Focus on the Family

Understanding Emotional Abuse

by Mary J. Yerkes

Emotional abuse leaves few physical scars. Its victims suffer no broken bones, torn flesh or spilled blood. Still, those wounded might describe it as the most painful and destructive form of domestic violence.

While statistics are elusive, experts agree that emotional abuse—for mostly women, but some men as well—have reached epidemic proportions. And despite its everyday occurrence, few of us recognize it, identify it or even do anything about it.

By reading this article series, we hope you will help you learn to listen to your friends', neighbors', relatives'—or maybe even your own—waspish, hurtful words. And if you are a recipient of this type of domestic violence, first hold yourself in high esteem, re-evaluate your relationships and then ask for help.

Healing the Wounds of Emotional Abuse

Learn how to heal the wounds of emotional abuse. Experts offer biblical principles and practical tips for healing.

by Mary J. Yerkes

"There comes a critical time in each person's life when the truth is accessible. Faced with it, you can either run and hide, denying it, or you can face your truth, accept it, and grow stronger," wrote Gregory Jantz in Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse. 1

If you are reading this article, chances are you or someone you love is in an emotionally abusive relationship. Your abuser may be a spouse, a boss, a brother or a sister. You may have tried to ignore it, deny it and fix it. Perhaps you have even tried to accept it. But it hasn't worked. This is your moment of truth. Are you willing to do what it takes to break the cycle of abuse in your life?

While the optimum situation is for both parties in an abusive situation to seek help, Dr. Tim Clinton, President of the American Association of Christian Counselors, insists one person can change the relationship.

"Change a person; change a relationship," he says.

On the other hand, if the abuse is severe and occurring within the marriage relationship, it's time to take bold steps and assert biblical, healthy boundaries.

"Sometimes separation can be a powerful attention-getting boundary if you're fully ready to use it," says Karla Downing, abuse survivor, counselor and author of 10 Lifesaving Principles for Women in Difficult Marriages. "The purpose of the separation can be to physically or emotionally protect you and your children or to convince your husband (or wife) that you'll not continue to live the same way. Separation can also be by mutual agreement for each to work on your own problems separately with the goal of reconciling your marriage."

What follows are some general principles, gleaned from professional Christian counselors, for breaking the cycle of abuse in your life and for beginning the recovery and healing process. They are easy to understand, but difficult to implement.

Before applying these principles to your situation, it's best to seek help from a trained professional.

With professional help—and by following these principles, you can break the cycle of abuse in your life and begin your healing journey. As you reach out to God and others, you can experience God's redemptive purposes in your life and become a channel of healing in the lives of others. Make Jeremiah 29:11 your mantra: "'I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'."

Helping families thrive together.

1Gregory 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. 157.

FAQs About Emotional Abuse

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

by Mary J. Yerkes

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:

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.

Healing the Emotionally Abusive Marriage

It is possible to break the cycle of abuse within your marriage and experience God's restoration.

by Mary J. Yerkes

Emotional abuse is rampant in our culture, and Christians are not immune. While all emotionally abusive relationships exact a toll on their victims, this type of domestic abuse within marriage is particularly destructive. The intimate nature of the marriage relationship presents unique challenges.

Consider Don and Melissa.

They had just given birth to their second daughter. Instead of brimming with joy and happiness, Melissa's relationship with Don was like "walking on eggshells."

I had just given birth to our daughter and was still in the hospital. My in-laws—recently separated—were coming to the hospital at the same time. Dad walked in, and it was kind of strained. After my in-laws left, my husband became angry with me. 'You should have gotten up to greet my dad,' he said. We didn't have our special dinner as we planned, and he told me to "name the kid whatever you want." The next day when the baby and I were supposed to go home, he didn't come to pick us up…That's when I had the breakdown. I knew emotionally, I just couldn't do it any more.

Both Melissa and Don are Christians. In fact, they met at church. However, as is frequently the case, both came from dysfunctional families. Their earlier childhood experiences set them up for poor choices later in life.

The nucleus of an emotionally abusive marriage

Counselors agree that you and your spouse need help to work through the challenges—as a couple, individually or both.

Dr. Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors, urges victims to find a safe place to talk and to "seek professional guidance when developing a strategy for change." He emphasized that each situation must be assessed and addressed on an individual level.

Until you find that counselor who best suits you, these resources may help you get started in your effort to curb the emotional violence you're experiencing.

Separation as an option?

To preserve the victim's health and sanity, sometimes a "therapeutic separation" is necessary. A "therapeutic separation" gives the victim time to heal and "creates a crisis" in the life of the abuser. It forces him to face the destructive nature of his behavior and gives him an opportunity to seek help. The ultimate goal of this type of separation is healing—for the victim, the abuser and the marriage.

"When a woman says to me, 'If I stay here much longer, I'm going to hurt myself or he's going to hurt me,' I think it's time to…move into a period of separation," explains Dr. Clinton. "There are safety factors for her, and the kids that need to be considered."

During the separation, the victim, with guidance from a counselor, can begin to set appropriate boundaries and goals for the relationship. The abuser can also begin to address the issues causing his behavior. When both partners are willing to do the necessary and painful work required for healing, spouses can salvage the relationship.

Sometimes—and despite best efforts—separation and divorce are unavoidable. Other times, couples restore their relationship.

Remember Melissa and Don?

It has been a long and difficult journey, but they have found healing—individually and in their marriage. Melissa offers these words of encouragement: "It may seem hopeless, but it's not. There is a way out. There is hope."

We help save a marriage about every 6 minutes. Thank you to all of the friends who make the work of Focus on the Family possible.

1Dr. Margaret J. Rinck, Christian Men Who Hate Women, Michigan: Zondervan, 1990, back cover.
2Catherine Clark Kroeger and James R. Beck, Editors, Healing the Hurting: Giving Hope & Help to Abused Women, Michigan: Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Co., 1998, p. 87.

Emotional Abuse in the Local Church

Is your church a safe place for victims of emotional abuse?

by Mary J. Yerkes

"In the pews of every church, including yours, are women who are victims of abuse," 1wrote Brenda Branson and Paula Silva in their book, Pastor's Guide—Dealing with Domestic Violence.

Silva is co-founder and vice president of FOCUS Ministries, Inc., one of the few Christian ministries devoted to helping victims of domestic violence and educating pastors on abuse. For Christians and non-Christians alike, the nature of domestic abuse is psychological.

"Emotional abuse is always a component of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse, but it can also stand alone," she says. "In all cases of abuse, the perpetrator uses intimidation, humiliation, isolation and fear to diminish their victim's sense of self and sanity."

Making your church a safer place

Naturally, Christians in emotionally abusive relationships turn to their churches and pastors for help. Some feel loved and accepted unconditionally; others walk away more deeply wounded.

Dr. Tim Clinton, President of the American Association of Christian Counselors, says the impact of emotional abuse can wreak havoc on one's spiritual life.

"It's tough to believe in the fidelity of God, if all you're experiencing is ongoing abuse in your life," he says.

He challenges churches to take time to address these kinds of issues because "it deeply impacts how these women do intimacy with the Father. If our goal is spiritual vitality—spiritual growth and formation—we need to train people in how to do relationships and intimacy better."

Paul Hegstrom goes a step farther, saying that the church often turns a blind eye when confronted by someone who has been emotionally abused.

"It is a sad state of affairs in the church that when a woman has been abused, it seems that the congregation, her friends, and her clergy shy away from dealing with the situation," he writes in Angry Men and the Women Who Love Them—Breaking the Cycle of Physical and Emotional Abuse. "She feels forsaken by those she should be able to lean on the most." 2

Forsaken, Hegstrom says, because of an incorrect interpretation of the Scripture.

"Many times in a Church world, submission is held over the heads of women by men who are emotionally manipulative or abusive in order to get their way and maintain power and control."

Do you know someone like this?

Someone like Mark?

He and his wife Janet signed up for a Bible study. Mark instructed Janet not to speak during the Bible study, telling her "women are to keep silent in the churches" (1 Cor. 14:34).

Although Janet had questions, she remained silent in order to "submit" to her husband. Like many abusers, Mark distorted Scripture to manipulate his wife's behavior.

"Ephesians 5:24-28 reminds us that as Christ died for the Church, a man should give his life for his wife," 3writes Hegstrom.

Caring for victims of emotional abuse

Pastors can help men better understand their biblical role in marriage by providing balanced teaching on Ephesians 5:22-28, offering marriage classes and counseling and modeling a loving relationship with their wives.

Besides helping men understand their role as husbands, Silva says there are ways pastors can show compassion to victims of emotional abuse—and foster a compassionate atmosphere within the church:

Men, women and children caught in the cycle of emotional abuse need practical, emotional and spiritual support. Shouldn't pastors and churches volunteer for the front lines when it comes to addressing emotional abuse and other forms of domestic violence?

Victims want and need support from their churches. Take steps to make your church a safe place, where victims and their abusers can find grace, love and healing.

1Brenda Branson and Paula Silva, Pastor's Guide—Dealing with Domestic Violence, a publication of FOCUS Ministries, Inc., available online at
2Paul Hegstrom, Ph.D., Angry Men and the Women Who Love Them—Breaking the Cycle of Physical and Emotional Abuse, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press, 1999, 2004, p. 124.
3Ibid, p. 123

Jennifer's Recovery From Emotional Abuse

Learn how the love of God and friends brought hope and healing to Jennifer's life.

by Mary J. Yerkes

Meet Jennifer.

Committed Christian.

Leader in her church.

Respected member of the community.

But as a survivor of emotional abuse, she's now a patient in the local hospital's psychiatric wing.

This is her story—one of help, hope and redemption.

An emotionally abusive childhood

Jennifer describes her childhood as emotionally abusive and unpredictable. Her mother, now a committed Christian, struggled with uncontrolled rage and mental illness when her daughter was a child. Not only did the incidents of violent and frightening outbursts of rage leave her feeling insecure, unloved and inherently bad, Jennifer's mom blamed her for her own unstable behavior.

"It's your fault I act like this," she said.

Suicide first entered her mind at age six.

A sensitive child, Jennifer attempted to avoid her mother's wrath through perfectionism. By junior high school, weary and disillusioned, she knew she could never earn her mother's love and approval.

If not her mother, she needed someone's approval, so she sought it out by misbehaving at school, ditching it altogether or seeking affection from the opposite sex. Lonely, insecure and feeling unlovable, she grew to accept cruel and destructive behavior from friends, thinking she didn't deserve any better.

Then she met Rick, a quiet but popular football player, and she described it as "love at first sight." But he had a difficult home life, too. Raised by an abusive, alcoholic father, Rick described seeing his father break a plate over his mother's head because he didn't like what she had cooked for dinner one night.

"I would never treat you like that," he promised.

A difficult marriage

Jennifer and Rick married after high school. Still, she felt empty and unlovable, despite a happy marriage. That changed one year later, when Jennifer gave her life to Christ. For the first time, she felt loved.

This change was great news for Jennifer, but Rick found it hard to watch. Burdened by the trauma of his past, he grew increasingly critical, unloving and withdrawn.

"He was becoming more like his father every day," says Jennifer.

Rick never abused her, physically, but his constant criticism and belittling remarks escalated.

"If I did something that displeased him, he wouldn't speak to me for days—even weeks—at a time," she said.

As the abuse worsened, so did Jennifer's health. She grew more depressed and despondent by the day, until she could no longer function. She developed chronic respiratory infections and other physical ailments.

Jennifer finally confided with a friend. But this friend—a pastor's wife she had known for a few years—made the situation exponentially worse.

"Why would a husband treat his wife like that?" asked her friend. "You must be doing something to provoke it."

This encounter left her feeling rejected by the church—and, ultimately, by God.

A cry for help

Sinking deeper into depression, she didn't know how much more she could take.

"I can't live with this much pain," she said.

Thank God some friends from church noticed her growing dysfunction and despair. They took her to see a Christian counselor. Although he was not a good fit for Jennifer, he did refer her to a Christian psychiatrist who understood Jennifer's pain and how to help her. The doctor hospitalized her for her own safety and to give her time to heal—away from her emotionally abusive marriage.

"I wish I could tell you a few months of good Christian counseling solved the problem," says Jennifer. "But it took a lot longer than that!"

Eventually, with Christian counseling, the support of family, friends, a new church and medication to address the biological issues associated with her depression, Jennifer began to heal.

Now, almost twenty years later, Jennifer describes herself as healthy.

Then she adds, "But I don't know if you can completely heal from a lifetime of abuse. It's taken me a long time to learn to trust people and to form healthy, biblical friendships."

Despite the time it has taken to heal, she's grateful for all the love and support her friends and counselors have shown.

"Their love, day in and day out, has been important in my healing process," she says.

Like Jennifer, victims of emotional abuse need professional Christian counseling and a strong support system to recover fully, according to Joann Condie, a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC).

A counselor will assess an individual's unique situation and personality and recommend long-term counseling—like Jennifer—or short-term, intensive therapy.

Today, Jennifer reaches out to other women, sharing her testimony of God's faithfulness and love. She marvels that God has redeemed her pain and uses it to bring healing to others.

Understanding Emotional Abuse

A continued list of helpful resources, links and organizations about emotional abuse.

Popular questions on this topic: