My Spouse Is Verbally and Emotionally Abusive

How should I respond to my spouse's insensitive words, manipulative mind games, and cruel put-downs? This has been a problem for the greater part of our marriage. I have never been physically harmed in any way, but the constant verbal and emotional abuse have made my life miserable. Some of my friends say I should pursue a divorce, but others have suggested that I don't have biblical grounds. A few folks in this second group have even told me that my only concern is to "submit" and continue loving my spouse in spite of the mistreatment. What do you think I should I do?

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

There are two things you need to understand about your situation. First, it’s more common than you may suspect. There’s a surprising amount of emotional and verbal abuse going on behind closed doors, even in Christian marriages. This suggests: 1) that you’re not alone; and 2) that many people have devoted a great deal of time, thought, and energy to coming up with solutions. Among them are some of our most gifted and highly qualified marriage therapists and counselors. In other words, answers are available if you’ll take the time and trouble to look for them.

The second point is this: the state of affairs you’ve described isn’t good for either of you – not you or your spouse. It’s harmful and destructive to everyone concerned. That includes any children who may be part of the picture. This means that something must be done to change it as quickly as possible. We can almost guarantee that the change won’t come about as a result of adopting a “submissive” attitude toward abuse.

In connection with this last thought, we’ve observed that there are generally two kinds of people who advise “submission” in cases like this: 1) a few male pastors, counselors, and friends who take a simplistic view of passages like Ephesians 5:22-33 and Colossians 3:18-25; and 2) abusive husbands. Our response, especially to the latter group, is that it isn’t up to a man to see to it that his wife “submits.” The apostle has given tasks to each partner in the relationship. Each partner is responsible only for his or her own assignment. To put it bluntly, men need to forget about “submission.” Their job is to learn what it means to love their spouses “as Christ loved the church.”

So much for theology. Let’s move on to something more practical. What can you do to take your marriage in a more positive direction? We suggest you begin by investigating your options. All too often people in your position assume that they have only two alternatives: to stay put and suffer, or file for divorce. This isn’t necessarily true. As a matter of fact, there may be a number of other ways to break the negative cycle.

You can find out more by setting up an appointment with a Christian marriage and family counselor. Make sure that the therapist you choose understands the dynamics of abuse, power, and control, and that he or she is well trained in the highly specialized field of marital conflict. It would be ideal, of course, if your spouse were to seek counseling as well, but we don’t recommend that the two of you do this jointly, at least not in the beginning. It’s far too easy for an abusive spouse to manipulate a couples counseling situation and subsequently turn it to his own advantage or use it as an excuse for further abusive behavior. If the thought of professional counseling is too overwhelming, consider talking to a pastor or a good friend, or see if you can get a neighbor to take you to a community center where there are people trained to deal with domestic abuse issues. The idea is to find out what you can do, not what you can’t do, and to act accordingly.

As you consider your options for obtaining professional assistance, it’s vital to bear in mind that this probably isn’t going to be a quick and easy process. Abuse is usually rooted in deeply entrenched patterns of thought and behavior, and you can’t expect to reverse those patterns in a couple of counseling sessions. While working on the problem, you may find it necessary to create a crisis by giving your husband an ultimatum. 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.” Tell him, “Either we both get counseling (separately), or I’m moving out until you’re ready to help me resolve this issue.” Separation may be what it takes to open his eyes to his behavior and to stimulate some badly needed self-examination on his part. Naturally, you’ll want to make sure that your support system is in place and that you actually have a safe place to go – the home of a friend, family member, or neighbor – before you put the matter to him in these terms. Lay your plans, line up your resources, and make your arrangements prior to packing your bags and walking out the door.

In the meantime, you may want to have a conversation with an attorney – not to talk about divorce, but simply to gather 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. If separation is what it takes to open your husband’s eyes and stimulate some self-examination on his part, then so be it.

Before closing, perhaps it would be helpful to say a few words about the underlying causes of abuse and list some of the identifying marks of genuinely “abusive” speech and behavior. Domestic abuse is almost always a technique for gaining and maintaining control. An emotional abuser keeps others under his thumb by blaming and shaming. He uses name-calling, swearing, and other forms of contemptuous speech to convince his partner that she is unworthy of better treatment. In most cases he is highly manipulative, displays narcissistic tendencies, and flatly refuses to acknowledge any personal responsibility for difficulties in the marriage. If any of this sounds familiar, you are more than justified in taking whatever steps are necessary to reverse the situation. A good counselor can help you recognize to what extent you may have become brainwashed by your spouse’s behavior and thus lulled into a state of resignation and silent acceptance of your lot.

Focus on the Family’s Counseling staff can provide you with referrals to qualified marriage and family therapists practicing in your area. They would also consider it a privilege to discuss your concerns with you over the phone if you think this might be helpful. You can contact our Counseling department for a free consultation.

Related Video
Should my spouse and I separate? Dr. Gary Chapman talks about when couples separate, things it can lead to, and how it can be done with a redemptive purpose in min


The Emotionally Destructive Relationship: Seeing It, Stopping It, Surviving It

Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse, Revised and Updated Edition

Love Must Be Tough: New Hope for Marriages in Crisis


Hope Restored® marriage intensives

Life Skills International

Celebrate Recovery

Understanding Emotional Abuse

Copyright © 2011, Focus on the Family.

Talk to a Counselor

Focus on the Family offers a one-time complimentary consultation from a Christian perspective.
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

Thank you [field id="first_name"] for signing up to get the free downloads of the Marrying Well Guides. 

Click the image below to access your guide and learn about the counter-cultural, biblical concepts of intentionality, purity, community and Christian compatibility.

(For best results use IE 8 or higher, Firefox, Chrome or Safari)

To stay up-to-date with the latest from Boundless, sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter.

If you have any comments or questions about the information included in the Guide, please send them to [email protected]

Click here to return to Boundless

Focus on the Family

Thank you for submitting this form. You will hear from us soon. 

The Daily Citizen

The Daily Citizen from Focus on the Family exists to be your most trustworthy news source. Our team of analysts is devoted to giving you timely and relevant analysis of current events and cultural trends – all from a biblical worldview – so that you can be inspired and assured that the information you share with others comes from a reliable source.

Alive to Thrive is a biblical guide to preventing teen suicide. Anyone who interacts with teens can learn how to help prevent suicidal thinking through sound practical and clinical advice, and more importantly, biblical principles that will provide a young person with hope in Christ.

Bring Your Bible to School Day Logo Lockup with the Words Beneath

Every year on Bring Your Bible to School Day, students across the nation celebrate religious freedom and share God’s love with their friends. This event is designed to empower students to express their belief in the truth of God’s Word–and to do so in a respectful way that demonstrates the love of Christ.

Focus on the Family’s® Foster Care and Adoption program focuses on two main areas:

  • Wait No More events, which educate and empower families to help waiting kids in foster care

  • Post-placement resources for foster and adoptive families

Christian Counselors Network

Find Christian Counselors, Marriage & Family Therapists, Psychologists, Social Workers and Psychiatrists near you! Search by location, name or specialty to find professionals in Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselors Network who are eager to assist you.

Boundless is a Focus on the Family community for Christian young adults who want to pursue faith, relationships and adulthood with confidence and joy.

Through reviews, articles and discussions, Plugged In exists to shine a light on the world of popular entertainment while giving you and your family the essential tools you need to understand, navigate and impact the culture in which we live.

Have you been looking for a way to build your child’s faith in a fun and exciting way?
Adventures in Odyssey® audio dramas will do just that. Through original audio stories brought to life by actors who make you feel like part of the experience; these fictional, character-building dramas use storytelling to teach lasting truths.

Focus on the Family’s Hope Restored all-inclusive intensives offer marriage counseling for couples who are facing an extreme crisis in their marriage, and who may even feel they are headed for divorce.