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My Spouse Is Verbally and Emotionally Abusive

abuse can feel hopeless
How should I deal with my spouse’s unkind words, mind games, and put-downs? This has been a problem for most of our marriage. I’ve never been physically hurt, but the constant verbal and emotional abuse has made my life miserable. Some of my friends say I should get a divorce, but others say I should “submit” to my husband and and love him no matter what.
We’re so sorry for your pain. Abuse is abuse — whether it’s emotional, verbal, or physical. And sadly, there’s a surprising amount of emotional and verbal abuse going on behind closed doors, even in Christian marriages. You’re not alone.

What verbal and emotional abuse looks like

Domestic abuse is almost always a way to get and keep control.
  • An emotional abuser keeps others under his thumb by blaming and shaming.
  • He uses name-calling, swearing, and other forms of contempt to convince his partner that she is not worthy of better treatment.
  • In most cases, he’s highly manipulative, displays narcissistic tendencies, and refuses to take personal responsibility for difficulties in the marriage.
Does any of that sound familiar? From what you briefly told us, your situation isn’t good for you or your spouse. It’s harmful and destructive to everyone concerned, including any children you might have. Something has to change — but we can almost guarantee it won’t happen by having a “submissive” attitude toward abuse. (Learn more about what biblical submission really means.) So what can you do to take your marriage in a more positive direction? Too often people assume that they have only two choices: stay and suffer, or file for divorce. However, there are other ways to break the negative cycle. First step? Get help from people who are trained to deal with domestic abuse.

Finding the right kind of help

If the thought of professional counseling is overwhelming, talk to a pastor or a good friend — or ask a neighbor to go with you to a community center where people know how to handle domestic abuse issues. That said, we strongly urge you to reach out to a licensed therapist. Choose one who understands the dynamics of abuse, power, and control — one who is well trained in the highly specialized field of marital conflict. A good counselor can help you know if your spouse’s behavior has led you into silent acceptance of the situation. Should your husband go with you? It would be great if your husband would agree to get counseling. But we don’t recommend that the two of you do this jointly, at least not in the beginning. It’s too easy for an abusive spouse to manipulate a couples counseling situation and turn it to his own advantage — or use it as an excuse for further abusive behavior.

What to expect in the counseling process

The counseling process probably isn’t going to be quick and easy. Abuse is usually rooted in deep patterns of thought and behavior that can’t be reversed in only a couple of sessions. While you’re working on the problem, you might have to create a crisis by giving your husband an ultimatum. Tell him, “Either we both get counseling (separately), or I’m moving out until you’re ready to work with me on fixing these issues.” An abuser can sometimes be persuaded to make a change if their spouse has the courage to stand up for themself and say, “I’ve had enough.” Before you say this to your husband, you’ll want to make sure that your support system is in place and that you have a safe place to go — the home of a friend, family member, or neighbor. Have a plan, line up your resources, and make your arrangements ahead of time instead of reactively packing and leaving in a hurry. In the meantime, find and follow the advice of a wise attorney — not to talk about divorce, but to get information about your options. Among other things, find out what’s involved in arranging a legal separation. In many cases, a temporary separation is exactly what’s needed in a situation like yours. Marriages get stuck in deadly ruts when spouses become blind to the hurtful nature of their words and actions. Separation might be what it takes to open your husband’s eyes and motivate badly needed self-examination on his part.

Want to talk about it?

We realize you’re in the middle of a painful and perhaps confusing season. Would you let us come alongside you? Our licensed or pastoral counselors would welcome the chance to hear your story and talk with you in more detail. Call us for a free over-the-phone consultation at 1-855-771-HELP (4357). The team can also give you referrals to qualified marriage and family therapists in your area. And you’re welcome to dig into the recommended resources listed below.
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