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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.

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EmpowHER Guest

I have lived with a passive aggressive spouse for the last 26 years. Several years have been spent in counseling just trying to obtain better coping skills and work on my own issues. Your definition of abuse being cyclic in nature was eye openning to me and spot on. My husband is emotionally abusive and withholds affection and sex to lash out at me. My self esteem has definetly taken a hit. I love him and dont' want to leave him, but I am tired of being on the same roller coaster. I have recently started calling him out on his bad behavior. I don't know if our marriage will survive now that I recognize the driving forces behind our screwed up relationahip.

June 3, 2011 - 6:51am

Funny isn't it? We try SO hard - it took me YEARS to realize that no matter what I did, it would never be enough - no matter what I did to please, it was a useless effort b/c it was all about the cycle of violence /control. Sorry you went through that, it's painful to experience....

May 9, 2011 - 9:03am
EmpowHER Guest

Sex is also part of emotional abuse. I remember I had to be sexy all the time or I was afraid he wouldn't love me. I tried to be the perfect sex partner and if he even looked at another woman I took it to mean that it was because I wasn't good enough.

May 8, 2011 - 7:10am
EmpowHER Guest

Thanks for this article. Not only are the women victims in these horrible relationships but also the children that watch this occur. My "father" left many years ago now and I don't even remember his face...I have no idea what it feels like to be loved by a man, I am supposed to call "Dad".

The main thing I do remember is running to the bottom of the steps while I heard my Mother screaming, "Don't kill me" when I was in kindergarden and running to a neighbors house in my nightgown, shaking like a leaf while there was about 3 feet of snow everywhere (no shoes on). My eldery neighbors let me in their house and called the Police and ran over to the house to save my Mom from the devil. This was my Mother's Birthday.

Coming from a child of this sort of relationship, be brave women and never put yourself or children in this situation. There is always a brighter side.....believe me, I know.


May 7, 2011 - 9:22am
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
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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.