Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Emotional Abuse

9 Early Warning Signs of Emotional Abuse

Blame, pettiness, rushing, and more.

Key points

  • In the early stages of dating, abusers are often able to mask red flags of angry, controlling, possessive, jealous behavior.
  • Some early warning signs of potential abuse, though, are harder to hide, such as being resentful, deceitful, and acting superior to others.
  • Pushing boundaries by asking a partner to move too fast while ignoring their comfort level is another concerning sign.

The risk of falling into an abusive relationship has increased now that so many relationships are initiated online. It’s always been difficult to discern in dating which habits and attitudes will emerge when living together; developing feelings for someone online, before ever meeting them in person, makes it much harder.

In the early stages of dating, abusers are able to mask the obvious red flags of angry, controlling, possessive, jealous, or violent behavior. Here are some very early warning signs of potential abuse that are harder to hide.

1. A Blamer

Avoid anyone who blames negative feelings and bad luck on someone else. For example, if your potential partner says something like, “You're so smart, sensitive, and together, you won’t believe the trouble that self-centered, greedy, person I used to date caused me," you can bet that sooner or later blame will fall on you. Blamers forego the natural motivation of negative emotions to improve. Instead, they opt for temporary feelings of moral superiority to those they blame.

2. Resentment

Resentful people are so locked into their own perspectives that they become insensitive to the rights and perspectives of the people closest to them.

3. Entitlement

After the glow of infatuation wears off, people who believe they deserve special treatment and special consideration will regard their feelings and desires as more important than yours. If you acquiesce, you may get depressed. If you disagree, you may get abused.

4. Superiority

Once they get close, people who act superior to others begin to put down their partners to feel a little better about themselves.

5. Pettiness

A potential partner who makes a big deal out of nothing probably means that in a close relationship you will be criticized for the smallest of things, real or imagined.

6. Sarcasm

Sarcastic people try to sound smart or witty with at least a subtle put-down in their voice. They tend to be oblivious to the effects of their behavior on others or dismissive of the hurt feelings of others as a function of their "poor sense of humor" or "over-sensitivity." In dating, the sarcasm may be directed at others; in a relationship, it may center on you.

7. Deceit

Whether it’s exaggerating certain qualities (intelligence, talents, achievements, or important friends) or outright lying, deceit shows a low level of self-respect that may eventually turn into disrespect of you.

8. Minor Jealousy

Although it doesn’t come off like the obvious red flag of angry, controlling, and possessive behavior, minor jealousy almost always gets worse. Most severe violence in relationships involves jealousy that started in subtle ways.

9. Rushing You

Those who push you to go "too fast" (defined as whatever makes you uncomfortable) do not respect personal boundaries. Make sure that anyone you become interested in shows respect for your comfort level.

See if you can spot the early warning signs on this first date after many online exchanges:

Marah really liked Keith. He was open, warm, bright, funny, and good-looking. On the drive to the club, he told her how smart, sensitive, and caring she was, and how he was so lucky to find her after his previous “self-centered” girlfriend who was just the opposite. He especially resented his previous girlfriend for “pretending to be smarter” than she was. Marah was impressed that he bribed the doorman to get them into the club ahead of everyone else. “Waiting in line is for losers,” he said. She knew he cared about her; he looked uncomfortable when other guys noticed her. She liked his assertiveness in making the waiter do his drink over because it didn’t have “the right proportion of soda.” At the end of the night, he seemed okay when she stopped him after a little kiss goodnight, although he joked that his heart was broken. The next morning two dozen roses arrived with a note that said, “Can’t stop thinking of how awesome you are.” On the back of the note was an invitation to a long weekend in Aruba.

Facebook image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today