Emotional Abuse: Identifying the Signs, Breaking the Cycle

Disclaimer: This post was written from a female’s perspective because the author was writing from personal experience. The piece is informative, but in most ways therapeutic for the writer.

The Breakdown

Emotional abuse is difficult to detect with the untrained eye.  The wounds are deep and continually reopened.  The abuser usually knows all of your deepest secrets, fears, and passions.  He knows your strengths, your weaknesses, and your heart’s desire.  He desperately needs you to need him!  No matter what you ask of the abuser, those requests will positively remain unanswered.  Emotional abusers may be both men and women.  Regardless, if you think you are in an abusive relationship, the first thing you must do is identify the signs.

17073_wpm_hires (1)Typically, the abused will endure the pain over a long period of time, and may often try unsuccessfully, to put an end to the vicious cycle. My memoir, Broken Glasstells the story of little girl (me), trying to find her purpose in life a midst abuse, bereavement, and heartbreak.  After my mother died of pneumonia when I was just ten years old, my journey began! Along the way, there were numerous accounts of emotional, verbal, and physical abuse and the anger that came along with it. Naturally, after reaching a breaking point, I’d erupt and wind up landing myself in more trouble than before! The truth is, I still struggle with it today. Adults however, express anger on varying levels.  It may arise due to marital problems, quarrelsome family members, trouble at work, or a even an erratic driver who pushes you to the brink of extreme road rage!  Most often, the roots of anger and aggression lie within the baggage accumulated during the childhood years.  Abused children may grow up to become passive aggressive adults. The question is, how can one unpack that baggage and learn to handle life’s curve balls without having a full-fledged meltdown? 

The one thing we all must understand is that in children, the ability to reason and make rational decisions in the face of anger is controlled by the prefrontal cortex.  This is the region of the brain located just behind the forehead.  In teens, as research suggests, the frontal lobes of the brain are not fully developed until about age 25.  This would explain why adolescents can ingest a the slightest conflict and irrationally incite a riot in the school cafeteria!  In many cases, they simply cannot deescalate confrontation and minor disputes among peers. Therefore, adolescents are notorious for acting before thinking.  A teen who is a victim of emotional abuse is a prime candidate for such behavior.

Abused children may develop a sense of learned helplessness, a psychological condition in which a person or animal has been exposed to a harmful stimulus for so long with no relief, that eventually the victim stops trying to escape. He believes that there is nothing he can do to make his situation better. Left untreated, this can follow children into their  adult lives.  As a result, the self esteem of abused person is usually low. Knowing no other way of life, victims of childhood abuse continue to find themselves involved in unhealthy, marriages, friendships, and employer/employee relationships.  They may even grow up to abuse others in ways that mirror their own experiences.

Here’s my advice on how to identify an emotional abuser.  Evaluate your relationships and determine whether the following signs of emotional abuse apply to you or someone you love.

  • stockvault-angry-man138616Demeaning – The abuser attacks the victim’s character and humiliates the other in front of family and friends. The abuser makes the victim believe that his/her thoughts and feelings are invalid, and that she is not authorized to make any decisions unless she consults him first.
  • Gaslighting – The abuser provides false information or denies accounts of previous abuse in an attempt to make the victim doubt her own memory.  This crazy-making usually takes the form of a violent argument one night, and a harmonious relationship the next day. The abuser attempts to make the victim believe that things are not happening the way she truly perceives.
  • Isolating – The victim often feels guilty about spending time with friends and family, or doing any activity that does not include the abuser.  The abuser often convinces the victim that other people in her life don’t like or care for him/her the way the abuser does, even suggesting that they side with them about their mate’s flaws. Saying negative things about the people the victim cares about in an effort to deter him/her from nurturing other relationships is common.  Any display of emotion shown by the victim related to someone else, such as grieving after the death of a loved one, helping a friend in need, or being available during a family crisis infuriates the abuser.  Employers may pressure employees to shun or isolate other co workers simply because he/she does not like that person. Failure to comply could likely result in torment for the victim.
  • Criticizing – The victim just cannot do anything right in the eyes of the abuser.  No matter what good is done at home, in the workplace, or in the community, the abuser accentuates the negative.  The abuser may acknowledge accomplishments, only to follow up with a complete list of the victim’s shortcomings. Eventually, the victim begins to devalue his/her own worth, growing accustomed to the negative picture the abuser has painted.
  • Blaming – If the victim should strike up the nerve to confront the abuser about this behavior, he/she will go to great lengths to convince them that all of his outbursts are their fault.  For instance, he/she may say things like, “I would’t have to fuss if you would just do what I tell you to do!”  It might also be suggested that, “If you weren’t such a sorry excuse for a wife/secretary/father (insert other titles here), I would spend more time with you!”  Thirty seconds into a conversation about the abuser’s behavior, the story is flipped, and the topic has shifted onto how the victim has caused it all.
  • Threatening – The abuser may threaten to leave the relationship.  It is an attempt to keep the victim guessing about what the next move will be.  The victim “walks on eggshells” in fear of angering the abuser, and causing further conflict.
  • The Silent Treatment – The abuser punishes the victim for doing or saying something “wrong.” This type of psychological abuse may continue until the victim changes her behavior by apologizing to the abuser (even if one did not create the conflict), begging for forgiveness, or promising not to make the abuser angry again.

How To Stop It

stockvault-mending-a-broken-heart140143Love yourself!  Remember, the abuser knows you are emotionally spent.  He counts on your low self esteem, lack of self confidence, and reluctance to stand up for yourself to keep the cycle of abuse going.  The more you allow the abuser to manipulate you through these channels, the longer the abuse will persist.  Do not allow yourself to be isolated from friends and family members. Remember, you need support!

Know who you’re dealing with.  More than likely, the abuser chose you because he recognized your vulnerabilities and had his own insecurities.  The abuser needs to surround himself with people whom he feels are of equal or lesser value in order to feel important and respected.  Anyone who disagrees with his opinions, points out his weaknesses, or proves him wrong in front of others will surely feel his wrath.

Change you!  Don’t waste precious time hoping the abuser will wake up one morning and magically stop mistreating you.  IT’S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN (unless there’s a miracle)! What you can do however, is change the way you respond to the abuse.  This may take some time to master, but once you begin to love yourself, you will see a spike in your self esteem.  Seek counselling and educate yourself about emotional abuse.  In time, you’ll lose the need to have other’s approval to validate who you are.

Forgive, and set yourself free! The biggest reason we fail to move on after devastating abuse is the inability to forgive those who cause the hurt! I know that seems like an insurmountable task, but read what The Lord’s Prayer taught me about forgiveness here.

Additional Information:

EMOTIONAL ABUSE/Dr.Pat Holliday/Dr. Sabrina/Marshall Perot 01 


http://www.miracleinternetchurch.com/ebooks Emotional Illness SYMPTOMS OF EMOTIONAL ABUSE May people assume that if they’re not being physically abused by their partner, then they are not being abused. This many 

Emotional Abuse Is Child Abuse, Too | McLane Children’s Scott 


Scott & White Child Abuse Outreach Coordinator details emotional abuse of children and suggests resources for getting help.

Psychological Abuse Just As Damaging As Physical  – Psych Central


Psychological abuse can be just as damaging to a child’s physical, mental and emotional health as physical abuse, according to experts. And it may be the most.

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52 thoughts on “Emotional Abuse: Identifying the Signs, Breaking the Cycle

  1. This article is very timely. I’m going to share with a very good friend of mine who I’ve been providing the emotional support, now I can provide the research.


  2. This is a great topic and often people are in denial about this matter. I personally know people who are in this situation and unfortunately they are unwilling to remove themselves from the relationship. They realize what is going on and many times they have accepted it, but refuse to leave. At the same time, the abuser refuses to seek help. Unfortunately, when there are children involved, this can become a vicious cycle. I am not saying that all abusers were abused or witnessed abuse, but that this can become a vicious cycle. We have to break the cycle and not allow someone to abuse us verbally or physically. I also agree that not all verbal/physical abusers are males, many of them are females. Great job!! I look forward to reading more of your informative blogs.


  3. Love this article, but not sure that casting all instances of the abuser as male is quite balanced by your insistence that not all abusers are male. I double- and triple-checked to make sure. I still may have missed one, but it seems to me that the abuser is always referred to with a male pronoun or no pronoun. When discussing charged subjects like this, please be cognizant of your pronoun use…


  4. Thanks for writing this, Joan. My abuser is my roommate, who I’ve known for a long time but whose behavior escalated once we started living together. He (and he’s NOT my boyfriend) will be out of town this week for work and I’m doing all I can to get moved out while he’s gone. He can give the walls his old silent treatment schtick from now on.
    One thing I would say in response to the ‘Change You’ paragraph is that someone who is emotionally abused ALWAYS must break the cycle and NEVER hope for a miracle. It was that hope that he would finally really hear me and stop treating me like crap when I did nothing wrong, that made me stick around even this long (a year).


  5. This article is amazing and so weighty with information. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and insight. I know that what you have written is so needed for many who are wanting to break the “cycle” of emotional abuse.


  6. I went through emotional and mental abuse for over 15 years, I’m a 39 year old mom, that has finally broke free, and is now finally free. Its hard to have a man that truly loves me for me.especially when I feel that I’m not deserving For him. I Thank God for sending him to me now. I really would like to find help for my mental break down, of slipping calling my Man the ex abusers name .


    1. Regina, I am sorry that you endured that situation for many years. Healing from that exposure can take years as well. Try to concentrate on what YOU and your child/children deserve when you think of the man God has sent you. Then maybe you’ll conclude that you both deserve EACH OTHER! 🙂


  7. My brother, 45, finally admitted out of the blue that he is having a hard time keeping “my father from coming out in me.” Our dad was verbally/emotionally abusive & my brother was often his main target. I told him he needed to talk to someone who could help him learn how to stop it(he actually asked me how to stop it)-he said no. I asked if he could force himself to read a book. “No, I can do this myself.” I told him he’d been trying that for years & his way wasn’t working-time to try something different. He was not very receptive. But I KNOW he desperately wants to break the cycle-it took a lot for him to ask me how he could stop it-at the same time, I think he likely is terrified about facing his past.
    How can I help him? He’s finally admitted there’s a problem & that it is his behavior, but not ready to see a professional. I need to get him on the right track at least for my neice & nephew-how can I do that?
    Any suggestion would be appreciated.


    1. Hi Terri. I’m sorry to hear about your brother’s struggles. If he recognizes that his behavior mirrors his father’s, then he has begun to accept that the signs exist in himself, which is a very important start. It has to be a personal decision on his part. Keep encouraging him to seek help, yet be understanding and patient in the meantime. Seeing a professional can be intimidating. No one likes to hear that something may be “wrong” with them. Give him time. When he is ready, hopefully he will begin to face his past.


  8. Thank you for your words. I am currently on the exiting end of just such a relationship, and it is not easy to stay away. I am now out of the house, and a few hours away, but it has been continuing by phone. I liken the situation to Stockholm Syndrome, but every day I am away from him, it gets a little bit easier.

    I am here to agree with you, and to say, Don’t believe him/her when they try to isolate you from your friends and family, even if they do the same themselves, in the process! They are just trying to completely isolate you so that they have more control over you, and ability to abuse you. My friends thought I’d fallen off the face of the earth. When I found the courage to return to my own social scene, I walk into the rooms, and they completely stop… it’s like my friends have seen a ghost. They missed me. They couldn’t believe what had been going on.

    Don’t be afraid to talk about your experiences with your friends, family, and councillors, they *are* your support system, the exact same support system that your abuser is trying to isolate you from. Don’t be ashamed of what someone else was doing to you. The bottom line is, stand up and get yourself free. Walk away from it, and don’t let your abuser suck you back in, because they will try any tactics they can to keep you on their leash. You are not a dog! The last step for me, and the one that I am not quite ready to take, but I’m getting there, is to cut the phone contact off. Once I do this, he will not be able to reach me. I both look forward to that day, and yet, am sad about it at the same time, because, like most abuse victims, I do love him very deeply. I love myself, too, though, and every day I’m gone, I find that I am a little bit more of my old self again, and for this, I am thankful. Blessings, everyone! You’re stronger than you might realise.


  9. What about breaking the cycle from the other end? I am emotionally abusive. I learned this behavior in my childhood from my parents. I recognize that I need to break out of this cycle and I need to change my behavior. But these behaviors have been with me for over 30 years. I didn’t even recognize that I was being abused in childhood until very recently. Now I find myself doing exactly the things they did to me. Behaving in exactly the same ways. Shaming and scaring the only people I love. What steps do I take to change my behavior? How do I develop the tools to become a better father, boyfriend, brother, friend…?


    1. I suggest that you seek some professional counseling (not because something is “wrong” with you) to sort everything out. You should also forgive those who wronged you in your past. It will set you free. And….. forgive yourself. If I asked you, “FeelingFeelingsIsHard, do you love yourself?” What would your answer be?


  10. Im trying to do some Graphics Design research on different cycles for my project and whilst stumbling across this website i noticed in this article makes the abuser Male and victim Female… You do realise its just as equally the other way round right? Either way this is a good article but maybe try to be less specific with genders in future…


  11. My relationship with my wife fits into ttis mold perfectly… She likes to emasculate and tell me how worthless I am and I was darn near the absolute bottom, but since then, I’ve picked myself up and begun to dust myself off and through prayer and Jesus I am starting to get my self esteem back. I would love advice on breaking the cycle… She won’t appologize and continues to have outbursts a few times a month, but it is far better than before… What advice do you have for that scenario??

    Stubbornly in love…


    1. Keith, I’d say that you have to learn to live yourself first. When you do that, the outbursts won’t affect you the way they do now. Also, she needs to do the same thing. Hurt people, hurt people. Sometimes, two hurting people, hurt each other repeatedly. THAT’S the cycle that must be broken!


  12. Great read Joan. I wish I would have taken the time to really read up on this in the past. I have come across many individuals who have had challenges with emotional abuse. In my opinion, it is prevalent in rural areas with children and adults versus with childreb and families in the urban areas. I believe it is either unnoticed or just hidden. I am now eager to research statistics based on my opinion.


  13. So glad I came across this article. Thankfully, I had the courage to leave the relationship EARLY when I started recognizing the signs. For once, I stood my ground and let my abuser know that no matter how much he apologized and showered me with gifts and affection (what I learned was short lived), I wouldn’t remotely entertain a reconciliation until we went to counseling. His response was that he wouldn’t be controlled, and mine was “Neither will I” and I let it go.

    This was after my attempt at No contact resulted in numerous phone calls, texts, emails and FB inboxes. I’m sad because I miss the CONNECTION, but I won’t miss the verbal and emotional abuse.


    1. I’m glad you were able to break the cycle early, Zen Zeta. Some of us stay much too long, hoping things will get better. For some, I suppose they do, but after a while, it’s better and safer to just cut your losses.


  14. Thank you so much for this info. Makes me Not feel like the crazy one in a relationship that’s now over after 6 years. His list of positive compliments were always followed by a derogatory remark. I don’t feel the confidence I had before I met him but I know it will come back over time. Thanks for this article!


  15. Article is bullshit.Forgiving them is not going to help and I will never because they don’t deserve it Anyone who does is a stupid fool.Listening to nothing but psycho babble.God does not forgive those who do not ask why should I! If you forgive them without them asking all you are doing is making you their victim again.Psych community is nothing but a government plot to addict the masses. How many people know some one who got messed up by a psych doctor just handing out pills. Don’t believe these assholes they are lying!!!


    1. Well, Janet. I totally understand how you feel about the psych community. However I am not a psychologist. I am a survivor of emotional abuse. To forgive is also to remember that “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” In all things, forgiveness benefits you, not the other person. I did not say forgive them and stay with them. That would indeed, be foolish. Anyway, I respect your opinion regardless.


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