and your mom.

      We do not provide direct services but I can maybe point you in the direction of those who do.

      If you or her are in immediate danger call 911. Otherwise, it depends on the province you live in. There should be a listing in the front or back of your phone book. If you have a local YWCA they probably have the best local numbers for you to dial for further assistance. You can also check the website Hot Peach Pages. This website is run by volunteers but usually has reliable information. Just select the province you need at this link: http://www.hotpeachpages.net/canada/index.html

      Please be aware of your safety and your mom’s as you try to change this situation. Whoever you speak to, ask them about how to best ensure safety. And if you are using a computer or other device, others might check the history – learn how to make your searches safe by erasing your tracks – you can find out more at http://www.awhl.org/security.

      Best wishes, -Stacey

  6. Avatar kimberly oconnor says:

    im currently going through all of these signs of abuse plus many more and im going through a custody battle
    and will need to press charges for this abuse as hes also neglecting our child putting our childs health at risk and my family lawyer doesn’t believe i’ll get full custody and refuses to use the proof of abuse.

  7. Avatar Francy Pesek says:

    I have come across you website after months and months of searching for information on this as it applies to family law. I keep hearing the same thing, ” our legal system and resources such a family maintenance will help you”, then I hear, ” we only can do so much with on the realms of the law, there is no guarantee that you will get payment or arrears so it you do get any money through the system, look at is a a gift. ” I have been pursuing a divorce for 5 years and still have not gotten it yet. My ex was vandalizing my new partners cars ( keying them) for 10 different counts. We finally got him on video surveillance. He was never charged or made to make restitution for the $10,000 in costs for repairs. He signed a peacebond and nothing else happened…..he got away with it and no accountability. Further I had a family protection order as I am concerned for my safety after his erratic behaviour and things he has said to me in the past for how he would get back a t people who cross him…revenge, stalking my daughters at work, and evidence of his hacking in to our messaging system getting private information! They lawyers ( mine included)asked me to agree to a mutual order where we both respect each others home privacy., this way I would be guaranteed to have an order in place. This however, makes me as guilty as him, even though I have not done anything illegal, and I am pretty confident no police will show up to protect me. . This is just a small amount of the abusive nature of him. My daughters manager at work had to write up an incident report after he met her at work, was yelling at her and taking his frustration out on her ( based on earlier situation he had with her sister) then continued to stalk her there and completely frightening her for her own safety. He uses quilt to get them to spend time with him. He has tried manipulating them, by telling them I had created this situation by separating form him. For many years in our marriage he would tell me that all my issues about where we lived was all in my head and my own doing, and that issues I have in our relationship had to do with my relationship with my father and were actually my fault. I would walk around on egg shells when he would get home, not knowing his mood, to protect the girls from his yelling and hostility. To this day he is not longer paying support, and is tens of thousands of dollars in arrears, and no one is making him accountable to pay it They say they can put him in Jail, FMEP states a ways to get payment, but when I confronted them, they said that they were limited as to what they can do and that you can’t get water from a stone. Essentially I am on my own. I do not believe my lawyers are fighting for me as they know I am now struggling financial, even though I have paid over 20,000 in ;legal fees thus far. The legal system in British Columbia will only help those who have lots of money for high end lawyers, and are able to manipulate the legal system with evasion and stall tactics. It just seems he is too clever and knows how to play the legal system and get away with it. I do not have faith for women who are dealing with men such as my ex, that are emotionally abusive, narcissistic personality traits ,have power issues, evade and stall. Our system does not play fair to both sexes.

  8. Avatar Mera Sathiya says:

    Hello,

    I got to your website by google search. I was looking for some info about emotional, mental and psychological abuse and gaslighting and so on. Everything that’s there on your website under emotional abuse my adult daughter is doing that to me. But there is no support for mothers like me? I also sent a message to the NDP leader in my area but there too they ignored my messages.

    Where do I get help? Please advice. Thank you kindly.

    • Stacey Rodas Stacey Rodas says:

      Hi Mera,

      Thank you for your comment – we are very sorry to hear that this is what you are experiencing. This is not okay – no type of violence is ever okay – and we know it is very hard to know what to do in a situation like this, but please do remember that there is help out there for you. We’ll do our best to direct you below, and always remember if you are in immediate danger call 911:

      – Visit this part of our website https://canadianwomen.org/support-services/ and select your province or territory to see what might be available to you for assistance – just be aware that when using the Internet your abuser may attempt to check your search history. You can learn how to make your searches safe by erasing your tracks and you can find out more about that at http://www.awhl.org/security.

      – If you live in Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, or British Columbia, we would suggest calling 211 – this is a free provincial referral number for thousands of agencies across these provinces.

      – If you live in Ontario, another great resource is the Assaulted Women’s Helpline which can be reached online at http://www.awhl.org or by phone at 416.863.0511 or 1.866.863.0511.

      – Depending on the province or territory you live in, there may also be a listing in the front or back of your phone book.

      – If you have a local YWCA, you may wish to call them to see if they know of local services you can access.

      We hope one or more of these suggestions will lead you to the help you are seeking. Thank you Mera, take good care.
      -Canadian Women’s Foundation

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