How To Recognize The Signs Of An Emotionally Abusive Relationship

abusive relationship

How To Recognize The Signs Of An Emotionally Abusive Relationship

An episode of our Mind of a Mentor podcast features special guest Renee Millington, who talked about her personal experience with spousal abuse. Women make up 85% of domestic abuse victims, making them more likely to experience an abusive relationship in their lifetime. Here, we take a closer look on how to recognize if you are in an abusive relationship and steps on how to get out of it.

Recognize the signs

It is incredibly important to remember that physical violence is not the sole form of abuse. Emotionally abusive relationships can be even more damaging and difficult to detect because the wounds are invisible. While an abusive relationship often starts out like any other, certain behaviors surface in the relationship that usually increase in severity over time. The following signs are some of the most common red flags of a controlling partner.


There can be something ego-boosting about being with someone who seems to think you’re so beautiful that any other human with a working set of eyeballs wouldn’t be able to resist the thought of getting you in bed. However, if your partner has any self-esteem, this possessiveness should quickly subside and give way to a trust that you are capable of being faithful. While at first, your partner’s jealous tendencies may seem harmless, frequent and overwhelming jealousy is a major red flag as it often spirals into accusations, threats, and the idea of having a sense of ownership over you.

There is a difference between your partner putting a protective hand on your back to let others know you’re together, versus holding onto you the whole night to ensure you don’t interact with other people he automatically assumes to be sexual conquests. If he gets angry when he sees you interacting with others or starts questioning your relationships with platonic friends, it’s time to get out.

Recognize that your partner’s expectation for you to isolate yourself from every other man (or in same-sex relationships, woman) on Earth is completely unreasonable, and by doing so, (s)he is setting you up for failure. Your partner’s anger toward your platonic interactions with other people who align with your sexual preference is not the result of your failure to behave properly, but their own insecurity and overwhelming desire to control you.

This kind of jealousy is part of your partner’s agenda to increasingly isolate you, which is another powerful form of emotional abuse. If their jealousy makes you feel like you are constantly being set up to fail, trust your gut and GET OUT.

Insulting your Friends

Unless your partner has given you a valid reason why (s)he believes one of your friendships could be hurtful to you (e.g., your friend is known to drink and drive, steal from you, talk about you behind your back, etc.), then (s)he should respect you enough to let you hang out with whomever you want.

If your partner never wants to hang out with your friends, and shames or discourages you when you do, think about why your partner is doing this. Even in healthy relationships, it is normal for both partners to want to hold onto quality relationships with other people in their lives. Your partner’s desire to isolate you from your friends is a sign of their desire to gain control and power over your life. 

emotionally abusive relationship

Constantly Keeping Tabs on You

Unless you’ve been missing for ten days while lost in the jungle, there’s no reason for your partner to constantly need to know where you are. A “Hey! What are you up to?” text is friendly curiosity, but demanding to know where you are 24 hours a day is a strategy to have control over your entire life and keep you on a short leash.

Be aware that there are also less aggressive forms of emotional manipulation that can be just an effective in controlling your behavior. If your partner is prone to acting sad, rejected or annoyed when you do things without them, s(he) is inflicting guilt upon you for an activity that does not warrant such a reaction. Being in a relationship should not require that you cease to exist as an independent person.

“With things like abuse — whether it be physical or emotional — the root of it is control.
-Renee Millington

Realize the Situation   

One way to detect these harmful behaviors is to imagine that someone you have a stable relationship with started to behave in the way that your partner is acting. Reread the string of paragraph-long text messages you just received. Write down what your partner said during the fight you had last night. Print out a stack of their crazy emails.

Now pretend all of this had come from your loving and supportive best friend. Hopefully you would not accept that type of behavior. The bottom line is this: you should be able to expect that your partner will treat you better than your best friend; in fact, if they want to be #1 in your life, the very least you should be able to expect is that they will treat you better than anyone else in your life.

Standing up to an emotionally abusive romantic partner is easier said than done. That’s what makes this emotional mind-screw so insidious — how hard it can be to see in the moment. Most of us probably believe that we’re smart enough to recognize when our partner has become emotionally abusive, but it can be surprisingly difficult to recognize when the shift is gradual.

You most likely fell for this person at a time when they were still acting rational and stable and wonderful, so it is natural to believe that your partner is capable of going back to behaving like the person you fell in love with if only YOU could stop screwing up and setting them off. When your relationship starts off in a great place and gradually morphs into a toxic dynamic, it is amazing how easy it can be to grow tone-deaf to the signs of abuse that would probably be obvious to you as someone on the outside.

It is natural to try to rationalize or defend your partner’s behavior, but you must make a conscious effort to identify this tendency and stop doing it. Identify a friend who is comfortable with calling you out and ask them to hold you accountable every time you start to make excuses as to why your partner acted in an inexcusable way.

abusive relationship

If someone is determined to control you, you cannot win. There will never be enough hours of alone time, compliments, isolation, or perfectly-crafted sentences to transform an abusive partner and establish a healthy, stable relationship. You are not doing anything to warrant an abusive partner’s behavior, therefore there is nothing you can do to change the way that they choose to treat you.

The only thing that you do have control over is your presence in your partner’s life. Get out. Recognize that your relationship with yourself needs to be number one. Leaving an abusive partner is incredibly difficult because it is a catalyst for even more extreme behavior. Your partner will probably promise to change, beg for you to come back, and possibly even threaten to harm you or someone/something you care about, or even harm themselves. Don’t give into their last attempts to manipulate you. This behavior is not about you, it is entirely selfish and all about them. People who actually love you genuinely want you to be happy, and they will care about your happiness even more than their own. Take this as yet another sign of an emotionally abusive relationship and stay strong.

The thing with an abusive relationship is that it slowly creeps up on you. It’s like a fish in warm water. They don’t realize that they are at a boiling point until it’s too late.
-Renee Millington

Reconnect and Retrieve Resources

Once you have recognized that you are in an abusive relationship, reconnect with your loved ones. Apologize for your absence in their life and listen to what they have to say. It’s important to hear the perspective of your loved ones through the haze of your own confusion.

Next, with or without the support of your loved ones, create a plan of action. If you were cohabitating with your partner, come up with a non-confrontational way to retrieve your belongings and find a safe place to stay. Don’t be afraid to ask your close friends for help, even if you had been forced to push them away during your relationship. If they aren’t understanding, send them an article like this one to help them understand emotional abuse.

Call a shelter for a place to stay if you don’t have any friends or family who can assist you. Tell only your closest friends where you are and what you’re planning to do. Consider enlisting the help of professionals like law enforcement, lawyers and mental health experts if the situation becomes more than you can handle on your own. Don’t be afraid to seek out support groups in your area that will help you to process your emotions and build a network of additional support and resources. 

But most importantly, if you feel afraid for your safety when exiting this relationship, seek professional help. Thankfully, there are numerous resources to help you through this excruciating process and onto a path of healing and normalcy. One extremely helpful source is the National Domestic Violence Hotline. They not only have highly trained advocates available to talk over the phone and online 24/7, but they also provide invaluable information about abusive relationships and tools for evaluating your own circumstances.

If you do not feel that you are in immediate danger and/or are unsure about the state of your relationship, visit for further information and resources.

“It was a definitely a planning time for me. I had to make sure that not only was I protecting myself, because I couldn’t allude to the fact that I was leaving him.”
-Renee Millington

Remember: Recognize the signs. Realize the situation. Reconnect and Retrieve Resources.


Listen to Renee Millington’s podcast episode on Mind of a Mentor.


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