5 Crucial Signs of Non-Physical Relationship Abuse

Isolating a partner from others, "gaslighting" them, and more.

Posted Jul 15, 2016 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano

Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock
Source: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

We often think about domestic violence in its physical forms, but emotional and psychological abuse can be just as devastating, and with a much longer recovery timeline. Experiencing trauma draws on our most intensive coping mechanisms, sometimes causing survivors of abuse to turn to substance abuse or other harmful behaviors as a way to process their experiences.

These are the five forms of non-physical abuse commonly found in abusive relationships that you should watch for—and be ready to run from:

1. Controlling your movements. 

Setting firm rules or boundaries for where you’re allowed to go, and when, is often introduced into relationships in a positive context, but the intention of these rules is to police your behavior. You need to be free to make your own decisions about where you go and why, even if that means leaving your significant other.

2. Isolating you from others. 

When you need your close friends and family most, an abuser will work to isolate you from them—and any support they provide you. Instigating fights and fanning the flames of existing arguments are highly effective tactics an abuser might use to distance you from your close confidantes.

3. Putting you down. 

Intentionally saying something you know will be hurtful to someone else is verbal abuse. Even though people often try to disguise insults as humor—sometimes going so far as to say a joke can’t be hurtful—what matters is how what’s said makes you feel. If you notice that you feel worse about yourself after you see a specific person, reflect on how they speak to you and take stock of how often they build you up or try to break you down.

4. Following you.

What starts as a surprise in the parking lot on your way home can quickly become a case of stalking. Being followed against your will and surprised with a note on your car or a touch on the shoulder can be incredibly invasive, making even public places feel dangerous. Don’t be flattered when a partner drops by your house or job without warning; use it as an opportunity to be clear about your boundaries and to demand that they be respected.

5. Gaslighting.

Occasional arguments are a normal part of any healthy relationship. If your significant other always refuses to see “your side” of a disagreement, to the point that they question your understanding of reality, it’s a sign that something’s not right. Trust yourself, and trust your instincts. People who love you will support you and encourage you to grow, not cut you down.

Abusive relationships center around power dynamics, with one partner constantly struggling to assert dominance over the other. Some techniques a dominant partner uses to do this might seem innocuous, but little things have a way of adding up over time. Being aware of these small behaviors and flagging them before they grow bigger, you may be able to prevent abusive behavior from escalating. Always do what you need to do to stay safe, even if that means ending a relationship over one of these behaviors.