Ten Signs of Psychological Abuse

Written by Kristin Brumm

If someone asked you to describe physical abuse, chances are you could quickly rattle off a number of violent behaviors. But what if someone asked you to describe what psychological abuse looks like? Would you be able to do it? More importantly, if you or someone you love is in a psychologically abusive relationship, would you even know it?

I was, and it took me years to recognize it. In fact, it wasn’t until I got out that I could look back on the situation with any clarity. All I knew was that after every argument, I felt awful. I never felt heard or understood or validated. There was never a sense of resolution or restored intimacy. After a while, I simply stopped trying to work out our differences. It seemed futile. Instead, I became silent.

Psychological abuse, often referred to as crazymaking, is a method of exerting power and control over another person through verbal posturing, innuendo and manipulation. It’s a form of verbal jujitsu that violates every principle of logical and respectful communication.

Look through the list below and see if you can recognize any of these conversational control tactics.

  1. Distortion – An abusive person will distort what you say and alter the facts in an effort to further his own agenda. The topic under discussion will be exaggerated or altered to suit his purpose. If you express concern that he rarely helps with household chores, he will accuse you of calling him lazy.
  1. Block and divert – Have you ever, in the course of an argument, backed this person into a logical corner? In other words, you have presented facts to discount her false accusations, or pointed out the fallacy of her statements? If you’re dealing with an abusive individual, she will respond by changing the subject. Instead of admitting culpability (ever), she will swiftly move onto another topic. If you express a grievance, she will turn the conversation around to her grievance.
  1. Black and white thinking – Another tactic is to pose only two solutions to an issue, neither of which is generally desirable. For instance, if your partner mows the lawn and razes through your flower bed, and you get upset, he may respond with something along the lines of, “Look, you asked me to mow the lawn. If you don’t like the way I do it, then you can do it yourself!” The options are either (a) he does it his way without taking into account your feelings or requests, or (b) he doesn’t do it at all. Obviously, there is a wide swath of grey area between those two options, but you won’t hear any of it from this man.
  1. Denial – You talk to your partner on the phone and ask him when he’ll be home. He says 5:30. You respond, “Great, I’ll plan on dinner at 6:00”. You cook dinner and he doesn’t arrive home until 7:00. Dinner is cold, the kids are crying and your stomach is growling. When he walks through the door you angrily ask where he’s been and remind him of his promise to be home by 6:00. He looks at you confused. He never said that. You must be making things up again.
  1. Forgetting – A close cousin of denial. You and your partner agree on a budget. Neither of you will make any significant purchases without discussing it with the other. Two months later he buys a new cell phone. You ask why he did not talk with you about it beforehand, as you had both agreed. He looks at you blankly. What are you talking about? He remembers no such conversation.
  1. Passive aggression – This is a form of manipulation that is oblique and roundabout. She will never tell you to your face exactly what she wants or why she’s upset. Instead, it will come out at odd times in cryptic references that will leave you feeling stung and undercut. Examples of passive-aggression include sulking, chronic lateness, a mis-match between words and behavior (i.e., telling you she is “fine” when she is clearly upset), self pity, deliberate helplessness (doing a task poorly to get out of having to do it) and withholding of intimacy, money or information.
  1. Playing the victim – One thing you will learn quickly about the abusive personality is that he believes nothing is ever his fault. He is a master of projection and blame shifting. It's not him, it's you. Always. Whatever he did, however heinous, he was justified. You on the other hand are critical, angry, illogical and abusive. That's right, you are abusing him. Perhaps he should take out a protection order against you?
  1. Lying – This one is pretty straightforward. People who employ crazy-making tactics don’t feel a particular allegiance to the truth.
  1. Intimidation – Interactions with an abusive partner can feel intimidating. There is often a subtle threatening undertone to his language. Sometimes this intimidation is communicated through a raised voice or a variety of physical postures: standing up while you’re sitting, towering over you, blocking a doorway, getting too close. You’ll find yourself wanting to end the interaction so you can feel safe again, both emotionally and physically.
  1. Final Authority – The abuser will use words and tone to convey his superiority. He speaks with certainty and states most of his opinions as absolute fact. If you try to share your opinion, it will be contradicted or brushed off with scoffing, eye-rolling or other dismissive gestures and words.

These behaviors exist on a continuum. Everyone, at some point, will probably employ some of these tactics. Have you ever said something passive-aggressive? I have. However, someone who is abusive will use them consistently and relentlessly.

Arguing with someone who is psychologically abusive feels like trying to navigate your way out of a house of mirrors. It can leave you feeling helpless, guilty, depressed and anxious. You may think you’re losing your mind. The scars from psychological abuse may not show, but they take a lot longer to heal than a bruise or a broken bone.

If you are in a relationship where these tactics are used against you, please consider talking with someone about what you are experiencing – preferably someone who is knowledgeable about abuse, such as a domestic violence counselor.

You deserve to be an equal player in any relationship. You deserve to be heard, acknowledged and loved, and to be treated with respect and compassion. That will never happen as long as you live with someone who is psychologically abusive.

You can follow and read more from Kristin Brumm here

About the Author

Kristin Brumm is an American writer and mother with a home in Kansas and a heart in Australia.
She is currently working on plans to draw the two continents closer together (or, alternatively, just pick up and move already).

Posted in:  Relationships

8 Replies


Thank you for bringing this up there is so much more to Domestic Violence then physical. So many people who have never been in such a relationship say things like well if my partner threatened me I would leave but in reality the self-esteem of the victim is so low they don't feel like they can leave as they blame themselves and usually believe what their partners are saying.

Kristin Brumm

Thanks for your comment. And I agree 100% with what you have written. Why doesn't she leave? That right there is another whole post in itself, with scores of issues that one might not consider unless they were in the situation themselves: safety, money, opportunity, support, children and yes, self-esteem.


Psychological abuse.
See that Mum with the smile on her face. The one at school pick up who always appears to be in the same mood. Not exactly happy but doesn't look sad or angry. Take a minute and look past the face, the smile, the mask. Look into her eyes, do they match the smile? Are they dull, even dead looking? See her, really see her. For she will never tell you what she is going through. She believes it is her fault or that he didn't mean it and today will be different. She has lost belief in herself. Please show her you believe in her.

Kristin Brumm

Beautifully said. x


Wow thank you for this. I knew my relationship was abusive but was in denial, (verbally, mentally and sometimes physically)to be broken down psychologically like above makes me even more confident in my decision to leave him. It started to.get physical by throwing things at me, arcing up to me, kicking me, pushing me etc he may not have been punching me but the power control, the taunting, twisting my words, telling me how to dress or making up lies...it hurt more than anyone will ever know!! I tried so hard to leave but i was miles away from home and couldn't. At first i felt i owed it to him to try make it work, i believed his empty promises, then i blamed myself...the only reason i got out is because he finally agreed to let me go home to visit my mum. I never returned. The abuse continued over the phone and facebook. Even after everything i thought i made the wrong decision by ending it, i felt guilty..but years on i finally know he was an abuser and i deserved better.

Kristin Brumm

Hi Anon, I'm so glad you found a way to get out safely. It sounds like you have moved on with your life and have begun to make sense out of what happened. It can take years to heal and gain that clarity. Good for you for doing the hard work. I wish you much joy and success in your future. x


I am in the process now of leaving a relationship that ticks all of these boxes. It has only been not quite 3 years but it has affected me emotionally, physically and mentally. I will need to rebuild my confidence and self esteem as even though I have contributed to the breakdown of the relationship and there are things I could have done differently, I am questioning myself and feel as though its all my fault. When we faught, we would battle and there were always nasty and harsh things said. I very rarely got an apology, only reasons why I "made" him react that way. We have a child together which makes it very hard too and I at times find it hard to be strong and start questioning myself thinking, "maybe it is me?" and if I am doing the right thing by leaving. Deep down I know I am but just having the encouragement and support from people helps you stay strong and know you deserve better.

Kristin Brumm

You absolutely deserve better. You deserve to be treated with respect and compassion, to be heard, and to be safe and protected. When you are in the middle of an abusive situation, it can be hard to find the clarity to see it for what it is. It is completely normal for you to question yourself and feel a sense of blame, but you are never to blame for any pain your partner causes you. If you haven't already, I would encourage you to call a DV hotline. You can talk with someone who understands the situation and can help you plan the safest and best way to leave, if that is what you choose to do. At the agency where I work, we offer free counseling and legal representation to victims of DV. Your local agency may offer something similar. Because you have a child together, leaving will indeed be more complicated, but that's not a reason to stay. If anything, it makes it more imperative to create a safe and healthy life for you and your child. I've written quite a bit about my own experiences with DV on my blog (www.wanderlustlust.com) -- sometimes reading what someone else has gone through can help you feel less alone. If nothing else, I want you to know that however challenging it feels right now, there is another side where you will find peace and healing. I wish you strength and the courage to follow your instincts. x