Recognizing Emotional Abuse
October 2020

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Recognizing Emotional Abuse

“My husband isn’t abusive. He yells at me and calls me names, but that’s not abuse, is it?”

two men sitting on bench

We know that “the Lord condemns abusive behavior in any form.”1 And some forms of abuse, like physical abuse, are easy to see, but emotional abuse can be much harder to spot. The damage can result in confusion, fear, shame, hopelessness, and feelings of low self-worth.

Emotional abuse is one person’s attempt to remove another’s agency and gain control over them with words or behaviors that manipulate emotions or choices. Emotional abuse can happen in any kind of relationship: between spouses, between parents and children, in friendships, in dating relationships, or among co-workers.

What Are Some Examples of Emotional Abuse?

Knowing the signs of emotional abuse can help you protect yourself and your loved ones. Some of the abusive behaviors include:

  • Calling you names or referring to you in demeaning ways.

  • Embarrassing you in public.

  • Criticizing and devaluing your accomplishments and what you do.

  • Blaming you for their actions and not taking accountability.

  • Making you feel guilty so you will do something for them because they did something for you.

  • Isolating you from others and controlling how you spend your time.

  • Making threats if you do not act a certain way or do certain things.

  • Withholding affection until you do certain things for them.

  • Manipulating you spiritually by using religious beliefs to control you.

How Can I Recognize Emotional Abuse?

It’s equally important to be familiar with abusive behaviors and your internal warning signs. The following are some typical thought patterns and decisions that can keep you in an emotionally abusive relationship:

  1. Excusing your abuser’s behavior.

    • Justifying the abuser’s behavior: “She wouldn’t normally do this—she is just under a lot of pressure right now.”

    • Minimizing the behavior: “It wasn’t really that big of a deal.”

    • Blaming yourself for their behavior: “If only I would have had dinner ready on time, he wouldn’t have been so angry and yelled at me.”

  2. Ignoring emotional discomfort. Initially, when you are a victim of emotional abuse, you may want to avoid the offender because you feel uncomfortable or negative toward yourself when they’re around. To preserve the relationship, you might ignore these feelings of discomfort. In time, that discomfort can disappear as a result of being conditioned to their behavior.

  3. Using religious beliefs to justify the situation. This is very common in our society, including even members of the Church. The person being abused might think something like this: “The Lord commanded us to forgive. I am sinning if I don’t forgive.” Forgiveness is a commandment. But, as Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught about the Savior, “He did not say, ‘You are not allowed to feel true pain or real sorrow from the shattering experiences you have had at the hand of another.’ Nor did He say, ‘In order to forgive fully, you have to reenter a toxic relationship or return to an abusive, destructive circumstance.’”2

  4. Neglecting your own needs. You meet the needs of others at the cost of taking care of yourself. For example, suffering emotional pain to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or giving money to a friend, even when you can’t afford to.

  5. Feeling worthless. Emotional abuse can hinder your feelings of self-worth. Yet you are a son or daughter of God and have a divine nature and destiny. Your worth, which is great, is unchanging (see Doctrine and Covenants 18:10).

What Can I Do If I’m Being Emotionally Abused?

Sometimes an emotionally abusive relationship might be so destructive that leaving the relationship may be necessary. However, leaving isn’t the only option in every situation. Change is possible, and a relationship can become healthy with work and often with the help of a professional. If you believe you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship, the following can help:

  1. Seek support and help from a trusted person with whom you can share your experiences, such as a friend, a Church leader, or a professional in a community organization. This person can provide emotional support and a positive perspective of who you are and can spend quality time with you away from the abuse. (See abuse.ChurchofJesusChrist.org. Click “In Crisis” for a list of helplines.)

  2. Set and keep boundaries with the person who shows abusive behavior by identifying the behavior that is abusive and setting limits for your continued interaction. You could say, “I feel disrespected by you right now. I want to talk with you, but I will not unless you treat me more respectfully and kindly.”

  3. Get help from a professional counselor who is knowledgeable about emotional abuse and its effects. Sometimes offenders don’t even know they are being abusive. They can learn to change if they are willing to seek help. If the relationship does not continue, seeking professional help, together with the help of the Lord, will help you heal.

  4. Find more helpful information and resources on abuse.ChurchofJesusChrist.org.

Whatever your circumstances, know that there are people who love you and want to help you. And by turning to your Heavenly Father, the Savior, and the Holy Ghost, hope and healing is possible.


  1. First Presidency Letter, “Responding to Abuse,” July 28, 2008.

  2. Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Ministry of Reconciliation,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2018, 79.