Maybe it's a nearly imperceptible eye roll or a look of disgust intended for only you to see. Perhaps he needles you about falling short in the kitchen or the bedroom or your attempts at humor. And let's say he raises his voice at you often enough that you can never be sure how he'll react, so you try to get everything right to keep him happy.
Meanwhile, you've become a nervous wreck – and you know it. So you summon your courage and address the situation: "You know, I don't like how you talk to me," you tell him, pushing yourself to voice your suspicion. "It's almost like ... verbal abuse."
"What?!" he snarls. "That just shows how crazy you are. And, you know, saying that discredits the women who really are abused."
Oh God, you think. Maybe I really am crazy. Maybe he's right – he has to yell at me because I don't listen otherwise. We'd be fine if I only did a better job with the kids or the house or my in-laws ...
Let's be clear: You're not crazy. This is abuse. He hasn't broken your bones (yet). But surely, he's broken your spirit.
Emotional abuse erodes your self-esteem. It's a pattern of put-downs and mind games that's meant to gain power over you and leaves you feeling fearful, like everything's your fault and, often, like you're losing your mind.
But because emotional abuse lacks physical scars, it can be challenging to identify – especially when the abuse only begins after the courtship period, experts say. One red flag, however, is someone's desire to get serious too soon – an attempt at control masked as romantic love.
That's why victims must not blame themselves for becoming involved with an abuser, says Cindy Southworth, vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. "You couldn't have seen this, and it's not your fault," she tells victims. "You missed it because he's really smooth, and he knows how to make sure to back off the moment when your instincts start to tell you he's coming on too strong."
It's also critical to identify emotional abuse because of its potential to escalate into physical abuse. As Southworth puts it, people view domestic abuse as "a white picket fence, 2.2 children and a black eye, and they think, 'Why wouldn't she leave?'" she says. "They don't understand that, in reality, the violence is often only an enforcer. It's used if the emotional abuse and the control isn't working anymore."
Emotional abuse is considered common, but statistics are hard to come by, since it's difficult to legally document demeaning behavior until it involves a threat and because so many are unsure about what it is. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, roughly 85 percent of domestic violence victims are women. That's 1.3 million victims across every kind of demographic. One in 4 women will experience domestic violence – be it physical, emotional or sexual abuse – and most cases are never reported to police.
When Southworth started working in the domestic violence field 22 years ago, emotional abuse was not yet on people's radar. Now that it is, victims are able to get out of abusive relationships earlier, she says. "That's years and years of people's lives that's sort of been regained."
Below are some other signs to spot abusive behavior:
1. You feel worse after disagreements.
"Every relationship should have arguments," says Katie Ray-Jones, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. "It's how you feel during those arguments." You should be able to discuss your concerns without fearing your partner's reactions and feeling worse for expressing yourself.
2. He calls his ex "crazy" for her allegations.
"People don't make up domestic violence and abuse," given the shame that surrounds it, Southworth says. If you've heard about his mistreatment in the past, take it seriously.
3. You don't feel free to spend time with the people and pursuits you love.
Isolation is the first strategy of an abuser, Southworth says. And jealousy isn't far behind. A strong social network will protect you and tip you off to his ugly behavior. And if he derides you in front of friends by saying something like, "Wow, you're a clutz," he's "going to get called on it," she says.
4. Sometimes you feel like you're dating Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Acting one way in public and another in private makes your abuser feel powerful and keeps you on edge, Ray-Jones explains. "I am breaking you down, and I am picking you up," goes the abuser's thinking. But in reality, it's the victims who find the courage to recover. "That's your strength pulling you back together," she tells victims. "That's your courage, not his."
5. He says that he'll kill himself or you or the pet if you leave.
Nearly every abuser uses this line as a last-ditch attempt to hold on to someone because it's so effective, Southworth says. As in any abusive relationships, the victim is at a greater risk when attempting to leave. Ray-Jones advises anyone doing so to create an exit plan. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can connect callers with local programs to chart that course.
After leaving, you'll need time to heal and a non-judgmental support network. "Be around people who you feel good around and realize that it is possible to have a healthy relationship," Ray-Jones says. "It is possible to be with someone who can treat you with kindness."
Corrected on 10/04/2013: A previous version of this story misstated Cindy Southworth’s affiliation. She is vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.