How to Identify An Emotionally Abusive Marriage and What You Can Do

Abuse can be a confusing term. In today’s society, some people call any behavior they disagree with “abuse,” while others seemingly see nothing wrong with actual physical violence.

In order to identify a true abusive relationship, it’s necessary to know what emotional abuse looks like.

Emotional abuse can affect both genders, and comes in varying degrees. A victim of emotional abuse may frequently experience unwarranted accusations, blame for their partners feelings of anger and insecurity, harsh criticisms, name calling, general disdain, threats, and distrust.

What Is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse happens when a person attempts to manipulate or control someone that they have a relationship with. Unlike physical abuse, where the method of control is violence, emotional abusers attempt to gain control by manipulating their partner psychologically.

It’s important to differentiate between a spouse that expresses negative emotions during times of conflict or stress, and a true emotional abuser.

If your spouse yells and loses their temper, or says things that they regret at times, that does not necessarily mean they are abusive. Every one of us has moments when we don’t handle things in a calm and collected way, and an expression of emotion is not always a negative thing.

True emotional abuse comes down to a need to shame and control.

While every situation is unique, abusers generally demonstrate some of the following behaviors: 

  • Frequent fits of screaming and rage
  • Ignoring their spouses feelings and accomplishments
  • Dismissing or mocking their spouses opinions
  • Publicly humiliating their spouse and putting them down
  • Acting jealous and possessive
  • Blaming their partner for things that aren’t their fault
  • Cutting their spouse off from contact with family or friends
  • Controlling finances
  • Instilling fear
  • Threats of leaving their partner, harming their partner, or harming themselves
  • Spying and monitoring the activities of their spouse

Effects of An Emotionally Abusive Marriage

Anxiety

An emotionally abusive marriage can have short and long term effects on it’s victim. Many survivors are left with extreme feelings of confusion and insecurity.

Other common emotions that victims experience are:

  • Constant Tension
  • Moodiness
  • Poor Concentration
  • Anxiety

Over the years, studies show that the long term effects of emotional abuse can cause:

  • Extreme Guilt
  • Low Self Esteem
  • Insomnia
  • Isolation
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Chronic Pain

Elisabet Kvarnstrom, writer at Bridges To Recovery, talks here about the effects emotional abuse can have on a person.

She explains, that whether in the short or long-term, abuse is damaging and it often leaves its survivors feeling helpless. Abusers create an environment that’s full of shame and self hatred, and these very emotions can cause people to remain stuck in an abusive relationship for years.

Even once free of the relationship, many survivors find their perceptions of them self and the world around them have been skewed by their toxic environment. Without a strong support system, these mentalities can be especially challenging to overcome.

Signs of An Emotionally Abusive Marriage

If you are unsure if you (or your spouse) fit into this category, here’s an example that may help you clarify what life in an emotionally abusive relationship looks like.

Denise is continually put down and criticized by her husband Joe. Joe doesn’t necessarily recognize that he is being abusive - he simply feels he knows what is best and right, and he believes that by belittling Denise when she’s “wrong” (according to his standards), that he will be able to control her behavior.

If Joe is unhappy, it is always Denise's fault. He’s quick to mock her and blame her, even in front of others. He cannot see any flaw in his own behaviors, therefore never takes personal responsibility in arguments.

If  Joe ever apologizes for going in to a fit of rage, he is quick to let Denise know how she could have prevented him from “having to” treat her the way he did. If Denise tries to stick up for herself, or defend an action, Joe is quick to call her crazy. This causes Denise to second guess her feelings, and sometimes she wonders if she really is losing her mind. After all, Joe is a great guy at times.

Joe often threatens to leave Denise, and regularly treats her with repulsion. It is common for him to withhold affection when he is upset, and he punishes Denise by being cold and silent for long periods of time.

Once, when Denise mentioned separating, Joe told her if she left him he would kill himself, and she would be to blame.

As a result of this cycle, Denise is left feeling secluded and constantly guilty. She believes that something is wrong with her, and she can never seem to work hard enough to fix it.

Denise’s low self esteem makes her stay with Joe, because she is sure that she could never be good enough for anyone else. She is also terrified of how Joe would react toward her, or himself, if she ever packed her bags.

A common tactic used by abusers like Joe is a term called “gaslighting.”

Victims of gaslighting are made to feel like they’re crazy when they feel wronged, like they’re lying about events that have taken place in the relationship, and that their feelings are completely invalid during any conflict.

Gaslighting leaves the victim feeling confused and guilty. They may even start to doubt their own sanity.

Emotional abusers can also be highly jealous and possessive. It’s not uncommon for an abuser to control what you wear, who you talk to, and where you go. They may accuse you of lying, flirting, or cheating on them, even if you have done nothing to warrant their concerns.

In severe cases, abusers may even threaten to commit suicide. These threats are another form of manipulation, intended to make the victim feel at fault, guilty, and trapped in the relationship.

While not always the case, it is not uncommon for emotional abuse to transition to physical violence.

What to Do If You Are Trapped In An Emotionally Abusive Marriage

The reason an abuser often tries to exercise control, is because they lack the tools necessary for real connection. They think that having ownership over another person will make them feel secure and less alone.

Abusers have extremely low self esteem, and they feel better about themselves when they cut others down. It is likely that the same abusive behaviors they are engaging in were modeled for them in childhood.

If you are just starting to see signs of abuse in your relationship, seeking counseling either personally or as a couple, is of the utmost importance.

It is also critical for you to understand that while you may be able to support a willing spouse who has abusive tendencies, they must be ready to seek change for themselves. You cannot do the work for them.

If you are trying to make your relationship work, you may try disengaging with your partner when they are demonstrating abusive behaviors. While you are never at fault for emotional abuse, it is possible that your reactions to your spouses manipulation may feed their behaviors more.

In order to disengage you must stop explaining, complying, defending, or empathizing with the reasons your spouse is finding fault with you. While these reactions may put the fire out temporarily, they are only allowing the unhealthy cycle to continue.

Instead, try to act as if the barrage has no effect on you at all. If your spouse is belittling you, shrug off the comments and remove yourself from the conversation. By moving your energy away from the conflict, you are taking away the power and control your partner has over you in that moment.

If this reaction escalates the attacks, if the abuse has gone on for too long and your spouse is unwilling to change, or if you’re concerned they may resort to physical violence, it’s time to make a change.

No matter what your partner wants you to believe, no one deserves to spend their lives belittled and with someone who regularly withholds love.

If your spouse won’t change, then it’s time for you to take action. This can be an overwhelming and scary time, and you will need to come face to face with some very real challenges.

The following steps can help walk you through your apprehensions:

Tell Yourself The Truth

Denying the severity of your situation is a necessary element when staying in an abusive relationship.

In order to move forward, it’s critical that you recognize the relationship for what it is - unhealthy.

Stop making excuses for your spouse. Stop convincing yourself that you need each other. Stop telling yourself that it will get better or that it’s not that bad.

The first step to overcoming unhealthy codependency is honesty.

Seek Out A Support System

Support System

People who have been abused usually feel ostracized from family and friends. Abusers prefer it that way.

If you are considering leaving your relationship, it is critical that you reach out to people you know you can trust.

Be honest with the people you love and share your story. Ask them to hold you accountable and to help you find a safe place to land.

Believe In Yourself

Your abuser wants you to feel small, crazy, and unworthy of better.

As you prepare to leave the relationship, it’s important to seek out voices of encouragement in your life.

When your friends, counselors, and family tell you that you are worthy of more, believe them. You are not alone, and you are not powerless.

Draw A Boundary Line

space

It can be very frightening to cut your spouse from your life, but it’s a critical step.

So many people let their partners talk them back into the relationship, even when no changes have been made.

It can be extremely difficult to shut the door on a person you have loved and spent your life with, but it is necessary in order for you to heal.

Even if you have hope that one day they will get help and there will be resolution, it is important to give definitive space to the relationship.

Your abuser is not your responsibility. They are capable of seeking help for themselves, if they so choose. By allowing your spouse to convince you to return on the false promise that they will change, you are only continuing to agree to their manipulation.

How to Cope With Emotional Abuse

If abuse has been a part of your life for a long time, it’s probable that you have put up a wall of protection around yourself.

This wall’s purpose is to numb your emotions about the treatment that you have been receiving. And while it is necessary for your survival during the years of trauma, once the abuse is over, the wall sometimes insists on remaining.

This mechanism that once served as a protection to you, can now prevent you from healing if it’s not removed. You may convince yourself that all is fine and good, but unless you can face your trauma and do the deep work necessary, you will be left feeling numb and void.

All of the “self help” in the world won’t be able to help you if this protective layer is in the way. Your true self, where you stored your pain away, will be out of reach.

The road to unpacking these defense mechanisms, and taking down these walls, can be tedious and hard. It requires great bravery, and it shouldn’t be faced alone. Seeking professional help and guidance can help immensely as you go through these processes.

Abuse changes people. But it is possible to let it change you into someone stronger, wiser, and more empathetic than you were before.

If you have spent any length of time in an abusive relationship, it’s critical that you start to learn how to love and take good care of yourself. The longer you have endured abuse, the longer it may take to build your self esteem back up to a healthy level, but it’s a worthy pursuit.

Perhaps right now your spouse has agreed to counseling, and you are both on the road to healing your relationship. Maybe you are preparing to leave, or have already left. Maybe you are just trying to identify the place your marriage is in, and the future is currently unclear.

Regardless of your position, it’s important to practice loving and forgiving yourself as you work to heal the wounds that emotional abuse has undoubtedly left you with.

Some methods that can aid your healing process are:

  • Individual counseling
  • Massage therapy
  • Getting regular exercise and plenty of fresh air
  • Journaling
  • Aromatherapy
  • Spending plenty of time with good friends and family members
  • Eating healthy
  • Getting regular sleep
  • Yoga
  • Reading self help books
  • Prayer or meditation
  • Making future goals
  • Joining a support group
  • Positive affirmations
  • Volunteering

Another helpful tool that may help your resolve to heal is a method called anchoring.

It’s common for abuse survivors to feel at times like their abuse wasn’t real. The mixed emotions and feelings of confusion they experience can be helped by “anchoring” themselves back to the facts of their situation. Anchoring, in this context, becomes a habit of reconnecting with the reality that was an abusive situation.

Shahida Arabj, author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse, talks here about how to anchor yourself to reality after abuse.

Arabj suggests that you keep a list of at least ten of the biggest abusive incidents or ten ways you felt especially degraded while in your relationship with the abuser. When you are tempted to check in on them, reach out to them, or respond to their attempts to win you back, this list will help ground and remind you why you left in the first place.

Recovering from An Emotionally Abusive Marriage

Recovering

Those who have experienced emotional abuse, and have not healed from it’s effects,  often have difficulty picking healthy future partners.

Perhaps a parent treated you in a negative way for so long that you began to identify their treatment as love. This mentality undoubtedly led you to pick your spouse.

Or maybe your abusive ex has left you feeling suspicious that real love could ever look anything like kindness, empathy, or respect.

A victim will often only see the positive aspects of a partner, and because abuse has become so second nature to them, they will be blind to the warning signs.

Even in the face of extreme violence, it’s common for victims to continually convince themselves that their partner has enough good qualities to make the union work.

Because of these tendencies, it is strongly advised that you seek professional help as you work to change your limiting beliefs, before entering a new relationship. You want to move forward knowing your worth, and with your eyes wide open, before you attempt a romantic relationship again.

Even once you are free from an abusive relationship, the path to healing is long and difficult. It is not uncommon for victims of abuse to struggle with feelings of resentment, numbness, anxiety, depression, and an intense need for approval.

As you go through these emotions, talk about them with someone. Recognize them for what they are, and know that a bright future is still possible as you put in the work to grow.

Whole Again author, Jackson Mackenzie, talks about life and hope after abuse in this article,

Jackson explains that after this kind of trauma, there are many lies in place that victims have believed. These lies can prevent healing if they are allowed to remain.

While no quick fix is available, the good news is that healing is completely possible. Gaining wholeness just requires lots of perseverance and patience. It may take much longer than you had hoped to see personal progress, but loving yourself and accepting yourself through the entire journey is the solution.

The recovery road can seem long, but it is a journey worth starting today, nonetheless. On days when you feel weak and filled with doubt, be gentle with yourself, and keep pressing on. Never again forget that you deserve healing, wholeness, and real love.

Michelle Mattison

Michelle Mattison 

I’m a homeschooling mom of four, married to a retired US Army soldier. We downsized to a travel trailer in 2016, and spend half the year in upstate NY and half the year adventuring all over the United States.

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