Emotional abuse is not only much harder to detect than physical abuse, but it can be just as damaging. In fact, I don’t have a single female friend who hasn’t endured an emotionally abusive relationship at some point in their life. It’s almost like a sick rite of passage. For this reason, I want to provide a resource of ten major red flags to look out for, backed by a few of my own anecdotes.
Severe Mood Swings
There’s a phrase my friends like to use to describe this behaviour: “manic pixie dream boy/girl”. This person’s mood can swing from one extreme to the other in a short period of time. One minute they can be your potential soulmate, then turn nasty the next. This behaviour is one of the most alarming, as abusive partners tend to use their extreme kindness to “make up” for their abusive episodes.
Anecdote: I had a partner who would spoil me with romantic gifts, bubble baths, and dinner (all at the same time). Then on another day, they’d turn sour and belittle me.
Gaslighting is the act of manipulating another person to believe that they are the one being unreasonable or crazy. It’s a type of brainwashing that makes you doubt your perception of reality. Plus, it’s so subtle, you might not even pick it up.
Anecdote: I had a partner who convinced me that the contraceptive pill was to blame for my diminishing libido. I suffered intense guilt and even asked my doctor if there was something wrong with me. Spoiler alert: there wasn’t.
Some examples of possessive behaviour include: coming on very strongly early on in the relationship, stalking, jealousy, wanting you to be with them 24/7, and constantly looking for validation from you. This can also be defined as “co-dependency”.
Controlling behaviour significantly overlaps with possessive behaviour. Examples include: telling you what they think you should wear or how you should behave, withholding affection as “punishment”, and controlling your finances or your freedom. Ultimatums are a huge red flag – if they try to make you choose between them and another person, do not engage.
Another, more subtle, example of controlling behaviour is complaining that you “never compromise”. When in fact, their idea of compromise is exclusively doing what they want. This is also a form of gaslighting.
Anecdote: I’ve indeed had two different partners attempt to make me choose between them and one of my friends. One instance was a female friend; the other, a male friend.
If this person has an external locus of control, they will blame everyone else for their problems, including you. It’s not just abusive, but an alarming personality flaw. It’s an easy way for them to relinquish any responsibility for their actions.
Anecdote: I had a partner who would insist on paying for dinner or drinks while we were out. The next day, they would be angry with me because I “made” them spend so much money.
Verbal abuse can range from outright profanity during an argument, to cloaking insults in sarcasm. Saying “I’m just kidding” after an insulting remark is a classic use of sarcasm to absolve them of any ramifications. More red flags include: using the silent treatment, distancing themselves, and refusing to communicate during a conflict.
Anedcote: I had a partner who’d frequently tell me they were kidding after saying the most unbelievable statements. One time, when we were discussing the prospect of kids in the future, I said that I’d want my kids to choose their own religion. In response, they screwed up their face and said “I need an upgrade” – later telling me they were “joking”.
This person may expect you to look a certain way or behave like someone you’re not. They might impart a quixotic role on you to become the perfect partner whose sole purpose is to benefit them. They may also negatively compare you to others on a frequent basis.
Anecdote: I had a partner who’d tell me that I wasn’t “cool” because I wasn’t a beer drinker. Every time they saw a woman enjoying a beer, they’d point it out to me. They also told me what I should be wearing around the house to “please them”.
Isolation is a form of controlling behaviour. They might tell you that your friends or family are a bad influence, and try to stop you from seeing them. They may even ask you to live with them in a location far from your support network.
Anecdote: My friends strongly believed that a partner was doing just that; however, it was too subtle for me to recognise.
Violating Your Boundaries
This person does not respect your boundaries – physically or emotionally. They may feel entitled to your body, resulting in forced sexual acts. They might treat you like an object that belongs to them, or get upset if you decline their advances.
Anecdote: Unfortunately, this happened to me. However, at the time, I didn’t acknowledge it because I wasn’t afraid of them. They also thought that saying “no” in a light tone actually meant “yes”. I also had a partner who once kicked me out of their house because I didn’t want to have intercourse with them.
Violence Towards Other Beings
Even if they aren’t violent towards you, pay close attention to the way they treat their family members or animals. It can reveal a lot about the level of natural respect they have for others. It can provide insight into how differently that person could treat you depending on their perception of you in the moment.
Anecdote: I had a partner who’d play favourites with their family’s pets. The least favourite pet would receive verbal or physical aggression, whereas the favourite would be treated in a gentle, loving manner.
What to Do if You’re in an Abusive Relationship
- Immediately stop engaging with abusive behaviour and acknowledge that it’s not your fault.
- Try communicating with your partner and setting clear boundaries.
- Keep a journal of the abusive episodes. Maintaining a record is an invaluable tool to help spot behavioural patterns.
- Please listen to your friends if they are concerned about you. I didn’t listen at the time because I didn’t perceive the behaviour as abusive.
- Research sources of professional help in your area. If you feel that you’re in danger, contact your local domestic abuse hotline or the police.
- Try to exit the relationship as smoothly as you can. Distance from that partner can help clear your head.