Emotional abuse in marriage is one of the hardest forms of abuse to recognize, but unrepentant patterns are the key to identifying it.
Sitting with her husband in front of their pastor, trying not to cry, Angela* spoke softly. “I’m worn out. I’ve been trying to please Jason* while also caring for our home and family. But I feel like nothing I do is ever enough. I just never know when he’ll be angry with me. When he is, he yells and then ignores me for days.”
Angela continued, “Three nights ago, Jason spent over an hour pointing out all the things I did not do that day.”
Jason interjected: “When I get home, I want things to be in order and dinner made. Instead, I come home to find you still in your pajamas and the house looking like a disaster area!”
Familiar with defending herself, Angela started to explain. “Hailey was sick that day with a stomach bug, so…”
Jason interrupted her. “You should hear your whiny voice. Someone devoted to their marriage doesn’t complain about caring for their children or use them as an excuse!” Jason was looking for the pastor to agree with his frustration, but instead, he was handing Angela tissues.
Jason’s criticism is harsh, and his words are deeply hurtful and unsettling. Is this just a typical marriage conflict, or is it something more serious? How do you recognize emotional abuse in marriage?
What is emotional abuse?
Emotional abuse occurs when one spouse habitually elevates his or her self-interest over the interests of the other. An emotionally abusive spouse seeks to dominate the other through patterns of nonviolent, yet coercive, punishing behaviors. All attention in the relationship is centered on the abuser and his or her demands.
But, a word of caution, emotional abuse is one of the hardest forms of abuse to recognize. Determining its presence cannot solely be determined by incidents of ugly behaviors including name-calling, blame-shifting, and yelling in anger. Sins like these occur in most marriages at some time or other. The difference is that, for most spouses who’ve acted out in such an inappropriate manner, they are moved by the pain they’ve caused and eventually repent. Again, emotional abuse in marriage typically involves ongoing, unrepentant patterns of coercion and control.
To decide if Jason is abusive to Angela, we would want to find out more about their marriage. Are his desires healthy ones or unreasonable demands? How does he respond when he’s disappointed? Does he have an ongoing pattern of ignoring and berating her when she doesn’t meet his expectations? Is she afraid to express how he hurts her? Looking for these patterns of coercive control is key.
Criticism and conflict
As the meeting with their pastor went on, Jason continued his criticism. “Angela’s always tending to the kids, but I have needs, too. I’ve put up with so much from her. I do not think she respects me.”
Angela tried to protest, “I respect you and see how hard you work.”
But he interrupted her again. “If you respected me, you wouldn’t question me. You’d take time to put yourself together and look decent.”
At this, the pastor finally spoke up. “Angela, I hear Jason saying some hard things. What’s that like for you?”
Angela hesitated, but Jason was quick to speak. “I have to say hard things, and she needs to stop questioning me. If she parented better, the kids would not take up all her time. She needs to step up and be a better wife.”
The longer we listen in, the clearer the situation becomes. Jason’s expectations are unreasonable, and when Angela doesn’t meet them, he has no regard for her circumstances and punishes her with shame and isolation. We also notice that he frequently interrupts and berates her, and she seems to be afraid of setting him off.
Is emotional abuse in marriage your story?
Do you resonate with Angela’s story? Ongoing crushing expectations and a domineering attitude from a husband or a wife are not God-honoring or acceptable behaviors.
If you’re experiencing this in your home, it’s worth taking an inventory of your marriage because the conflict you are experiencing might rise to the level of emotional abuse. Answer the following questions to get a better sense of the potential patterns developing in your marriage:
- Are you anxious around your spouse?
- Are you afraid to make your spouse upset because of his or her prior responses?
- Are you exhausted from trying to please your spouse?
- Are you told you “never get it right”?
- Do your spouse’s expectations repeatedly crush you?
- Does your spouse consistently complain that you’re a disappointment?
Emotional abuse in marriage does not always take the form of cruel words. Abusers use a variety of control tactics. Some tactics are aggressive, such as yelling, threatening, towering over you, throwing objects, or worse. Some are passive, such as lying, ignoring or sulking. Abuse may also take the form of creating confusion, “scorekeeping”, or discrediting you. No matter what tactics abusers use, they seek to coercively change your behavior so they can live the lives they want. Ask yourself, “Does fear of my spouse change the way I serve him or her? What am I afraid might happen if my spouse is unhappy with me?” God did not design marriage to be a place where you feel fearfully enslaved to your spouse.
A final thought
At its core, emotional abuse is a heart problem. Instead of following God’s design for marriage, where each spouse helps with the care and encouragement of the other, one spouse coerces the other so that his or her expectations and desires are met.
Thankfully, Angela’s pastor suspected emotional abuse and sent them for individual counseling. Why not joint marriage counseling? Marriage counseling is not recommended when abuse is present because the abused spouse isn’t free to share his or her experiences without risking further criticism and punishment at home. Initially, individual counseling is better suited to assess the severity of abuse and screen for a spouse’s safety.
If you remain unsure if what you’re enduring is abuse, please don’t wait until things further deteriorate. Seek out someone who can help you accurately discern your situation and help to address your concerns.
To find counseling, call Focus on the Family’s Counseling Department for a one-time free consultation at 1-855-771-HELP (4357) weekdays from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain Time). To find licensed Christian counselors in your area, search Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselor Network.
Keep in mind that male abuse in marriage is also a reality. To learn more about other types of abuse in marriage, and to access abuse assessments and tools to help victims of oppression, see Is It Abuse? by Darby A. Strickland.
© 2022 Darby Strickland. Used by permission. All rights reserved. This article first appeared in the October/November 2022 issue of Focus on the Family magazine as “Unrepentant Patterns.”