This article is the first installment of a two-part series. Click here to read the second article.

While we recognize that men are also victims of emotional abuse, most of the victims we hear from are women, so we are choosing to focus on them in these articles. Please be aware that these principles apply to both genders.

Carolyn knew she had something to say, but she had to build up the courage to tell her husband, Jerry.

She finally told him that she’s been thinking about going back to school for further education.

"Why would you even think of that?" Jerry scolded. "You failed the last courses you took, so you’re obviously not going to make it this time. You’ll never last through the program, and we’re not wasting our money on that."

No punches were thrown in this conversation, but wounds were created. This wasn’t just a casual exchange; this is a classic example of emotional abuse in marriage. The sad thing is, spouses like Carolyn may have no idea they’re in an abusive relationship, let alone what to do about it.

What exactly is emotional abuse? How do you recognize it, and what do you do if you discover you’re in a destructive relationship? This month, we’re bringing you practical advice and insights from marriage experts to help work through these daunting questions.

What is emotional abuse?

Unlike physical abuse, emotional abuse has no visible symptoms and often is hard to detect. Because so many married individuals may not realize their relationship is emotionally toxic, it’s difficult to even find research that cites the prevalence of emotional abuse since couples can’t put a label on their circumstances. Here’s how a few institutions and organizations define this type of abuse:

  • "A person is verbally assaulted, insulted, yelled at, threatened or humiliated by someone close to them." – Fraser Health Authority
  • "Any treatment that may diminish the sense of identity, dignity and self worth." – Vancouver Coastal Health Authority
  • "Any behaviour that does not affirm or nurture another’s unique sense of self. Rather, it engages intentional and purposeful action to diminish a person’s identity and personal power." – Pauline Jewett Institute of Women’s and Gender Studies, Carleton University

While any form of abuse – e.g., physical, sexual or economical – is destructive to a relationship, an emotionally abused person can often feel invisible and insignificant. "Being invisible is almost harder to bear than having someone act aggressively toward you," says Karin Gregory, a registered counsellor at Focus on the Family Canada. "Physical abuse says, ‘You’re not worth it.’ Emotional abuse and neglect say, ‘You don’t even exist.’"

How do you recognize emotional abuse in your marriage?

In order to recognize that you’re in an abusive relationship, Gregory says it’s important to differentiate between abuse and conflict. "Conflict between spouses is part of life, and you need to have your own opinions," she clarifies. "Emotional abuse is an intentional dominance, a power dynamic that is chosen by a person who is using that behaviour in order to have power, dominance and control."

In a previously published article, counsellor Gwen Scott states that emotional abuse often goes on for years before any attention is given. "Women who are experiencing abuse are often unaware that their husband’s behaviour is abusive," she wrote. "These women secretly wonder if this is what all marriages are like, [and] they are too ashamed to admit to anyone what is happening."

In a Focus broadcast, author Leslie Vernick says to look out for physical signs that you’re in an abusive relationship.

"Your teeth are clenched, your heart starts pounding, your stomach is churning," she describes. "Your body is telling you that something is wrong. Every time you try to have a conversation like normal people do to resolve a problem or a conflict, it always becomes an attack on you."

In her book The Emotionally Destructive Relationship, Vernick writes that these symptoms may not seem problematic because they’ve become the norm. "Many of us are not even aware that the way we interact with someone or the way we have been treated is destructive. It feels normal. It may even feel like love. However, like termites silently invading a home, over time the evidence of destruction becomes undeniable."

This evidence can manifest itself in your own behaviour. Do you feel like you’re constantly apologizing for your spouse’s actions? Do you feel you need to change things about yourself to accommodate their demands? Gregory says that apologizing and self-blame are two of the biggest characteristics of an emotionally abused spouse.

"The mindset is, I need to change this about myself because it’s never good enough, it’s never measuring up," she says. "I displeased them again, so what can I do to fix it?"

What can you actually do?

Perhaps the most difficult part of this process is acknowledging the fact that you are a victim of emotional abuse, and that your spouse is being abusive toward you; this flies in the face of self-blame and apologies, which Gregory says can be terrifying. Even more terrifying, she says, is that Christian marriages are just as susceptible to this abuse as are non-Christian marriages.

"Someone may contact me [for counselling] and ask, ‘How do I become a better Christian wife? How do I become more submissive and loving to my husband?’ As we open up those questions, it becomes, ‘How do I fix this problem that he creates? The goal post is always moving, and I never know what the rules are.’ When we start telling the truth in that context, it can be the first time that person is telling the truth to themselves."

While what’s wrong in your relationship isn’t necessarily your fault, Vernick says that a constantly humble attitude may actually be enabling your spouse to continue in their destructive patterns.

"We want to be nice because we think that’s what God has called us to be," she says. "The problem is, when we aren’t honest with our own human limitations and we’re not honest with our own personhood, we [try to] become God for another person. When you’re blind to your own enabling, that becomes dysfunctional and destructive to both of you."

What does Scripture say about you?

Does the truth about your marital health feel too much to bear? Gregory recommends diving into Scripture to see yourself in the context of Biblical truth. "You may not be able to talk to anyone about this yet," she says, "but if you look at what God says about you – ‘I have called you by name, you are Mine’ – it can be a huge place to begin when who you are not is all you have been hearing."

Start with this small sampling of Biblical truths:

  • "For You created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well." (Psalm 139:13-14)
  • "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (Ephesians 2:10)
  • "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope." (Jeremiah 29:11)

What do you do now?

Even if you’re able to acknowledge that you’re in an abusive relationship and can see yourself in the light of God’s truth, you might need to consider seeking out a counsellor for an emotionally objective perspective.

"It’s scary to go to a doctor if you have a lump somewhere," Vernick says, "but if you don’t pay attention and you don’t know what you’re dealing with, you can’t get it fixed. In the same way, it’s really important that we open our eyes and allow God to show us what we need to see."

"The person being abused will have to ask themselves, what am I willing to live with, and what am I no longer willing to accept?" Gregory says. "If that person isn’t going to make changes, you can’t make changes for them, and you can’t make them make changes. But if you make no changes, you know what it’s going to be like because you’re already there."

In her radio broadcast message, Vernick suggested three practical steps for moving your marriage in a different direction.

  1. Speak up. Speak to your spouse with respect, but be honest and vulnerable, rather than keeping everything in and growing bitter and resentful.
  2. Stand up. Establish boundaries in your relationship. Stay in control of the situation and draw the boundary on yourself rather than your spouse. For example, if your spouse has road rage when driving, say, "Stop driving like that, or I won’t travel with you," rather than, "Can you please slow down when you’re driving?"
  3. Step back. If your spouse refuses to reach back and reconcile after you speak up and stand up for yourself, tell them that they need to respect you or that you will have to place distance between the two of you. If you feel this step is necessary but are unsure of how to proceed, please call us at 1.800.661.9800. Ask to speak with the counselling assistant who will arrange for a mutually convenient time for one of our counsellors to speak with you.

Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.

Todd Foley is on staff with Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2013 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.  

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