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Emotional Abuse: The Invisible Marriage Killer

By HERWriter
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Mental Health related image Photo: Photospin - Auremar

Physical and verbal abuse are forms of “visible” abuse. Scars and bruises, raised voices and demeaning and hurtful words are signals to others that something is not quite right in the relationship. It’s also easier for a wife to see and recognize that’s she’s being abused.

Emotional abuse, however, is much more insidious and not quite as visible. Certainly, a wife’s self-esteem and spirit are battered along with her body in the case of physical and verbal abuse, but a husband can kill his wife’s spirit without even raising a hand or voice against her. For this reason, many women don’t even know they’re being abused, or if they do it’s a long and difficult battle not only to work to repair the damage done themselves, but to get the abuser to recognize the harm that he’s done.

What are the signs of mental 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” (www.focusonthefamily.com).

“Nonphysical behavior or attitude” can safely be interpreted to mean neglect, invalidating another’s thoughts and feelings, and refusing to acknowledge the needs of the other (whether intentionally or not). Over a period of time, this kind of emotional climate in a marriage can squeeze the life out of a marriage and out of a wife.

There is a difference between experiencing or inflicting emotional hurt and being emotionally abusive—it is important to make this distinction. Abuse is a cycle. It is not a once-in-a-while event that happens and hurts someone else. In many “ordinary” hurtful cases, apologies can be offered if truly sincere and heal the rift that the hurt has caused. Many hurts are unintentional, and if they were, there is (hopefully) remorse on the part of the person who inflicted that hurt, once the anger, frustration, etc., calms down and cooler heads prevail. With emotional abuse there is none of this. Like other forms of abuse, there can be apologies and promises to never do it again, and there is hope in the beginning that behaviors and attitudes will change—often referred to as the “honeymoon phase”—but somewhere in the back of many a wife’s mind, she knows that it’s only a matter of time before the abuser settles back into old routines.

The Profile of an Emotional Abuser

At the heart of an emotionally abusive husband is his need to ultimately be in control. He feels inadequate and harbors distorted beliefs about women and marriage, usually learned from an abusive father or other dominant male influence, or sometime due to lack of decent male role modeling in how to treat women. In many cases, but not all, an emotionally abusive husband can be manipulative and heavy-handed in keeping his wife “under his thumb”. The abusive husband is “self-referenced”, which means he only sees and considers things from his point of view; he deliberately refuses to or is incapable of looking at things from another’s perspective. “Selfish” and “self-referenced” are two different words and can be described this way: the “self-referenced person would give you the shirt off his back, but he doesn’t know you need it. The self-referenced person frequently violates the marriage partnership by acting without thoughtfully considering his partner’s point of view and needs” (Amy Wildman White). The abusive husband is also emotionally dependent on his wife; that is, his feeling of self-worth comes from being married. Most emotionally abusive husbands are unable to look at and examine themselves and why they engage in such spirit-killing behavior against a person they have avowed to love and cherish.

The Profile of an Emotionally Abused Wife

Women who find themselves in an emotionally abusive situation often have low self-esteems even though they may appear confident and in control of everything. An emotionally abused wife “looks to her husband’s acceptance of her as the measure of her worth” (White).

Unlike a man, who typically finds his identity through work, and academic or athletic achievement, “[a] woman’s identity is often based on her relationships” (White) this makes her vulnerable to abusive relationships.

One of the most common characteristics of an emotionally abused woman is that she is unable to enjoy sexual experiences with her husband. This is due to the deterioration of the trust and the lack of friendship and intimacy over the time of the relationship. Add on top of this societies’, her husbands’ and the church’s views that she’s not a good wife if she doesn’t meet her husband’s sexual needs and she may feel perpetually trapped in her marriage. What many people (including counselors and pastors) fail to realize is that “[t]he wife in these situations experiences intercourse as an indignity, almost as rape, because the physical and the deeply personal, loving aspects of sex…[i]ntimacy and trust, which lay the necessary foundation for a woman to respond sexually, have been removed from the relationship” (White) and she is left to emotionally detach herself from the situation just to survive—at the cost of her soul and spirit.

Call to Action

It’s time to lift the veil from these situations and recognize how much a person’s soul and spirit can be damaged without physical and verbal abuse. Abuse doesn’t have to come in the form of acting out a form of punishment, or lashing out with temper and words. Abuse can also be withholding affection, or never saying a kind word. It takes a strong woman to stand up against what everyone is telling her is her duty and recognize that this kind of situation is not okay, and to talk about it until somebody listens.

If you believe you are in an emotionally abusive marriage—which can take many forms to keep a wife dependant on a husband (a virtual prisoner in her own house)—or you’re not even sure if what you’re experiencing is emotional abuse, please join us in the Marital Discovery and Recovery group and share your story.

Sources: www.focusonthefamily.com; “The Silent Killer of Christian Marriages” by Amy Wildman White (http://www.safeplaceministries.com/pdf/The Silent Killer of Christian Marriages.pdf)

Add a Comment380 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

This article is totally my life that I am breaking free from by divorcing my husband. We have three small children but God has given peace to my heart that I cannot live a life of emotional as well as verbal abuse. During this divorce process he has become physically abusive as well because I have taken away his control of me and he is holding on to every last piece that he can. I believe that he has mental health issues as well that were triggered immensely by me filing divorce which concerns me since I am the working parent and he stays at home with the three little ones. If I put bullet points to the statements in the article it represents my life except the fact that my family saw it for years before I did and would mention it to me but I was so trapped inside the abuse that I did not know that it was "abuse". I have told my attorney that I felt raped when I got pregnant with our 9 month old as I was verbally being abused to the point I would just give in to the sex to make the abuse stop for the moment. I am trying to find who I am as a woman in God's eyes as well as in the eyes of other Christians versus a wife that was just complying to her abusive husbands demands which is not love at all. He goes so far to quote bible versus/passages at me to try and control my actions. I am standing up and saying no more abuse. I pray for all you so that you can have the strength to stand against the evil one that has become part of your spouse as it is very much a spiritual battle that is being fought as well as a physical one whether emotionally or verbally or a physical act.

March 29, 2018 - 12:45pm
EmpowHER Guest

I've been married now 25 years, the first two weeks of marriage my new husband hit me twice in the face and it shocked me, I stayed in the marriage. He continued to get in my face on numerous times when we argued. He put his forehead against mine and scream in my face, and one time really hurt my ear from yelling in my ear. One occasion he chocked me. It got better he didn't hit me anymore, I had no support system, no family that would understand. He hasn't physically hit me anymore and its years later we are both middle aged and I want to know if its also abuse to completely neglect me? What I mean by that is he never sleeps with me always sleeps downstairs and he works all the time I hardly see him and when I do he constantly finds fault in me. I'm financially dependent on him. He works all the time never date nights but when he wants sex it last 10 minutes still he is satisfied. I cant stand having sex with him, but I do it out of obligation because he treats me better when I give in. I want to know if I'm in an abused marriage still? He is a good man, good worker pays bills doesn't drink anymore, what do I do?

March 24, 2018 - 5:42pm
EmpowHER Guest

I have a friend that is living in an abusive relationship in Florida. She's to the point now that she stays in her bedroom 95% of the time. The problem is she can not afford to move to get away from him. So my question is, can she legally get him out of the house? I've tried to find information regarding this but I have come up with nothing. She does have a teenage son that is living in the home too and is desperate to fix this but just can't figure out how.

March 7, 2018 - 10:10am
EmpowHER Guest

I'm sitting here broken. Feeling unhappy and I don't know what to do. I've been married for 25 years and I have put up with a lot. Maybe I'm just getting so beat down I am barely able to get up now.
I have always took my anger and put it into education. Soon I will have a Master's Degree in Nursing Education. Yet I am a whimp when it comes to home.
WHY??? What is the answer?

January 24, 2018 - 2:53pm
(reply to Anonymous)

If a kitchen faucet starts dripping, it's no big deal. But after dripping for 25 years, the faucet is rusted, broken and a mess. It's like that with us, when we have been abused year over year, it gets to the point where there is nothing left of us. Being submissive at home keeps the peace, it's a tactic we use to try and keep the abuse at bay, thinking we can 'act' right so 'they' will be happy, or we can love them out of this (because no one understands them like we do) or buy things for them that will make them happy or whatever it is that we think we can do to help - - - and then over time we realize that this will never change and that it was never our issue to fix anyways - we were just the quiet/abused/controlled partner. It seems you are ready to be done with this. To answer your question, the answer is to leave, to not take it any more, to claim your power and say 'enough' and not feel bad about it. And then, and this is key, to have the strength to keep our resolve and notice the cycle and not fall back into the situation. This is the hard part because we all want to believe it'll be ok. But again, it's not ours to fix. Educated, smart, driven and ambitious, you clearly have talent and determination. Why not use these talents to move you forward and step out of this muck? Don't beat yourself up, this is a safe space where you can share, we've all been there. Sending you a hug and the knowing that if you leave, you will be ok. Email me if you want some more [email protected].

January 25, 2018 - 8:40am
EmpowHER Guest

I thought things would change after we got married but it seems like it got worst...im emotionally,physically, and mentally drained I don't have anymore fighting in me...im constantly getting accused of messing around and I'm not. I feel like I'm walking on eggshells since I have to be careful with what I say n do. I lost my Mom n I have no other support since I had to give up my friends n family for him. Everything I do is never right...I feel like I'm done and it's over especially when he physically abused n I ended up in emergency room and ended up with a concussion n neck injury. We have kids n he threatens he's going to take them away from me and I'll be left with noting since he makes more money than me. When we first met I was the one making more money than him n his family is accusing me of being with him just for his money. I don't know what happen to the guy I feel in love with I don't know this person anymore...I just don't feel the love anymore n he doesn't respect me either

January 14, 2018 - 10:09pm
(reply to Anonymous)

Sometimes when controlling people/abusers get comfortable, the gloves come off and they begin their dance of manipulation. This happened to me and sounds like it has happened to you. Honestly, there were signs I ignored when I was dating my ex but I knew that I loved him and could fix him. But that is not our role, to fix others. That is their journey. The problem is that you are not going to be able to love him out of this, or change or plead or anything - nothing you do will change his behavior and the cycle of abuse will only shorten. If you are ending up in the emergency room, things have escalated from awful to dangerous. I wouldn't worry about what he says will 'happen to you' if you leave or divorce, that is another means of manipulation to get you to stay and to keep you fearful. Please Please Please get some counseling and help and get out. Those kids are learning how to hurt others by watching him and learning how to be submissive by watching you. Contact www.thehotline.org for free help and support, call them at 1-800-799-7233 for help and get moving. Time is a wasting and it's time to move along, do this for you, for your children and for future generations to follow. I have some resources if you need them, email me at [email protected]. Please be safe. Please leave. Sending hugs.

January 16, 2018 - 1:24pm
EmpowHER Guest


I need some input please: I reconnected a year nd a half ago with a teenage boy I hadn't seen in 37 years. We started dating very quickly hereafter and soon 4 mos later I left my home in NYC to VA to be with him. I had just moved back home from Florida a year before and had left a 9 year relationship there with an alcoholic. Life was a fairytale in love with such a wonderful man who showered me with romance and charm. We later married 8 mos after living together. Once we were married things began to change rapidly for us in our marriage. My husband suddenly slowed down all the things that made me fall in love with him. All the wonderful romance, sex and emotional bank was emptying. This disturbed because when living in separate states that would be why he was so controlling of where I went and how long it would take me to arrive to places. I had to account for all of my days activities and facetime with him all day long. Before I married my husband and I would have arguments and he would say to the "Fu@@ U" word to my face in anger. He continued to curse directly only at times when we would argue. My husband suffers from Compulsive Disorders as well so when things were not to his liking he would tell me about them and provoke the situation later. Everyday we grew somewhat distant from one another. My husband pretty much controlled everything in our home and when I arrived in VA I had no friends or any family connection there to turn to when things became so depressing for me that I felt trapped and lost my identity. I reached out to get therapy to understand what I was going through but he told me to beat this depression on my own and so I could not get any help. I later reached out to 3 times and one final time to please allow me to seek help to find out what made me so sad. He refused me the help and at that point, I felt completely helpless alone and almost crippled with fear. I felt like he wasn't there for me spiritually or emotionally. I then packed a bag with whatever items I could and headed to my parents home in NYC to seek guidance from my family. My husband now has ended our new marriage because of my actions and has trust issues with me. He was disrespectful and controlling as well as a self referenced individual. Finally now I am feeling my identity again and my life back. We tried to get together thereafter but our conversation was mostly about what he expected of me which was to return to VA and seek therapy from there and leave the one I finally am getting clarity from. He is very aggressive and controlling and I fear going back will not resolve our issues as VA now is a scary place for me. Help!

January 6, 2018 - 9:36am
(reply to Anonymous)

Seems as if your soul knows exactly what is going on and you are seeking reassurance for your SMART and POWERFUL decision to end your marriage and move forward. Trying to placate others, please others, and keeping the peace just takes a bit of you away every time you ignore your own power. Seems the help you need is from you. Continue counseling, try to figure out how you got in these 'spots' and bit by bit you will find yourself again. You know that marriage to an addict or abuser is never healthy. Be well and take care of you, you can stay strong and you can take care of yourself. You don't need anyone's permission for this, just yours. Hugs to you:)

January 12, 2018 - 6:07am
(reply to kimromancorle)

thank you so much for your reply it certainly gave me some understanding. I do see Greece or is that my decision was a good one because I feel like I’m a freak just married four months and got depressed in my marriage and left and so I think that people look at me as the predator. I did want to confirm with you on the issue of continuing therapy here where I am until I get well or do as he is asking in return to Virginia and start new therapy there? I tried to contact him after I read your reply to see if we can form a simple communication and who is completely taken back by how hostile his tone was throughout the whole communication he belittled my therapist and accuse my therapist of so many ugly things because she advised that I stay here and continue
here as in so far as my therapy goals. I think my husband was just so upset that he did not have the power and that the therapist is in the middle that he just became so enraged. . I truly know I made the right decision it’s just so hard to understand. How can I get out from under his power control?

January 15, 2018 - 4:31pm
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