When talking about domestic violence (or intimate partner violence/IPV), many people believe that if physical violence isn’t involved, then it’s not considered abusive. We often hear comments like, “well at least they don’t hit you,” or “they don’t hit me, so it’s not that bad.” Survivors of abuse not only hear others minimize verbal and emotional abuse, but survivors often excuse or dismiss the behavior as well. It is important to learn about the complexities of abuse for our own relationships, and to better support survivors.

Emotional Abuse Defined

Abuse comes in many forms and is defined as a pattern of behaviors used to gain and maintain power and control over someone else.

Emotional and verbal abuse often go hand-in-hand, and involve non-physical behaviors such as threats, insults, name-calling, gaslighting, constant monitoring or “checking in”, excessive texting, criticism, belittling, humiliation, shame, blame, manipulation, isolation, or stalking. Any language or behavior that seeks to control, silence, coerce, intimidate, cause harm, discredit, or cause someone to doubt their perceptions and abilities.

Identifying Emotional Abuse

Emotional and verbal abuse can sometimes be subtle and slip under the radar, which can make it harder to detect, identify, and understand. Other times, it may be blatant and aggressive. Abuse can happen to anyone regardless of gender and can occur in any relationship, including with an intimate partner, a family member, a friend, as well as between co-workers.

Signs of Emotional Abuse

Minimize, Dismiss, Exaggerate, and Excuse

In intimate partner relationships, oftentimes the abusive partner may minimize their partner’s feelings, and avoid taking accountability by dismissing or excusing their own abusive behaviors with, “it was just a joke” or “you’re exaggerating,” or by accusing their partner of being “too sensitive.”  They may deny that the event ever happened, or make their partner question their memory of it. They may exaggerate their partner’s mistakes or flaws in order to deflect or avoid taking accountability for their own behaviors. Or they may make their partner explain how they feel over and over, while often trivializing their concerns and not changing their own behavior (even after saying “sorry” and promising to change).

Invalidate and Criticize

Emotional abuse can present as subtle, but repeated invalidations and criticisms, such as minimizing their partner’s job, nitpicking their appearance, or mocking their hobbies, interests, or style. The survivor may adapt how they do chores, how they park their car, how they dress or decorate their home, or even adjust their interests and hobbies altogether to satisfy the abusive partner or avoid criticism.

Sense of Superiority

People who are emotionally abusive may present a sense of superiority, treating their partner like they’re inferior, or telling them that their jokes, ideas, or opinions are illogical or “don’t make sense.” They may undermine or embarrass their partner, such as making jokes at their expense in public. They may talk down to their partner, be condescending, use sarcasm, or act like they’re always right or “know what is best”.

Isolate and Track

People who are emotionally abusive may slowly begin to isolate their partner by criticizing their family and friends, or by being jealous or upset when their partner wants to spend time with other people. The abusive partner may expect to have access to their partner’s social media accounts, look through their texts, be able to track them with GPS, or accuse them of “flirting” or cheating.

Emotional Manipulation

Abusive behaviors may also show up in ways that create confusion and chaos, such as mood swings, silent treatment or withholding love and affection, emotional outbursts, making contradictory statements, or behaving unpredictably, causing their partner to feel like they have to “walk on eggshells.”

Weaponize “Therapy Speak” 

The abusive partner may communicate in a way that sounds like “therapy speak”, such as, “I’m stating my boundary,” meanwhile trying to control their partner (what they wear, who they’re with, or their job, etc.).

People who experience emotional abuse may begin to lose their sense of self or their self-confidence and begin to question their perceptions and grasp on reality. This can cause someone to feel trapped in an abusive relationship, often believing the negative things their partner says about them and may say things like “no one else will ever love me”, and even blaming themselves for the abuse.

Healthy Conflict

Keep in mind, conflict is a normal part of a relationship, abuse is not. Conflict should not leave you feeling bullied, disrespected, belittled, insulted, more confused, questioning yourself, or dismissed. Additionally, healthy conflict does not lead to tension that builds and builds until an explosive episode occurs. Healthy conflict requires respectful communication, and if mistakes are made, genuine apologies with changed behavior should follow.

Trust Yourself

If you’re having trouble identifying if your relationship is abusive, take some time to identify how you feel. If the interactions cause you to feel confused, hurt, anxious, depressed, misunderstood, worthless, doubt your sense of self or self-confidence, or question your perceptions and reality, odds are that your relationship is abusive. Even if all the abusive behaviors listed in this article don’t apply to your relationship, just a handful of repeated behaviors is enough to identify abuse. For more information to help you identify relationships as healthy, unhealthy, or abusive, the cycle of abuse, or safety planning, download our Domestic Violence Awareness Month toolkit.

Remember that there is never an excuse for abusive behavior, and everyone, including you, deserves to be treated with kindness and respect.


  • Kirsten Brotze

    Kirsten is a water bug and “lazy adventurer” whose passions include social justice, deep conversations, being outside, and taking naps. She is the Prevention Educator for Hays County at HCWC, where she provides resources and awareness for healthy relationships, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault to adolescents and the community. Kirsten believes we can create safer communities by encouraging empathy and providing education to prevent violence and injustice. Kirsten graduated with her BA from the University of Colorado in Boulder and is hopeful to obtain her master's in professional counseling in the future. Kirsten spends most of her free time in her garden with her cat and two dogs, listening to audiobooks, swimming, napping, or planning the next camping trip.

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