Christian Singles & Dating

How to Recognize Emotional Abuse in Dating Relationships

  • Jaime Jo Wright Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2020 2 Oct
sad woman

Healthy relationships are something we all aspire to be a part of. God’s definition of love—the foundation of every solid duo—is clearly defined down to the distinct detail in Scripture.

1 Corinthians 13 states, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (ESV). But unfortunately, many relationships find themselves enduring something far less satisfying and sacrificial, and instead, far more damaging.

Verbal and emotional abuse sneak into relationships with stealth and cunning. Unlike physical abuse, its after-effects leave invisible bruises, long-lasting scars that are far too easily hidden, and often, a complete alteration of one’s entire person.

What Is Verbal/Emotional Abuse?

Verbal and emotional abuse are the silent demons of the triad of abuses. While physical abuse can be equally as damaging and no less severe, verbal and emotional abuse is a way to manipulate, demean, humiliate, and control the victim.

It involves a variety of damaging tactics that can often be explained away as “deserved”, “a bad day”, “learning my weaknesses”, or simply falling prey to believing the lies spewed forth as truths.

Emotional abuse can be difficult to recognize. It’s often excused away as personality differences or having been raised in starkly different environments. Often, gaslighting is used with expertise, making the victim believe they truly are the root of the problem in the relationship and they are the ones responsible for the slow demise and destruction of relational health.

The victim will begin to question themselves, self-confidence will take a back seat to self-question, and if there isn’t outright verbal insults and word-slinging, there is the very sharp and quick stab of guilting and criticizing.

Like with physical abuse, the victim will often resort to justifying why the abuse was deserved. Unlike physical abuse, there isn’t a tangible and visible consequence with which to combat the deceit that somehow, the victim should have received such treatment.

With verbal and emotional abuse, the justifications become excuses on behalf of the abuser, or the abuser has positioned themselves with such authoritative superiority, that the victim truly believes their ignorance is proven under the shadow the of the abuser.

How Do You Know If You’re in an Abusive Dating Relationship?

The tricky part in establishing the definition of an abusive relationship during dating or courtship, is the intoxicating desire for the relationship to work.

Because of this, individuals may find themselves especially vulnerable to verbal and emotional abuse. Physical abuse may be easier to separate from in a dating relationship, because no lifelong commitments have been made.

Also, outsiders may potentially spot the ramifications of physical abuse, or the victim themselves may simply have had enough. But with verbal and emotional abuse, a dating relationship can become murky as the couple is exploring setting the definitions to their relationship.

Being in a relationship means that each individual is forming into a unified partnership. At the root of such partnership, changing oneself is not only inevitable, but it is necessary… to a degree.

This is where the definition of change can become a fine line between sacrificial compromise for the sake of the relationship, and the sacrificial slaughter of one’s individuality to suit the other’s version of a relationship.

Because it’s difficult to pinpoint when one is being verbally or emotionally abused, it’s important and critical to be aware of unhealthy signs in a dating relationship.

Signs of Verbal and Emotional Abuse

  • The demand of exclusive rights to your time, and a rejection of socialization both together and/or independently with others.
  • Consistent criticism in a patronizing, demeaning, or humiliating way of areas in which you need continual improvement.
  • Blaming you for all negative outcomes and taking no personal responsibility for any way they might have contributed to the problem.
  • Withholding their affection, verbal affirmation, or signs of love as punishment for not performing to the standards they have set, or simply withholding these things altogether.


  • Name calling, insulting, using words that undercut your self-confidence and self-worth, making you feel invaluable, less-than, and stupid.
  • Threatening or issuing ultimatums.
  • Inserting themselves into all aspects of your life and requiring your complete openness, allowing no space for privacy, personal thought, or opinion.
  • Making no effort to hide your failures from the public eye, and even making a point to display your shortcomings for others to witness.


  • Using humor to ridicule you, make you look and feel foolish, and to make a point.
  • Belittling you as a person by using all-inclusive verbiage such as “you always”, “you never”, and indicating that you are, in short, awful.
  • Demeaning the things that you choose to invest your time into. Hobbies, friends, family, missions, career, volunteer work, etc.
  • Yelling, swearing, and attacking you with verbal aggression.
  • Name-calling, including the use of so-called terms of endearment that also insult. Such as “my little fattie” or “flat-bottomed honey”.

While this list is by no means comprehensive, the picture it paints is one that, if outside looking in, we would most likely send up danger signals to anyone entering or entertaining such relationship traits as acceptable behavior.

Very often, these behaviors are presented under the guise of love, help, fixing, and counseling, making it difficult to counteract without feeling as though you’re displaying your own signs of arrogance, conceit, instability, and lack of awareness.

If the abuse is more blatant, such as derogatory name-calling or outright insulting criticism, it too may be excused as deserved, based in truth, or somehow justified because of the circumstances.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Damir Khabirov

Does Verbal and Emotional Abuse Look Different in Marriage?

Much of the underlying skeleton of verbal and emotional abuse looks the same from dating and into marriage. The differences though, may be even harder to identify after years of succumbing to such abuse.

While in a dating relationship, these tendencies may be easier to see and remove oneself from, in a marriage, this type of abuse can take years to form.

Circumstances may increase the abuser’s tendencies, environmental history can groom the victim into believing this behavior is not only acceptable but normal in most relationships, and if the victim has already come out of a childhood of such abuse, recognizing it as typical in marriage, may lend itself toward a resigned acceptance.

Also, the added weight of marriage vows brings with them the additional pressure of needing to “make it work” and wanting to save the relationship. It can also have dire effects if children are introduced into the equation.

The victim will often accept the abuse as a necessary evil in order to offer protection and shielding for their offspring, thus perpetuating and allowing the abuse to continue.

How Does a Victim Remove Themselves from a Verbally or Emotionally Abusive Relationship?

First and foremost, the victim will need to recognize that they are, in fact, a victim of an abusive relationship. With verbal or emotional abuse, this can be difficult to attain, but once it’s been acknowledged, the victim can now define steps to take.

Boundaries are important. If a person finds themselves in a verbally or emotionally abusive relationship, they will need to define their boundaries and also communicate these to the abuser.

Drawing a line with the abuser that while concerns can be expressed and heard, and potential problems may be identified and brought to question, personal insult and attack is not acceptable, nor will it be tolerated.

Identify what your core values are and weigh them against the abuser’s habits and lifestyle. Do they compliment what you value? Do they reinforce your values?

Recognize toxic manipulation and poisonous words and call them out as unacceptable.

Be willing to remove yourself from the relationship. This is less complicated in a dating relationship than a marriage, but regardless, no form of continued verbal or emotional abuse is deserved nor should it be tolerated.

Seek professional help from qualified resources and ministries.

In Christian dating relationships—or marriages—removing oneself from an abusive relationship can often be complicated by the guilt of Christian failure. A breaking of marital vows, perhaps the insinuation that your faith isn’t great enough to heal the relationship, perhaps you’re falling short of unconditional love, and so on.

Using 1 Corinthians 13 as a standard against which to weigh a relationship can add definition when setting boundaries with your significant other.

It is important to deep dive into how Christ sees you as His creation, His child, and also His body. As you define your worth in the eyes of your Creator, you will also begin to define the value that He has placed in you.

John 15:13 states “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” This Scripture boldly places the “friend” in the category of a great treasure, worthy of dying for.

This type of death indicates not only saving but protecting. An honoring of something that should not be misused, mistreated, or mishandled. While we all must make allowances for human nature to taint any relationship, it is important to identify and define the relationship being nurtured.

Does the relationship example self-sacrificial love? Does the relationship honor, respect, and cherish one another? Is forgiveness, humility, and grace distinct virtues, or are they difficult to identify in the relationship?

A healthy relationship will not find one questioning their value, their worth, their intelligence, their character, and so on. A healthy relationship will be consistently striving to build the other up.

In a dating relationship, this is especially critical to be defined at the outset, before vows have been spoken, children have entered the equation, and life has interwoven so closely it’s far more difficult to separate.

Remember, Christ gave Himself up for the sake of you. An honorable significant other will strive to emulate this example, and you will only be blessed and uplifted, not torn down and tossed aside.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/AntonioGuillem

Jaime Jo Wright is the winner of the Christy, Carol, Daphne du Maurier, and INSPY Awards. She's also the Publishers Weekly and ECPA bestselling author of three novellas. Jaime works as a human resources director in Wisconsin, where she lives with her husband and two children.




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