Facebook Pixel

Emotional Abuse: The Invisible Marriage Killer

By HERWriter
Rate This
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

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
HERWriter (reply to Anonymous)

I am the author...and, no, I'm not saying at all that women are the only victims of emotional abuse. It most certainly does affect the children. There is no possible way to address every aspect of emotional abuse on every member of the family.

Some of these emotional abuse problems are already addressed in other articles on this site.

Since the majority of the audience of this website is women who have been abused or are being abused, the article was written from that perspective.

I'm actually rather surprised at the vehemence of some of these comments. There's no harm in asking a question, but the tone that comes across is very angry and kind of misses the point of the article.

Nevertheless, I will write a follow-up article investigating women who abuse. Statistics support that the majority of abuse happens to women by men in their lives, but there are definitely women who have emotional/control issues themselves that they need to address because they are abusing their husband's and families...and may not realize it.

April 24, 2011 - 9:45am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Darlene Oakley)

Hello Dear Author:

I am the one who posted the first comment....

I am sorry you were rather surprised at the vehemence of some of these comments...

I didn't intend on offending you....or your audience.

My comments rather to just bring to light my questions...

I do however understand that your writing in a womans journal and for the perspective of women..I would just ask that next time you would add a blurb or two to just state that "something like this can also happen to men" and that "we also need to take into consideration the children involved."

Thats all I wanted to point out. I am sorry if I have offend you our audience.

April 24, 2011 - 1:03pm
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

ditto,mt son and daughter have both asked me why i failed to reconize the abuse my wife has committed over the past 40+ years. they have both resolved some of their damage via counseling. my personal physician of 2 decades asked circa 5 years ago how things were and after telling her she
referred me to a counseler who stated that my expectations of marriage
were irry reasonable and i should never expect to realize in my marriage to my wife. why is there no literature fore men who are in the opposite situation than the gender specific situation in this article?

April 24, 2011 - 8:12am
HERWriter (reply to Anonymous)

You're probably right about there not being many resources out there for men who are being abused. But there's no denying the reality of the issue in this article either. I think addressing the question as you have completely misses the point of the article. It is not saying that this doesn't happen to men, but is trying to make it clear to women who are in that situation (and perhaps men, by default - because there's nothing to say that women who abuse don't use the same tactics) what emotional abuse is.

This is a primarily women-oriented site, which is probably why most of the articles posted are writing for women. But it certainly wouldn't be taking the article out of context to apply it to women who abuse their husbands and keep their families hostage.

As the disclaimer with the article states, articles often reflect the experience of the writer. I know you don't mean to take away from the effects and pain the writer has experienced through their situation. But by not mentioning emotional abuse of men specifically, this article certainly doesn't mean to take away from those men and families who are being abused themselves.

I will be writing a follow-up article on women who abuse. This is an area that really requires it's own article space and wouldn't fit under the context of this article.

Someone also implied to me that my expectations in my marriage might be too high or unreasonable. I don't think it is unreasonable at all to expect our spouse to treat us with love and respect and kindness...unfortunately with all the abuse in our world many women may not recognize that their attitude and behaviors are affecting their families.

April 24, 2011 - 9:57am
Enter the characters shown in the image.
By submitting this form, you agree to EmpowHER's terms of service and privacy policy
Add a Comment

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.