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Emotional Abuse: The Invisible Marriage Killer

By HERWriter
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Emotional Abuse: The Invisible Marriage Killer 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.

Add a Comment349 Comments

HERWriter (reply to Anonymous)

Thank you for sharing your story, Missie.

May 7, 2011 - 12:39pm
EmpowHER Guest

I, too, thought "There are plenty of resources" to help me cope/leave an abusive marriage. To the casual observer, there appear to be plenty. The time required to track down and evaluate them, in secret, while living in fear, is substantial. After my emotinally abusive husband strangled me, in the presence of our 5-year old daughter, I met with a counselor the Family Violence Project refered me to. She listened to my story, then asked if I'd ever taken the Myers-Briggs assessment. I sounded like a "TMJ" and, my husband like an "XYZ". This combination "seldom, if ever, works" (I don't recall the exact acronyms, but you get the idea). This was the start of years of searching/weeding out the "plenty of resources". Eventually, we divorced (final judgement, after 2 years, is still pending). After a 2-day trial, the judge ruled that our 9-year old daughter live with her abusive, alcholic (convicted of an OUI the previous year, after flipping his car) father during the school year. I supported him through grad school, plus 6 years of unemployment while he looked for a "worthy" job, then resigned from my career to spend 8 years as a full-time Mom. My legal fees exceeded 30K. The "plenty of resources" failed me; I had to rely on the generosity of my family, support of my friends and one, fabulous, therapist (she was the 4th I'd seen, and finally someone who understood what I had been going through).
Although it's been an arduos process, every day I'm grateful that I escaped this marriage. Yes, I'll continue to fight to gain primary custody of our daughter.

May 7, 2011 - 9:34am
HERWriter (reply to Anonymous)

Thank you for sharing your story. Yes, to the outside observer there appears to be plenty of resources. Or, at least, there should be. It is particularly difficult if you don't have or have been completely shut out from developing a support system.

When you're afraid that your partner will even freak out if he or she reads and email and you've got a child to protect, things can be extremely complicated.

Glad you're still fighting. Don't give up.

May 7, 2011 - 10:14am

Thanks for this article, Darlene. I think some people have missed the point of your article. EmpowHer is a woman's health website and therefore I think you wrote this article with women who have been or are being abused in mind. That doesn't mean that men are not abused-- nor does Darlene say that in her article-- it is just that for this website and for writing purposes... her target audience is women.

There are many men out there who suffer from physical and emotional abuse from their girlfriends/wives/relatives/strangers so we hope that any men who may be reading this don't feel like they are being categorized or accused of being "bad" men just because of their sex.


May 5, 2011 - 12:21pm
HERWriter (reply to Rosa Cabrera RN)

Thank you, Rosa.

I did write a follow-up article about women who abuse, though, in response to the comments, to balance out the subject here: http://www.empowher.com/mental-health/content/wives-who-abuse-other-side-spousal-abuse

May 5, 2011 - 2:06pm

Aw 'Anonymous New', I'm sorry this is so pushed for you - I am a woman who was abused. My husband was abused in a former relationship as well. Have you ever been in an abusive relationship? I agree, we are all responsible for our own well-being but it is not as easy as 'just getting out' and that is the twist of all of this - there is a psychological component that often limits what we think we can do. It's a pretty broad sweep to categorize all women as manipulative and emotionally cruel, not sure how Mother Teresa would feel about that. Maybe the easiest way to look at it is that abuse, in any form, from anyone, in any capacity, is awful, cruel and shouldn't be tolerated. And I think all of us agree with that. Best to you.

May 5, 2011 - 8:18am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to kimromancorle)

I'm glad you responded to the person who claims you can just "get out". Marriage is a commitment especially as a Christian. I stayed married for 15 years dealing with emotional abuse by being psychologically controlled. I was angry at myself for always being so independant, yet when it came to my marriage I was extremely submissive.
There always has to be a pivotal point that makes the difference in a woman or a man to make that change. Mine is seeing how my son was being treated exactly the same way. How in the world can a parent ignore their child because they are mad at them when they are supposed to love them unconditionally?
I used to say how can you treat me that way if you are supposed to love me. Amazingly, no matter what I suggested in the way of counseling the person never accepted it. The end result is me finding myself again and them thinking there is nothing wrong with the way they live their life. It leaves a scar on your heart that takes years to repair.
I agree this can happen to man or woman as I have watched my brother deal with many hardships from his wife. I used to always think it was so much easier to leave than to stay, but that truly isn't the case. It is very hard to make a change for yourself especially when kids are involved.
I never wanted my son to have to be alone for weekend trips with his father when he was younger. He was traumatized too many times with episodes of temper tantrums from his dad. At least I could be there to protect him. When he was 10 I realized he could tell on his dad and that it was no longer up to me to try to keep a relationship between them. It would now be up to his father to change his approach and work on the relationship or he would destroy it.
Kudos for speaking on emotional abuse as it is just as damaging to the heart and minds of the spouse and children in the relationship.

May 9, 2011 - 8:29am
HERWriter (reply to kimromancorle)

Well said, Kim.

May 5, 2011 - 9:52am
EmpowHER Guest

I think the writer is irresponsible. A woman has responsibility for her own well being and if she is feeling degraded she has the obligation to get out. There are plenty of resources.

In my experience it is women that do the kind of damage the author has described. Women are by nature manipulative and emotionally cruel.

I know of dozens of men who have been destroyed by women in the very way you describe.

This is a dirty battle field but it is not only women as victim. I am not a victim and I resent the implcation that all women are victims of some variety. We are stong able people when we bother to take responsibility for our lives, loves, and pleasure.

Men are not "bad" because they are men. Stop perpetuating that flawed view. For heaven's sake take responsibility for yourself and quit whining.

I am a woman.

May 5, 2011 - 7:09am
HERWriter (reply to Anonymous)

Let me start this off by saying you are right. You are right that men are not "bad" because they are men. I never said that in my article and never claimed that point of view at all.

You are also right that women do the kind of damage the author (me) has described and that women are by nature manipulative and emotionally cruel... but I must step in and bring you back to the first point women are not "manipulative and emotionally cruel" and "bad" because of that just because they're women. I think that's really unfair and debases and demeans the real emotional damage that an emotionally -- and otherwise -- abusive husband can do.

...and that there are dozens of men who have been destroyed by women in the very way I describe. Right again, which is why following some of the comments obviously made by men both on this comment section and through direct correspondence I wrote a follow-up article on women who abuse.

You are incorrect though when you say "the implication that all women are victims of some variety". That was not my implication at all. My article was not written to say all women are victims. There are many healthy relationships out there with genuine love and respect between both husband and wife...obviously there are relationships out there that are working. But statistics show that there are up to 45% of men are emotionally abused and 46% of women, as well, probably in conjunction with other forms of abuse. You can't sweepingly deny these numbers and the reality of them and land the blame completely on the victims' shoulders whether husband or wife.

I also have to agree with Kim and say "getting out and stop whining" is not as easy as you claim. It's easier if you have a support system through faith or friends that shows you that you do have value and worth outside of that kind of marital relationship, but as part of the emotional abuse many husbands and wives control the situation so much that such interaction is not possible and a partner's self-esteem and self-value continues to be ground down. When you hear something long enough, you start to believe it and often the bad stuff is harder to believe -- regardless of whether or not it's true.

It's unfair to blame the victims. This last statement in particular reminds me of the attitude I wrote about in my article on blaming rape victims, where instead of placing the blame on the abuser or attacker, observers of the situation start looking for ways that the victim "encouraged" the attack or abuse, or placed herself in a position to be taken advantage of. Instead of encouraging women and men that their lives are worth more than this and that neither of them deserve this kind of treatment, you may just heap a whole lot of guilt on top of them that they don't need on top of the emotional battering they've already endured. Again they feel inadequate and failures because they let this happen to themselves.

Again, not what my intent of the article was. At some point a woman/man needs to recognize that she's/he's being abused, and summon the courage to be constructive in how she handles that situation. No one deserves to be treated that way, and she/he needs to find ways to take care of him/herself, particularly in light of partners who refuse to get help for their problems. Some problems can be worked through with proper medical and psychological guidance. Some can't, and it's a challenge to know precisely when that moment is and when a partner needs to just walk away.

May 5, 2011 - 10:16am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.