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couple fighting emotional abuse

How to Spot Emotional Abuse

August 29, 20237 min read

How to Spot Emotional Abuse

couple fighting emotional abusive relationship


*Blog post updated on 8/28/2023 

If I just love him enough, he’ll change.
If I just treat her well enough, things will get better.
If I just let it go this time, they’ll figure it out and won’t do it again.

If you’ve ever known someone in an abusive relationship, these phrases will sound all-too-familiar. 

While physical abuse is more overt and easy to recognize, emotional or psychological abuse proves more complicated and difficult to pinpoint. A delicate subtlety needs to be taught and understood in order to discern correctly when a relationship is emotionally abusive. 

For most relationships, loving someone despite their weaknesses is actually a good thing! So it shouldn’t be surprising if navigating through a relationship fraught with emotional abuse is confusing for Catholics. Pope St. John Paul II taught us very clearly that it is good to choose and love the whole person, “complete with his virtues and vices, in a sense independently of the virtues and despite the vices” (Love and Responsibility, p. 116). 

How is a person to know when to love “despite the vices”… and when to set boundaries or get out of the relationship all together?

Common signs of emotional abuse 

(Note: There is a wide spectrum of experience in relationships and any one of these signs could be present in a relationship at some point without being emotionally abusive; it is when multiple signs are present or pervasive that a relationship would be considered to be abusive.

Extreme moodiness or severe dysregulation of emotions.

Some moodiness is normal. We all have a variety of emotional experiences as part of being human. What’s being referred to here is an extreme moodiness, irritability or irascibility, anger, and/or a deep kind of brooding that is present more often than not. 

Verbal abuse

This entails a partner humiliating you, putting you down, being hypercritical, being extremely sarcastic/telling mean jokes with you as the victim, and/or displays of excessive anger. 

It’s crucial to clarify that expressions of negativity do not equate to verbal abuse. In a loving, healthy, non-abusive relationship, it’s important to hold space for discussion of behaviors or situations that are a real problem. We can be critical about the way things are in that general sense of the term. What makes something abusive is when that criticism and negativity or sarcasm is directed towards the person rather than the situation or behavior.

Isolation. 

This happens when your partner separates you from family and friends, from other interests, hobbies, your job, or from having conversations with people outside of the orbit of the relationship. 

It can look like your partner blaming you for not “checking in'' enough or sharing enough about your private life. Calls or texts from them may take on an obsessive quality: “What are you doing right now? Where are you? Why didn't you get home right away?” and they may want to know details of conversations you have with others. 

Along with isolation, there can be an unhealthy suspicion of you and your pursuits in an attempt to decrease the amount of freedom you feel you have.  Unreasonable jealousy may be present as well. 

Lack of privacy. 

Part of the dignity of the human person is that we each have a capacity at our innermost core to experience a relationship with God. This interior world is sacred ground and privacy in this space is yours by right of your dignity. A lack of privacy happens when a spouse or partner acts as if they are owed access to your inner world. This kind of demand tramples on the sacredness of your interior space, of your own volition and self-determination - all of those God-given qualities that are part of your dignity and your humanity. 

On a practical level, this lack of privacy may mean that your partner requires you to share your passwords and voicemails, and demands to see all of your text messages or to know the content of every conversation.

In an ideal situation, two people in a relationship would be on the same page, growing in holiness and pursuing the same good. In this case, there would be no reason to be doubtful or suspicious of your spouse or partner misusing or abusing your inner world. The goal in a marriage (or in a relationship leading to marriage) is that we freely desire to share more and more of ourselves.

Constantly walking on eggshells.  

This entails an environment in which you constantly feel a need to be extremely cautious about what you say or do. Constantly is the operative word here though. At certain times in all relationships, you may feel a need to tip-toe around delicate issues which you know can become disruptive or eruptive for your spouse.  This does not mean you're in an abusive relationship. We're all broken, we're all on a path of healing, we're all on a path of perfection. There are certain things that come up which - if presented in a certain way - can lead to dysregulated expression of thoughts and feelings. So it's good to be aware of that, and approach certain issues or topics delicately. 

However, there's a significant difference between that situation and a relationship marked by and permeated with an atmosphere of fear and trepidation in bringing up any topic - even the most mundane of things. In this case, you feel as if you're walking on eggshells for good reason: if you don't say things “the right way” or you withhold certain things deemed unacceptable to withhold, the consequence may be verbal backlash or even physical or sexual kinds of abuse.

schedule a free consult with catholicpsych institute. Mental health and emotional distress support

Feeling trapped

This is when you feel as if you can’t get out of the relationship, or sometimes imagine that you just don’t want to when in reality you can’t.

All marriages go through difficult times, so I want to say this with sensitivity and reverence. You might be going through a difficult time right now and feel somewhat trapped in your relationship. 

For instance, maybe you've grown personally and had new realizations about yourself and your life which have caused ruptures and challenges within your marriage. This is different from an experience of your entire relationship being marked with an atmosphere of feeling trapped or as if there is no way out. An underlying sense of feeling trapped is what happens over repeated exposure to the abusive dimensions of a relationship.

This feeling can eventually lead to ruminations or thoughts of hurting yourself or someone else. (In this case, it’s essential to reach out for help. Call a hotline. Call 911. Speak to someone if you are experiencing these feelings or thoughts.) 

Believing you are the problem. 

A lot of times, based on particular dispositions or personalities, one might end up deciding that they are the problem in the relationship. In this situation, you begin to believe that, if only you could do better, then everything in the relationship would be ok. Or perhaps you have an ongoing sense that if you could change the way you handle the other person, then the entire relationship would be better.

This belief may be influenced by the words of the person we’re in relationship with (gaslighting) or it may be that you have taken responsibility for things that are not your responsibility. 

There are more signs of emotional abuse, but these are a few of the most common.

If you find yourself in a relationship where these characteristics are the norm, it may be time for a reality check. This is not love. This is not a healthy relationship. And happiness is only possible for you if you learn to set appropriate boundaries (which may in severe cases include ending the relationship). 

Pope St. John Paul II has taught us that making ourselves a gift to another will make us the best version of ourselves possible. 

If you are trying to give yourself in a relationship, but you are more anxious, depressed, or feeling that your life is worse off instead of better, you are not in a healthy relationship. Something needs to change, and while it might be you, if any of the above characteristics are in your relationship, it's probably not.

It can be very painful and confusing to experience emotional abuse and manipulation. If any of the above resonates with your experience in a relationship, know that there is hope for healing and that our team is here to help you navigate through whatever difficulty may be present in your relationship. 

schedule a free consult with catholicpsych institute. Mental health and emotional distress support

Related Resources: 

National Domestic Violence Hotline

Schedule a free consultation call to discuss how we can support you;

Built to Last: An 8-part Catholic marriage workshop (now available through an Integrated Life Membership!

Being Human Podcast Episodes: 


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