Emotional abuse is complicated, and since it happens within the confines of relationships, it can feel hard to pinpoint. If you feel that something is off, but are curious what the signs of emotional abuse really are, there are some psychologist-approved tactics. Abusers have certain narratives — and these narratives play out in what they talk about.
Conversations with emotionally abusive partners result in a range of feelings, like guilt, defensiveness, and even sometimes the questioning of your reality. While conversation topics are just a part of the larger pattern of abuse, they can still provide a good amount of insight into the nature of your relationship.
“Essentially, emotional abuse is [experiencing] symptoms of depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress as a result of being exposed to someone attempting to exert their power and control over another,” Essence Cohen Fields, licensed professional counselor and founder and executive director of First Love Yourself Counseling, tells Bustle. “It is important to remember that emotional abuse is very personal. The subjectivity in which it is measured can lend the threshold of the experience to look different in each person.” These varying factors can impact whether isolated behaviors count as abuse.
And in any relationship, whether or not the hurtful moments are technically abusive, you still deserve to feel comfortable and safe. Here are eight things your partner might talk about if they’re emotionally abusive, according to experts.
1. Not Being Able To Survive Without You
If your partner talks about not being able to survive without you, it’s possible that they’re showing signs of being emotionally abusive.
“[If] your partner’s relationship with you is there to fulfill their needs, their weaknesses, solve their problems, [or] they rely on you to the point where you are literally having to conduct their lives, [then] they have no independence and see you as there to address their every need,” Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle. So conversations that center on this topic may suggest a dangerous power imbalance in the relationship.
2. Needing To Know Where You Are At All Times
A hallmark of emotional abuse is control. So if your partner talks about the need to “stick together” or how they need to know where you are at all times, then that may be a red flag.
“[When a partner tries to control your every move], the concept of independence is lost,” Dr. Klapow says. “They feel they own you. You are there to serve them. The relationship is there to provide them with what they need when they need it.” A relationship should be home to mutual love and support. If you don’t have access to that, then it may be time to end things.
3. Predicting The Failure Of Your Relationship
An emotionally abusive partner may wallow in “doom and gloom” — talking about how things won’t work out, and how they feel destined for failure.
“[This kind of abusive partner is] looking for the next problem, the next let down, the next thing to go wrong,” Dr. Klapow says. “They want you to feel the same way, and as a result, take you from a place of relative happiness to sadness and despair.” If you feel your partner bringing you down, reaching out to a professional for help may be a good first step.
4. Stopping You From Seeing Friends Or Family
You may already have an inkling that a partner should not keep you from your friends and family. “Restricting your partner from visiting family [or] friends because you’ll be lonely is emotional abuse,” sexologist and therapist Shamyra Howard, LCSW, tells Bustle. This is a relatively clear red flag.
What is also dangerous, however, is merely talking about cutting you off. Threats, and conversations that are meant to make you fearful or submissive, are also abusive. If you feel like your partner is attempting to isolate you from your outside support network, it’s important to seek help immediately.
5. Talking About How They Need Your Validation
Just as abuse may make you feel the need to seek constant validation from your partner, an emotionally abusive partner may also be concerned with seeking validation from you.
If they talk to you in ways that constantly question the foundation of your relationship — asking things like “do you love me even when I frustrate you?” or “do you think I’m good enough?” — then it might be a form of emotional abuse. “[These people] are not looking for a relationship that is honest, but rather one that is reinforcing all the time,” Dr. Klapow says. “They need someone to tell them they are ‘good enough, smart enough, and liked.'” If your partner needs constant validation, it’s important for you to know that it doesn’t have to be your job to provide it, and that there are ways out.
6. Suggesting That You’re Worthless Without Them
Emotionally abusive people tend to talk about how their partners are worthless without them, are “damaged goods,” or can’t find love outside of their current relationship.
“This is a tactic to create a co-dependency as they really need you but want you to believe it’s you who needs them,” Cohen Fields says. If your partner talks about you, or your future without them, in this negative way, then it’s important to identify these comments as potentially emotionally abusive.
7. Suggesting You Can’t Make Decisions On Your Own
If your partner talks about your original ideas as if they came from someone else, it’s a subtle — but equally hurtful — form of emotional abuse.
“Your partner may change a topic by downplaying the origin of the conversation, as if to suggest you were not bright enough to think of it on your own,” Cohen Fields says. “This is called diverting, where they do this to not only insult you but also to divert away from the initial topic.” You should be able to feel trusted and supported in your relationship. If you don’t, you may want to take some concrete steps towards changing the situation.
Emotional abuse varies in magnitude. “In order to overcome emotional abuse your partner has to be willing to acknowledge their role, accept your perception of their behavior and, most importantly, be willing to change,” Cohen Fields says. If they are dismissive or unwilling, then that is another clear sign that the best option is for you to leave. No one deserves to feel unsafe in a relationship.
Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.