Unlike physical abuse, emotional abuse can be subtle and can often go undetected by victims, as well as their friends and family.
In the early stages of dating, an emotional abuser often acts in ways that appear caring, loving and attentive — at least on the surface. This is part of the perpetrator’s “grooming process” — or a time where they use charm and flattery to make you believe they’re kind and trustworthy.
“That ‘kindness’ is designed to win over the trust and confidence of an unsuspecting victim, making them vulnerable to subsequent abuse,” said Lisa Ferentz, a licensed clinical social worker and educator specializing in trauma.
Emotional abuse may include behaviours such as threatening, insulting, shaming, belittling, name-calling, gaslighting and stonewalling, which are done in an attempt to chip away at the victim’s independence and self-esteem so the abuser can gain control in the relationship.
One important note: Grooming behaviors aren’t emotionally abusive in and of themselves.
“Someone who is helpful, loving and generous may be just that,” said therapist Sharie Stines, who specializes in recovery from abuse. “The problem occurs when the behaviors have underlying motives attached to them. This requires discernment.”
Ask yourself if you’ve experienced a sense of fear, obligation or guilt tied to your partner’s seemingly caring gestures, Stines said. If so, it may mean they have ulterior motives.
If you’re caught in an emotionally abusive relationship, open up to a therapist. Reach out to The National Domestic Violence hotline (or another organization) that can point you toward a local support group and other resources. You can also confide in a close friend or relative who can help you exit the relationship in a safe way.
Below, experts share some of the deceiving behaviours that may be indicative of emotional abuse so you know what to look out for.
At the very beginning of a relationship, as you and your partner are getting to know each other, it’s perfectly normal to do most things one-on-one. But as time goes on, you typically start spending time with each other’s friends and family, too. If your partner is always angling to keep your plans limited to just the two of you — and saying things like, “My alone time with you is so special. I can’t be myself like this with other people around” — you may perceive this as romantic. But your partner’s intentions may not be as pure as they seem.
“In actuality, limiting where you go and who you spend time with is often an attempt to isolate and alienate you from your network of support,” Ferentz said. “When you are disconnected from other people, they can’t witness maltreatment and you can’t reach out to them for guidance or the resources you might need to eventually leave the relationship.”
Let’s say you’re venting to your partner about a problem you’re having with a friend or relative. Your partner lets you know they unequivocally have your back — no questions asked. This can feel loving and supportive. But if your partner uses this as an opportunity to attempt to further distance you from your loved ones, beware.
“It can easily turn into your partner encouraging you to stop seeing your family or friends, telling you that you are unhappy every time you see him or her,” said Beverly Engel, psychotherapist and author of The Emotionally Abusive Relationship.
Engel noted that an exception to the rule would be if the friend or family member is question has been an abusive or otherwise toxic person in your life.
“But in most situations, it is merely a way for your partner to control you by isolating you from others,” she said.
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If and when a couple decides to open a joint account or share login information for their online banking, it’s a big display of trust and a major step in the relationship — and one that usually happens further down the road. When your partner proposes combining finances early on, it’s easy to mistake this controlling manoeuvre as a sign of their commitment.
“This can be presented as a sign of ‘commitment’ or ‘true partnership,’ but in reality, it is designed to eliminate your financial independence, reduce your access to separate funds and make it extremely difficult for you to leave the relationship,” Ferentz said.
An abusive partner may make it seem like they’re doing this to be financially transparent with you — “What’s mine is yours!” — but Ferentz says it’s usually a one-way street. You share everything and they share only what they want to disclose.
“It’s also a way for an emotionally abusive partner to freeload off your hard-earned money and not contribute to equally covering the costs of daily living,” she said. “In cases where an abusive partner has a high-paying job, it’s likely that they have separate accounts or credit cards and are keeping money from you or spending money on things that don’t include you.”
Healthy couples generally keep each another informed about their daily schedules as a courtesy or because they’re curious about each other’s lives. An emotionally abusive partner, however, wants to know where you are and who you’re with at all times, and will try to glean this information under the guise of caring.
“What can seem like genuine love and interest in your well-being actually has undercurrents of toxic jealousy and possessiveness,” Ferentz said. “They may keep tabs on your schedule and whereabouts through excessive texting or phone calls, continually offer unsolicited advice about what’s in your ‘best interests,’ or ask you to ‘run everything by them’ before making any decisions.”
Sometimes, an emotionally abusive partner will position themselves as your “protector” whose primary concern is to make sure you’re safe. At first, they may go out of their way to pick you up from a late dinner with your friends or call you to make sure you got home safely. This level of concern may seem sweet but it can quickly turn sour.
“This so-called ‘protectiveness’ can turn into needing to know where you are at all times, or not wanting you to go out with your friends. This can begin to feel controlling,” Engel said. “Before you know it, you feel trapped, confined, no longer a free person as they become more and more controlling, accusing you of cheating if they can’t reach you, breaking into your phone or computer to monitor who you are talking to.”
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Sure, it’s nice to be wined and dined by a new partner, but an emotional abuser will take it to another level by showering you with extravagant gestures that are in no way commensurate with the length or seriousness of the relationship. Maybe they present you with diamond earrings on your second date or surprise you with a trip to Hawaii within the first month of dating. These acts may appear doting and generous at first, but in reality, they are a self-serving manipulation tactic known as love bombing.
“During the beginning, one partner woos the other with great dinners, interesting outings, flowers and gifts,” said Carol A. Lambert, psychotherapist and author of Women With Controlling Partners. “Their partner is amazed by the special attention and generosity so when their own suggestions [or wishes] get ignored it’s not such a big deal. They might feel swept off their feet at the time, but it turns out to be too good to be true.”
The love bombing phrase never lasts long. Once the emotional abuser feels they have you under their spell, the rug is promptly pulled out from under you.
“As the abuser blames the victim for his or her lack of continual positive treatment, the victim tries harder and harder to win the abuser back, believing that the change in behaviour is the victim’s fault,” Stines said.
In healthy relationships, couples offer each other the love and support they need to make improvements to their life ― whether it’s cheering them on as they embark on a fitness journey, helping them prepare for an interview for their dream job or keeping them accountable as they try to kick a bad habit.
But in an emotionally abusive relationship, your partner may seem supportive at first. Soon they’re telling you what you need to do to improve yourself ― not asking how they can help.
“Initial compliments about your appearance, personality and successes are manipulative and designed to win you over and build trust,” Ferentz said. “Fairly quickly those comments turn into criticism that will be offered under the guise of wanting you to keep improving yourself. They will put down your feelings or ideas, how you dress or what you have achieved.”
The abusive partner may say they’re telling you this “for your own good,” when really they just want to shame you enough to diminish your sense of confidence and self-worth.
“They may appear to be caring by ‘warning’ you that when you drink you behave badly, such as flirting with other men or being too loud or by telling you that others are complaining about another behaviour of yours,” Engel said. “They may do this in a way that seems like they’re trying to help you, but in reality, you may not be misbehaving in any way.”
By making you question your own judgment or sense of reality ― also known as gaslighting ― you’re more likely to go along with what your partner says and does.
“In time, self-doubt creates a loss of trust in your perception and judgment, making you all the more vulnerable to a partner who wants to control you,” Lambert said.