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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2 responses to “Signs of Emotional Abuse”

  1. Avatar Mera Sathiya says:


    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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