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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
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

What the hell.

I'm sorry but I don't agree with this comment at all.

As a child of divorced parents ALSO, your children WILL understand, eventually. Children of divorced parents have to grow up very fast. I never blamed myself for their divorce. I knew better. Unfortunately, I had to have an adult perspective on things at a very young age, and I saw it for what it was. Your children probably already see things in a certain way, we always assume children don't know what they actually do. They are such perceptive little beings.

If they don't understand, well, you know what you know. You know you were subjected to abuse. You know it was important for your sanity and health and wellbeing as a human to leave, that's all that is needed. You can be supportive and present for your children through a divorce, and yes you can choose to not bad talk the other parent.

Had my parents NOT divorced, I would have probably been subjected to witnessing even MORE abuse than I did. My father not only beat my mother, but verbally & sexually abused her, myself and my sister. She actually DIDN'T leave, not until he ditched her for someone 18 years younger than him, at the time a 19 year old girl who is now still married to him over 20 years later (who has also been subjected to serious physical, emotional and sexual abuse). My mother took this commenter's advice, staying because she felt selfish for trying to leave. She tried to stick it out and put her sanity & emotional well being second, thinking it would make my sister and I happy or better. Wrong. WRONG. WROOOONG.

You need to take care of yourself FIRST. As they say on airplanes, you put your air mask on first and then put your child's mask on. If you are not caring for yourself as a human, as a person, tending to your own value as an individual, you will NEVER be able to be the present mother you hope to be. Or more important, you will never be happy and whole, something you likely long for. Society has this f-ed up thing it does to women "children before you at all costs". I'm sorry, but it's not wrong to say "me first, so that I can take proper care of my child".

That is a load of bull that we don't live for ourselves and our happiness, but only for our children, and that she doesn't have the luxury of making selfish decisions. What the hell? It is our birthright to be happy, to treat ourselves with love, to live a fulfilled life. If that means leaving an abusive relationship, then by God do it. Most women who have lived in abuse NEED to be selfish.

As a now 30 year old, I know that my parents divorce (when I was 5 years old) was the right thing to do. My father is a narcissist, and my mother was a victim of abuse. I see it for what it is and what it was. Do I have a favorite parent? Yes, my mother. However my mother NEVER spoke poorly of my father, and never actually told us about the extent of the abuse until we were much older, and until we asked. She knew that my father would show us his true colors and he did, over and over again. I was able to see him for who he is. She actually made a huge effort to befriend my step-mother, the woman he was cheating on my mother with for a few years, so that my sister and I would be happy. I admire my mother.

Please don't listen to this person. It is not selfish, in any way, to value yourself and take action to end a cycle of abuse. It is not selfish. This is a load of crap.

March 23, 2016 - 6:40pm
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

Well said, Anonymous! What you said was absolutely true-

March 23, 2016 - 2:06am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

I don't agree on sacrificing your happiness for your kids.Sorry.
It's easier to keave the relationship when your kids are still little than. When they are older. I speak on behalf of my experience. Trust me. When your kids move out , what are you going to do? Keep sacrificing your happiness?. Leave now for the better. My parents got divorced for the same reason you are stating in your comment when I was 22 after I moved out . And honestly they didn't do me any favor by staying together. Now I am 30 and I very disappointed with my family. The only real people I can look up to are my grandparents. They have stayed together forever and never disrespected each other. Even though you don't fight with your husband in front of the kids as your kid get older They will start realizing that You guys are together because of them

March 14, 2016 - 8:42am
EmpowHER Guest

I've been in an emotionally abusive relationship for over 5 years and here is what a day in my life looks like. My husband:
- criticizes how I cook, clean the house, do the laundry, mother my daughter, spend money even though I am VERY frugal and spend little money on myself.
- he sits on the couch while I cook, clean and do laundry.
- quits jobs without discussing with me first.
- throws things out that are mine. He thinks they are "clutter" or not important. Some of these things are family heirlooms.
- wants my 15 year old daughter to be out of the house when he is home (he is a long-haul truck driver, so is away for days at a time) and he insists that I not talk to her on the phone when he is home - forcing me to call and text her in secret.
- NEVER asks about my day or my job.
- doesn't attend my family functions
- doesn't come with me to anything yet expects me to accompany him to everything from doctor's appointments to job interviews.
- disguises put-downs as questions. They usually start out like, "Can I ask you something?"
- holds anger just below the surface and I don't know when it will erupt.
- his angry responses are always at a level 10 out of 10 - he's never mildly annoyed - it's all or nothing. A counsellor once called it "bringing an elephant gun to a squirrel fight". So I walk on egg-shells never knowing when the next explosion will happen.
- doesn't touch me affectionately but expects sex when he wants. My sexual satisfaction is unimportant to him. There is NO physical intimacy.
- gives me the silent treatment for days on end.
- has threatened to leave me about 20 times in 5 years and move back to the province (we're in Canada) where his family is. Meanwhile our house has been in various stages of renovation which he started - which would make it difficult for me to sell it in it's unfinished state. (Don't worry - I'm working on getting it "market ready")
- belittles my religious and political beliefs, saying things like, "That's the problem with your church" (I'm a minister by the way) or "I can't believe you voted for that guy."
- calls my male peers "my boyfriends", saying things like, "did you meet with your minister boyfriend today? Is there something going on between you two?" Of course that immediately puts me on the defensive.
- he calls women "broads".
Each of these things on their own doesn't seem like a big deal, however, when you look at them cumulatively, it's pretty sad.
My husband is the victim of child abuse and that's sad, however, I've come to realize that by continually forgiving his behavior I am not holding him accountable and am actually enabling him to continue to be like this.
I am working on a plan to get out of the marriage because it is evident that he cannot change. His view of women and marriage roles have been engrained in him by unhealthy men in his life. I hope that my walking away can be an act of love and not punishment. I really hope that he can get well and find peace - but he doesn't get to do that at my expense and at the expense of my relationship with my daughter.
I pray for all you women who are in similar situations.

February 24, 2016 - 9:39am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

This is man is machista and doesn't value women. Move very far away from him and take your daughter with you. No one in this life deserves to be treated as inferior o mistreated in anyway. When you leave you will feel peace. Better alone than with a bad company. It's really scary when I see all these comments from different women it's so sad that most men today are psychologically disturb. And have this thought that women are inferior and aren't worthy of any respect

March 14, 2016 - 8:50am
HERWriter Guide (reply to Anonymous)

Hi karen! 

Good luck to you - you leaving is an act of kindness to you and your daughter. Pity he is only threatening to leave and doesn't actually do it.  I guess he thinks it pays to make you walk on eggshells all the time.  What an awful life.

You are right - forgiveness of his behavior is not the same as acceptance.  Get him out and make sure you know all your rights. 

Forgiveness and all that can come later and it needs to be done for you, not him. 



February 24, 2016 - 3:23pm
EmpowHER Guest

I have been married and remarried with my emotionally abusive husband since 1981. But it wasn't until recently did I realize what was really going on. My husband refuses to give me any affection except in front of the family he's the perfect husband around the adult children For years I thought if I looked better. Cleaned house better cooked better he would treat me better. Now I realize no matter what goes never going to be kind caring or concerned fir my welfare. I've recently have had some serious Heakth issued with my heart. A heart attack 2014 and two weeks ago chest pain that ended up in transfer from one hospital to a larger hospital that ended up in stents. He heft be at the first hospital after 2.5 hours. Then after & hours later I called him to tell him that I was being transferred by ambulance. For serious condition change snd thst the dr said I might have to have an emergency cardiac cath when I get there. So st 12:30pm I called him to tell him He got to the hospital at 2am. And was livid with anger cause the doctor was going to wait till the morning to do the cardiac cath. So here we are st 2 am screaming st each other cause he's so pissed st me. And I'm so angry that in 12 hours he never called to check on his wife to see how she is doing So he leaves me again. Guess home. So I go. Forthe cath that morning with no family. Andof course he never calls any ofthe four adult children thst live in the area. So when I wake up in recovery after having two stents putin my heart he's there. Went home the next day he had 12 people over fir my birthday. But then after everyone goes home I was expected to do all the dishes cook him dinner the next day. And do his laundry. He makes decent money. But only gives me 1565.00 per month fir the household bills. And I'm suppose to buy groceries out of that too. The only way I make ends meet is I have to use all my money from my pension to pay all the bills. Cell phone. Car insurance utilities there's nothing left for me. But yet he has hundreds in his wallet I've tried to discuss these issues with him and he just storms out goes to the bar snd comes home drunk. Sometimes he picks something out of the air to pick a fight so he can leave. He says the most derogatory horrible cut downs. A couselor hold me not to say anything. So last time I hid in the pantry But it's really hard not to try snd defend yourself He use to havemy self esteem in the gutter because I'm ugly I'm fat un attractive that's why my husband won't sleep with me touch me. He quit sleeping with me when I was pregnant with our fourth child 30 years ago. I know I need to see an attorney but I don't think I have it in me to leave my beautiful home and I'm not healthy with my heart at she 65. I'm scared to be alone. I would leave but all the bills except one are all in my name. Even the mortgage. If I leave I don't have the money to pay two households yesterday carting in a heavy box he hit me in the back of my leg. I said ouch of course he would never say I'm sorry. So today being on blood thinners ihave a huge bruise and lump on the back of my leg. I think when you take the time to write everything down it makes you realize how bad things are. Abd you think how can I live like this especially when you know these are very precious years that you are giving him snd after all the years of catering to hisevery whim. He's still gonna walk all over you like an old rug soon to be tossed away like a piece of garbage

February 14, 2016 - 11:20pm

I can see myself fitting some of the characteristics of an emotional abuser, but I do not punish. That is, deliberately wanting to make my spouse pay for the pain caused. Instead my actions cause unintended consequences or I go silent for lack of what to say. Sometimes I'm accused of being condescending when I speaking passionately about a subject. (Being condescending is nowhere in my thought process) My question, and this is NOT to minimize my behavior, is it possible that I am also a victim of emotional abuse? For example, my spouse will tell me what I'm thinking or what my intention is and then respond as if the accusation was true. There is no opportunity to discuss my thoughts or motives before I'm punished.

February 11, 2016 - 6:32pm
EmpowHER Guest

I am currently in an emotionally abusive relationship. For years my amazing family has asked me to stick up for myself and leave. I always defended his behavior because I thought I deserved to be treated that way, because he convinced me I did. Recently, I hit my breaking point as the abuse became more constant. I considered suicide and almost followed through. I believed what he told me, I was worthless, a bad mom, a horrible house keeper, and an even worse wife. Thanksgiving, as I bought the sleeping pills to kill myself with, I realized I needed help. On Monday, I went to the doctor and she put me on Zoloft. It changed my life. I started to see what was happening as though I was an outsider. I saw what so many had for so many years. I was just so depressed, I was blind.

After a good tongue lashing about something completely out of my control, I called my dad. I told him what had happened and asked what I should do. He told me to leave. I had heard it so many times but for the first time I realized that the pain of leaving was less than the pain of staying. So I cut myself off from my husband and started silently planning my exit. I spoke to him in single word phrases and took all the abuse for a week in silence. Each time it reminded me of why I was leaving. And then he (cause he goes through all my personal things) found that I was shopping for a less expensive car, and he finally realized I was going to leave. He begged me to stay. Admitted to the abuse (although he still says it started because of something I did) and vowed to change. Since then he has been a whole of a hell lot nicer to me, but he still tries to control me when he's insecure or when he's angry. I told myself when we started "trying" again that I would give him a full 3 months to adjust his behavior. After only 2 weeks, I'm considering leaving now. It's not like he did anything new or unexpected (just passive agressive manipulation), but I think that I can no longer trust him with my heart. I cannot let the abuse go. And even if he does change, I don't think I can forget. Anyone out there keep trying and actually succeed?

February 10, 2016 - 11:07am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

I've been there. I almost ended my life but I managed to get out in time. Getting out was so much easier than I thought and so much less painful than staying. The whole time I kept trying to change things, but it takes two. Think about if you were your daughter, what you would want her to do? What you advise yourself to do?
As badly as I wanted to change things, only 3% of abusers actually can and do change. I'm really sorry you are going through this, and you totally do NOT deserve it, you deserve way better whether it's with or without him. I've found so much happiness since, it's unimaginable. Please put your self-preservation foremost and remember you have a family that loves you very much.

February 23, 2016 - 2:33pm
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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.