Emotional abuse is insidious: Not only does it take many forms, it can be difficult to recognize. According to Denise Renye, a certified sexologist and psychologist, emotional abuse “may be delivered as yelling, putting a partner down, commenting on a partner’s body, deliberately not respecting a partner’s boundaries, and saying one thing while doing something else entirely.” It also may be accompanied by physical, sexual, or financial abuse, but whether or not it occurs on its own, it’s devastating.
At first, abusers may seem like charismatic and charming people, waiting until they and their partner have hit a milestone such as moving in together before they show their true colors. Renye points out that abusers also often manipulate their partners into thinking abusive behavior is romantic. Their behavior may be a product of unchecked jealousy, “something that abusers often feel is justified and conveys a sign that they ‘really love’ their partner,” Renye says. “However, it is a form of control if the abuser cannot contain and internally deal with his or her own feelings.”
Other factors such as financial abuse, in which an abuser dictates their partner’s access to economic resources, can make it even harder for survivors to escape. What’s more, abusers may try to convince their partners that they don’t deserve better — but no one ever deserves abuse. Here are 11 abusive behaviors abusers might pretend are romantic but are in reality toxic and manipulative.
1. They frequently direct angry outbursts at you.
Passion in a relationship should mean intimacy, laughter, and warmth inside your chest from your partner’s love and your love for them. Whatever movies and TV shows would have you believe, passion should not include unpredictable outbursts. Yes, every couple is going to bicker and disagree, but conflict should be accompanied by healthy communication, not screaming or temper tantrums.
“The abusive partner can appear to be very calm, cool, and collected when others are around, but then turn into a Mr. Hyde behind closed doors,” Renye says. It’s one thing for your partner to be annoyed that you accidentally bought expired milk; it’s entirely different for them to scream at you because of it. That’s not passionate, it’s abusive.
2. They criticize the way you look or how you dress.
You get to wear and look how you want. End of story. “Criticizing a partner’s clothing or body is something that an abuser may chalk up to a form of ‘protecting’ the partner or the relationship,” Renye says. “They may say something like, ‘I don’t want you to get unwanted attention’ or ‘I don’t want anyone looking at my lady (or man) like that.’” Partners in healthy relationships will tell you when you have lipstick on your teeth, but they won’t try to cover you up.
Conversely, if you’re more comfortable dressed down or conservatively, you shouldn’t be pressured into dressing “sexy” for your partner or to impress their friends. Fashion and beauty are forms of self-expression. While it’s fine to ask your partner for their opinion about an outfit, it’s never OK for them to shame, insult, or pressure you in response.
3. Your partner insults and curses at you when they’re upset, then begs for your forgiveness later.
Your partner doesn’t have to use language that’s obviously derogatory for the things they say to you to be unacceptable. Calling a partner “pathetic,” “stupid,” or telling them to “fuck off” constitutes verbal abuse, too. Abusers often name-call and swear at their partners as part of the “ explosion” phase in the cycle of abuse; after the outburst, they may try to win you over again with exaggerated gestures and pleas for your forgiveness.
They may even say they used the words they did because they love you and were just expressing intense emotions. “Oftentimes, abusers say that they are doing the abuse, which they do not consider abuse, for the ‘good of the relationship,’ or that it’s ‘romantic,’’ Renye says. During the outburst part of the abuse cycle, a relationship can feel very dramatic. After the abusive partner has begged their way back to you, they may hide their manipulative and toxic tendencies for a while, but another outburst is likely to occur.
4. They text and call you constantly to check in.
It sucks when your texts go unanswered. No one wants to be blown off or ghosted. When you’re used to fuckboys who can’t be bothered to write you back, at first, constant communication can feel good. But after a while, if communication with your partner starts to feel inescapable and involves repeated requests to know where you are, what you’re doing, and who you’re with, it may have crossed a line.
“It puts the person receiving the abuse in a constant state of anxiety about what the consequence will be,” says somatic psychologist and sex therapist Holly Richmond. “They know their partner always thinks they’re doing something wrong even when they’re not.” If your partner is upset when you don’t answer their messages immediately, they may try to tell you it’s because they miss you, but missing someone shouldn’t involve guilting them into being glued to their phone.
5. They refuse to leave your personal space.
Even if they have a boombox in hand like they’re straight out of an ’80s flick, no one should refuse to leave your front yard — or bed, or apartment, or any personal space of yours — until they get what they want from you. (While we’re on the subject, there are more than a few rom-coms that portray manipulation as romantic.) If you tell someone to leave you alone and they plant their ass on your doorstep until you agree to let them in, don’t let that pass as devotion, because it’s not. “Emotional abusers do not have boundaries because they are just too insecure,” Richmond tells Allure. You know what’s truly sexy? Respecting boundaries.
6. They try to control the people you spend time with.
Even in monogamous relationships, our partners aren’t supposed to be our everything. We need friends and our own social networks, too, and in fact, tending to our social lives outside of our romantic relationships can help make those relationships stronger. Your partner shouldn’t get in the way of your friendships by constantly criticizing the people you choose to spend time with, asking you to forego social plans, or checking in incessantly when you’re with other people. “If you know in your gut that you are doing nothing wrong and your partner can’t accept that and give you autonomy, that’s not going to work,” explains Richmond. “The most successful couples have a healthy degree of autonomy.”
That’s not “I can’t live without you” romantic, that’s controlling. And honestly, in a healthy relationship, it shouldn’t be that you couldn’t live without each other — it should be that you prefer not to.
7. They use gaslighting tactics to manipulate you into doubting your experiences.
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which your partner leads you to mistrust your own interpretations of reality. For instance, you may begin to realize that your partner has anger issues and try to talk to them about it. Rather than take responsibility or listen to your concerns, they say, “You’re being way too sensitive. You just don’t know what adult relationships are really like.” You leave the conversation scrutinizing what you may have gotten “wrong” rather than how your partner’s actions made you feel.
An abuser may speak to you like they know better than you and have your best interest in mind. “It may be constant or infrequent, but the bottom line is that you feel off-center and downright crazy. Many of my clients describe it as a constant questioning of their [knowledge] and an undermining of their own intuition,” Renye says of gaslighting. This is one of the reasons it’s so important to speak with trusted confidantes who can remind you that your thoughts and feelings are valid, like friends, family members, or a therapist.
8. They speak for, or over, you.
It’s hot when your partner stands up for you. It’s abusive when they speak over you or for you when out in public, as if you’re so incompetent you can’t do it on your own. Sure, when it’s date night, you may sometimes want to kick back and sip your wine while your partner places your mutually agreed-upon dinner orders. But acting as your spokesperson in a conversation when you are right there isn’t chivalrous, it’s a serious red flag.
Renye cites a scenario in which her female client’s male partner constantly talked over her client. “It became clear that he felt threatened by her power, her potency. He said he spoke over her for her own good because she got overwhelmed in group settings.’ Instead of building her up, he diminished her,” Renye says. You deserve a partner who lifts up your voice, not squashes it.
9. They show physical aggression, whether or not it’s directed at you.
Hitting, choking, pushing, and all other acts of violence constitute abuse. However, punching walls or slamming a door in someone’s face can be, too. Physical expressions of anger like these that don’t involve contact with another person are often excused, and they’re seldom depicted as “abuse” in the media. “It lets you know that the person who is acting that way has no self-control. Adults don’t throw things,” says Richmond.
The extreme stress of enduring threatening acts that don’t physically hurt you is very real.
But that doesn’t make them OK. A thrown cell phone may miss your face this time but leave you with a black eye the next, and whether or not it does, the extreme stress of enduring threatening acts that don’t physically hurt you is very real. “It leaves the partner that’s being abused in this constant state of hypervigilance. How do you know that next time their hand will stop at the phone and not towards you?” Richmond tells Allure.
10. They pressure you into having sex with them.
For many people, a healthy sex life is a core component of a happy relationship. Part of that is having sex only when you want to, not because your partner is pressuring you into it. “Coercion is abuse, and no one ever has to have sex when they don’t desire it,” Renye says. It’s normal for your sex drive to ebb and flow, and that should be honored within your relationship. If your partner is deliberately withholding sex or physical intimacy from you as a means of manipulation, that could also be abusive, Renye says.
11. They shut down and withhold emotional intimacy.
“Emotional withholding is when a partner stonewalls or shuts down nonverbally as a means of exerting control or manipulation of the situation or the other person,” explains Renye. “It’s painful for both parties and extremely confusing for the one on the receiving end of this type of toxicity.” Part of being in a relationship is communicating your emotions to your partner, including when you’re upset. It’s not OK for your partner to shut down on you without explanation and leave you in the dark, wondering what the hell you did. Everyone needs space to process their thoughts and feelings from time to time, but if you notice a pattern in which you have to beg for your partner to let you in on what they’re thinking, that’s a huge problem.
Knowing how and when to safely leave an abusive relationship can be extremely difficult, especially if you’ve been isolated from resources or taught to doubt yourself. “There may be a strong desire to get away from the situation while [you are] simultaneously feeling frozen and [unable] to do anything constructive, resulting in a downward spiral of numbness, complacency, and fear,” Renye says. These feelings may be magnified if you are married, living with, or financially dependent on an abusive partner.
If you suspect you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, talk to someone you trust outside of the relationship. No one else can decide what course of action is best for you, but “recognizing feelings and talking about them with a trusted friend, therapist, or counselor is something I highly recommend,” Renye advises. “There are hotlines open 24 hours a day where people are ready to answer the phone and talk to you. They can offer suggestions in real-time.”
The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or 800-787-3224 (TTY) is one such hotline offering 24/7 confidential support. You can also check out the resources of Stop Abuse For Everyone (SAFE), which focuses on the needs of straight men, LGBTQIA+ people, teens, and elderly people who are facing domestic violence. Crisis Text Line is another free, confidential resource available 24/7: Text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the U.S. and a trained counselor will text with you live about whatever you’re going through, referring you to further assistance if needed. Whether you use one of these services or lean on family or friends, remember: You are not alone, and help is available to you.