5 behaviours that seem ‘normal’ but could be signs of emotional abuse

In contrast to physical abuse, emotional abuse can be covert and frequently goes unnoticed by victims, their friends, and family.

An emotional abuser frequently behaves in ways that seem kind, loving, and attentive when they are first dating, at least outwardly. This is a phase in the offender’s “grooming process” wherein they employ charm and flattery to give the impression that they are kind and reliable.

“That ‘kindness’ is intended to gain an unsuspecting victim’s trust and confidence, leaving them open to further abuse,” stated trauma expert and certified clinical social worker Lisa Ferentz.

Behaviors including threatening, insulting, shaming, belittling, name-calling, gaslighting, and stonewalling are examples of emotional abuse. These behaviors are intended to undermine the victim’s independence and self-worth so that the abuser can take control of the relationship.

5 behaviours that seem ‘normal’ but could be signs of emotional abuse

Your partner insists on spending as much one-on-one time with you as possible.

At the very beginning of a relationship, as you and your partner are getting to know each other, it’s perfectly normal to do most things one-on-one. But as time goes on, you typically start spending time with each other’s friends and family, too. If your partner is always angling to keep your plans limited to just the two of you — and saying things like, “My alone time with you is so special. I can’t be myself like this with other people around” — you may perceive this as romantic. But your partner’s intentions may not be as pure as they seem.

“In actuality, limiting where you go and who you spend time with is often an attempt to isolate and alienate you from your network of support,” Ferentz said. “When you are disconnected from other people, they can’t witness maltreatment and you can’t reach out to them for guidance or the resources you might need to eventually leave the relationship.”

They’re eager to combine finances very early on.

If and when a couple decides to open a joint account or share login information for their online banking, it’s a big display of trust and a major step in the relationship — and one that usually happens further down the road. When your partner proposes combining finances early on, it’s easy to mistake this controlling manoeuvre as a signof their commitment.

“This can be presented as a sign of ‘commitment’ or ‘true partnership,’ but in reality, it is designed to eliminate your financial independence, reduce your access to separate funds and make it extremely difficult for you to leave the relationship,” Ferentz said.

An abusive partner may make it seem like they’re doing this to be financially transparent with you — “What’s mine is yours!” — but Ferentz says it’s usually a one-way street. You share everything and they share only what they want to disclose.

“It’s also a way for an emotionally abusive partner to freeload off your hard-earned money and not contribute to equally covering the costs of daily living,” she said. “In cases where an abusive partner has a high-paying job, it’s likely that they have separate accounts or credit cards and are keeping money from you or spending money on things that don’t include you.”

They check in on you constantly.

Healthy couples generally keep each another informed about their daily schedules as a courtesy or because they’re curious about each other’s lives. An emotionally abusive partner, however, wants to know where you are and who you’re with at all times, and will try to glean this information under the guise of caring.

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“What can seem like genuine love and interest in your well-being actually has undercurrents of toxic jealousy and possessiveness,” Ferentz said. “They may keep tabs on your schedule and whereabouts through excessive texting or phone calls, continually offer unsolicited advice about what’s in your ‘best interests,’ or ask you to ‘run everything by them’ before making any decisions.”

Sometimes, an emotionally abusive partner will position themselves as your “protector” whose primary concern is to make sure you’re safe. At first, they may go out of their way to pick you up from a late dinner with your friends or call you to make sure you got home safely. This level of concern may seem sweet but it can quickly turn sour.

“This so-called ‘protectiveness’ can turn into needing to know where you are at all times, or not wanting you to go out with your friends. This can begin to feel controlling,” Engel said. “Before you know it, you feel trapped, confined, no longer a free person as they become more and more controlling, accusing you of cheating if they can’t reach you, breaking into your phone or computer to monitor who you are talking to.”

They lavish you with grandiose compliments, gifts and praise.

Sure, it’s nice to be wined and dined by a new partner, but an emotional abuser will take it to another level by showering you with extravagant gestures that are in no way commensurate with the length or seriousness of the relationship. Maybe they present you with diamond earrings on your second date or surprise you with a trip to Hawaii within the first month of dating. These acts may appear doting and generous at first, but in reality, they are a self-serving manipulation tactic known as love bombing.

“During the beginning, one partner woos the other with great dinners, interesting outings, flowers and gifts,” said Carol A. Lambert, psychotherapist and author of Women With Controlling Partners. “Their partner is amazed by the special attention and generosity so when their own suggestions [or wishes] get ignored it’s not such a big deal. They might feel swept off their feet at the time, but it turns out to be too good to be true.”

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The love bombing phrase never lasts long. Once the emotional abuser feels they have you under their spell, the rug is promptly pulled out from under you.

“As the abuser blames the victim for his or her lack of continual positive treatment, the victim tries harder and harder to win the abuser back, believing that the change inbehaviour is the victim’s fault,” Stines said.

They give you unsolicited feedback about how you can better yourself.

In healthy relationships, couples offer each other the love and support they need to make improvements to their life ― whether it’s cheering them on as they embark on a fitness journey, helping them prepare for an interview for their dream job or keeping them accountable as they try to kick a bad habit.

But in an emotionally abusive relationship, your partner may seem supportive at first. Soon they’re telling you what you need to do to improve yourself ― not asking how they can help.

“Initial compliments about your appearance, personality and successes are manipulative and designed to win you over and build trust,” Ferentz said. “Fairly quickly those comments turn into criticism that will be offered under the guise of wanting you to keep improving yourself. They will put down your feelings or ideas, how you dress or what you have achieved.”

The abusive partner may say they’re telling you this “for your own good,” when really they just want to shame you enough to diminish your sense of confidence and self-worth.

“They may appear to be caring by ‘warning’ you that when you drink you behave badly, such as flirting with other men or being too loud or by telling you that others are complaining about another behaviour of yours,” Engel said. “They may do this in a way that seems like they’re trying to help you, but in reality, you may not be misbehaving in any way.”

By making you question your own judgment or sense of reality ― also known as gaslighting ― you’re more likely to go along with what your partner says and does.

“In time, self-doubt creates a loss of trust in your perception and judgment, making you all the more vulnerable to a partner who wants to control you,” Lambert said.

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