Welcome back to our Guarded series in which we’re talking about the ways we, as women, can put up appropriate boundaries in our mental, emotional and physical lives, culminating with a special article in our summer print issue. Today’s topic is about the often silent struggle of emotional abuse. We hope the below can be a resource as you approach your own relationships, as well as those of sisters, friends, co-workers and family members. Awareness is the first step.

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” – Marie Curie

Identifying emotional abuse can be difficult and even disorienting. Because there usually are no bruises to see the wounds of emotional abuse, it can feel obvious and confusing at the same time — which is part of its destructive capacity. The actions of one who abuses emotionally often appear easy to explain or justify, so it is elusive while it wreaks havoc on the psyche and the soul.

Conflict is inevitable in a relationship and it can often be the marker of a good and healthy one. Yet, when conflicts turn into a steady (and often escalating) pattern of shame, fear, blame, manipulation and cruelty, it’s important to speak up and get help.

Often people who are in an emotionally abusive relationship believe that the relationship is the best they are going to get in life and fear the unknown in finding love again. This coupled with internalized lies about one’s worthiness can support the status quo of staying in a harmful relationship. This often leaves friends and loved ones observing this kind of toxic relationship feeling frustrated, fed-up, confused and scared.

shoe shadows

Denial plays a powerful role in delaying or pushing away help. Respecting that denial is a fierce protector, one that works hard to avoid any change which appears too risky, will help increase compassion and empathy when having courageous conversations with self or a loved one.

How to identify emotional abuse?

Seeing a cluster of these behaviors can indicate when emotional abuse is happening:

– Feeling manipulated or controlled.

– Questioning and second guessing yourself, feeling crazy.

– Over-functioning and working hard not to anger or displease your loved one or friend.

– Walking on eggshells afraid of upsetting partner.

– Experiencing public humiliation.

– Being teased or taunted around vulnerabilities.

– Constant blame that it’s all one person’s fault for struggle.

– Threats of suicide or self-harm when partner pushes back on poor treatment.

Gaslighting: Changing the facts of a situation or denying bad behavior ever happened.

– Partner can never be wrong.

– There is little to no mutuality in the relationship.

– Exerting dominance or power without consideration for individual preference or choice.

– Great strides are gone to overwhelm partner with the simple functions of doing life.

– Bullying in the guise of teasing or humor.

How to protect against emotional abuse?

In a culture that criticizes for sport, emotional abuse feels all-too familiar or common. It is important to stay grounded in your own sense of identity in these four ways:

1. Boundaries

Brené Brown defines boundaries simply as what is ok and what is not ok. It is never all one person’s fault in a relationship. The physics of interpersonal relationships are that it’s always at least two people who contribute to a struggle. Boundaries help clarify where you end and the other person begins, giving clarity on who is responsible for what and when expectations are not realistic.

Boundaries help clarify where you end and the other person begins, giving clarity on who is responsible for what and when expectations are not realistic.

2. Self-Respect

Everyone is worthy of respect. Relationships that are healthy are based on mutuality and not power and control. And even in hard conversations or in seasons of crisis, mutual respect is a non-negotiable. Consistent patterns of shaming, humiliation, blaming and devaluing are signs that respect is not present in the relationship.

3. Trusted Community

Relationships shift and can feel all-consuming at times  — especially at the beginning or when kids enter the picture. A healthy relationship allows for time with other trusted friends and couples to be seen in both the good times and in times of struggle.

4. Interests Outside of the Relationship

A healthy relationship supports individuals pursuing passions and hobbies that fulfill an individual’s hardwired desire for creativity, play and connection. It is a red flag when these desires are stifled, shamed or controlled because of fear and insecurity by the other partner.

plant shop


If this post resonates with you or reminds you of someone you know, please do not stay silent. Get information, find out safe options for support and know navigating awkwardness in a friendship after sharing your concerns is noble and needed. There are many online resources which share similar information about knowing when conflicts and struggle have crossed the line into emotional abuse. Speaking up could save a life and offer much needed hope that there is life outside of this kind of destructive relationship.

Here are a few options that offer sound facts and available resources:





Read our first post in this series on physical safety HERE. And stay tuned for more in our Guarded series to come later this month.

Images via Maddy Corbin



  1. Thank you so much for this clear article on a very difficult situation to understand and explain.

  2. Reading an article such as this woke me up and saved my life 2 years ago. I am now raising my young kids with wholeness and peace of mind – something I didn’t realize I had given up to “keep the peace”. It encourages and convicts me yet again to recognize the mayhem still left to heal in myself. The feeling of being “seen” through these informative articles dilutes the feeling of being “crazy” and starts the healing process.

    Thank you!

  3. On point!!! I lived in an abusive relationship for nearly 19 years. After finally gaining the strength to leave, I am in a healthy relationship. What a difference a healthy relationship can make in one’s life.
    I counsel women of all ages now and I can spot an abusive relationship from a mile away. Your article is spot on. “You don’t know what you don’t know”. The more information one has arms them with the strength to get out of bad situations.
    Love the magazine and the articles. I encourage my daughters and friends to subscribe. What a breath of fresh air!!!

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you. A thousand times, thank you for writing this. It is so hard to pull yourself back up from this kind of relationship. The more factual articles (and not just click bait), insightful conversations and accessible resources out there about this topic, the better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *