What is Emotional Abuse? Here’s One Test That You’re in an Abusive Relationship

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What is emotional abuse? Well, there’s an old saying we tell children:

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.

So…what have we been teaching kids? That it’s okay to call each other names? That we can always rise above it? Sorry to say, but this is crap, and we should stop lying to children, and for that matter, ourselves.

Why? Because words hurt a lot and can have a massive effect on our well being and our self-esteem, especially in romantic relationships.

And this is what emotional abuse really is: words that inflict pain.

You may be in a relationship where the guy says awful things to you or even calls you names. But rather than continue to pretend that the words he spouts angrily at you don’t hurt, the way you were taught as a child with that nursery rhyme, I’m here to open your eyes to the danger of emotional abuse and help you get out of a toxic relationship.

You are an amazing creature, and you should never have to put up with someone belittling you, calling you names, or putting you down through emotional abuse. I’m here to help you understand: what is emotional abuse? What isn’t emotional abuse? What can I do to get out of an abusive situation? By the end of this article/video, I hope you have the clarity to understand what you need to do to get back on track to a healthy and happy life.

Your Coach,





Before we dive into answering “what is emotional abuse,” let’s first address what it is not.

Emotional abuse is not always directed toward weak people. There’s a common misconception that weak people are the most targeted for emotional abuse. But that’s not necessarily true: a study by the Norwegian Police University College examined thousands of men and women who live with their partners and found something absolutely astonishing.

Women earning more than 67% of the total household income were seven times more likely to experience psychological and physical abuse than women who earn less than 33%.

Sociologist Heidi Fischer Bjelland, who conducted the research, said: “Whenever power is unevenly allocated in a relationship, the chance of physical and psychological abuse increases.”

Yep. You heard right. The women who were making more money were more likely to be emotionally abused. And when there is a large imbalance in power in the relationship, there’s more likely to be emotional abuse. And contrary to what you’d expect, it’s not the person with the power who’s doing the abuse. The person with less power in a relationship is the abuser.

“Violence or control is used as a compensation for the partner’s weak position in the relationship, and may thus be regarded as an attempt to balance what is perceived as an uneven division of power,” Fischer Bjelland said.

So if you are concerned that you’re being emotionally abused, don’t take it to mean that you’re weak; chances are high that in fact you are quite strong, and that’s why this man is trying to bring you down and reduce your power.

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Women aren’t the only ones suffering from emotional abuse. To be clear: both men and women can be emotionally abused — it’s not just men abusing women. The last time I created a video about emotional abuse, it got over 500K views, and a lot of men spoke out about the experiences they’d had in being abused emotionally.

According to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, nearly half of all women and men in the U.S. have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime. In terms of physical abuse, 1 in 7 men has been abused by a partner (it’s 1 in 4 for women). So clearly this isn’t an issue for women alone. Also: it’s not just heterosexual relationships that suffer from abuse. It happens in every type of relationship with every combination of gender.

Yelling during an argument isn’t emotional abuse. Another misconception is that yelling or disagreements are part of emotional abuse, but they typically are not. In a relationship, you will disagree. You may yell if you’re angry. That is completely normal and even healthy every once in a while. If, however, the yelling is one-sided and directed at you on a regular basis, you may be moving into a gray area in terms of whether it’s abuse or not.

So What IS Emotional Abuse?

stressed woman

If you worry you’re being emotionally abused, you probably are.

Now that we’ve covered what isn’t emotional abuse, let’s look at what it actually is:

Verbal assault, dominating behavior, control, isolation, ridicule, or the use of intimate knowledge for intimidation all are part of emotional abuse.

An abuser deliberately messes with the emotional and psychological well-being of the victim. Often, sadly, emotional abuse is a precursor to physical abuse. And I think we can all agree that if a man ever lays a hand on you, that is a dealbreaker. Just don’t wait around to find out if he’s the type to get physically violent, okay?

In a nutshell, emotional abuse happens when your partner consistently tries to bring you down. He has no interest in you being happy. He feels fulfilled when you are a crumbling wreck who relies on him. Here’s an example.

John constantly criticizes Amy. He thinks that by putting her down, he can control her.

He belittles her when they are alone, and very publicly puts her down in front of others. He constantly blames her for his own unhappiness and holds Amy responsible for his feelings of inadequacy.

When she speaks up or calls him out on his behavior, John makes her feel like she’s the crazy one. (That’s called gaslighting, by the way: when he lies to make you doubt yourself and erodes your confidence in the meantime.)

And to make matters worse? John has a total double standard. He doesn’t hold himself accountable when he does the very same things he’s criticizing Amy for.

He calls her stupid…



loser…anything that he KNOWS for a fact will hurt her. And he also makes her feel like she’s not good enough to be with anyone else, so she’ll never leave because at least he’s willing to put up with her.

When they fight, he’s manipulative and will say anything to win.

John will even go so far as to talk to Amy’s friends about what AMY is doing wrong in the relationship, making her look like the bad person. (They’re not falling for it, fortunately.)

Does this sound familiar? Maybe even like your current relationship? This, my friend, is emotional abuse.

The True Test of Whether You’re Being Emotionally Abused


Spoiler alert: John freakin’ failed the test I’m about to give you to determine if you’re the victim of emotional abuse. If you’re still unsure whether you’re suffering from emotional abuse, ask yourself whether any (or all) of the following are happening in your relationship.

What is emotional abuse? It involves:

  1. Shaming and blaming
  2. Verbal abuse
  3. Refusal to accept his part in the breakdown of the relationship
  4. Plays mind games and manipulates
  5. Withholds affection to get what he wants

In the example above we see that John is shaming and blaming Amy by putting her down in front of others and blaming her for his own shortcomings. He’s verbally abusing her by calling her names. He’s also refusing to accept his own part in the breakdown of the relationship; instead, he puts it all on her. John is playing mind games and manipulating her into thinking she’s wrong and crazy. He’s also withholding affection to get what he wants.

Maybe you’re nodding your head in agreement because your boyfriend totally does even just one of these things. He’s failed the test, and he’s failed you, my dear.

You can clearly see that Amy needs to ditch this guy…but it’s not so easy when it’s happening to you, is it?

What Happens When You Try to Leave

angry man

Once you try to leave, he may be angry…or contrite.

The problem with emotional abusers (just like physical abusers) is that once you figure out what’s going on and talk about leaving, your abuser will suddenly become apologetic and beg you to stay. He’ll become super romantic and try to be everything you always want him to be to keep you from leaving him.

He may frighten you out of leaving, telling you that no one else will want you. That only he will put up with your issues. He may use money as a means to keep you with him, saying you can’t afford to move out of the home you share.

So you stay because he promises he won’t do it again. You want to believe him because you’ve already invested so much time and energy into this relationship, so you figure if he’s willing to change, you should give it another chance. The problem is: he really has no intention of changing. Things will be good for a few weeks, but then he’ll be back to his old tricks again, and you’re stuck in the cycle.

You might even try to justify his behavior as a way to make your brain think it’s okay to stay.  But while you can trick your brain, you can’t trick your heart. Your heart knows you’re not allowing yourself to be happy by staying in this stressful relationship.

Moving forward I want you to remember this tagline:

There’s no excuse for emotional abuse.

It’s catchy, right?

He may tell you that he’s been stressed, and it’s making him lash out at you.

No excuse.

He may say he inherited his temper from his dad (who also emotionally abused his mother).

No excuse.

He may say you riled him up and made him be mean.

No excuse.

From this moment on, a man should NOT be able to treat you badly just because he sometimes speaks to you nicely.

Moving forward, a man should not speak to you badly because he sometimes treats you well.

Repeat after me: NO EXCUSE!

Conclusion: What is Emotional Abuse? Unacceptable!

powerful woman

YOU decide how you let others treat you. No excuse!

Now that we’ve answered the question, “what is emotional abuse,” let’s get down to business on getting out of an abusive relationship and why you should.

The man you deem worthy of your attention and love must have alignment with his words and his actions. Creating alignment between his words and actions is key if the relationship is going to work out. If he puts you down, then buys you flowers, he’s not aligning the two. He’s trying to make you forget about his nasty behavior with actions he thinks will win you over. Don’t let him.

Set your standards high. If you think about your relationship and it fills you with dread or sadness, something isn’t right. You may be afraid of being alone, but trust me: having a man wear down your confidence and make you feel bad about yourself is not a better alternative to being by yourself! At least you treat yourself better than he does!

If you’re not happy at least 95% of the time in your relationship, something is off. You deserve that, and it’s possible. Just not with this man.

Once you’re ready to walk away from this emotionally abusive relationship once and for all, be prepared for his wrath. Up until now, he has felt like he was successfully controlling you. He will not be happy to learn that you have a mind of your own and are unwilling to continue to be treated the way he’s been treating you. Hopefully, he’ll just leave you alone, but if he turns physically violent or stalks you, please contact the police or contact the domestic violence hotline.

So let me hear your “NO EXCUSE!” in the comments below, and if you’ve been emotionally abused or want advice from the Sexy Confidence community on your current situation, please share it. We’re here to support one another.

In part 2 of this article, I give you 8 early warning signs that will help you immediately spot an emotional abuser before you’ve gone too far in a relationship with him. But to get access to it, you have to be a Sexy Confidence member.  Join the Sexy Confidence Club today to get exclusive content like this as well as many other perks designed to help you create your own love story.



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Rachel Ludwig
5 years ago

Do they ever stop like they say they will? Like say he’s said you just make him so mad, that your thinking sets him off. And things go badly. But then he says he’s sorry and he loves you and he would have nothing without you. But its the 5th times he’s said that in 3 months. Is it possible that he will be better?

4 years ago

I am sick to death that emotional abuse is portrayed in the media, YouTube etc that it mainly goes on between partners (or children) IT DOESNT!! My sister was emotionally abusive to me for years. She never behaved like this in front of the family and comes across as very charming. I plucked up the courage 3 years ago and told my elder sister of my other sisters behaviour. She called me a liar. So now I’m in the agonising position do I walk away from my family for myself respect or continue to suppress how I feel so as… Read more »

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