5 Subtle Signs Of Emotional Abuse

Randall had a way of making cruel gestures look kind, dressing up abusive tendencies in a nice sweater.

When I think of my relationship with my ex Randall*, I think of an episode of South Park. Cartman’s friends abandon him due to his atrocious behavior. The next day, he shows up at Kyle’s house wearing a nice sweater. After Cartman stands for a few minutes showing off his accomplishment, Kyle groans, “That’s not being nice, Cartman. That’s wearing a nice sweater.”

Randall knew how to perform surface level gestures that made him look kind. My first impression of him—and the first impressions of many—was overwhelmingly positive, and that vision of Randall as the platonic ideal of a Nice Person was hard to shake. When the emotional abuse began, I could not fathom the fact it was coming from Randall. Much of the abuse—screaming, cursing, threats—was unmistakable. However, many signs were very, very subtle. Randall had a way of making cruel gestures look kind, dressing up abusive tendencies in a nice sweater.

The following are some of the more subtle signs that I wish I had recognized earlier.

Compliments are emotional leverage.

Abusers use compliments and flattery as a form of emotional leverage. They place you on a pedestal, earning your trust to gradually gain more control. Randall was very controlling of my career, as it took time away from him, but I always felt guilty when I asked for more support. He had assembled a CV of gestures of encouragement that I felt unequipped to argue against. Didn’t he always post my publications on social media? Didn’t he always praise my writing?

He did, but these were just shallow gestures. His actions sabotaged me. He had public outbursts at networking events. He would push my laptop out of my hands and attempt to initiate sex when I tried to write. He told a mutual friend, “It’s hard to deal with Erin because her work ethic makes me insecure,” and later that same day said to me, “I’m just really concerned about your work/life balance.” When confronted about these behaviors, he would counter with a laundry list of gestures proving he was a supportive partner. I would feel ungrateful for having raised the issue at all.

Reasonable problems are used to make unreasonable demands.

Abusers often make you feel guilty for spending time with others. Randall did this by using his insecurity and anxiety to pressure me into staying home most of the time. Neither insecurity nor anxiety are unreasonable problems. I also have anxiety and depression. I am also insecure. I wanted to do anything I could to help Randall with these issues, and he took advantage of that.

For the first month we lived together, he would not let me leave the apartment because he was worried about leaving the dog alone. He said he knew it was irrational, but he needed me to stay to alleviate his anxiety. He once forbid me from going clubbing with a friend, claiming my independent nature made him feel too unneeded to be comfortable with me going out alone. He told me he did not want me staying at bars too late with my friend Carrie, because the prospect of men hitting on us made him too anxious. When I expressed frustration, he would respond with something like, “I’m sorry my clinical anxiety is so inconvenient for you.” I would feel terrible, and submit to his demands.

You hear your criticisms parroted back to you.

I once told Randall, “I feel like I’m walking on eggshells around you. Could you cut me some slack?” This came in response to Randall berating me for 45 minutes because I told a male friend, “I’m moving to California and Randall’s coming too,” instead of, “We’re moving to California.” I once told him I felt bullied after he cursed me out during an argument. Three months later, Randall began using these same phrases against me. He was walking on eggshells. I needed to cut him slack. I was bullying him. This is a subtle iteration of an abuser’s tendency to cast the victim as the abuser.

Randall knew how upsetting his behavior had been when I said what I said. Repeating these phrases would make me feel horrible at having inflicted the same pain on him. Except, I didn’t. I requested Randall stop aggressive behaviors. Randall used my language to manipulate me into tolerating such behaviors. He told me I needed to cut him slack after I asked him not to call my ideas “stupid” and “idiotic.” He told me I was being a bully when I asked him to stop cold-shouldering me when I turned down sex.

Hurt feelings are up for intellectual debate.

Louis CK once had a great stand-up bit where he pointed out you don’t get to decide you’re not an asshole. Abusers, however, are constantly deciding the problem is everyone else. Instead of taking responsibility when they hurt your feelings, abusers will argue their way out of blame. When I told Randall he needed to stop cursing at me, he did not apologize. Instead, he condescendingly explained the problem was actually my inability to understand modern language.

“I would argue cursing is just part of the cultural lexicon,” he said, “People just use curses to express themselves these days, and you shouldn’t take offense.” It took him a few days to offer a genuine apology and, even after that, the cursing never completely stopped. It got less harsh. He would say I was being “fucking annoying” instead of outright yelling “fuck you,” but the language still bothered me. Whenever I brought it up, Randall would reiterate the fact I did not understand the evolution of language.

Lies are played off as misunderstandings.

I knew Randall was not the most socially aware person. He did not have many friends, which in retrospect was a red flag, and so it stood to reason he would sometimes misinterpret social situations. After hanging out with mutual friends, he would often mention the next day my behavior had upset someone. I would hear, for example, “Everyone was extremely offended you were on your phone so much.” Oftentimes, I would apologize for my behavior to friends, only to find out no one was actually upset. When I confronted Randall, he would play the role of a socially withdrawn introvert who simply misunderstood.

He was not socially withdrawn. He was a liar. He was threatened by the fact I had more friends than him, and so he tried to isolate me by convincing me people disliked me. He did this in a very covert manner. By never overtly lying—he never, for example, said, “Andrew told me he thought you were being rude”—he could leave an escape route open. When confronted, he could use the ruse of social awkwardness to feign misinterpretation when, really, it was manipulation.


If any of these tendencies sound familiar to you, talk it out with a loved one. Living in Randall’s bubble for as long as I did convinced me these behaviors were normal and that I was the problem. After a long talk over drinks with two close friends, I realized what had been going for the last two years. Emotional abuse can be very subtle, especially in the early stages. If something in your relationship is making you feel trapped or uncomfortable, you are not imagining something is wrong. There is something wrong. Trust yourself and your instincts.

*Name changed

Erin Wisti is a writer, avid reader, coffee drinker, and cat lover who lives and works in Los Angeles. Her essays have previously appeared in The Butter, Bayou Magazine, Ampersand Review, Chicago Literati, and other places. You can follow her on Twitter at @ErinWisti. To read more about her story, you can read her blog here.

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