11 subtle signs you're in an abusive relationship

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At times, feelings don't lie.

“My name is Julie. I’m a mum of two kids, and have been married for four years to my husband, Max. He doesn’t know it, but I have had conflicting thoughts of leaving him. I am terribly unhappy but I can’t put my finger on exactly why. No, he doesn’t hit me. But he says things that make me feel horrible about myself. Like laughing at my looks (I know I should lose weight) in public or saying I am a crappy cook. Sometimes I wish he would just beat me up or cheat on me so I have an excuse to leave.”   

Does Julie’s situation seem familiar? She’s not being hit by Max, so why is she complaining? She should be thankful for him and her family, yes? She’s not being abused, right? Wrong. 

Julie is being abused, but just not in the way we all know. Here are 11 symptoms of verbal and emotional abuse that are just as harmful as their physical counterpart. 

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In the long run, emotional abuse can be as equally, if not more, harmful, than physical violence.

11 Symptoms of Verbal and Emotional Abuse: Does Your Partner…

1. …Seem Emotionally Fickle?

One day he hugs you, and the next day he appears cold and unfeeling. You don’t understand why. They say they’re not withdrawn — and won’t explain. As a result, anxiety ensues and you try your best to make them happy, all the time self-blaming.

If this sounds familiar, it’s very likely that your spouse is trying to take you under his or her control. This tactic, if done repetitively, can tear even the most confident person into a bootlicker.

2. …Alter Your Schedule for the Sake of “Surprising” You?  

Dr Craig Malkin, a licensed psychologist with over 20 years of experience in helping couples, individuals, and families, coins this sort of behaviour as “stealth control.”

In contrast to in-your-face controlling (authoritarian dictatorship), where the abuser pushes through with their own schedule and does things without the other’s consent, stealth control is much more treacherous. And as the name implies, it is stealthy. 

By suddenly changing plans or reviewing what you decided together to “surprise” you with something supposedly better, your spouse is ruling you, not surprising you.

It’s just that he doesn’t need to demand it. Victims of this kind of emotional abuse become touched by this act, letting the perpetrator repeat it again. Surely, sooner or later, the routine repeats, and eventually your own desires or plans will be set aside. Always. 

3. …Stalk or Follow You Wherever You Go Without You Realising?

Maybe there was that one time where you bumped into your spouse in the car park. But if you seem to be bumping into him more often than not when you are out and about on your own, this could be a red flag. Not only is it a breach of privacy, but it can make you feel insecure in public places.

It’s not a good sign if they often drop by your office without telling you, too. If you feel slightly disturbed by this, use it as a chance to reinforce your boundaries and hope that they will understand. 

4. …Often Say Bad Things About You Which You Disagree with but Somehow Feel like They Are True?

What your partner is doing is effectively moulding your mind into their vision of reality. Yes, they will constantly insult and belittle you. And while you might have been outraged when he first started doing this, gradually, you will come to accept it as the truth. 

When an abusive partner does this to you consistently and over a long period of time, he is very subtly tweaking your mindset without you noticing. By lowering your self-esteem and slowly convincing you that you are incompetent, your partner doesn’t need to put any effort into emotional abuse — because in the long run, you’re doing it to yourself.

It’s just that he doesn’t need to demand it. Victims of this kind of emotional abuse become touched by this act, letting the perpetrator repeat it again. Surely, sooner or later, the routine repeats, and eventually your own desires or plans will be set aside. Always. 

3. …Stalk or Follow You Wherever You Go Without You Realising?

Maybe there was that one time where you bumped into your spouse in the car park. But if you seem to be bumping into him more often than not when you are out and about on your own, this could be a red flag. Not only is it a breach of privacy, but it can make you feel insecure in public places.

It’s not a good sign if they often drop by your office without telling you, too. If you feel slightly disturbed by this, use it as a chance to reinforce your boundaries and hope that they will understand. 

4. …Often Say Bad Things About You Which You Disagree with but Somehow Feel like They Are True?

What your partner is doing is effectively moulding your mind into their vision of reality. Yes, they will constantly insult and belittle you. And while you might have been outraged when he first started doing this, gradually, you will come to accept it as the truth. 

When an abusive partner does this to you consistently and over a long period of time, he is very subtly tweaking your mindset without you noticing. By lowering your self-esteem and slowly convincing you that you are incompetent, your partner doesn’t need to put any effort into emotional abuse — because in the long run, you’re doing it to yourself.

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Don’t fall into the trap of self doubt: There’s always light at the end of the tunnel.

5. …Question Your Perspective (Gaslighting)?

This behaviour is one of the most telling signs among the symptoms of emotional and verbal abuse. Gaslighting is best explained by someone warping your perspective of reality to become what your spouse thinks is reality. 

For example, they might say that you didn’t remember right, or that something didn’t happen, and may conclude that you have a flawed vision of reality.

But don’t be fooled: Your perspective is fine! Your partner is using this trick to control you. The self-doubt that accumulates with these comments will make you likelier to wholeheartedly accept your spouse’s distorted view.

In the long-term, you lose your ability to judge things impartially, making it easier for your spouse to control you.

6. …Appear Overly Paranoid About Your Location and Who Is with You All the Time?

There’s a big difference between worrying about where you are and texting you every hour when you are out with your friends. The former doesn’t spin out of control, turning into never-ending harassment.

Does your partner consistently “interrogate” you about where you are, what you are doing and who you are with? Do they nag you every 30 minutes, asking you to come home? These might be telltale signs of an emotional abuser.

7. …Make You Pity Them Even Though You’re the One Who’s Hurt?

Emotional abusers are expert exploiters. They can easily make you feel bad for something that you aren’t responsible for (and make you feel like that you were responsible for it) and continue harassing you. For instance, they could talk about something from their childhood, how you said something previously (that’s remotely connected) and make you pity them.

Those who suffer from this kind of emotional abuse don’t see this behaviour as abusive. This is because too much emphasis is placed on what the abuser suffered before, linking it to the present. But by constantly making you feel bad for their past, and somehow being responsible for it, you should know that you are being emotionally abused. 

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Don’t fall into the trap of self doubt: There’s always light at the end of the tunnel.

5. …Question Your Perspective (Gaslighting)?

This behaviour is one of the most telling signs among the symptoms of emotional and verbal abuse. Gaslighting is best explained by someone warping your perspective of reality to become what your spouse thinks is reality. 

For example, they might say that you didn’t remember right, or that something didn’t happen, and may conclude that you have a flawed vision of reality.

But don’t be fooled: Your perspective is fine! Your partner is using this trick to control you. The self-doubt that accumulates with these comments will make you likelier to wholeheartedly accept your spouse’s distorted view.

In the long-term, you lose your ability to judge things impartially, making it easier for your spouse to control you.

6. …Appear Overly Paranoid About Your Location and Who Is with You All the Time?

There’s a big difference between worrying about where you are and texting you every hour when you are out with your friends. The former doesn’t spin out of control, turning into never-ending harassment.

Does your partner consistently “interrogate” you about where you are, what you are doing and who you are with? Do they nag you every 30 minutes, asking you to come home? These might be telltale signs of an emotional abuser.

7. …Make You Pity Them Even Though You’re the One Who’s Hurt?

Emotional abusers are expert exploiters. They can easily make you feel bad for something that you aren’t responsible for (and make you feel like that you were responsible for it) and continue harassing you. For instance, they could talk about something from their childhood, how you said something previously (that’s remotely connected) and make you pity them.

Those who suffer from this kind of emotional abuse don’t see this behaviour as abusive. This is because too much emphasis is placed on what the abuser suffered before, linking it to the present. But by constantly making you feel bad for their past, and somehow being responsible for it, you should know that you are being emotionally abused. 

8. …Make You Feel Guilty so that You Apologise, Even Though You Haven’t Done Anything Wrong?

The victims of emotional abuse believe that the insults hurled by their spouse are true since they have been repeated so frequently. Over time they begin to truly believe that they are foolish, inconsiderate or self-centred. 

“How does this happen when I can hardly even feel this among the symptoms of verbal and emotional abuse?” I hear you ask. Picture this scenario: On monday your spouse says that your cooking isn’t to their liking. You taste it… and it seems fine. The next few days they comment on something else — laundry, finances, lack of organisation. You try your best to improve, but the comments still come. Over time, as explained in point four, you internalise these negativities. At one point you might even feel so guilty of your “mistakes” that you would apologise when you haven’t even started doing what you have to do! 

9. …Decline to Recognise Your Strengths, and Can’t See the Value in Your Accomplishments?

Shameful remarks that lower your self esteem may seem like a chance occurrence, but they’re not. Your partner is likely focussing on attacking your strengths that threaten their dominance in the relationship.

Remember, emotional abusers seek authority in the relationship. It makes sense if the symptoms of verbal and emotional abuse all have a common theme: reducing your self-worth so you don’t fight back. Ignoring you, deliberately belittling your comments, or changing the topic to criticise what you are doing (or not doing), are all signs you should seek a relationship counsellor soon. 

Such painful comments from a toxic relationship will very slowly chip away your self esteem little by little until you have no self-worth left. 

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Especially if the insults are harsh and explosive!

10. …Mask Insults as “Jokes?”

Saying bad things about you isn’t a joke: It’s insulting and derogatory. It’s easy to see if this is happening to you: complain and see how your spouse responds. Justifying their actions as a “joke” and that you were too “sensitive” should signal a red flag, as it shows that they can’t respect you for who you are, and are afraid of showing it. 

Keep an eye out for their “jokes” when in a social setting. It’s very likely that your spouse will laugh about your appearance or other weaknesses with their friends. Public comments like, “All you’re good at is crappy cooking” or “Do you know my hubby sucks in bed?” are very clear signs that you have an emotional abuser on your hands.

11. …Hold Back Affection, Sex or Money for Not Following Them?

They could even threaten to only provide these by following their instructions — classically, a relationship with “strings attached.”

This is considered abuse because the spouse is essentially suppressing what any human deserves in a relationship.

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Lastly, remember: Emotional abusers don’t take any shape or form. Men and women of all races can become one.

All these factors may point to a controlling spouse, be it husband or wife. If you recognise any of the symptoms of verbal and emotional abuse on a daily basis, please seek help from a mental health professional or relationship counsellor as soon as possible. 

We at theAsianparent hope that this information has been helpful in managing your current relationship. 

*the author would like to thank the following experts for their input:

References: Elle, Huffington post, Psychology Today, Dr Craig Malkin

Also read: Types of abuse in a relationship

                   How can you deal with an emotionally abusive husband?