25 May, 2020

Do you feel like you’re walking on eggshells around your partner? Do they make you feel like you never measure up? Do you feel confused, controlled, or even scared in your relationship? You could be experiencing emotional abuse.

While physical abuse is generally easy to identify, it can be harder to recognise when you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship. But does that mean emotional abuse isn’t as serious or dangerous as physical abuse? No.

“That’s a little bit like asking ‘Is it more harmful to put your hand in the fire or in a saucepan of cold water and bring it to the boil slowly’?” Relationship Counsellor Shirley Hussie explains.

“Both physical and emotional abuse have the potential to be harmful to one’s physical, psychological, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. The problem with emotional abuse is that because there are no physical signs or obvious marks caused by the abuse, the person being abused often minimises the behaviour because they believe it’s their fault,” she states.

“Emotional abuse often occurs for many years before the person being abused recognises it for what it is and that what is happening is not OK.”

We asked Shirley to share some warning signs you might be in an emotionally abusive relationship, and her advice for someone in this situation.


Types of Emotional Abuse

Someone might use emotionally abusive behaviours in an attempt to intimidate, manipulate, and control their partner, and make them question their self-worth.

“The person doing the abusing has developed subtle and insidious ways to ensure they have control,” says Shirley.

“When you are feeling worthless and confused, the abuser feels powerful and in control.  They will do their best to convince you that no one else will love you the way they do, for you are fundamentally flawed.”

Emotional abuse comes in many forms, including:

  • Trivialising things that are important to you, like your interests, passions, or concerns. They may act like nothing that is important to you is as important as what’s important to them.
  • Being treated like a child and not taken seriously.
  • Verbal abuse, e.g. belittling your accomplishments, making sarcastic jokes about your looks or behaviour, name calling, put-downs and insults.
  • Being ‘shut down’ when trying to communicate. This can include physical gestures such as hand raising, or simply walking away and ignoring you.
  • Dehumanising behaviours such as not looking at you when you’re having a conversation.
  • Lecturing you and not listening to what you have to say when you make a bid for connection and attempt to make conversation.
  • Judging and criticising your life, your work, your family and friends, the way you do things, your appearance, and so on.
  • Changing behaviours when in public. They might portray themselves as charming, kind and caring when in public, yet disrespectful, uncaring, and unkind when behind closed doors.
  • Jealous behaviour, e.g. not wanting you to spent time with friends or family or not wanting you to spend time doing the things you enjoy. This behaviour can appear as romantic in the beginning with your partner saying that they would rather the two of you just be together. But this is a common manipulation technique used to eventually isolate you from as many people as possible.
  • Feeling pressured into having sex or feeling manipulated into performing sexual acts you are not comfortable with.
  • Feeling pressured into using drugs or alcohol when you have said you do not wish to partake.
  • Monitoring your whereabouts and constantly checking in/keeping tabs with messages and phone calls when you’re apart.
  • Checking your phone and deleting messages or contacts, e.g. deleting Facebook friends.
  • Being blamed for your partner’s problems and being told that everything that is wrong with the relationship or in their life is your fault.

These are just some of the types of emotional abuse, and they can happen to people of all ages and genders.

“I have worked with many people from all different walks of life who have shared their story of being emotionally abused. It can happen to anyone,” says Shirley.


Signs of Emotional Abuse

As an experienced relationship counsellor, Shirley has worked with many people living with emotional abuse. She states that often, clients on the receiving end of emotional abuse aren’t aware that this is what they’re experiencing.

“They often identify as feeling ‘emotionally beaten’, but think it is normal behaviour,” she explains.

Some of the common signs that you might be experiencing emotional abuse include:

  • Feeling like you’re walking on eggshells around your partner. You might feel like you have to be on high alert and think about your every step. You might feel stressed, unable to relax, and unable to be yourself.
  • Feeling like you’ve ‘lost yourself’ in the relationship.
  • Feeling like nothing you do is good enough for your partner.
  • Feeling unworthy and bad about yourself, lacking confidence, feeling guilty, and feeling inferior compared to your partner.
  • Constantly questioning your own behaviour and second-guessing yourself. The technical term for this is gas lighting. For example, your partner might deny things they have said or done or deny that an argument even took place. Over time, this can leave you questioning your own sanity.
  • Making attempts to speak with your partner about your hurt feelings and being accused of overreacting and being dramatic.
  • Confusion is a big one. You are loved by this person, and you love them, yet you are being abused by them.

“The person doing the abusing does not want you to think clearly,” Shirley explains. “They want you to stay confused, they want you to second-guess yourself. That way, they continue to have control, and the relationship works for them.”


Advice for Anyone Experiencing Emotional Abuse

So what can you do if you’re living with an emotionally abusive partner?

Shirley recommends getting some space from your partner if you can.

“Find a way to take a break from the toxic environment so you can begin to think clearly,” she advises. “When you are around the toxicity and in the muddy waters, you cannot make clear decisions.”

Shirley suggests accepting that you can’t make your partner change their behaviours, but you can take responsibility for how you respond.

“Decide to take responsibility for your own life and stop waiting for the abuser to change. The likelihood they will is very slim or more often than not, non-existent,” she says.

“Find the courage to take the steps to take control of your life and say enough is enough.  Know and trust that you are worthy and you deserve to be treated with love, kindness, and respect. Learn to set firm boundaries and know what is and is not acceptable, and make it clear to anyone who crosses those boundary that you will no longer tolerate that behaviour.”

“Learn to love, accept, and respect yourself, and to have compassion for yourself so that you will no longer allow others to disrespect you and treat you in a way that is not aligned with your own values.    You are lovable and you are enough. Put yourself to the top of the priority list – you are worth it.”

Counselling can also be an effective option. Shirley recommends seeking the support of a therapist or counsellor who has experience working in this area.


If you’re having a hard time in your relationship and need someone to talk to, you can call us on 1300 364 277 to book individual and/or couples counselling.

If you believe you or your children are in immediate danger, please call 000.

Read about the signs of a controlling relationship and get more professional advice in this article. Or discover our relationship services, courses, FAQs, and advice here.