What are the signs of emotional abuse in a relationship?

When we talk about domestic abuse in relationships, many people automatically think of physical violence. That isn’t always the case.

Emotional abuse can be just as devastating as physical abuse, and harder to recognise. Emotional abuse often takes place behind closed doors and can have devastating health effects including anxiety, depression, insomnia, eating disorders, heart palpitations and stomach ulcers. 

Perhaps the most damaging and lasting effect of emotional abuse is a loss of self. Victims of emotional abuse can internalise their abuse until they lose track of who they really are. They can become isolated from friends and family, convinced that they are unlovable, and the spiral gets worse and worse. 

Emotional abuse comes down to control; an emotionally abusive partner frightens, manipulates and isolates their victim to maintain control over them.

How to spot signs of an emotionally abusive relationship

Emotionally abusive relationships aren’t always obvious from the outside – or the inside. In many cases, they even start out as a relatively normal relationship. But things can change, and emotional abuse can creep in slowly, so it’s important to know what signs to look out for. 

Some signs of emotional abuse in a relationship include:

  • Controlling behaviour
  • Criticism, humiliation and put downs
  • Blaming and accusatory behaviour
  • Emotional neglect
  • Isolation
  • Co-dependence

In some relationships, all of these behaviours may be present while in others there may only be signs of one or two. 

Controlling behaviour

Controlling behaviour can come in a number of guises, but it always shows as a way to limit or restrict the way someone can live.

Things like threats, financial control and giving orders are all major signs of emotional abuse. But it can also be other actions like monitoring their partners behaviour and whereabouts, stalking, digital control, accessing their phone or social media accounts, belittling or infantilising their partner, lecturing, making their partner feel beneath them or lesser than them and possessiveness are all signs of emotional abuse. 

Criticism, humiliation and put downs

The emotionally abusive partner might call their partner hurtful names, put them down publicly and/or privately, undermine them or humiliate them. They’ll be dismissive of their partner’s interests and needs. They might pose insults as jokes or sarcasm and defend themselves by saying the partner has no sense of humour if they complain. 

Blaming and accusatory behaviour

The abuser is often extremely jealous and may make accusations of cheating or flirting. They’ll guilt their partner into getting their way, they’ll trivialise their partner’s concerns and might blame their bad moods or behaviour on the partner. They’ll often gaslight their partner by making them disbelieve their own experiences.

Emotional neglect

Emotional neglect can include dehumanising their victim, using the “silent treatment” as punishment, demanding respect, ignoring their partner, withholding physical affection and disputing or invalidating the victim’s feelings. This can often be linked with other methods of controlling behaviour.


Isolation can involve social abuse – keeping the partner isolated from family and friends – by cancelling or restricting social events, monitoring their communications and intentionally turning other people against their partner. Other aspects of domestic abuse like restricting their partner’s religious practises can tie in with feelings of isolation. 


In a co-dependent relationship, the victim of emotional abuse will do everything they can to please the abusive partner including damaging actions like distancing themselves from friends and family, trying to “fix” or change themselves and repressing their own feelings. 

Meanwhile, the abuser relies on the victim to make them feel powerful and convinces them they can’t leave the relationship. Co-dependence can make it hard for the victim to leave the relationship. 

What help is available for people in an emotionally abusive relationship

If you suspect you, a friend or family member is suffering from emotional abuse you can:

  • let them know you’re there for them
  • keep connected even if they push you away or cancel plans
  • listen without judgement
  • assure them that you believe what they’ve told you
  • let them know what resources are available to them 

Domestic violence resources

If someone is in immediate danger, dial 000.

NSW Domestic Violence Line
1800 65 64 63

This service provides domestic violence counselling, referrals and advice.


This is a national helpline providing resources for those who experience abuse.

Crime Stoppers
1800 333 000

Family lawyers
1300 735 947

With offices throughout New South Wales, East Coast Law Family Law can provide legal advice and mediation on domestic violence related matters.

For more information on domestic violence, including what signs to look for and how you can help someone who is suffering from emotional abuse, download our free domestic violence support eBook.



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