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. What should you do?
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, control 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.”
How to find the truth
To discover if emotional abuse is happening, you need to carefully learn more about the situation. 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.
A list of behaviors
- Harsh words.
- Silent treatment.
- Contemptuous facial expressions.
- Refusing to help you.
- Withholding affection from you.
- Interrupting you.
- Controlling your appearance.
- Devaluing your feelings.
- Outbursts of anger.
- Humiliating you at home.
- Refusing to listen to you.
- Mocking you.
- Refusing to respond to you.
- Distorting what you say.
- Acting like the victim.
- Shaming you.
- Disparaging names.
- Falsely accusing you.
- Attacking your feelings.
- Inducing guilt.
- Humiliating you in public.
- Threatening to leave you.
- Isolating you.
- Withholding resources from you.
- Coercing you.
- Spreading lies.
- Excessive jealousy.
- Controlling where you go.
- Aggressive arguing.
- Mind games.
- Gaslighting you (when someone manipulates another person into questioning his or her sanity).
- Monitoring you.
- Invoking fear.
- Prolonged ignoring.
- Verbal intimidation.
- Threatening to harm your pets.
- Threatening suicide.
- Vicious words.
- Threatening to physically harm you or your kids.
(Source: Is It Abuse?, P & R Publishing, 2020; 192)
What the Bible says
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 thehotline.org. To 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
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: