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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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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

Thank you for your perspectives, Kim, and for sharing your story.

Verbal abuse can be just as degrading because the words used are not kind. It's a great challenge to battle what your mind has grown used to hearing. It's a greater challenge to stand up to that and say, I am worth it. A lot of times we may not fully believe it, yet, it's just the start of the journey to rediscover the value we know we have that has been stomped on and pulverized by someone else.

Hope things are good for you now, Kim.

May 2, 2011 - 4:24pm

As an abuse survivor, I appreciate your article and understand the angst from some of the readers in regards to the fact that abuse is not selective, abuse is abuse is abuse - men, women, old, young, rich, poor, etc, can be the victims of this dreaded controlling behavior. WIth that in mind, I must comment on the note that verbal abuse is 'visible' - I did not experience this and none of my clients have either. From my seat, verbal abuse is an insidious as emotional - most often verbal abuse is conducted in private and there are no witnesses to the behavior. I often told my ex-husband I wish he would hit me so others could see my pain. As you noted, the cycle of violence with all of the controlling behaviors is at the core of the issue - it's about control and dominance. Additionally, I did not get my identity from my marriage, in fact I made more than 3X what my husband made and was ready to leave, it was the combination of the children and the fact that I wanted to try as best I could to 'fix' or 'change' my ex-husband that kept me in place. This was indicative of how damaged I was, I doubted what I knew to be right, and it took all I had to leave, knowing it was the best decision for me and for my children. Any article, any gesture, any effort put in place to help raise awareness is a good thing - thank you for your insights -

May 2, 2011 - 3:43pm
EmpowHER Guest

I am a man and today is the 7th anniversary of my marriage to a wonderful woman. We have our share of issues. In my opinion, most stem from a lack of communication and resultant misunderstandings.

Is it considered 'abusive' when you or your partner chooses not to share honest emotions and feelings with their spouse, or simply an unintentional personal issue with communication skills?

I perceive myself as a respectful communicator; however, I may well be the 'cause' of my wife's lack of communication of her honest feelings to, or about, me. My point is that there may be no intent to abuse the other; however, due to a lack of communication, breakdowns in trust, intimacy and simple everyday interaction suffer - recurrently.

I try not to blame my wife for not choosing to communicate her true feelings, but rather encourage her to open up and share what she is experiencing with me so I can be better aware how she feels.

As other men have written here, silence cuts both ways. Depression can lead to remaining silent and not opening up, trusting or allowing oneself to be reached. That is painful to the partner who genuinely cares for their spouse - husband or wife.

As you stated in the article and in your responses, there are many intertwined factors involved in some of these situations. They can be abusive in the classic sense; however, I believe just as often there are several underlying issues conflating which lead to a mutual loss of closeness and all that results from that situation.

April 26, 2011 - 7:44am
HERWriter (reply to Anonymous)

I would not classify not sharing honest emotions and feelings with a spouse to be emotionally abusive on their part. It is hurtful, yes. But it is often a sign of fear on her part.

And it may not be clear why. Maybe she doesn't know how to put what she's feeling into words. From a woman's perspective, sharing what you're really feeling makes you feel really vulnerable, and some of the more sensitive issues are more for "girl" friend time, not necessarily husbands. It's nothing against you, in that instance, just the way our woman psyche works.

I wouldn't say you're the cause, from what I can gather from your message, but perhaps there was a male figure in the past who wasn't as receptive to those feelings. Or, perhaps, when the feelings were shared all she got was "Well, you shouldn't feel that way. Don't be so silly." Or something to that effect.

It's hard to tell though from this side if this is a symptom of her being depressed or just the way she's learned to function. It will take a lot of love and understanding from you to break that cycle she's fallen into. In the meantime, definitely keep the lines of communication open. Let her know that her silence worries you, and you're concerned for her, that keeping these things inside will eat away at her, and just keep reassuring her.

Many women grow up with people not believing or being interested in what they feel, and so they learn to keep things to themselves to keep them from being hurt.

If this seems to happen all the time, it may not be a bad idea to seek marriage counseling, to help you both learn to communicate better between you. Statistically speaking, the 7th-year mark is usually a pivotal point in a marriage, and the first 7 years are the toughest on a marriage because there's an adjustment period of learning to live with the other person and learning to incorporate two lives together. People don't realize before they're married how much work this entails. There is certainly no shame in asking for help. It shows that you really want this to work and are willing to do it.

In broaching the subject with her though avoid making it sound like this is her issue...but "our" issue. There is nothing "wrong" with her, or you or the marriage, but "you" want to make sure that "you're" doing things "right". For a woman who may have been betrayed in the past even such a seemingly simple thing as communicating real feelings may finally find a safe outlet. Keep reminding her that you're committed to her and to the marriage. It sounds like you love her very much, otherwise it wouldn't hurt so much that she doesn't confide in you.

If she doesn't have any "girl" friends, it would be great if you could foster that kind of interaction for her. Encourage her to go out. As I said, there are certain things that only other girls can understand, and that may also be a good source of support for her.

Hope this helps.

April 26, 2011 - 10:53am
EmpowHER Guest

nice article, but what about the man in the marriage....

this article focuses on how this impacts the woman as the victim....

does the author contend that it is only the woman within a marriage that is a victim? does not the author think a woman is capable of being the one hurting the marriage causing harm to the husband and the children? why cant the husband be the victim? I think this article needs to be revised to address the fact that ANYONE in a marriage can be a victim ....this includes the husband...and what effect this also has on the children

April 24, 2011 - 6:46am
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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.