marriage counselling sevenoaks

Emotional bullying in a relationship


We sometimes work with individuals who need relationship help online because they are being emotionally bullied. Although they are not always aware or willing to admit that it’s happening.

The most obvious scenario for emotional bullying (also known as emotional abuse) is in an intimate relationship in which a man is the abuser and the woman is the victim. However, a variety of studies show that men and women abuse each other at equal rates*

What Is Emotional Bullying?

Emotional bullying is any kind of abuse that is emotional rather than physical  and used to control or dominate another person. It can include anything from verbal abuse and constant criticism to more subtle tactics, such as intimidation, manipulation or a refusal to ever be pleased.

Our couple counsellors will help you realise that emotional abuse, is a form of brain washing that tends to slowly erode the victim’s sense of self-worth, security, and trust in themselves and others. In many ways, it is more detrimental than physical abuse because it slowly disintegrates your confidence and self-esteem. The effects of long-term emotional bullying can have a serious long term impact on the victim; often leading to anxiety and depression, and in some cases post-traumatic stress disorder.

Unlike physical abuse which tends to rear its ugly head in dramatic outbursts, emotional abuse can be much more or difficult to recognise. In some cases, neither the bully nor the victim are fully aware it’s happening.

An emotionally abusive person often acts as if they are never wrong, therefore making compromise impossible. They may not be verbally abusive, but their obstinate, inflexible demeanour often forces their partners into submission. Other bullies may be highly critical of their partner’s thoughts, ideas or opinions, leaving them feeling stupid or insignificant

How Do I know I am Being Emotionally Bullied?

Emotional abuse is confusing and the victim often doesn’t recognise their mistreatment as abusive and learn to develop coping mechanisms of denial or minimisation in order to deal with the stress that it brings.

Sometimes, victims question whether ‘abuse’ is the ‘right’ term to describe what is happening in their any relationship They may feel like their partner shouts at them a lot or makes them feel bad, but think ‘abuse’ would be too ‘dramatic’ a word to use.

However, whether behaviour is classed as abusive or not is dependent on how it makes you feel. If your partner’s behaviour makes you feel small, controlled or as if you’re unable to talk about what’s wrong, it’s abusive. Or if you feel your partner is stopping you from being able to express yourself, it’s abusive. If you feel you have to change your actions to accommodate your partner’s behaviour, it’s abusive.

Examples of emotional bullying

In our experience offering relationship help online shows there are a variety of ways in which emotional bullies behave. For example –

  • Some might shout you down, by shouting louder than you means they win. Some might become distraught and cry if they don’t get their own way, resulting in you feeling ‘bad’ and confused because they have manipulated you into feeling guilty about asserting yourself so you give in to their distress.
  • Emotional bullies can be controlling. Monitoring your texts or Facebook messages perhaps or creating rules about what you can or can’t wear.
  • Dictating how you should spend your time and who with, or controlling your finances. You end up feeling like you need permission to make decisions or to go out somewhere.
  • Humiliating you or putting you down or make fun of you in front of other people. When challenged, they tell you that you are oversensitive and they were “only joking”.
  • Maybe they belittle your accomplishments or your hopes and dreams. Or give you disapproving or contemptuous looks or body language.
  • They regularly point out your flaws, mistakes, or shortcomings or accuse or blame you of things you know aren’t true. They don’t show you empathy or compassion.
  • An inability to laugh at themselves and can’t tolerate others laughing at them. They play the victim and try to blame you rather than taking responsibility for themselves.
  • Repeatedly crossing your boundaries and blame you for their problems, difficulties, or unhappiness. Or calling you names or giving you unpleasant labels or make cutting remarks under their breath.
  • They may be emotionally distant or emotionally unavailable most of the time or resort to pouting or withdrawal to get attention or what they want.
  • They often disengage or use the threat of abandonment to punish or frighten you. Or perhaps share personal information about you with others. When confronted, they might tend to invalidate or deny their emotionally abusive behaviour.

Why do people stay with an emotional bully?

At couples therapy online we find that it’s common for people who have never experienced emotional abuse to question why a person wouldn’t just leave an abusive relationship. Therefore judging people in such situations as ‘weak’ or ‘stupid’. This is rarely the case. Emotional abuse tends to develop gradually over time and is often interspersed with kind, loving behaviour. The  victim then becomes confused and their confidence gets chipped away. They then question that they are right to feel as they do. The ongoing manipulation leads them to start believing they are always in the wrong. Therefore breaking up can be much more difficult than it seems.

Some people try and convince themselves that they are keeping the peace by being passive to a bully. They believe that the path of least resistance is the only solution available so they discourage any form of rebellion. Perhaps they grew up in a toxic environment in which they felt the only answer was to ‘hide’ or ‘mediate’ peace in the family.

Low self-worth

It can also be down to having little self-worth. Some people fail to confront a bully because they fear that they have too little to offer the relationship. These individuals often have low self-esteem and a belief that no one else would want them. A belief often reinforced by the abuser.

Some individuals fear that they cannot financially support themselves. Concerned that without their partners, they may not be able to survive, so they choose to stay quiet

Due to a loss of confidence some victims feel that they cannot live alone. Even if they could afford to financially, they would not want to try and attempt it. Often they have moved straight from their families to cohabitation or marriage.

Others victims feel a need to replicate abuse. While this is usually unconscious, many people seem to find bullies and or tolerate them because that is what they grew up experiencing. In this sense, to live with a bully is familiar.

What can you do to help yourself?

Accept that you cannot ‘fix’ a bully – As much as you might have tried to compromise, understand, help or explain. Nobody can make someone change unless they take responsibility for themselves and really want to change their destructive behaviour

Think about your needs – Try to stop worrying about pleasing or protecting the abuser. It will never be enough because the goal posts will keep moving if they don’t want to take personal responsibility. All you can do is take care of yourself and your needs. Think about why you are unhappy and what you can do to change it.

Set firm boundaries. As difficult as it might be, if you really want to change things – tell your abuser he or she may no longer shout at you, call you names, put you down etc. If they continue behaving badly, demonstrate that you will not tolerate by leaving the room or get in the car and drive to a friend’s house.

Take back control. If the abuser tries to pick a fight or win an argument, don’t engage with anger. Don’t explain or justify yourself. Don’t apologise or try to sooth him/her. Just keep quiet and walk away.

You are not to blame. If you’ve been embedded in an abusive relationship for a while, you can begin to feel like you are going crazy. You might start to think something must be wrong with you since this other person treats you so poorly. Begin to acknowledge to yourself that it is NOT you. This is the first step toward rebuilding your self-esteem.

Seek support. Talk to trusted friends or seek the help of a counsellor. Get away from the abusive person as often as possible, and spend time with those who love and support you. This support system will help you feel less alone and isolated while you still contend with the abuser.

Professional help

If you think you’re in an abusive relationship, you may find it difficult to talk about it. It’s common to feel ashamed about what has happened, and you might be scared of your partner’s reaction if they find out you have told anyone. Unfortunately, it is also very natural for those in abusive relationships to convince themselves that their partner’s behaviour is acceptable or that they are in the wrong, which isn’t true. Our relationship counsellors will help you recognise you don’t deserve to be abused and have the right to be treated with love and respect.

If you choose relationship help we will help you develop an exit plan. You can’t remain in an emotionally abusive relationship forever. If finances or children or some other valid reason prevents you from leaving now, develop a plan for leaving as soon as possible. Begin saving money, looking for a place to live, or planning for divorce if necessary so you can feel more in control and empowered.

If you would like some more help to deal with emotional bullying then contact us via Online Couples Counselling today. Request an appointment

If you feel you are in any physical danger and need urgent help then contact the police or the  Victim Support Helpline or  National Domestic Abuse Helpline 


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