“Emotional abuse is insidious,” therapist Sharie Stines, who specialises in recovery from abuse, told HuffPost. “It’s often invisible. It’s frequently designed so that only the target knows she’s being abused, and on the surface, the abuser looks ‘normal.’”
Behaviours like gaslighting, criticising, insulting, belittling, blaming, threatening, isolating and withholding affection or money can all be forms of emotional abuse. Abusers use these tactics and others to wear down their partner’s self-confidence and independence, allowing the perpetrator to gain and sustain power and control in the relationship.
“Victims of emotional abuse are never validated, reassured, listened to or understood. They are left feeling lonely, confused, hurt, and insecure.”
Abusive relationships don’t always begin this way, though. In fact, they may initially seem loving and caring, at least on the surface. During the early days of the relationship, the perpetrator uses grooming techniques, like charm, gifts and affection, to rope in the victim before pulling the rug out from under them.
“That ‘kindness’ is designed to win over the trust and confidence of an unsuspecting victim, making them vulnerable to subsequent abuse,” Lisa Ferentz, a licensed clinical social worker and educator specialising in trauma, previously told HuffPost.
Emotional abuse can eventually escalate into physical violence. And perpetrators who engage in abuse, be it physical or verbal, tend to utilise the same type of language.
Below, experts reveal some of the common phrases abusive partners use. (You can read about some of the behavioural warning signs in this post.)
1. “You’re too sensitive.”
Emotional abusers will try to dismiss your legitimate feelings about something hurtful they’ve done or said — say, insulting your cooking in front of friends, but claiming it was just a joke — by accusing you of being “too sensitive.”
“It takes the focus off the offending behaviour. It is a form of gaslighting,” said psychotherapist Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, author of “Gaslighting: Recognise Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People — and Break Free.” “It leaves someone feeling invalidated and with a sense of shame.”
2. “You’re impossible to please.”
Emotional abusers are master manipulators, Stines said. They’ll give you backhanded compliments — “the apartment doesn’t look as dirty as the last time you tried to clean” or “you can’t even tell how heavy you are in that outfit” — which are actually insults. When you call them out on it, they’ll deny that they said anything rude and write you off as impossible to please.
“The victim is confused and thinks, ‘I am impossible to please,’” Stines said. “This is because her abuser is so hurtful that she feels displeased often. It’s not really her fault for feeling so unhappy, it’s really the fault of her abuser who keeps psychologically hurting her.”
3. “Your friends don’t have your back like I do.”
It’s to the perpetrator’s advantage to isolate the victim from their friends, family and other members of their support system. That way, no one is around to witness the abusive behaviour or help the victim safely exit the relationship. Abusers often do this by discouraging you from hanging out with your friends — who they’ll say don’t have your best interests at heart — while convincing you to spend as much one-on-one time with them as possible.
“For example, my partner used to say that my friends were coming between our relationship or that I couldn’t do anything right because I was always on the phone,” said domestic violence educator and survivor Zoë Flowers, author of “From Ashes to Angel’s Dust: A Journey Through Womanhood.” “Luckily, I never believed him and kept seeing my friends, albeit secretly, which ultimately saved my life when I left.”
4. “Why are you making such a big deal out of this?”
Emotionally abusive partners will ignore the issue at hand and flip it back on you instead. Let’s say the perpetrator came home hours late from work without calling to let you know. When you try to tell your partner you were worried or frustrated because you had already prepared dinner, they won’t apologise or take responsibility. Instead they’ll chastise you for blowing things out of proportion yet again.
“The light is no longer shining on the late and insensitive partner, but on the victim of the emotional abuse,” Stines said. “What are her options? If she shares her feelings, such as, ‘I was feeling ignored, or worried,’ her abuser would respond with something like, ’You’re too sensitive,’ or ‘You always overreact.’ These comments are stated to shut up the victim so that she doesn’t dare question him now or in the future.”
5. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Gaslighters will make you question your own judgment, memories and sense of reality. When you make an accusation based on something you experienced, a gaslighter will tell you it never happened or that your memory is faulty.
“This then leads to the person relying on the gaslighter for what has been presented as the ‘correct’ version of reality,” Moulton Sarkis said. “Someone may feel that they are losing their sanity and become dependent on the gaslighter.”
6. “Everyone thinks you’re crazy.”
Once a gaslighter has made you doubt your own perceptions, they’ll convince you that other people think you’re mentally unstable, too, which shakes your confidence even further.
“It’s dismissive,” Moulton Sarkis said. “It also makes a person feel like they have no outside support, thus isolating them from friends and family. The more isolated a person feels, the less likely they will be to leave an abusive relationship.”
7. “My ex was so much better than you.”
Comparing you unfavourably to their former partners is yet another attempt to chip away at your self-esteem. They might make disparaging remarks about how your appearance, intelligence, skills, or personality stack up to their exes or other people in your lives.
These types of comments are “used to diminish their partner’s spirit and confidence,” Flowers said.
What should you do if your partner makes these kinds of comments?
It depends. There’s no one-size-fits-all response when it comes to dealing with an abusive partner.
“I do not want to put anyone in more danger by providing someone with a blanket suggestion about what they should or should not say,” Flowers said. “I believe survivors are the experts in their relationships.”
If you’re in an abusive relationship (or suspect you might be), Flowers recommends calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) where advocates can provide guidance tailored to your specific situation.
Additionally, these expert-backed tips may help you deal with a toxic, manipulative partner:
Trust your gut.
Over time, emotional abuse makes it more difficult to tap into what your intuition is trying to tell you. But if you have a gut feeling that something is off, don’t ignore it.
“When you feel that tension in the pit of your stomach, or a sense of unease with a situation, don’t immediately dismiss that feeling because someone else thinks you should,” clinical psychologist B. Nilaja Green previously told HuffPost. “Investigate what this sensation could be telling you and get more information before making your next move.”
Know your hooks.
“These are the weaknesses or soft spots in your own psyche that an emotional abuser will exploit,” Stines said.
“For instance, if it’s easy for you to feel guilty, remind yourself not to make decisions out of guilt. If your weakness is ‘giving him the benefit of the doubt,’ remind yourself that this only works with non-emotional abusers. Abusers will exploit your good nature.”
Trying to convince your partner to see your side is probably a waste of time.
You may try different ways to make your case to them, but it’s no use. Explaining yourself doesn’t work with an emotional abuser.
“Victims of emotional abuse are never validated, reassured, listened to, or understood,” Stines said. “They are left feeling lonely, confused, hurt and insecure.”
If you feel inclined to respond, Stines suggests saying something non-combative like, “Thank you for sharing your thoughts about me. Perhaps you’re right. But I don’t think so.”
“Make a decision to stop arguing with your abuser,” she added. “That is one example of a healthy boundary. Remember, you can’t set boundaries for anyone but yourself.”
When you’re feeling defensive, try to disengage from the conversation.
“Call a friend. Journal. Do something other than defend yourself,” Stines said. “Remind yourself that you don’t need to defend yourself because you didn’t do anything wrong.”
The most effective response, in Moulton Sarkis’ view, is to not respond at all.
“Any type of response can and will be used against you, either now or in the future,” she said. “The purpose of using this emotionally abusive language is not just to hurt you — it is also to make you look unstable and then blame you for supposedly being ‘irrational.’”
Remember to lean on your support system.
Need a safe place to stay, a listening ear or help finding a professional who specialises in abusive relationships? Turn to a trusted person in your life who can help you access the support you need.
Help and support:
If you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police. If you are not in immediate danger, you can contact:
- The Freephone 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Refuge: 0808 2000 247
- In Scotland, contact Scotland’s 24 hour Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline: 0800 027 1234
- In Northern Ireland, contact the 24 hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline: 0808 802 1414
- In Wales, contact the 24 hour Life Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800.
- National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428
- Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327
- Respect helpline (for anyone worried about their own behaviour): 0808 802 0321