What does emotional abuse look like

In a world that has become increasingly aggressive, it can sometimes lead us to a guessing game as to what constitutes ’emotional abuse’.  For me, I had a hard time in the beginning of my past marriage and in a subsequent relationship to reconcile the difference between my partner being difficult and it crossing over into emotional abuse.  There is a fine line. Not fully understanding where that line was led me to staying and accepting the behavior much longer than I should have. The unfortunate side of that is that once the behavior starts and is tolerated, it only escalates. It’s that pull to the water and the splashes in the face that lead to being submerged and held under.

As outlined on the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s website (https://www.thehotline.org/is-this-abuse/abuse-defined/) these are some warning signs that you might be in an emotionally/verbally abusive relationship:

  • Calling you names, insulting you or continually criticizing you
  • Refusing to trust you and acting jealous or possessive
  • Trying to isolate you from family or friends
  • Monitoring where you go, who you call and who you spend time with
  • Demanding to know where you are every minute
  • Trapping you in your home or preventing you from leaving
  • Using weapons to threaten to hurt you
  • Punishing you by withholding affection
  • Threatening to hurt you, the children, your family or your pets
  • Damaging your property when they’re angry (throwing objects, punching walls, kicking doors, etc.)
  • Humiliating you in any way
  • Blaming you for the abuse
  • Gaslighting
  • Accusing you of cheating and being often jealous of your outside relationships
  • Serially cheating on you and then blaming you for his or her behavior
  • Cheating on you intentionally to hurt you and then threatening to cheat again
  • Cheating to prove that they are more desired, worthy, etc. than you are
  • Attempting to control your appearance: what you wear, how much/little makeup you wear, etc.
  • Telling you that you will never find anyone better, or that you are lucky to be with a person like them


A person’s situation may involve one or many of these.  I experienced the majority of these.  However, not all at one time. They happened in waves, one of them here or there, and always with the excuse that I was to blame for what was happening. The manipulation that I was at fault for it led to shame, self-correction and internalizing. It wasn’t until I had escaped the deep water that I was able to reflect on what had happened and how it spiraled in the span of 18 years.

I thought I had all figured out and knew all of these signs. As a single mom determined to make better choices for my children, I was committed to learning why I had ended up in the deep water. I went over and over what had happened and how to avoid it. Joe had been hostile and aggressive in his abuse and that was what I was focused on. What I had yet to learn was that a more passive aggressive approach to control was still abuse and incredibly damaging. After talking with many other women and my fantastic therapist, I had to expand my knowledge of what constitutes abuse. I think this is an area that many survivors with children can find themselves in. These aren’t as typical in public descriptions of abuse. While the article talks about “jealous of your outside relationships,” I never could have imagined that that could be about my own children. Besides a couple of the listed warning signs, isolation from my children was something I hadn’t experienced in my marriage, but came to learn about in that next relationship.

Isolation from my children became a hallmark and is abuse. I had a hard time balancing this in my head because I was protective of my children after what they had been through. We had not had anything of a typical life together thus far. I had taken the time to build a firm layer of trust and bonding between my kids and myself. When my next relationship started he was very supportive of that and complementary. That became intermittent as complaints of how attached to me they were. I struggled. I knew that I saw more typical family situations where the children were even more clingy and dependent. Due to the fact the my parenting had been a constant criticism in my marriage, I was already in the habit of questioning myself.

What started out as simple as being annoyed when my children would interrupt a phone conversation, led to being annoyed and showing great disdain anytime the younger two needed me. Chastising the decisions I was making for my children became regular. Jealousy seemed to be at the forefront, not even wanting my daughter to sit beside me. With my oldest son it came to fueling his teenage angst with me, as his parent,  against me. The bond that I had created with my kids was quickly feeling like I had done that all wrong. He wanted to be first and for my kids to be minimal in my life. Luckily, my love for them drew me back to the beach at a quicker pace this time. Once again, I thought it was the other person being difficult. I came to learn that this was a form of emotional abuse and isolation.  Coupled with many other instances of control, I realized that I needed to explore further what abuse was and my own tolerance of them.

There were many things that were eerily similar between these two relationships, but handled differently. The one similarity that is the most alarming, is the fact that with both I ended up thinking, “I wish he would just hit me.” The pain that emotional abuse causes and the undermining manner in which it operates, made me feel invalidated.  I thought that the emotional pain was not enough to constitute a departure from that relationship. To feel that kind of torment emotionally and to have that thought was my biggest warning sign. No one deserves to be held under the water and made to feel like they deserve it.

Wether it be aggressive in nature or more passive aggressive, both are damaging to the psyche.  If you are in a situation where you are questioning or doubtful of what is happening, I encourage you to reach out and explore. It is much better to walk away with a splash of water than to be struggling to survive after being completely submerged.

2 thoughts on “What does emotional abuse look like

  1. Alicia, your introspection and strength continue to inspire me. Thank you for sharing your experiences. Although I have found happiness, I was emotionally abused in a previous marriage and I never want that for my children. I share your posts with them in the hopes that if they are ever in an abusive relationship, something you have written will emerge in their thoughts and they will act instead of drowning. Thank you for your courage to be vulnerable and share.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I appreciate your willingness to be vulnerable here. I read with the lens of knowing your story deeper, but also filing away your points to be more supportive to those around me. I’m thankful to have your impact in my life!


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