Psychological Abuse in a Couple: Learn to Identify It

Psychological abuse in a couple manifests itself through asymmetrical ties in which contempt and invalidation appear. Read more.
Psychological Abuse in a Couple: Learn to Identify It
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 19 December, 2023

Psychological abuse in a couple is usually easier to detect from the outside than from the inside. Your friends and family may have warned you about certain unhealthy dynamics in your relationship. However, it may be more difficult for you to become aware of them. The fact that this happens is normal. Sometimes, the effects of the abuse itself make it difficult to identify in the face such harmful actions.

Facts such as constant undervaluation, ridicule, or even economic control are examples of manipulative behaviors. Also, the feeling of not being allowed to make your own decisions and feeling increasingly isolated from your close environment. In the following article, we’ll provide you with more keys so that you can become aware of it and make a decision.

Ways in which psychological abuse appears in a couple

Psychological abuse doesn’t leave marks on the skin, but it undermines mental integrity. We can all be victims of these aggressive behaviors. Gender, age, status, and a person’s sexual orientation don’t matter when it comes to psychological abuse in a couple. In fact, at a clinical level, there has been an increase in this type of violence among adolescent couples.

Detecting everyday mental abuse by those who suffer it isn’t always easy. Many times, the abuser alters the victim’s psychological reality in such a way that it becomes difficult to admit what’s happening. For this reason, we want to provide you with a series of clues so that you can reflect on them.

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Asymmetrical relationships

This is one of the first indicators that is usually evaluated to detect psychological abuse in a couple. We understand relational asymmetry as the difference in power that exists in an emotional bond. What happens in these cases is that there’s a figure that dominates the entire domain. We’ll give you some examples:

  • The power of decision always lies with your partner.
  • If you decide something for yourself, your partner gets angry.
  • You feel limited when doing anything.
  • The other person usually supervises or criticizes everything you do.
  • Financial issues and even what you watch on TV are decided by your partner.

Contempt and humiliation

As a paper published in Population Health states, existing research almost always focuses on the prevalence and consequences of physical and sexual intimate partner violence. Psychological abuse, for its part, hasn’t received as much attention, although its impact, as you can already imagine, is as harmful as it is disabling.

Humiliation is one of the ways in which this dynamic most often manifests itself. By despising and undervaluing the victim, the abuser gains power and reinforces their identity. Take note of the most common ways it can appear in your relationship:

  • The use of sarcasm.
  • Devaluing your achievements.
  • The use of derogatory nicknames.
  • Harmful comparisons.
  • Your partner ignores or minimizes your needs.
  • They constantly criticize what you do.
  • Uses aggressive and derogatory communication.
  • They ridicule you in private and also in public.
  • They address you with phrases like “you’re useless. You don’t do anything right.”

Excessive control

We talked at the beginning about the increase in couple manipulation among younger people. An example of how this behavior is exercised is described in the magazine Intervención Psicosocial. Mobile phones are now the main instrument of control in sexual-affective bonds between adolescents. And this is also abuse.

From the moment your partner seeks to have control in any area of your life, whatever it may be, they’re already applying this harmful and dysfunctional dynamic to you. This desire for control is reflected in other situations that we’ll describe below:

  • They control who you talk to.
  • They want to know what friends you have.
  • They read your messages on your mobile phone.
  • They impose restrictions on your clothing.
  • They insist on knowing who you’re with at all times.
  • They have control of your finances and your credit card.
  • They set rules about what you can and can’t do.
  • You’re obliged to have sexual relations, even if you don’t want to.

Emotional manipulation

Psychological manipulation in a couple is nourished by refined techniques of emotional domination. The most common and destructive technique is gaslighting, a form of abuse in which the victim ends up doubting their own reality and their thoughts as a result of the abuser’s influence. Below, we’ll explain how it’s carried out:

  • Minimization: Your partner downplays your feelings or concerns. They’ll tell you things like, “You’re too sensitive” or “Whatever’s bothering you isn’t that big of a deal.”
  • Invalidation: Your partner will invalidate your opinions, thoughts, and feelings with expressions as harmful as “You don’t know what you’re talking about” or “You’re just paranoid.”
  • Changing the subject: Every time you try to communicate with them about an issue that worries you, they’ll avoid it, change the subject, or claim that you’re obsessed with nonsense that’s not worth talking about.
  • Denial of reality: Your partner will tell you that certain conversations never happened. For example, when you try to talk to them about something that happened, they respond with, “You’re crazy. I never said that.”
  • The creation of doubts: A recurring form of emotional manipulation is making you doubt your own memory and perception. Your partner often tells you, “You always remember things incorrectly. You’re losing your mind.”
  • Blaming: This is a classic form of manipulation. Almost without you realizing it, anything negative that happens at home will be your responsibility. What’s more, if you confront the abuser, they’ll blame you in order to harm you, invalidate you, and make you look bad.
  • Emotional overload: Always remember that every time your partner gaslights you, they do so with a very clear objective, which is to cause you confusion, anxiety, and emotional exhaustion. What’s more, to achieve this, they’ll alternate affection with aggressiveness in order to generate chaos for you.

Your partner isolates you from your environment

Psychological abuse in a couple also manifests itself with your partner’s desire to separate your from your loved ones. The abuser will try at all costs to make you believe that your friends and family don’t appreciate you. They’ll insist that they’re bad people, that they don’t deserve you, and that they don’t understand you as much as your partner does. In fact, every time you try to meet them, they’ll become upset and may even stop talking to you as punishment.

Keep in mind that every abuser wants their victim isolated, alone, and vulnerable. By separating you from your family, they have greater control and, in turn, ensure that you depend exclusively on them for everything. It’s a dangerous behavior that you must detect as soon as possible to avoid falling into the trap.

You feel like you’re no longer the same person

When detecting the dynamics of psychological abuse, it’s common to look at how the other person behaves. However, it’s also crucial that you carry out an introspection exercise to assess how you see yourself in that relationship. One piece of information provided in the journal Health Psychology Research refers to the weight of the social stigma of abuse in a partner.

It’s very possible that you’re living this reality in silence. Sometimes, because you don’t want to admit what’s happening to you, you may try to minimize each aggressive dynamic. Now, denying the evidence will always have an inevitable mental cost on you, and you can assess it with the following indicators:

  • You feel like you’ve changed.
  • Your self-esteem is more fragile.
  • You feel more and more anxious.
  • Sometimes, you long for the person you were before.
  • You tell yourself that your partner will change.
  • You notice a combination of shame and sadness.
  • You suffer mood swings and emotional ups and downs.
  • You don’t dare talk to anyone about how you feel.
  • You barely have any hopes, and you don’t set goals for the future.
  • You perceive that your psychological health is increasingly affected.
Although it’s common for psychological abuse to appear without crossing the line of physical aggression, this doesn’t diminish its seriousness. What’s more, in many cases, your partner ends up crossing the line at some point in the form of pushing or throwing objects at you.

What to do if I’m in a situation like this?

It’s not easy to get out of a situation of psychological abuse in a couple. If you’re not ready or you don’t feel strong yet, don’t torture yourself. There’ll come a time when you feel ready to take that step. However, we recommend that you take into account the following guidelines for your well-being and safety:

  • Seek professional help: Consider consulting a psychologist, as receiving therapy will help you understand and address your situation.
  • Weigh your options: Evaluate whether it’s necessary to step away from the relationship temporarily or permanently. Analyze your options and make decisions based on your safety and well-being.
  • Prepare a support network: Seek the support of friends and family who are willing to help you when you decide to leave that relationship. Having figures who love you nearby is essential.
  • Call a helpline: In many countries, there are helplines and support organizations for victims of violence. If at any time you find yourself at the limit or want advice, contact these numbers.
  • Remember that you’re not alone: Your reality is harsh, but you’re not alone. In fact, there are millions of people who have gone through abusive situations and found support to get out of them. There are resources available to help you.
  • Document abuse: You never know what can happen. The ideal thing in situations of abuse is to keep a record of the incidents whenever possible. Saving voice messages or text messages in which your partner threatens or invalidates you, for example, is a good idea.
  • Talk to someone you trust: The most decisive thing is that you share your situation of psychological abuse with someone you trust, whether it’s a close friend, a family member, or a social worker. Talking about what you experience every day will give you emotional relief and can benefit you.

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Abuse isn’t love

If your partner makes you feel bad, invalidates you, despises you, or controls you, they don’t love you in a healthy way. That’s not the kind of love you deserve. If you’re in this situation right now, remember that you’re not to blame for anything. Don’t feel bad about yourself because all the responsibility for what happens to you lies with your abuser.

The most decisive thing is to not isolate yourself and try to have support figures around you. The moment you feel ready to leave that relationship, your friends, family, and specialized professionals will be there. Doing so is an exercise in bravery, and although such an act is always scary, we assure you that everything will be okay in the end, and you’ll be happy again.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.