Identifying an Emotionally Abusive Marriage (and What to Do About It)

Abuse is NOT a relationship problem Abuse is the abuser's problem

When most people think of domestic violence, they think of physical or sexual abuse, in which one person is using physical means to control their partner (whether by hitting, forcibly restraining, raping, or otherwise assaulting the person). But domestic violence includes other means of emotional, mental, or spiritual abuse that seek assert power and dominance over a victim, stripping her of her God given uniqueness and individuality. These forms of psychological abuse leave scars on the psyche of the victim, denying her the ability to live freely in her marriage, in the manner God intended for her.

Leslie Vernick is a wonderfully encouraging guide on the topic of emotional abuse. She describes it as "intimidation, humiliation, threatening, harassing, isolating and ignoring as well as verbal assaults such as name calling, cursing and berating. Emotional abuse can also be more subtle such as making someone think it’s always her fault for things going wrong or lying about things, making a woman believe that what she thinks is happening is only in her mind."

What does emotional abuse feel like?

Basically, emotional abuse uses emotional and verbal warfare in an effort to control the victim and destroy her unique personhood, as gifted to her by God Himself. From my experience, emotional abuse feels like:

  • The abuser is given to fits of rage, which may or may not include restricting the victim’s movements (physical restraint, blocking doorways, chasing around the house).

  • In the case of narcissistic abuse, the abuser commonly builds a stellar reputation so any claims of abuse are likely to be dismissed.

  • The victim is under constant surveillance and scrutiny. She receives a lot of blame and criticism for the abuser's feelings and behaviors.

  • The victim is told who they are, what is wrong with them, and the intentions behind what they are doing or thinking.

  • The victim feels that the abuser does not try to see her side of the story and the abuser often explains it away, presents a counter-argument, or tells her that she's crazy/ illogical for seeing things the way she does.

  • The victim often finds themselves correcting misperceptions about who they are or their intentions. She frequently finds herself being labeled by the abuser, who is often unwilling to give the benefit of the doubt.

  • Love feels conditional. The victim feels her abuser is harsh and punitive towards her.

  • The victim may feel that the abuser is very focused on "not letting her get away with things" so he is not "taken advantage of."

  • The victim finds that things she has shared in confidence are used against her or that her abuser threatens to expose her with them.

  • The abuser has rules, standards, and expectations for her that he does not himself follow.

  • The victim feels the abuser is always on the attack and looking for a fight.

  • The victim feels that her abuser doesn't trust her and restricts who she can associate with and when, including family.

  • The victim feels that after an abusive outburst that the abuser promises to change things and begs her not to leave him, yet the pattern continues with near clockwork regularity.

Still not sure if this describes your relationship? Another helpful resource on this subject is Patricia Evans, and on her website she has a list of 10 questions to help you identify if you are in an abusive relationship.

Stopping Emotional Abuse in Your Marriage

If you feel like you are enduring a situation similar to what I've described above, take these steps to equip yourself and stop the cycle.

  1. Start identifying what is happening to you as abuse. It is hard to see the patterns when you just call them "anger problems." I don't recommend you tell the abuser that it is abuse; he is liable to tell you that you are abusing him and use it as justification for why he treats you the way he does.

  2. Get yourself some support. Unfortunately, not all marriage counselors and pastors are prepared to identify and handle abuse. (BTW, traditional marriage counseling is not good for abusive situations because it can reinforce the abuser's belief his wife is responsible for the breakdown. Abuse is NOT a relationship problem; it is the abuser's problem). Instead, seek community resources through websites like thehotline.org

  3. Read books on emotional abuse. I highly recommend The Emotionally Destructive Marriage: How to Find Your Voice and Reclaim Your Hope by Leslie Vernick or The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. These women have such a concise way of describing abuse and they each provide specific action steps for handling abusive situations.

  4. Pray. Girlfriend, this is spiritual warfare. Satan is running around rampant in your marriage and someone has to stop him before he devours your husband, yourself, and your children. Pray for yourself, that you would stay holy in the face of serious evil. Pray for wisdom to make the right decisions concerning your marriage. Pray for your kids that they will be shielded from the attacks of the enemy. And pray for your husband that he will hear God knocking on the door of his heart and turn to Him.

  5. SPEAK UP! Do not suffer alone and do not allow this sin to go unnoticed- it will only make things worse. You don’t need to slander your husband (after all, you are still called to respect him) but do get help from people who can speak to his heart. You may have to educate them on emotional abuse, and your husband may not listen, but you cannot allow his sin to thrive in darkness. Speaking out will help you find healing in the fellowship of others who will walk with you, pray with you, and encourage you.

Please let us know how we can pray for you by visiting our prayer request link. No one should face this kind of situation alone.

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