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26th Feb 2018

What is an emotionally abusive relationship and how do I know if I’m in one?

Jade Hayden

emotional abuse

Emotionally abusive relationships are often characterised by control.

Generally more insidious than physical abuse, emotional abuse can go undetected by friends, family members, and even the person who is experiencing it themselves.

The type of behaviour exhibited by an emotional abuser tends to be controlling, insistent, and threatening.

Unhealthy relationships are sometimes had to determine – especially if you happen to be in one yourself.

Here are some of the most common signs that point to an emotionally abusive relationship.


Emotional abusers crave control in all aspects of their relationship.

Whether it be dictating what you wear, who you spend time with, or where you go when you’re not together, control can begin in the smaller parts of your relationship and eventually expand until it’s dictating every part of your life.

Emotional abusers are good at coercive control – they know how to make a victim do what they want in a way that may not be so obvious at first, manipulating them until they assume that they came to their decision all on their own.

Constant complaining

Complaints are natural if there’s a solution, if a person needs to vent, or if there’s an issue genuinely worth complaining about.

Being in a relationship means that the other person often becomes the receiver of many complaints, whether it be about work, personal issues, or money.

However, if the complaints become a way for an abuser to place blame on the person receiving them, they become unhealthy – it’s not up to you to fix every problem another person has.


Jealousy is a difficult sign to determine because it can be hard to differentiate between what is normal and what is toxic.

Feeling a knot in your stomach when being presented with your partner’s ex is normal, but accusing them of cheating on you under a baseless assumption is not.

Lots of people get jealous because of their own insecurities, but this is not something that should become so intense that it affects the level of truth and respect in a relationship.

Sexual pressure/sexual abuse

While being raped or sexually assaulted are seen as clear indicators of abuse, being coerced into things often isn’t.

Pressuring somebody into performing a sex act that they are not comfortable with, or coercing them into doing something that they don’t want to do, is not normal behaviour and shouldn’t be treated as such.


Emotional abusers don’t want you to have anybody else in your life.

Whether this is because they need to control every aspect of how you spend your time, or because they fear being found out by a friend or family member, they will do their best to make sure that they are the one person you can rely on.

Dependency can be triggered by many different factors but a prime one is believing that you have nobody else to turn to.

Constant messaging 

A decent amount of contact when you’re in a relationship is totally normal.

Sending a lot of messages and having a fair few phone calls is also healthy enough depending on how close you two are and how often you see each other.

However, when dependency becomes an issue, the constant contact becomes decidedly unhealthy.

Demanding to know where you are, getting angry when you don’t respond right away, or even acting upset when you don’t contact them after an extended period of time are all signs that your partner is trying to control your life.

Responding to these messages in an apologetic manner gives the emotional abuser the chance to do just that – unless you have something to be sorry for, don’t be.

This need to control communication can also include logging into your private accounts when you’re not there, reading your personal text messages, or demanding to know your passwords.

Threats of violence

Emotional abusers can have bad tempers that leave their partners feeling afraid and alone.

It’s not uncommon for victims to feel as if they can’t stand up to their abuser for fear that they will lash out, threaten them physically, or threaten to end the relationship.

Remember, threats of violence are still violent behaviour even if nothing physical occurs.

Physical violence

Sometimes, emotional abuse never strays beyond the realm of the emotional.

However, other times it does, and it’s not uncommon for abusers to use physical violence to further the control they have in a relationship.

Physical violence can range from anything from a pinch to a shove to a punch, and is often seen as a means of ‘punishment’ for the victim.

No matter how severe the violence, this kind of aggression does not make for a safe relationship between anybody.

While not all of the above signs, or variations of them, will absolutely point to an emotionally abusive relationship, it’s important to be aware of them.

Certain levels of jealousy, contact, and complaints are healthy and normal, but it’s important to ensure that these don’t turn into something more serious and damaging over time.

Similarly, keeping track of your own behaviour in a relationship is important too.

Many abusers are totally aware of their actions, but at the same time, many aren’t.

For more information on emotional abuse and coercive control, visit Women’s Aid’s website.