The Early Warning Signs of Emotional Abuse—How You Can Help a Loved One

By recognizing signs of emotional abuse, you may be able to help someone begin on the recovery journey—before their pain and distress get any worse. Emotional abuse may be harder to see than other kinds of abuse, but it is no less serious, and real mental health damage can result.

If you suspect that emotional abuse may be taking place, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-7233, at any time for resources and anonymous guidance.

Why do we minimize or dismiss emotional abuse more readily than we do physical abuse? Adrian spent 14 years in an abusive marriage, and the negative effects on her well-being were tremendous. Her husband never hit her, yet she has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, and insomnia due to his psychological and emotional abuses.

Adrian has always been very close with her mother, and she would share the stories of how her husband was controlling her daily life and her friendships, how he would cover up his own activities but invade her privacy, how he would threaten to hurt her or the kids. But her mother would typically ask, “Well, has he hit you?” And because the answer was “No,” her mother would appear unconcerned. At times, she would even blame Adrian for provoking this treatment and for making too much of it. Her mother made it clear that she didn’t want to talk about this kind of thing, and Adrian felt even more isolated than she already had.

She began to question her concerns and her convictions about the treatment she deserves. But, meanwhile, her stress and pain and fear were building to enormous proportions. And those mental burdens were with her at all times of the day—even when she wasn’t in the presence of her husband. It wasn’t until 14 years had passed that Adrian finally got help for her devastating distress. And she separated herself and her children from the dangerous relationship with her husband. She was even able to participate in therapy along with her mother to solve the conflicts and injuries sustained there. If someone had been able to recognize the early warning signs of emotional abuse in Adrian’s life, she might have had access to compassionate professional care and healing treatments much sooner—rather than suffer through those horrible abuses alone.

What Are the Early Warning Signs of Emotional Abuse to Look for?


When emotional abuse is taking place, it may be obvious to those on the outside, or it may be very difficult to detect. It may even have been going on for years, but the attitudes and indications of those involved have become normal and familiar. Still, there are signs you can look for that a person is being abused verbally, psychologically, or emotionally.

The abused person may:

  • Feel insecure and have low self-esteem
  • Appear depressed or anxious
  • Be withdrawn even in the presence of others
  • No longer go out and socialize as they used to
  • Miss work or other events and responsibilities
  • Be preoccupied with pleasing the abuser or not upsetting them
  • Withhold their real feelings to avoid the other person’s volatile feelings
  • Talk about the other person’s negative traits
  • Talk about the other person’s positive traits—as if to cancel out problematic actions or things they say
  • Frequently check with the other for approval, for direction, or to report what they are doing
  • Stop to ask permission before agreeing to participate in a social activity

The abuser may:

  • Belittle or humiliate the other person
  • Make decisions for the other person or pressure them to do or not do certain things
  • Betray the other’s privacy by sharing personal details
  • Be emotionally distant
  • Be resistant to open communication
  • Exclude the other person from activities and conversations
  • Blame the other for things that happen
  • Call or text often to check up on them

The earlier you can recognize this situation and extend your support, the better the chances for resolution and recovery before the abuse escalates to a level even more serious.

The motivations for abuse could be resentment, insecurity, or any other reasons. But it doesn’t matter what the abuser’s intentions are for the abuse to be real and wrong. If you suspect that abuse might be taking place—even when there is no sign of physical injury—you can take steps to discreetly offer your support to the person in distress. Don’t wait for the person to come to you. And you can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 for anonymous guidance.

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877-727-4343

Why Is It Hard to Spot Emotional Abuse?


Physical and verbal abuses may all happen behind closed doors. But, while bruises and other injuries can be difficult to hide, traumatic psychological and emotional injuries can often be masked. In fact, in many cases, the abused individual works hard to cover up this oppression due to feelings of shame, because they don’t want others to worry, or because they don’t want the abuser to get in trouble. But the abuse and the harm will likely both escalate without intervention. Emotional abuse is just as serious, just as distressing, and perhaps even more confusing.

A common result of emotional abuse is isolation, which can be a sign to others that something is wrong, but it can also further prevent others from witnessing what is really going on. Often, when the abused individual begins to push back or considers leaving, that’s when the abuser lets up for a time to try to keep the other from leaving, or they change or intensify the threats—to keep the other in the cycle of control and abuse. Because of the negative and manipulative attention from the abuser, It is also common for the abused person to feel defeated, hopeless, and unworthy of help. But you can help without delay by reaching out to a mental health treatment center for advice on next steps. Their future is far from hopeless with the right kind of compassionate intervention and care.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders, eating disorders, and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles and San Diego-based programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward healing.

If you suspect that emotional abuse may be taking place, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-7233, at any time for resources and anonymous guidance.