It’s not always easy to recognize the signs of emotional abuse in a relationship – especially when you’re in love. Here’s how to know if your boyfriend is emotionally abusive, inspired by a reader’s question about her boyfriend.
“Is my boyfriend abusing me emotionally? I’m not sure and I don’t know how to break up with my boyfriend,” says Indira on 5 Stages of Leaving an Abusive Relationship. “Mostly he acts nice and loving but sometimes he’s not the nicest guy I know. How do you know if your relationship is abusive or not? I’ve been searching for personal stories from women who had experience with abusive men so I can hear their point of view. In your article you wrote the signs of emotional abuse but nothing personal about a woman who’s actually left an abuser. Can you give me a link to an article that tells me if I’m in a relationship that’s abusive and that includes a story from a real woman?”
When I worked at a shelter for women surviving domestic violence, I gathered information for a support group. One of the most valuable resources was a firsthand account by a young woman who never thought she’d be in an emotionally abusive relationship. Here’s her story – she describes how she finally realized that her boyfriend was abusing her, the effects of emotional abuse on her mind and body, and how she finally gather the courage she needed to leave the relationship.
It takes courage to walk away from an emotionally abusive husband or boyfriend! Many women feel guilty or bad about themselves for staying with abusers; they don’t realize until later how manipulative and controlling their partners were. Many abused women have low or no self-esteem or self-confidence is nonexistent, and they believed the relationship would change. So they stayed. Some women in emotionally abusive relationships feel too scared to leave – scared of the consequences, of what the husband or boyfriend will do.
If you already know your relationship is emotionally abusive, be gentle with yourself. You may not be ready to leave yet…but when the time is right, you will be ready to take the first step.
Actually, you’re already taking the first step! You’re looking for signs of physical and emotional abuse, and I’m glad you’re here. If you’re ready to reach out for help, read What You Need to Know When You Call a Shelter or Safe House.
How to Know If Your Boyfriend is Emotionally Abusive
This isn’t an “are you in an abusive relationship quiz” or a checklist of the most common signs of emotional abuse. Rather, it’s a true story from a young woman who found herself in a relationship with a physically and emotionally abusive boyfriend.
I added the bold subtitles to help you clearly see the signs of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse. This will help you know if your own relationship or boyfriend is emotionally abusive. I welcome your thoughts and comments at the end of this article, but I can’t offer advice or counseling. I’ll include links and the phone numbers of helplines for women who are caught up in domestic violence.
“I Never Thought My Boyfriend Would Abuse Me”
– a true story by Jackie (not her real name)
I never thought it would happen to me. I wasn’t that girl. I had seen the talk shows with the woman with a black eye. Her husband beat her and emotionally abused her, but she loved him so she stayed. I thought that would never, ever be me. I just wasn’t the type of girl who could fall for a guy who was abusive. This was my first relationship, and I never dreamed my boyfriend would actually hurt me.
I was confident, popular, pretty, and wore the right clothes. I made friends easily, played varsity sports, and was smart. I was one of the lucky ones. My peers did not only accept me, but I was popular, well liked, and part of the “in” crowd.
To the outside world I had it all, but inside I felt like I was never good enough. I was always striving for perfection and I came close . . . a lot. I don’t mean to brag, but I was one of those people who was good at everything she did. Most things came easily to me. But I was never perfect . . . we never are. I always came up a little bit short. I got good grades, but they were not perfect. I was really good at sports but not perfect. I was pretty but not perfect. At school, on the field, and at home I felt like I was never enough.
Do you feel insecure about yourself? Read How to Love Yourself When You Don’t Feel Good Enough.
1. Your Boyfriend is Charming and Sweet
One day I met a guy. This guy told me how wonderful and beautiful I was. He told me that he fell in love with me the first time he saw me, which had been a year before we had actually met. He was charming and sweet with a hint of bad boy.
My boyfriend was perfect, and when I was with him, I felt like I was perfect! We started a relationship and I fell in love . . . fast and hard. I wanted to spend every minute with him. I thought of him constantly. I loved everything about him. Sure, he had a bit of a temper with other people, but with me he was nothing but sweet. I loved him, and I lived to be with him and to please him. Nothing else mattered.
2. He Wants to Control You and Your Life
We dated for several months and spent a lot of time together. I didn’t have time for my friends anymore because all my time was spent with him. And when I wasn’t with him, I thought about him. He was a constant presence in my life.
Before I knew it, we had been together six months and things were going great. He didn’t drive, so I drove us everywhere we went. He didn’t have any money, so I paid for everything we did. He didn’t like crowds, so we did a lot of things alone. He didn’t like my friends, so we avoided them. He didn’t like my family, and I wasn’t really fond of them either . . . so we avoided them as well. I didn’t know until later that not being with others is a sign that my boyfriend was emotionally abusive.
My boyfriend picked what we watched on TV, where we watched it, and how we watched it. He picked what we listened to on the radio. He picked where we ate, what we did, and when we did it.
3. Your Boyfriend Doesn’t Want You to Spend Time With Others
When we were not together, my boyfriend spent time with his friends and I stayed home waiting for the next time we would be together or waiting for the call to come pick him up, buy him something, or drive him and his friends somewhere.
I couldn’t possibly hang out with my friends because I might miss his call or not be there if he needed me. I had no idea, but he had isolated me completely and I was at his beck and call . . . there whenever he needed me, to do whatever he needed. I was his.
Later, the counselor told me this is how to know if your relationship is emotionally abusive. Guys who abuse have to keep their girlfriends away from their friends and family. Isolate them.
I don’t remember the specific day, but I remember that we started to argue . . . a lot. I was doing a lot of waiting around for him and waiting on him. I was alone a lot. I was missing my friends and my life. He didn’t like me talking to my friends or going out without him or talking to other guys. His last girlfriend had cheated on him, and he told me it wasn’t me he was worried about, it was the other guys.
4. Your Boyfriend is Jealous of Other Guys
My boyfriend told me I was so pretty that the other guys would try to take advantage of me and that he was just looking out for me. It sounded good, so I believed it. He always had a way of spinning things to justify his actions. So I stayed home and waited for him to need me . . . and he always did . . . and I was always there. But we argued because it wasn’t enough for him. I wasn’t enough.
5. You Do Everything You Can to Make Him Happy, But He Never Is
I tried so hard to please my boyfriend. I tried so hard to be everything to him . . . but I always seemed to come up short. I didn’t wear something he approved of, I didn’t watch the right TV show, I didn’t have enough money for him, couldn’t find my keys fast enough, I didn’t pick him up fast enough. I just wasn’t good enough and he always let me know in subtle but sure ways.
So we fought. One day, my boyfriend saw me in the hallway talking to a friend of mine. I was breaking his number one rule: talking to another guy. We got into an argument after school, and he called me slut. I should have walked away right there. . . . I was never going to be that girl that let a guy treat her like that. But then he apologized and told me how sorry he was and said that everyone says stupid stuff when they are angry. I should have known. I should have seen it coming. I should have walked away, but I believed it would never happen again and I stayed.
This is the Cycle of Abuse in a Relationship – and it’s the reason it’s so difficult for women to walk away from emotionally abusive boyfriends.
The fights become more and more frequent, and the name calling an everyday occurrence. He called me every name you could imagine and some of his favorites were stupid, slut, whore, fat, ugly, and worthless. He apologized every time and turned on the charm more and more. In one breath he would call me a worthless piece of crap, and in the next, tell me he loved me more than anything in the world. It was confusing, degrading, and abusive. I should have left. I should have told someone. But I told no one. I walked into high school every day putting on that fake smile and wearing that mask. I spent my days convincing the world that “everything is fine, everything is wonderful, and everything is perfect.”
6. Your Boyfriend Pushes, Slaps, or Hits You
And then my boyfriend’s stepfather died. My boyfriend was in pain but pretended that everything was fine. He became more controlling of me, telling me what I could wear, places I was allowed to go, and people I was allowed to see. He was convinced that while his real father had left him and his stepfather had left him, I would never leave him. Our fights got worse, and one day he pushed me. That was when the signs of emotional abuse turned physical.
It’s a shock the first time the person you love, who says he loves you, puts his hands on you out of anger. It’s surreal. That was never going to happen to me. I wasn’t that girl. This was the guy I loved and the guy who loved me. This was my world, and now it was turning on me and hurting me in so many ways. He apologized and turned on the charm and promised it would never happen again. I thought that it would only happen once, but I was wrong. Physical abuse became a part of our everyday relationship. My boyfriend pushed me, shoved me, grabbed my arms, punched me in the chest, broke windows, threw things, and threw me.
7. He Apologizes But Says It’s Your Fault He Hurt You
I was 16 years old and being physically, emotionally, and verbally abused on a daily basis. He always promised it would be the last time, and he was always sorry. My boyfriend always told me he loved me and that he would change. I remember thinking it was my fault. He was really clever and would always turn things around on me. Why do I make him so mad? Why do I break his rules? Why don’t I love him more?
I would threaten to leave all the time . . . but after I broke up with him and went back to him several times, my boyfriend knew the threats were empty. A few times I did get the courage to break up with him, only to receive phone calls of him threatening suicide unless I took him back. I always did. I thought he would change and that I would be the one to change him. I thought maybe if I started having sex with him that things would change. He surely would love me more. That was a bad idea because then he just started sexually abusing me as well.
If your boyfriend talks about taking his own life, read When Your Boyfriend Threatens to Kill Himself if You Leave.
8. Your Boyfriend’s Words Hurt More Than His Hands
I was hurting inside, and I was in pain. The physical abuse hurt, but my boyfriend’s words were the worst. They went deeper than any bruise. The words embedded themselves on me and were burned into my heart, my head, and my soul.
He called me worthless. I was stupid. No one would ever love me like him. I was nothing. Inside, I felt dead but my face never showed it . . . or no one looked close enough or long enough to see. My relationship with my parents was a mess, and I had lost all my close friends. Even if I wanted to tell, whom would I tell? So I just put on that mask. I smiled and told the world I was fine. I had everything I needed, and there was nothing wrong with my life. I wore the right clothes, had the right hair, got good grades, played sports, and drove a nice car. I had no problem convincing the world that I had no problems.
9. You Keep Your Boyfriend’s Abuse a Secret
So instead of talking about the physical and emotional abuse in my relationship, I kept it all inside. I lied for my boyfriend over and over again. I wore long sleeve shirts in warm weather to hide the scratches and bruises he gave to me. I made excuse after excuse of why I couldn’t hang out with friends. His anger was getting out of control, and he would yell at me in front of his friends.
I made excuses for my boyfriend, for his behavior, and for my unconditional love. He had been through a lot: his stepdad had died, things at home were not good, his mom wasn’t around, his brother beat him up, his natural father abandoned him, he had a bad day, he was struggling in school, he woke up late, he, he, he. . . . It was always something. I never ran out of excuses.
10. You Start Using Drugs or Alcohol to Cope With the Pain
I started to experiment with drugs and alcohol. I didn’t know it then, but I sought out drugs and alcohol to deal with the pain, the stress, the secrets, and the lying.
By then I didn’t have to wonder if I was in a relationship that was abusive because I knew. When I got high or drunk, I was good enough. I felt like I was on top of the world. I didn’t have a care in the world, and I especially didn’t care what he thought. And when he was high or drunk, he was nicer to me . . . for the most part. So drugs and alcohol became my friends.
My boyfriend and I dated my entire junior and senior years of high school. Those amazing years that should be filled with friends, laughter, and never ending memories were filled with fights, bruises, guilt, shame, drugs, alcohol, and lies. This wasn’t supposed to happen to me, and yet here I was. I couldn’t believe my boyfriend was abusive.
If you find yourself turning to drugs or alcohol, read 5 Steps to Overcoming Fear and Insecurity in Your Relationship.
11. You Believe What Your Boyfriend Says About You
I didn’t go to prom when I was a junior because he didn’t want to go. But he promised me we could go my senior year. Everyone else was going in limos with large groups. That wasn’t his style, of course, so I drove and we went alone. We got in a fight on the way to prom, and he punched me.
That’s all I really remember about prom, except that I decided that night that this was the last straw, the final line had been crossed. I was going to end it. I spent prom night with him, and the next day went home and never looked back. The relationship with him was over, but the impact of this emotionally abusive boyfriend would haunt me forever.
I went straight from him into the open arms of drugs and alcohol. I partied all the time. I could not stop because when I stopped and I sobered up, I had to think, and then I had to feel, and I hated feeling anything. If someone tells you something enough times, regardless of its truth, it becomes real to you. He had told me I was worthless so many times, it became my truth. And when I was sober, I was that worthless, stupid girl. I believed everything my boyfriend had been telling me when we were together, even though we had broken up.
12. You Trade One Abusive Boyfriend for Another
So I partied. I left one emotionally abusive boyfriend for another. Except this new relationship with drugs and alcohol would last much longer and take me places I never thought I would go . . . or I guess I never thought that girl would go. You know that girl. The girl that all the bad stuff is going to happen to – because it can never happen to us. I guess I am that girl, or I should say, I was that girl.
We think bad stuff happens to other people, but it happens to us. We never think we’ll be searching for how to know if your relationship is abusive or the signs of emotional abuse. It can happen to anyone because it starts slowly and you barely even notice.
But it doesn’t have to happen. If I would have paid attention to the warning signs or talked to someone, things might have been different.
Is your boyfriend emotionally abusive? It’s not just about recognizing the signs of a bad relationship. Your whole self-perception has changed, and this makes it more difficult to know if your relationship is abusive. Abuse changes how you see and what you think about yourself.
Take heart! Have courage. Help is available
Today I am 33 years old and happily married with one son.
After a fifteen-year struggle with drugs, alcohol, and an eating disorder, I am happy to say that I have been sober and eating disorder-free for over four years. I didn’t know where this abusive relationship would lead. I dumped this guy when I was a senior in high school and we never spoke again, but I still carry around parts of him today. I will forever be impacted by this relationship, and it changed the course of my life. I had no idea the impact it would have on my life then and my life now
If you are in an abusive relationship, please know that you are not alone. There are people that want to help, and it will be ok. You might not be able to see it now, but you deserve better and you are worth it! Please talk to someone in person or on the phone.
Help for Relationships That Are Abusive
Jackie’s story above – and the 12 signs of physically and emotionally abusive relationships that I pulled from her experience – may not be the same as your situation. If you’re still asking “is my boyfriend emotionally abusive?”, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline http://www.thehotline.org/
What Does an Emotionally Abusive Relationship Look Like?
Does your partner ever….
- Insult, demean or embarrass you with put-downs?
- Control what you do, who you talk to or where you go?
- Look at you or act in ways that scare you?
- Push you, slap you, choke you or hit you?
- Stop you from seeing your friends or family members?
- Control the money in the relationship? Take your money or Social Security check, make you ask for money or refuse to give you money?
- Make all of the decisions without your input or consideration of your needs?
- Tell you that you’re a bad parent or threaten to take away your children?
- Prevent you from working or attending school?
- Act like the abuse is no big deal, deny the abuse or tell you it’s your own fault?
- Destroy your property or threaten to kill your pets?
- Intimidate you with guns, knives or other weapons?
- Attempt to force you to drop criminal charges?
- Threaten to commit suicide, or threaten to kill you?
If you answered ‘yes’ to even one of these questions, you may be in a relationship that is unhealthy or abusive. Learn about the types of abuse, why people abuse, and why it’s so difficult to leave. Don’t hesitate to chat or call The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) if anything you read raises a red flag about your own relationship or that of someone you know. – from Is This Abuse?
In Daily Wisdom for Why Does He Do That? Encouragement for Women Involved with Angry and Controlling Men, Lundy Bancroft helps women in physically and emotionally abusive relationships make a long series of little changes that will ultimately add up to a big one.
You may feel overwhelmed by confusion, loss, and fear, and find yourself looking away from the truth and falling back into traumatic patterns. What you need is something that is there for you every day, like a constant friend, this collection of meditations is a source of strength and reassurance designed to speak to women like you, women in relationships with angry and controlling men. It helps you to digest what is happening a piece at a time, so that you can gain clarity, safety, and freedom.
I welcome your comments on how to know if your boyfriend is emotionally abusive. I can’t give you advice, but you may find that writing about your experience is helpful.
Writing can help you work through your thoughts and emotions, and help you understand yourself and your boyfriend better. This is a safe place to talk about physically and emotionally abusive relationships and all the feelings that come up.
Your thoughts are welcome below! I don't give advice, but you can get free relationship help from marriage coach Mort Fertel.