Written by: The Circles Team

September 22, 2021

What do you think of when you hear the words “toxic relationship” or “emotional abuse”?

When it comes to toxic relationships, many people probably imagine a violent partner or a partner that isn’t faithful. When it comes to emotional abuse, bullying is typically something that comes to mind.

While all of these situations are symptomatic of being in a toxic relationship, or an emotionally abusive relationship, sometimes it’s not easy to recognize when you’re in one because the signs aren’t as extreme. You can be experiencing severe anxiety in your relationship, but it can be hard to pinpoint exactly why that is. There are a number of red flags in a relationship that indicate it might be toxic or emotionally abusive and can explain why you might be anxious.

Emotional abuse is a term that’s thrown around a lot, but what is the definition of emotional abuse? Psychology Today defines emotional abuse as “Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior in which the perpetrator insults, humiliates, and generally instills fear in an individual in order to control them. The individual’s reality may become distorted as they internalize the abuse as their own failings.”

Emotional abuse is can be overtly manipulative, but it can also be difficult to recognize given the behavior can sometimes be much more subtle. Rather than taking large swings at a person’s self-esteem and sense of security, emotional abuse can covertly chip away at it and plant a seed of doubt in the victim’s perception of the situation.

This isn’t exclusive to romantic relationships. You can experience emotional abuse by your mother, father, partner, husband, etc. Anyone can be a perpetrator of emotional abuse, and anyone can be a victim.

How can this manifest? Setting unrealistic expectations of you, like expecting you to toss your needs and responsibilities to the side to cater to theirs, invalidating your opinions or feelings by calling you “crazy” or “too emotional” or “sensitive”, being excessively controlling such as dictating how you can spend your time, and emotionally blackmailing you such as making you feel guilty for their misfortunes.

The end result? You feel trapped, and that’s when the anxiety comes in. You recognize that something is awry and is causing you harm, but you’re also now in a situation where you’re too scared to leave. It’s a vicious cycle that repeats itself until you do something about it. As the saying goes, the first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem, or in this case, recognizing that you’re in a problematic situation. Once you can see your experience clearly, you’ll be able to control how you go about it.

You can stop thinking your anxiety in your relationship is a sign there is something wrong with you (there isn’t) and start making yourself a priority and take care of your need. You can and should set boundaries with the person and draw a metaphorical line so they know they can no longer engage in their behavior, and if they continue to do so you can stop engaging with them.

Last but definitely not least, you can turn to relationship counseling or rely on a support network, like at Circles, to discuss what you’ve been through This will help you feel less lonely and isolated and help you put things into perspective. Healing from emotional abuse takes time, but it starts by taking that first step.