14 Signs of Harmful Emotional Abuse

Science speaks: 14 Signs of Harmful Emotional Abuse

Learn the 14 signs of emotional abuse from a marriage professional who knows what he is talking about. This comprehensive guide on how to deal with emotional abuse is based on solid scientific research and years of clinical experience.

emotional abuse, psychological abuse, emotional abuse marriage

(If you are a victim of physical abuse and domestic violence see the links at the bottom of this page for helpful links. If you are in immediate danger, call the police. Read more about domestic violence and physical abuse.)

Emotional abuse and psychological abuse are often hidden, it is important that you study the following points which will describe the characteristics of an emotionally abusive marriage or committed relationship.

Let this guide, based on solid scientific research, help you determine if your marriage or committed relationship is emotionally abusive or psychologically abusive.

Read each item, pause, think and decide if the following traits of emotional or psychological abuse exist in your relationship or not. Note: I use the words “emotional abuse” and “psychological abuse” to mean the same thing.

The 14 scientific signs of harmful emotional abuse

1. Aggressive behavior with the intent to control.

Not all fighting in a marriage is emotional abuse or psychological abuse. Emotionally abusive relationships are characterized by the abuser having definite 'intent' to dominate his or her victim. All emotionally abusive relationships have the clear intention and purpose to humiliate, dominate, shame, and control another person.

For example, when Donald warns his wife Sharon that she must be ready when he wants to leave for their trip otherwise there will be consequences, he intends to teach her to be obedient and to recognize his authority. Donald is training his wife to comply with his wishes of 'being ready on time,' which includes the message that Sharon should follow every one of his directives all the time. This is emotional abuse.

2. A belief that 'might makes right.'

Abusers use their imposed authority to control their victims. Believing that a strong person can control the relationship, the abuser breaks the will of his or her victim to establish his or her dominance. Once the abuser's dominance has been established, it can readily be used to impose total control over his or her partner.

For example, Michael controls all the money in his family and only gives his committed partner, Susan what he feels is 'reasonable.' His partner is not working so she has no money of her own. Michael believes that since he is the wage earner in the family, that gives him the authority to control Susan and her opinion on how to spend money simply does not matter. This is emotional abuse.

3. A willingness to escalate the conflict.

An abusive person is prepared to go as far as necessary to establish his or her dominance — normal behavior limits do not apply. The abusive person may take away his or her partner’s car keys, threaten to take away the children, assert that his or her partner is 'crazy' and needs to be committed to a psychiatric ward and use other psychologically abusive mind control games. The abuser’s intent is to weaken his or her partner so he or she can be easily dominated.

For example, Tina threatens her husband Tom that if he doesn’t help her with chores around the house she will leave him and he will lose his contact with the children. This is emotional abuse.

4. Duration of the conflict.

An abusive person is persistent and does not let go of what he or she wants until his or her will has been achieved. It is this dogged determination that shows the true intent of the abuser which is to dominate and control.

For example, Karen would wake her husband Eric up in the middle of the night and repeatedly tell him how disappointed she was in his efforts to financially provide for the family. These attacks often went on for hours and could be repeated for several consecutive nights. This is emotional abuse.

5. Willingness to maintain the conflict.

An abusive person is ruthless in his or her efforts to dominate and maintain control. Repetitive themes such as the victim ‘spends too much money,' is ‘interested in other people outside the marriage,'  ‘talks to his or her parents too much,' and the like are used to erode the victim's sense of security and confidence making him or her easy prey to be dominated.

For example, Tony can be irritable. During dinner, he snapped at Sean, his nine-year-old son and told him to put away his phone. Tony’s wife, Melinda immediately chastised him for his disciplining Sean. In the presence of their three children, Melinda continued to ream out her husband. Later in that evening, Melinda yelled at Tony again and told him what a bad father he was. Finally, when Tony got to sleep at 12 o’clock, he was then awoken an hour later by Melinda who continued to berate him for being a 'bad father.'  The next day, Melinda sent Tony a barrage of text messages insisting he take a parenting class. Melinda was relentless in her attacks on Tony. This is emotional abuse.

6. Tyranny.

Threats, intimidation, bodily harm, treating one’s partner as an object to be manipulated, opposing the rights of a partner to assert his or her will and the like to establish absolute control.

For example, Tim was a successful lawyer. His clients paid top dollar to get his advice about how to solve their legal matters, and his secretaries did his bidding. When Tim came home, he made it clear to his wife that she was to follow his directives. She was not to question him, oppose him, or negotiate with him. If she did, Tim would respond with threats to divorce her, threats to take away the children, threats to tell people what a horrible person she was, and to abandon her and leave her destitute. This is emotional abuse.

7. Not caring for others.

Neglectful of the legitimate needs of others and his or her obligations to care for his or her partner. Indifferent to a partner’s emotional, physical, spiritual or medical needs.

For example, Sam had a neurological disorder. Over time, he lost his mobility and became confined to a wheelchair. His wife Amanda would not accept her husband in his compromised state of being. She neglected his needs. She withdrew her care and abandoned him to his own resources which were limited due to his lack of mobility. Often, after work instead of going home and attending to the needs of her husband Sam and continuing in a relationship with him, Amanda would go out with coworkers to enjoy the evening in restaurants and bars. Sam’s medical needs were only attended to by the hired day worker. Amanda had no interest in what Sam’s doctor said and his prognosis.  This is emotional abuse.

8. Unaccountable.

An emotionally abusive partner rejects taking responsibility for psychologically or physically harming his or her partner. An abusive partner ignores social rules, authority, and rectifying his or her past mistakes.

For example, Charlie loves fast cars. As well, Charlie loves alcohol. Often he would combine the two. Maria, his wife, pleaded with him not to drink and drive, but to no avail. Charlie just ‘blew her off’ and continued doing what he loved. He was reckless, and whenever Maria was in the car with him, he ignored her pleas to slow down. Maria felt frightened and controlled. Worst of all, even when the children were in the vehicle, it made no difference to Charlie. Marie’s pleas to her husband to drive safely and responsibly fell on deaf ears. Once Charlie crashed into a highway barrier. Fortunately, no one was injured. When Marie claimed the accident was caused by Charlie’s speeding and drinking, he turned it around and blamed her for the accident saying she nagged him so much that this caused him to become distracted. This is emotional abuse.

9. Dictatorship.

Unilateral decision making, deceptive communication, unresponsive to the impact his or her decisions have on others.

For example, Harry did not like his job. His solution was simple. He went and got another job in a different state. Without any discussion, he uprooted his wife and their two children and relocated them without considering their needs. Margaret, Harry’s wife, left behind her aging parents and her three siblings. Adjusting to life in a new place was daunting, and she felt guilty leaving her parents. Within a few months, Margaret became depressed. Harry responded to Margaret’s difficulties by claiming she was not a supportive wife. This is emotional abuse.

10. Insensitive.

Not caring about the individual needs, feelings, and opinions of others.

For example, Chantel decided one day to become a vegetarian. Her husband Mark wanted to eat a traditional Western diet which included meat. Without any discussion or consensus, Chantel stopped cooking meat and instead prepared complex vegetarian meals. Mark protested and explained that this 'new food' gave him stomach aches and made it difficult for him to sleep at night. Chantel responded telling Mark that eating meat was unhealthy and that she didn’t want to eat it, and would not cook or serve it. Rather, Chantel asserted her 'right' to cook whatever she wanted, and if Mark didn’t like it, he could go to a restaurant to eat. This is emotional abuse.

11. Excessive autonomy.

The abuser makes no commitment to others and does not acknowledge his or her obligations and responsibilities as a senior member of the family. The abusive person is not willing to integrate strengths and vulnerabilities to form a team.

For example, Jacqueline was pregnant. She felt nauseous, had difficulty bending over, and difficulty lifting heavy objects. All of this made no difference to her husband, Peter. Whatever her responsibilities were before pregnancy, in his mind, they were the same now. He would not help her bring in the groceries from the car or pick up anything from the floor. According to Peter, her limitations where her 'problem.' This is emotional abuse.

12. Harsh judgments.

The abuser has no empathy, compassion, and support during loss, distress, illness and emotional pain for his or her partner

For example, Andy lost his job. Now in his late 50s, it is difficult to find a new one. His wife, Dawn, has no compassion for him. She demands that he provide her with money and is indifferent to the fact that he is depressed and anxious. Insensitively, she blames Andy for losing his job and not finding a new one. Her feeling is that she should not be inconvenienced because her husband is unemployed. This is emotional abuse.

13. Selfishness.

The abusive person feels entitled to have everything. He or she does not credit the contributions his or her partner makes to the family. And since the abuser is entitled to 'everything,' he or she sees no reason to ever compromise.

Kurt loves sports; he loves playing, going to sporting events, and watching sports on TV. Everyone in the family has to accommodate Kurt’s 'love of sports.' When it is a Sunday, no one is allowed in the family room while Kurt watches a sporting event. He is indifferent to his wife Becky’s pleas to participate in  family activities. Simply, Kurt tells her that he works all week and he is entitled to relax and that everyone else should 'just get a life' and leave him alone. This is emotional abuse.

14. Rejecting.

The abusive person does not accept the individual needs, flexible application of rules and agreements, and is unwilling to accept the limitations of others.

For example, Thomas had agreed to give the children baths nightly. Sharon, his wife, appreciated Thomas helping with the children. One of Thomas’s friends had exclusive box seat tickets to a major sporting event. He invited Thomas to join him. Attending the sporting event meant that Thomas would miss one night helping Sharon with the children. Sharon rejected Thomas’s request to be excused from child care so he could attend the sporting event. He tried to reason with her and even proposed that she could take a day or two off and he would do all the child care himself. Sharon rejected all of her husband’s requests and his proposed compromises. She insisted that he be home and simply miss the event he wanted to attend. She threatened him that if he went to the event when he would return in the evening she and the children would be gone. This is emotional abuse.

[The 14 Signs of Harmful Emotional Abuse are adapted from INTIMATE JUSTICE: CONFRONTING ISSUES OF ACCOUNTABILITY, RESPECT, AND FREEDOM IN TREATMENT FOR ABUSE AND VIOLENCE, The Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.]

The 12 tasks needed to free yourself from emotional abuse or psychological abuse

If after considering the above 14 items describing emotional abuse or psychological abuse, if you conclude that you are in an emotional abusive relationship, then you need to take some decisive action to free yourself.

The following are professional guidelines you can use to stop emotional abuse and psychological abuse.

1. Make a decision for yourself and take a firm stand that you will not allow your partner to humiliate, shame, degrade, curse or threaten you.

2. Make a decision for yourself and take a firm stand that you will not allow your partner to intimidate, control or force you to do something you don't want to do.

3. Make a decision for yourself and take a firm stand that you will not allow your partner to trivialize your feelings, ideas, or values.

4. ‘Silent treatment’ emotional abuse is an act of hostility. Make a decision for yourself and take a firm stand not to accept such treatment from your partner.

5. Make a decision for yourself and take a firm stand that you will not surrender your independence and autonomy by submitting to your partner's will.

6. Make a decision for yourself and take a firm stand to not accept extreme selfishness from your partner to the point where his or her selfishness is dismissive of your needs and wants.

7. Make a decision for yourself and take a firm stand that you will not allow your partner to isolate you from family or friends.

8. Make a decision for yourself and take a firm stand that you will not allow your partner to withhold money, confiscate your personal belongings such as car keys, your phone, or other personal property. Do not get into a physical altercation to prevent your partner from seizing your belongings. Rather, look for a solution that removes you or protects you from this situation.

9. Make a decision for yourself and take a firm stand that you will not allow your partner to touch you in a hostile way or to threaten to do so by making his hand into a fist, or getting very close to your face with his face, or any other menacing and threatening way.

10. Make a decision for yourself and take a firm stand that you will not allow your partner to behave in an extremely jealous and possessive way that impacts on your peace of mind, challenges your dignity, and restricts your freedom.

11. Get outside help if you need it. DON'T REMAIN SILENT. This is what your abuser wants you to do! Don't cooperate and unintentionally allow the abuser to continue his or her abusive behavior! It is best to rely on trained relationship specialists to get the help you need. One good place to locate a trained and certified relationship specialist is: American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

12. Recognize that you do not need to live as an abused person. If you want, you can leave your abusive partner. If you decide to leave, get help if needed to ensure your safety as you tell your partner of your plans or as you organize and implement your exit. Family and friends can help. The police are available to ensure your safety. In some situations, it is advisable to consult a family law lawyer.

If you would like information on how to implement your new behaviors that will free you from emotional abuse tap or click on the link for my book or tap or click link for the other books that I recommend, that you will find at the end of the article. They give more detailed information than is possible in an article.

Can emotional abusers change?

Yes. Emotional abusers can change.

Emotional abusers and psychological abusers can learn how to treat their partners respectfully, with kindness, and as equals.

In most cases, people who abuse others either have low self-esteem or have grown-up in homes where emotional abuse was present.

It doesn't matter what is the reason behind the abuse— low self-esteem and/or bad role modelling from parents —the behavior can be corrected and the abuser can change into a kind person. However, this can only happen if the abusive person WANTS TO CHANGE.

If an abusive person does not want to change, there is very little you can do. Depending on the level of abuse — and it is different in every marriage and committed relationship — you can either find relationship strategies to manage and cope with the abuse in a way that it does not injure you and your children or you can exit the relationship and break-free completely from the toxic emotionally abusive relationship.

The 7 guidelines for abusers that want to change

The following are guidelines that describe what a remorseful abuser can do to correct his or her past bad behavior:

1. Educate yourself regarding what is emotional abuse and psychological abuse and cease all abusive behavior. 

2. Take responsibility for the abusive behavior that has happened in the past. Verbalize to your partner — the victim — that what was done to him or her was harmful and wrong.

3. Be humble and listen to the pain and anguish that you have caused your partner.

4. Be patient with your partner’s healing. Accept that it could take months or even years to overcome the injuries and pain caused by your abuse. Being willing to hang in there for the long run. Let your partner, that you abused, decide when to 'turn the page,' i.e., move on.

5. Examine oneself to learn the sources for the past abusive behavior. This is an essential step to correcting it and making sure it does not return in the future. For example, was the abuse because of  your low self-esteem, growing-up with abusive parents, or having been abused yourself, etc.

6. Request that your partner let you know 'if and when' he or she feels controlled, intimidated, or frightened by your present behavior. Accept your partner’s feedback without argument. Respond with gratitude and maturity and try to correct the offensive behavior. The benchmark regarding your behavior is not what you think you do, but how your partner feels about what you do. Perception by your partner is what matters.

7. When appropriate and the time is right, ask for forgiveness for having behaved abusively. If you are granted ‘forgiveness,' be grateful. If not, humbly accept your fate without protest. You can always ask again at a later time. Forgiveness is a thing of the heart and cannot be forced.

Conclusion: Knowledge is power

The starting point to stop an emotional abusive relationship is being able to identify it. 

If you conclude you are in an emotionally abusive marriage or committed relationship, you need to take clear and decisive action to stop the abuse.

Like a virus, emotional abuse spreads and harms everyone in the family — the perpetrator of emotional abuse, the victim of emotional abuse and if there are children in your family, they too suffer and are hurt.

You and everyone in your family is entitled to live a healthy and happy life. And to a great extent, this is dependent on having healthy relationships. There is no promise that getting to this utopian place, a peaceful and happy relationship will be easy. However, happiness is your birthright... and you should claim your right to a healthy marriage or committed relationship.

No matter how difficult fixing your broken marriage or committed relationship may seem, never give up hope. Even small steps in the right direction will eventually add up and make positive changes for the better.

Wishing you and your family the best,

Marriage and family therapist Abe Kass, MA, RSW, RMFT, CCHT.

What is emotional abuse and psychological abuse? 

If you would like to learn more about emotional abuse and psychological abuse here are some good places to start:

Buy my bookThe 15 EssentIal Facts Victims of Emotional Abuse Need to know  Tap or Click

To see our emotional abuse books in our Stop Emotional Abuse Bookstore Tap or Click Then Tap or Click the middle tab that says Store on the top of the page

To take our Emotional Abuse Test Tap or Click 

Learn more about emotional abuse from the following websites:


Department of Justice

CDC—Centers for Disease and Prevention

Women's Health


Department of Justice

Public Health Agency of Canada

Canadian Women's Foundation