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FAQs About Emotional Abuse

Learn about the destructive nature of emotional abuse and how to find hope and healing.

What are the characteristics of emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is any nonphysical behavior or attitude that controls, intimidates, subjugates, demeans, punishes or isolates another person by using degradation, humiliation or fear. 1Yelling, screaming, and name-calling are all forms of emotional abuse, as are more subtle tactics such as refusing to be pleased with anything, isolating an individual from family and friends and invalidating another's thoughts and feelings.

Examples of emotionally abusive behaviors include:

  • Humiliating and degrading
  • Discounting, distorting and negating
  • Accusing and blaming
  • Isolating
  • Withholding affection and emotional support
  • Withholding financial resources
  • Dismissive, disapproving, or contemptuous looks, comments or behavior
  • Threatening harm to an individual's pets, possessions or person

The effects of emotional abuse are often debilitating. They include depression, confusion, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, overwhelming feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and poor physical health.

What is the difference between emotional abuse and occasional outbursts of anger?

"It's important to distinguish between emotional abuse and an occasional outburst of anger," cautions Dr. Margaret J. Rinck, author, speaker, and Christian counselor who specializes in treating abuse victims and abusers. "Everyone has a bad day once in a while and responds with a harsh or negative word."

Emotional abuse is an ongoing pattern of behavior designed to control, manipulate and subjugate another that usually occurs behind closed doors.

Speaking in anger is different than Ruth's experience:

When I set the table for dinner, my husband would come into the kitchen, walk around the table, and adjust the placement of the silverware, plates and glasses, saying 'Some day you will get it right. Or maybe not'….

Why does one person abuse his spouse, friend or relative?

While the reasons for emotional abuse are complex, most experts believe it is rooted in unresolved childhood trauma.

"They are in as much pain as their victims, only they don't realize it," explains Dr. Rinck. It takes a great deal of effort and professional guidance for an abuser to overcome his destructive patterns of behavior.

What does the Bible say?

Nowhere in scripture does God sanction any kind of abuse. In 1 Corinthians 13, God tells us what love is and what it is not. "It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs…It always protects…" (vs. 4-7 NIV). 2

In regards to abuse within marriage, some misinterpret Ephesians 5:22 to justify abusive behavior. Let's be clear. Scripture reveals that the marriage relationship is to reflect Christ's relationship with his church—one of sacrificial love. A wife is called to respond to her husband's biblical headship, not to his destructive and sinful behavior, just as the wife's mandate is to respect her husband.

God never condones abuse.

Can survivors of emotional abuse find help and hope?

If you or someone you love is a victim of emotional abuse, there is hope. You can stop the cycle of abuse today by reaching out for help—and by "envisioning the person you were created to be," Gregory L. Jantz, Ph.D. says in Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse 3.

"You were created to have emotional freedom, inner peace, and strong self-esteem. Emotional abuse has undermined God's plan for your life, your joy, and your peace. But what others have sabotaged, God can rebuild."


1Beverly Engel, The Emotionally Abusive Relationship—How to Stop Being Abused and How to Stop Abusing, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002, pp. 10-11.
2Christian counselors also cite Proverbs 19:19 ("A hot-tempered man must pay the penalty; if you rescue him, you will have to do it again.") and Malachi 2:16 ("I hate divorce," says the LORD God of Israel, "and I hate a man's covering himself with violence as well as with his garment," says the LORD Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.).
3Gregory L. Jantz, Ph.D. with Ann McMurray, Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse, Michigan: Fleming H. Revell, a division of Baker Book House Co., 2003, p. 17.
 

 
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