How to Get Out of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship: Steps to Regain Your Freedom

“The hardest part of being in an emotionally abusive relationship, it’s actually admitting you’re in one.” – Anna Akana

By: Milena J. Wisniewska

Does your relationship feel like a never-ending episode of Euphoria? I may surprise you, but this isn’t how a healthy relationship should feel, and it may be time to evacuate. 

Emotional abuse isn’t a pop psychology fad, and it’s not being oversensitive either. It’s a very, very real thing. Emotional abuse is a sly, destructive form of manipulation that slowly shatters your self-worth.  

Breaking free from it is tough, but it’s absolutely possible. I’ve done it, and so can you. 

You deserve genuine love, not a masterclass in survival.

Key Takeaways

  • Recognize the red flags, such as gaslighting, constant criticism, control, isolation, and unpredictable mood swings.
  • The profound impact of emotional abuse includes long-term psychological effects, hindered personal and professional development, and the risk of intergenerational trauma.
  • To leave an emotionally abusive relationship safely, create a safety plan and rely on a support system.
  • Rebuild your independence by focusing on self-care and learning from the experience.

Recognizing the Signs of Emotional Abuse

In her book, The Emotionally Abusive Relationship: How to Stop Being Abused and How to Stop Abusing, author Beverly Engel defines emotional abuse as “any nonphysical behavior or attitude that is designed to control, subdue, punish, or isolate another person through the use of humiliation or fear.”[1] 

While its definition is clear, emotional abuse can be tricky to identify. It often manifests as a series of subtle microaggressions rather than big blows. It’s rarely obvious, especially to the victim, and can easily pass under your self-protection radar, so please don’t beat yourself up if that’s the case. 

Fortunately, there are some common signs you can look out for. 👀

Gaslighting and reality distortion

Dr. Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect, says that gaslighting is “a form of emotional abuse where one person’s psychological manipulation causes another person to question their reality.”​[2]

They’ll deny your reality, twist your truth, and make you think your own mind is playing tricks on you. 

Gaslighting really messes with your mental health and well-being. It makes you doubt yourself and leaves you feeling confused and anxious. Over time, it chips away at your confidence, undermines your perceptions, and makes you feel powerless.

So, if you catch yourself thinking you’re in Gone Girl 2, second-guessing your sanity and wondering if you’re losing it, it’s time to call it what it is: gaslighting.

Constant criticism and undermining

In Psychopath Free, author Jackson MacKenzie exposes emotional abusers as those who “criticize you with a condescending, joking sort of attitude. They smirk when you try to express yourself. Teasing becomes the primary mode of communication in your relationship. They subtly belittle your intelligence and abilities. If you point this out, they call you sensitive and crazy.”[3] 

Dealing with constant criticism can erode your self-esteem and confidence. When you’re constantly put down, it’s a highway to hell of inadequacy and worthlessness. In the long run, these negative messages can start to really affect how you see yourself, making it hard to stand up for yourself and leading to anxiety and depression. 

It’s as if you can never say the right thing, and whatever you do or don’t do is never good enough. 

Literal chills. 

Control and isolation

Emotional abuse is a control game. 

It might start with isolating you from your friends and family — suddenly, your best friend isn’t welcome, your mom’s too controlling, and they’ve always hated Christmas at Grandma’s. They refuse to go to your cousin’s wedding but throw a fit when you want to go alone.

Next, they tighten their slimy grip on your schedule, hobbies, and finances. Eventually, they start micromanaging every aspect of your life. Always in the name of love, of course. 

They’re essentially isolating you from your support system to assert power and control over you. Eventually, the manipulator may start to monitor when you go out and with whom, eavesdrop on your conversations, or even go through your DMs and read your diary! These behaviors are incredibly damaging and are all clear signs of a lack of respect for personal boundaries. 

Remember Regina George from Mean Girls, dictating what the Plastics ate, wore, and said? Yeah, that’s what we’re dealing with here, except without the memorable one-liners.

Unpredictable mood swings and blaming you

An emotionally abusive partner can switch moods faster than a Kardashian changes faces, going from sweet and loving to raging and abusive in a fraction of a second.

Such behavior creates a consistent atmosphere of fear for the victim, the effects of which are not merely psychological.

In an article published in the American Journal of Managed Care, Dr. Mary Moller outlines that “the potential effects of chronic fear on physical health include headaches turning into migraines, muscle aches turning into fibromyalgia, body aches turning into chronic pain, and difficulty breathing turning into asthma.”[4]

Seriously, the constant fear and uncertainty will literally make you sick!

If your daily life feels more like the heart-pounding suspense of The Shining than the peaceful Little House on the Prairie, it’s time to abandon the ship before you go down with it. 

Threats and intimidation

Threats and intimidation are key weapons in any emotional abuser’s arsenal. It’s such a widespread issue that Dr. Susan Forward dedicated an entire book to it. 

In Emotional Blackmail, she explains that emotional blackmailers, as she calls them, “know how much we value our relationship with them. They know our vulnerabilities. Often they know our deepest secrets.”

She goes on to say that “no matter how much they care about us when they fear they won’t get their way, they use this intimate knowledge to shape the threats that give them the payoff they want: our compliance.”[5]

Think constant yelling, door slamming, and even broken objects around the house. Often, there might be threats against you or your loved ones.

It’s not uncommon for abusers to use children as bargaining chips to make you stay out of fear. It’s scary to think about what might happen if you leave — your safety, your children’s well-being, and even financial stability are all big concerns. 

These behaviors create a web of fear and uncertainty, trapping you in a tough cycle to break free from.

Emotional withholding and silent treatment

Emotional withholding and silent treatment are common tactics used by abusive partners in toxic relationships. They’re ruthless, especially for those who genuinely care for their partner, but if you have an anxious attachment style, these behaviors can be almost unbearable.

As the authors of the groundbreaking Attached put it, “The anxious end of the spectrum is characterized by a high need for closeness and a perception of emotional distance as a threat.”[6]

This means that when your partner uses silent treatment or withholds affection as a form of punishment, it can leave you feeling a desperate need for their approval to avoid the excruciating pain of loneliness and isolation. 

This behavior can create a toxic dynamic in your relationship, where the abuser holds power over you by controlling your emotional well-being. 

It’s as though they have their hand on the lever controlling your emotional oxygen supply, leaving you desperately gasping for air at their whim, like a fish out of water.

Financial abuse and control

Shannon Thomas, in her book Healing From Hidden Abuse, writes that “financial abuse is an insidious form of control where the abuser uses money as a weapon to dominate and manipulate their partner, making them feel trapped and powerless.”[7]

It might start all sweet and charming, like when they ask about your spending habits and help you curb that compulsive buying. Adorable, right? Then they suggest a joint account. Aww, sharing is caring! What’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is ours, right? Cute . . . until it’s not.

Soon, they’re not just curious about your spending — they need to know every detail. And suddenly, you’re asking for permission to buy a pumpkin spice latte. Not so cute anymore, huh?

And it doesn’t stop there — they might even try to convince you that you don’t need to work because they can provide for you. “You don’t have to work, babe; I’ve got enough for both of us.” That may sound nice in theory until you realize that no job means no money of your own. And no money of your own means total dependency. 

Financial control makes women afraid to leave because they have no way to support themselves. Without their own income, they fear they won’t be able to provide for their children or secure a place to live. This financial dependency tightens the abuser’s hold, making it even harder for victims to break free.

That’s not cute. That’s just disempowering. 

Minimizing and denying abuse

Emotional abusers love to downplay the damage they’re causing. They’ll tell you you’re overreacting, that it’s not a big deal, or that you’re just imagining things.

As MacKenzie warns in Psychopath Free, “toxic people condition you to believe that the problem isn’t the abuse itself, but your reactions to their abuse.”[8] 

But don’t let them make you doubt your reality! If something feels off, it probably is.

Trust your gut! 

And remember, no matter what they’re trying to make you believe,

emotional abuse is never your fault, and you deserve to be treated with respect and kindness.

How to Get Out of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

If, after reading the above, you’ve realized you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, you know you need to leave. But it takes courage to leave.

Realizing you need to break up doesn’t change the fact that you may still be emotionally attached and in love with your partner. It’s a lot like breaking your own heart to mend it back together in a healthier way later on. It’s pain. 

And it’s real pain. 

In fact, a study published in PNAS proved that when people feel emotional pain, the same areas of the brain get activated as when people feel physical pain. 

They measured it by making people who’ve just gone through a tough breakup look at a photo of their ex while thinking about the rejection. Functional MRI scans showed that social rejection and physical pain overlap. Basically, being heartbroken can hurt just as much as a bodily injury.[8]

But don’t worry, you can get through this. Here are the steps you’ll need to take to get yourself to safety and reclaim yourself.

Recognize the abuse and prioritize your safety

The first step to leaving an emotionally abusive relationship is recognizing you’re in one.

Emotional abuse is often subtle and hard to recognize. So, if you realize you’re dealing with an abusive partner, be kind to yourself. Don’t judge yourself — focus on getting to safety.

Ensure your support system (safest friends and loved ones) is ready to help during the first days of separation. Even if you think you know your partner, it’s better to be safe than sorry, as emotional abusers can resort to physical violence when their control is threatened.

If you feel isolated and don’t have anyone you can trust, get in touch with a domestic violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233. There’s nothing shameful about it. These professionals deal with all types of abuse and are here to help. No problem is too small.

Stay strong and put your safety first. You deserve it.

Create a safety plan and prepare to leave

Create a plan to protect yourself. These are the steps you can take beforehand:

  • Find a safe place to stay.
  • Secure important documents and other essentials.
  • Make a list of emergency contacts.

Pack essentials like money, clothing, and your phone. Be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

Consider getting a therapist or counselor to support you during this process.

I truly hope things will work out amicably, but it’s important to be prepared for the worst while remaining optimistic.

Reach out for support and resources

Leaving any relationship is tough, but leaving an emotionally abusive one is a whole new level. Your self-esteem is in tatters, people have turned their backs on you, and you feel like a shadow of yourself. It’s a dark place to be.

Even if you feel like you don’t deserve anything (thanks to your abuser’s work), you absolutely do!

Reach out for support. It’s not too much to ask. After months or years of being belittled and neglected, asking for help is not too much. Contact a domestic violence hotline, join a support group, or seek individual counseling.

Here are some resources to get you started:

You’re worth it and don’t have to go through this alone.

Set and maintain clear boundaries with the abuser

It’s crucial to set clear boundaries with your abuser to take back control and find your freedom.

Start by cutting off as much contact as possible. If that’s not feasible, keep conversations strictly practical. If you have joint custody of your children, limit your conversations to co-parenting topics only. 

Keep your conversations trackable — emails or texts, not phone calls. Feel free to cc another person, such as a therapist, lawyer, or trusted friend or family member, to protect you from abusive emails. Save everything.

And don’t hesitate to seek a restraining order if needed.

Emotional abusers will try every trick in the book, from sweet talk and nostalgic memories all the way to threats. Manipulation and control are their go-to moves. Stay strong, stick to your boundaries, and don’t let them reel you back in. You’ve got this!

Focus on self-care and healing after leaving

Focusing on self-care and healing is important after you leave an abusive relationship. 

Having endured a prolonged period of unhappiness, it’s time to reconnect with the things that used to bring you joy. 

By showing yourself the kindness and care you deserve, you can establish — for yourself AND others — how you want to be treated. 

Whether it’s listening to your favorite song, treating yourself to a relaxing spa day, or spending time with a supportive friend, finding activities that bring you comfort and joy can be incredibly healing. 

You may also want to explore new practices, such as mindfulness, yoga, or therapy to help uplift your spirits. Remember, you deserve to prioritize your well-being and happiness.

Rebuild your independence and support system

It’s common for emotionally abusive relationships to revolve around the other person, leaving you feeling like you’ve lost your own identity. Reclaiming your independence and rebuilding a support system is crucial for regaining your freedom.

Consider reconnecting with friends you may have lost touch with during the relationship, exploring new job opportunities, or trying out activities you’ve always wanted to do, like knitting, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or Pilates. 

You’re free now, so embrace the things you couldn’t do before and make them a part of your new life.

Learn from the experience and move forward

Take some time to think about what you’ve learned from this experience and how you can avoid getting into the same mess in the future. This is your chance to grow and learn. 

We all stumble and fall. It’s the human condition. It’s how we bounce back that really counts.

The Impact of Emotional Abuse

While emotional abuse can happen at any age, if you are a woman in her mid-thirties, it can hit you in unique ways, impacting your health, career, and life choices hard. 

It can bring on mental health struggles like depression and anxiety, plus physical issues like high blood pressure from all that stress. Sleep problems are common, too, and being perpetually exhausted can make everything even worse. 

It can tank your confidence and focus on the job, hurting performance and costing opportunities, or isolate you from your professional network, making career growth more challenging. 

It’s a pretty big deal, so being aware of it is seriously important.

Why it’s so hard to recognize and leave

To recognize something’s wrong, you need to know what’s right. If you lack experience in healthy relationships, you may be more vulnerable to becoming a victim of emotional abuse through a process called trauma bonding.

Dr. Nicole LePera, the author of How to Do the Work, describes trauma bonding as “a relationship pattern that keeps you stuck in dynamics that do not support the expression of your authentic Self.”

And it doesn’t come out of nowhere. LePera says, “Trauma bonds are often learned and conditioned in childhood and then repeated in adult relationships (peer, familial, romantic, professional). They are relationship patterns that are based on our earliest, often unmet needs.”[9] 

So, suppose you experienced neglect or silent treatment in your youth. In that case, you will think it’s normal, and not only will you not be able to recognize this as abuse, you will subconsciously choose emotionally abusive partners. 

The other tricky part is knowing when to leave. Self-awareness helps, but that’s often hard to come by when an emotionally abusive partner has bulldozed your confidence and self-esteem.

The long-term psychological effects

You may have heard of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in the context of war survivors, but an emotionally abusive relationship can leave you equally traumatized.  

Emotional abuse survivors often struggle with low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and trust issues long after the abuse ends. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD affects about 3.6% of U.S. adults annually, with women being twice as likely to develop it compared to men.[10]

Research published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence shows that emotional abuse can be as harmful as physical abuse, leading to significant psychological distress. Survivors frequently show symptoms of PTSD, like intrusive thoughts and emotional numbness.[11]

Emotional abuse undermines self-worth and creates a pervasive sense of fear.

The impact on personal and professional development

The impact of emotional abuse on personal and professional development can be profound. 

Imagine trying to ace that big work presentation while battling the aftermath of a fight that left your eyes puffy and your heart heavy. Instead of feeling supported, you’re replaying hurtful words from someone who should be lifting you up, not tearing you down.

Now, think about losing a job offer from that amazing company because you were too drained from emotional battles to give your best. 

It’s not just frustrating — it’s heart-wrenching. These aren’t just dramatic hypothetical scenarios; they’re real-life consequences many people face.

The cycle of abuse and intergenerational trauma

Whatever patterns you’re stuck in, they probably didn’t start with you. 

In his book, It Didn’t Start With You, Mark Wolynn, who leads the Family Constellation Institute in San Francisco, explores the concept of generational trauma, explaining how the experiences and emotional wounds of our ancestors can be passed down to us, influencing our behavior and emotional well-being. 

Wolynn emphasizes that the effects of unresolved trauma can be passed down through generations until someone is ready to feel them [12]

But here’s the thing: Just because it didn’t start with you and isn’t your fault, doesn’t mean it has to continue. You have the power to end it. You can break the chains that have held your ancestors by working on yourself and breaking the cycle of emotional abuse. 

As Alain de Botton wisely writes,

“We love according to patterns laid down by our families, but we also have the freedom to rewrite those patterns.”[13]

Healing and recovery from emotional abuse

Healing and recovery from emotional abuse takes time, and there are no shortcuts on that journey. But remember, there’s no storm too fierce to weather. 

In this place, I’d like to share the inspiring story of Sheleana Aiyana, the founder of Rising Woman. In her book, Becoming the One, Sheleana shares her story as the abandoned child of an alcoholic mother who spent many years numbing her pain with hard drugs and alcohol. 

She had witnessed her mother make multiple attempts to take her own life, lost many friends and loved ones to suicide and homicide, and endured sexual violence, addiction, homelessness, and domestic abuse.[14]

Today, Sheleana is a beacon of hope and inspiration, proving that you can get out of even the most destructive patterns with self-care, therapy, and competent support. 

Try apps like Calm or Headspace for some mindfulness practice, go to that yoga class, or join a breathwork workshop — they’re great ways to reconnect with yourself. 

Sanitize your environment from anyone who calls you oversensitive or benefits from your misery. And stick with the people who offer a gentle, nurturing space and let you feel all the feels. 

It might seem impossible now, but trust me, you’ll rise like a phoenix from the ashes, even stronger and more fabulous than before.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
“Still I Rise”Maya Angelou

Conclusion

Getting caught up by an emotional abuser doesn’t mean you’re weak or doomed to repeat the pattern. It’s not a reflection of your strength. It’s not a reflection of you.

If you’re feeling trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship, create an evacuation plan, take care of yourself, and call in your support system. Think about what you’d do for a friend in need — your friends want to be there for you too. Let them help and take care of you. You deserve it.

If you don’t have friends or family for support, reach out to a domestic violence hotline.

Leaving an abusive relationship might be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Things will change, but isn’t that what you want?

Remember, you’re not alone, and a better future is waiting for you at the end of that mess. 

FAQs

How do you break the pattern of emotional abuse?

You break the pattern of emotional abuse first by recognizing it. Set boundaries, seek support from friends, family, or a therapist, and prioritize self-care. Remember, you deserve respect and love. It’s a journey, but you’re stronger than you think!

How do victims of emotional abuse behave?

Victims of emotional abuse behave in a number of ways depending on each individual person, including social withdrawal, anxiety, anger, and aggression. Low self-esteem, feelings of helplessness, and self-blame are common too. 

Remember, their behavior isn’t the cause — the abuser is responsible. The victim is never to blame.

Which abuse is the hardest to prove?

Emotional abuse might be the hardest to prove since it leaves no physical marks. It can include verbal attacks, threats, intimidation, isolation, and withholding affection, money, or resources. It’s often harder to spot than physical abuse. If you’re experiencing this, a therapist can help you recognize the abuse and break the cycle. 

References 

1. Engel B. (2023). The emotionally abusive relationship: How to stop being abused and how to stop abusing (2nd ed.). Wiley. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=ZVPGEAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR13&dq=Engel+B.+(2002).The+emotionally+abusive+relationship:+How+to+stop+being+abused+and+how+to+stop+abusing+(1st+ed.).+Wiley.&ots=F88B-4XHEm&sig=e7hdyjyA_Sm01jJ0MprLRrg3FZM#v=onepage&q&f=false

2. Stern, R. (2007). The gaslight effect: How to spot and survive the hidden manipulation others use to control your life. Morgan Road Books. https://download.boekhuis.nl/9789020215175_fragm-docb.pdf

3. MacKenzie J. (2015). Psychopath free: Recovering from emotionally abusive relationships with narcissists, sociopaths, and other toxic people (expanded edition). Berkley. https://www.construct.ee/sites/default/files/webform/quote_request/_sid_/pdf-psychopath-free-expanded-edition-recovering-from-emotionally-ab-jackson-mackenzie-pdf-download-free-book-66b3241.pdf

4. Rosenberg, J. (2017, November 11). The effects of chronic fear on a person’s health. Neuroscience Education Institute Congress, Colorado Springs, Colorado, United States. https://www.ajmc.com/view/the-effects-of-chronic-fear-on-a-persons-health

5. Forward S. (2019). Emotional blackmail: When the people in your life use fear, obligation, and guilt to manipulate you. Harper Paperbacks.

6. Levine, A., & Heller, R. (2012). Attached: The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find and keep love. TarcherPerigee. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=vCh9fXUiUjwC&oi=fnd&pg=PA3&dq=Levine,+A.,+%26+Heller,+R.+(2012).+Attached:+The+new+science+of+adult+attachment+and+how+it+can+help+you+find+and+keep+love.+TarcherPerigee.&ots=HBur08OaB9&sig=yvCVjAzH_gdB2pKecfbhYh2tvvo#v=onepage&q&f=false

7. Thomas S. (2016). Healing from hidden abuse: A journey through the stages of recovery from psychological abuse. MAST Publishing House.

8. MacKenzie J. (2015). Psychopath free: Recovering from emotionally abusive relationships with narcissists, sociopaths, and other toxic people (expanded edition). Berkley. https://www.construct.ee/sites/default/files/webform/quote_request/_sid_/pdf-psychopath-free-expanded-edition-recovering-from-emotionally-ab-jackson-mackenzie-pdf-download-free-book-66b3241.pdf

9. LePera, N. (2021). How to do the work: Recognize your patterns, heal from your past, and create your self. Harper.

10. National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd

11. Norman, R. E., Byambaa, M., De, R., Butchart, A., Scott, J., & Vos, T. (2012). The long-term health consequences of child physical abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLOS Medicine, 9(11): e1001349. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001349

12. Wolynn M. (2016). It didn’t start with you: How inherited family trauma shapes who we are and how to end the cycle. Penguin Publishing Group. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=SGF8DgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=Wolynn+M.+(2016).+It+didn%27t+start+with+you:+How+inherited+family+trauma+shapes+who+we+are+and+how+to+end+the+cycle.+Penguin+Publishing+Group.&ots=v07ffn3u2n&sig=MCtzm5FQh4L8F2X3tK1sGquqYb0#v=onepage&q&f=false

13. De Botton, A. (2006). On love. Grove Press. 
14. Aiyana S. (2022). Becoming the one: Heal your past, transform your relationship patterns, and come home to yourself. Chronicle Prism.