Understanding the Cycle of Emotional Abuse – The Red Flags of a Toxic Relationship

We’ve all heard of physical abuse, but emotional abuse can be far more difficult to identify – especially in the early stages. Emotional abuse is a type of relationship pattern that can often go unnoticed until it escalates into something much more dangerous. This is why it’s important to be aware of the cycle of emotional abuse so that you can break free from it before it becomes too late.

What is emotional abuse?

Before we discuss the impact of emotional abuse on one’s mental and physical health, let’s talk about what it even is. Emotional abuse is any behaviour used to control another person through psychological means. This type of manipulation might include anything from criticism and name-calling, to gaslighting and withholding affection. Sometimes this type of abusive behaviour can go unnoticed until it builds up over a period of time – leading to severe long-term consequences if not addressed early on.

In many cases, these tactics are meant to make the victim feel powerless and incapable of leaving the situation.

This kind of abuse can take many forms, but all involve a pattern of controlling and demeaning behaviour. This might include things like:

  • Withholding affection or love
  • Constant criticism or belittling
  • Isolating you from friends and family
  • Gaslighting or making you question your own reality
  • Threatening or intimidating behaviour
  • Economic abuse, such as controlling all the finances

With time the victim becomes brainwashed into thinking that this treatment is normal and even deserved. They start to believe the abuser’s lies, which leads to phenomena such as learned helplessness and the Stockholm syndrome.

Characteristics of emotional abusers

There are certain personality traits that are more common in emotional abusers. These include:

  • Narcissism: a sense of entitlement, grandiose thinking and a lack of empathy
  • Machiavellianism: a focus on manipulation and control
  • Psychopathy: impulsivity, callousness and a lack of remorse

However, it’s important to remember that anyone can be an emotional abuser. It’s not just limited to people with these personality traits.

Red flags you should take note of

There are some signs that you should look out for at the beginning of a relationship to get an idea whether the person you are dating might be an emotional abuser.

The following are some examples that illustrate the kind of behaviour you should be aware of:

  • Your partner constantly belittles his colleagues and claims that he (or she) does all the work at the office.
  • They do not have anything good to say about their exes and always speak badly about them.
  • He frequently threatens or openly bullies other people. You are sometimes embarrassed because of the way he talks to waiters or shop assistants.
  • Your partner often openly flirts with other people, even when you are together, and then laughs when you talk to him about it, claiming that you are “imagining things.”
  • Your partner tells you that you’re “too sensitive” or “too emotional”.
  • They threaten to break up with you every time you don’t do what he (or she) wants.
  • Your partner is always trying to control what you wear, who your friends are and where you go.

If any of these resonate with you, then it’s possible you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship.

What is the cycle of emotional abuse?

In most cases, emotional abuse follows a cycle pattern that starts small and gradually worsens over time. This cycle typically begins with the honeymoon phase, then transitioning to a period of tension, where the abuser withdraws their attention or makes subtle hints at an impending outburst. It is at this stage that the victim finds themselves walking on eggshells around their partner in order to prevent an explosive reaction later on.

The cycle of emotional abuse is a repeating pattern of behaviour that can have a serious impact on your mental and physical health. It usually consists of four phases:

The honeymoon phase

In this phase, the abuser is on their best behaviour. They may shower you with compliments and gifts, and they come across as absolutely perfect and madly in love with you.

The tension phase

This is when the abuse starts to happen. The abuser may become moody, withdraw affection, or start to put you down. They will start to exhibit controlling behaviour. This might be something small at first, like telling you what to wear or who to spend time with.

The explosion phase

This stage involves an outburst where the abuser verbally attacks their victim or attempts to use humiliation as a way of controlling them. They might say hurtful things about their victim’s appearance or character, aiming to hurt their partner’s feelings or lower their self-esteem.

The reconciliation phase

The abuser apologizes for their behaviour while simultaneously blaming the other person for “causing” it. At this point the abuser realizes that they may have pushed things too far and there is a danger that the victim might leave. In order to avoid losing their submissive partner, they will often apologize and promise to change their behaviour, cycling back to phase one, the honeymoon phase.

Cue the flowers and chocolates.

However, of course, the honeymoon phase does not last for long, and the abuse will start all over again.

The abuser is essentially taking advantage of the kindness and compassion of their partner, who repeatedly forgives them and gives them another chance.

What is the impact on the victim of emotional abuse?

It’s no secret that emotional abuse can have devastating effects on an individual. While it often gets overlooked in comparison to physical or sexual abuse, emotional abuse can be just as damaging (if not more so) and has the potential to cause serious mental and physical health problems, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) and chronic pain.

Negative Impact On Mental Health

The negative impacts of emotional abuse take a toll on an individual’s mental health over time. It is particularly damaging when the abuser also engages in other behaviours like isolating their partner from family and friends, or using financial control as a way of maintaining power in the relationship.

One common consequence of experiencing emotional abuse is developing some kind of anxiety disorder, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic attacks or phobias. All of these are linked to symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, heart palpitations & excessive sweating.

Depression is another possible result, with victims feeling hopeless and worthless due to the ongoing criticism and manipulation from their abuser. Additionally, people who experience this type of fear and guilt within a relationship may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to the intense emotions associated with being emotionally abused. PTSD symptoms include flashbacks and nightmares related to the traumatic event along with avoidance behaviours where victims may choose not to leave their house or interact with certain people due to feeling unsafe.

Lastly, research has found that suicidal thoughts are more common amongst those who have experienced some form of psychological maltreatment, particularly when this results in them becoming mentally overwhelmed by feelings such as anger and helplessness.

Negative Impact On Physical Health

In addition to its effect on mental health, there are numerous physical symptoms associated with prolonged exposure to emotional abuse. This includes headaches and muscle tension caused by perpetual stress hormones flooding through your body. It can also involve digestive issues from the tension created by constantly walking on eggshells around your abuser in order prevent an outburst.

Victims are also likely to struggle with sleep disturbances resulting from fear or grief, as well as weakened immunity resulting in frequent illnesses. Chronic pain is also common. All these conditions make it increasingly difficult for individuals suffering from emotional abuse to live a healthy lifestyle free from fear or shame.

How can you break free from the cycle of emotional abuse?

Living with an emotional abuser can feel like you are stuck in an endless cycle of abuse, hurt, confusion, anger, and pain. Fortunately, it is possible to break the cycle of emotional abuse and find safety, security, and peace.

Here are some tips for breaking free from the cycle of emotional abuse.

Understand What Is Going On

It is important to recognize that you are in an emotionally abusive relationship so that you can begin to work on taking back control of your life. Signs that you may be experiencing emotional abuse include feeling threatened, being put down constantly by your partner or other family members, being isolated or alienated from your friends, having limited access to finances or resources and feeling helpless or afraid when around your partner.

Get Support From Your Friends And Family

The most important thing is to get support from those closest to you such as friends, family members and ultimately professionals, if needed. It’s essential that they know what is going on so they can help you stay safe, as well as provide a caring and loving environment for when times are tough.

You should also seek out support from organizations such as local domestic violence shelters or hotlines which will provide resources for reconnecting with yourself after trauma has occurred due to the abuse, and inform you about the process of healing from it.

Set Boundaries

In order for change to occur within an emotionally abusive relationship it’s important to set boundaries with partners or family members. Some of these boundaries may include no name-calling or insults during arguments, no threats against physical safety, no disrespecting each other’s feelings and no disengaging during conversations.

By setting these boundaries you create limits on how far people can push their words, but also show them that their behaviour isn’t acceptable. This ensures they understand exactly where they need to stop while communicating with respect.

Learn Healthy Coping Mechanisms

It’s important to develop healthy coping mechanisms in order to manage stress levels caused by living in an emotionally abusive environment. This could come in many forms such as reading books about managing emotions better, engaging in activities like mindfulness mediation which enhance self-awareness or even talking out loud about positive thoughts.

All these actions will help reduce toxic energy levels, providing space for healing internal wounds caused by exposure to unhealthy interactions over long periods of time.

Seek Professional Help

Finally, seeking professional help may be necessary if one feels overwhelmed by their current traumatic experiences. A therapist can provide a safe, non-judgmental space for exploring deeper emotions associated with the situation, whilst giving guidance about how best cope. It will also help you to move forward into healthier relationships in future.


Breaking free from an emotionally abusive relationship takes courage.

If you’re in an abusive relationship, please reach out for help. There are people who care about you and want to see you safe and healthy. You deserve to be free from the cycle of emotional abuse.

Important information for anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please act immediately. Contact a mental health professional or call a suicide hotline in your area.

In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, as well as prevention and crisis resources.

You can call the Lifeline at +1 800 273 8255. They also have a chat function on their website that you can use if you do not feel like talking.

In Canada, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention provides resources and support to those affected by suicide.

In the United Kingdom you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Helpline or call them on 0800 689 5652.

If you are in another country, please visit this page for a list of international suicide hotlines.

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