Navigating emotional abuse in romantic relationships

Emotional abuse, also known as psychological abuse, is one of the most common types of abuse in romantic relationships — more common than we think.


The contradiction is that it is hard to detect in comparison to other forms of abuse that are prevalent in romantic relationships such as verbal, physical, and financial abuse.

When someone is being verbally abused, we can evidence by the language and words the abuser uses, and the tone in which the abuser communicates. When someone is being physically abused, we can see the evidence through physical wounds, scratches, and other signs of physical fighting.

With emotional abuse, the abuse is often hidden, subtle, and insidious, yet very deeply damaging. It leads to very deep emotional scars. Emotional abuse can also happen in non-romantic relationships, such as friendships, sibling relationships, parental relationships, work relationships, and other non-romantic relationships.

Many people do not recognise they are in emotionally abusive relationships as the abuse itself is concealed, covert, and difficult to detect. At times it can be overt and systematic, in a way that both victim and abuser may not be aware of the abuse from one partner to the other, or towards each other.

Some of the emotionally abusive and toxic behaviours are done in the name of love, for example controlling who the partner spends time with, and therefore normalised. This means a lot of people in emotionally abusive relationships cannot detect whether they are being emotionally abused or not. If a partner is insecure in themselves, it's easy for them to misconstrue emotional abuse as a form of love and care, which makes them vulnerable to emotional abuse.

As an individual and couple’s therapist, l have seen many people who come to therapy unaware of the emotional abuse, yet they are suffering as a result of it. They only realise the nature, and extent of the abuse when they start therapy and begin working on themselves. 

The psychodynamics of emotional abuse

An emotionally abusive relationship is where the abuser (partner one) uses emotions to control, dominate, manipulate, isolate, frighten and intimidate the victim (partner two). According to Dr John Gottman, emotional abuse intersects with domestic violence; this means that people who are emotionally abused may also experience domestic violence; however, some may not. The ones who do not experience domestic violence along with emotional abuse may remain unaware, and ignorant of the abuse they are experiencing, with hugely damaging effects.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that between March 2021- March 2022, 2.4 million adults (of which 1.4 million were women) were victims of domestic abuse. Although these statistics are on domestic abuse, they highlight how common partner abuse is in relationships. And many of these people would be experiencing emotional abuse.

The impact of emotional abuse is long-lasting - it affects one’s sense of self, reality, values, and sense of what is right and wrong. The impact of emotional abuse does not only end in the relationship with the abuser but permeates into future relationships. It erodes one’s sense of self, self-esteem, and self-worth. And shakes one’s identity. Emotional abuse can negatively impact one’s mental health and it can lead to anxiety, depression, insomnia, disordered eating as a way of coping with difficult feelings, and other physical health issues secondary to stress.

There is a myth that men do not experience emotional abuse from women. Men do experience emotional abuse from women, and emotional abuse is prevalent in same-sex relationships.

Older adults and elderly couples also experience emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is more widespread in some cultures within ethnic minority communities where there is shame attached to ending relationships or divorcing, and men are seen as patriarchs who are unchallenged. This often leads to many partners being locked up in emotionally abusive relationships which is hugely damaging to them, and their children who grow up in an emotionally unhealthy environment. Secrecy and the circular nature of these communities leave this abuse unaddressed and normalised. 

What happens in emotionally abusive relationships?

In an emotionally abusive relationship, the abuser is typically someone who is very insecure in themselves. Therefore, through emotional abuse, they cease control of the relationship and their partner. Emotional abuse becomes a tool for the abuser. The abuser (partner one) develops sophisticated ways of relating to the victim (partner two).

The abuser’s focus is on the victims’ feelings - making the victim feel inadequate, small, and inferior. For example, making the victim believe that they can never find someone else who will love them and that they deserve how they are being treated.

The abuser often uses techniques such as blaming, shaming, invalidating, belittling, gaslighting (denying your reality), manipulating and other controlling behaviours. Stonewalling where one partner gives the other the silent treatment is also a form of emotional abuse as the abuser is using emotions to cause harm. The victim may also be made to feel unsafe and worried about their safety and well-being.

If the victim is not cognisant of the abuse, which is often the case, they are left believing that whatever is happening is their fault-they deserve to be treated the way they are. This leads the victim to justify the abuser’s behaviours, no matter how bad it is. Justifying the behaviour also normalises it, and makes the victim receptive to the abuse — giving more power to the abuser. The victim becomes less and less able to exercise boundaries or self-advocacy. This puts the victim and abuser in a victim-abuser dynamic, or a sadomasochistic dynamic- a vicious cycle (Freud, 1920; Bloss,1991).

At a very unconscious level, the abuser derives pleasure from abusing the victim, while the victim derives pleasure from being abused, through a process of identification with the abuser (Klein, 1946). This unconscious identification with the abuser means pain derives pleasure in the victim. It is not unusual for the victim to make excuses and pardon the abuser because they are locked up in an identification relationship which is indeed perverse and toxic. People who are in co-dependent relationships (dynamics) are often in emotionally abusive relationships which is what keeps the bond between them.

Many people who have narcissistic traits tend to be emotionally abusive to their partners as they lack empathy and have no concern for their partner’s feelings. These are people who are likely to have grown up with parents or caregivers who did not pay attention to their feelings or disregarded them. As adults, they simply repeat what was done to them — lacking the awareness of the impact of their behaviour and being emotionally exploitative.

Signs of emotional abuse

  • Controlling behaviours - your freedom, how you spend your time, how you spend your money, where you go, what you do, etc.
  • Criticism - being made to feel like everything you do is wrong and you are at fault.
  • Emotional manipulation - being made to feel bad for things that you are not responsible for, deliberately doing something and turning it against you.
  • Gaslighting - being made to feel that you make things up and your feelings are an overreaction. Invalidating your feelings.
  • Belittling comments - making you feel small, inadequate, less than.
  • Blaming comments - blame for things going wrong in and out of the relationship or anything else that you are not responsible for.
  • Shaming comments - about the past, weight, family, or anything significant to the victim.
  • False accusations and emotional blackmail - making unfounded claims and using your past shortfalls to insult you.
  • Threatening behaviour - being made to feel unsafe, being threatened with violence, ending the relationship, cheating - emotional exploitation.
  • Isolation - being isolated from friends and family. Being made to believe that you depend on that abuser and need them.
  • Stonewalling - being given silent treatment as a form of punishment.
  • Withholding affection and physical intimacy.

How to deal with emotional abuse

  1. Develop ways of communicating your feelings and needs without blaming or being aggressive - mind the language you use. Start sentences with “l feel” not “You”.
  2. Avoid having to apologise for things that you haven’t done wrong. Remind yourself that you deserve to be treated with respect. 
  3. Step away from the victim role by setting boundaries with the abuser. You have a right to live life fully without your partner defining your boundaries.
  4. Have a life outside the relationship, with friends and family and pursue meaningful relationships and hobbies. You take back your power and control by doing this- it will make the abuser less powerful.
  5. Talk to people you feel safe and trust about your situation. Emotional abusers are very good at isolating their victims; therefore they suffer in silence.
  6. Join a victim support group for victim abuse. There is so much healing in sharing stories with other people who have a shared experience.
  7. Seek therapy individually or as a couple if you think you are in an emotionally abusive relationship. Emotional abuse can have long-lasting effects and it may take time to recover from it. Be gentle with yourself.


Blos, P., Jr., (1991). Sadomasochism and the defense against recall of painful affect. Volume, 8 pp. 417–430.

Klein, M. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 27:99–110

Freud, S. (1920). Beyond the pleasure principle. S. E., 18.

ONS: (Accessed on 26/04/2023)

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SE1 & Milton Keynes MK15
Written by Dr Joyline Gozho, Adult Psychotherapist (Individual & Couples) UKCP, NCPS
London SE1 & Milton Keynes MK15

Dr Joyline Gozho is an Adult Psychotherapist, Relationship Therapist, and Lecturer on a Psychotherapy course. She works with both individual and couples in private practice. She also runs relationship enrichment workshops with a particular focus on communication and emotional literacy.

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