What Are Signs of Emotional Abuse in Marriage?

Close up photo of a man with his head in his hands, exhausted from the emotional abuse in his marriage.
Are you concerned that a spouse is being emotionally abused in their marriage? Find out which behavior patterns signal abuse.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Emotional abuse can be tricky to diagnose since having a bad fight or an isolated instance of verbal attack doesn’t qualify as abuse. Are you concerned that a you or someone you know is being emotionally abused in their marriage? Find out which behavior patterns signal abuse.

How Do You Know if Someone Is Being Abused?

Imagine you’ve introduced yourself to a woman new to your church who seems anxious and depressed. One day this wife mentions how upset her husband became when she forgot to buy certain groceries. “I really goofed up,” she says, “So I don’t blame him for yelling at me. I know I have to be more careful, but I was sure I’d asked him about what he wanted. But he said I hadn’t asked him.”

You don’t know what to think about this information. Does it represent a typical argument, or could it indicate emotional abuse in marriage? You’d like to come alongside someone in distress, but you don’t want to jump to any conclusions, either.

Knowing either situation is possible is a good way to start. For example, Counselor Mark Mayfield recalled some heated words he directed at his wife when he wrote about the signs of emotional abuse.

Both he and his wife were exhausted and stressed, and when his wife forgot about an earlier conversation, Mayfield snapped at her. Later that day, he recognized what he’d done and apologized to his wife. This type of common situation does not represent abuse.

“Though my reaction had been unkind, defensive and negative, it was not abusive,” Mayfield explains. “Many people exhibit poor communication styles that are not acceptable, and counseling can help. But there is a distinct difference between an unhealthy exchange and abuse. An argument or disagreement can make people feel awful, but that doesn’t make it abuse.”

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

What Is Emotional Abuse in Marriage?

The words that define emotional abuse are pattern and control.

Is this behavior a regular, ongoing pattern? Is the goal of the behavior coercive control? Does one spouse seek to “restrain or dominate” the other? Does one spouse try to wipe out the other’s individual will or desire by force, power, violence, or intimidation? 

According to Darby Strickland, author of Is It Abuse: A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims, emotional abuse “is a pattern of behavior that promotes a destructive sense of fear, obligation, shame, or guilt in a victim. Emotionally oppressive people seek to dominate their spouses, and they do so by employing a variety of tactics. They may neglect, frighten, isolate, belittle, exploit, play mind games with, lie to, blame, shame, or threaten their spouses. Their behavior is driven by the same root of self-worship and entitlement that drives other forms of abuse.”

Psychology Today defines emotional abuse “as a pattern of behavior in which the perpetrator insults, humiliates, and generally instills fear in an individual in order to control them. The individual’s reality may become distorted as they internalize the abuse as their own failings.”

Geremy Keeton, senior director of counseling services at Focus on the Family, further defines what emotional abuse in marriage is and isn’t.

“Harm from another person’s selfish mistake or sinful action does not necessarily define abuse,” he says. “We all cause others emotional pain at times (James 3:2). One of the key aspects of emotional abuse is persistent patterns — a system of power and control; a calculated degrading of another person.”

Abusive Behaviors to Watch Out for in Marriage

To discover if emotional abuse is happening, you need to carefully learn more about the situation.

For example, if you were talking with the woman mentioned at the beginning of this guide, it would be wise to learn if her husband has a pattern of yelling and discounting what his wife recalls. You could do this by keeping the conversation going over time and asking tactful, open-ended questions in a loving way that reveal what takes place in the home. 

Many victims don’t see a pattern of abuse and blame themselves for their spouse’s behavior, Strickland says. As you discover more of their story, you can help them see a pattern if it exists.

Strickland suggests showing the person a list of behaviors, and if they occur, asking about their severity. Is It Abuse? also includes questions to ask someone that can help mentors discover what’s happening behind closed doors.

Verbal Abuse in Marriage

  • Criticism
  • Harsh words
  • Silent treatment
  • Yelling
  • Sarcasm
  • Insults
  • Disparaging names
  • Interrupting you
  • Spreading lies
Close up of a young, pensive Asian woman listening to someone talking to her on her phone

Talk to a Counselor

If you need further guidance and encouragement, we have a staff of licensed, professional counselors who offer a one-time complimentary consultation from a Christian perspective. They can also refer you to counselors in your area for ongoing assistance.
Reach a counselor toll-free at 1-855-771-HELP (4357).

Mental Distortion in Marriage

  • Mind games
  • Gaslighting you (when someone manipulates another person into questioning his or her sanity)
  • Prolonged ignoring
  • Falsely accusing you
  • Attacking your feelings
  • Inducing guilt
  • Distorting what you say
  • Acting like the victim
  • Shaming you
  • Contemptuous facial expressions
  • Dishonesty
  • Mocking you
  • Coercing you
  • Blame-shifting

Intimidation in Marriage

  • Aggressive arguing
  • Verbal intimidation
  • Threatening to harm your pets
  • Threatening suicide
  • Vicious words
  • Threatening to leave you
  • Threatening to physically harm you or your kids
  • Raging
  • Invoking fear
  • Outbursts of anger

Control in Marriage

  • Isolating you
  • Withholding resources from you
  • Controlling where you go
  • Excessive jealousy
  • Monitoring you
  • Humiliating you in public
  • Humiliating you at home
  • Controlling your appearance

Neglect in Marriage

  • Withholding affection from you
  • Refusing to help you
  • Defensiveness
  • Dismissiveness
  • Refusing to listen to you
  • Refusing to respond to you
  • Devaluing your feelings

(Source: Is It Abuse?, P & R Publishing, 2020; 192)

What the Bible Says About Emotional Abuse in Marriage

If someone employs a pattern of the listed behaviors to coercively control their spouse, it certainly doesn’t match the definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. And since 85% of abuse victims are women, chances are you’ll be dealing with a wife.

A husband who abuses his wife is not trying to follow Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

When to Bring Up Counseling

If you’re concerned that a spouse is being emotionally abused in their marriage, encourage them to seek help.

If you’re worried about their safety, suggest that they call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit

To help them find counseling, suggest that the spouse call Focus on the Family’s Counseling Department for a one-time free consultation at 1-855-771-HELP (4357) weekdays from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain Time).

To Learn More About Emotional Abuse in Marriage

For the safety of abuse victims, it’s important to educate yourself about the topic. Learn more about gaslighting and other tactics of emotional abusers in these articles and books:

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