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Do You Recognize Emotional Abuse When You See It?

Do You Recognize Emotional Abuse When You See It?

No one wants to be labeled and I try to avoid it. However, there are times when being descriptive about certain behaviors is appropriate and even necessary to bring about change. Unless we fully face and address problems they cannot be resolved!

During a recent three-day Personal Intensive with a challenging man whose wife had insisted upon a separation, the topic came up about labels. 

“I hate it when she calls me abusive,” Jeff said brusquely. “How would she like it if I called her Borderline? I can tell you she doesn’t like it, but that’s what I do when she labels me abusive.” 

“Why has she called you abusive?” I asked. 

“Because she wants to control our relationship,” he countered. “No other reason. I’m no different than any other man. I’ve never hit her and never would, and that’s my definition of abuse.” 

“Do you think you do anything that might make living with you challenging?” I asked. 

“Of course,” he said quickly, trying to hide a smirk. “But like I say, having an opinion is not abuse and I’m tired of getting that label.” 

Jeff knew I had a lot of background information about him, having asked his wife to write to both of us about what it was like to with him. I had also asked him to come prepared on what he had been like in his marriage. She had described a longstanding history of mood swings, argumentative and angry outbursts and an extreme sensitivity to criticism that made living with him nearly impossible. According to her, he would either give “pushback” or withdraw and pout when he didn’t get his way. She had recently reached the end of her rope and asked him to leave their home, returning only if he received intensive help. Hence, his visit with me. 

I looked over at this somber, irritable 45-year-old man and wondered how to best respond. He stared at me, waiting for my response. 

“Jeff,” I began slowly, “many people think abuse is limited to hitting, but that is not the case. Emotional abuse covers a much broader range of behavior, including name-calling, intimidation, threats of any kind, or behavior designed to control another and protect one’s self. Most emotional abuse stems from being defensive that leads to shifting blame onto the person we find threatening. Do you think you do any of those things?” 

“Doesn’t everyone at one time or another?” he said sarcastically. 

“Good point, Jeff,” I said. “What I want to know is if there is a pattern of hurtful, self-protective behavior. I want to know if your wife feels safe in giving you feedback designed to help you grow and encouraging her to feel heard and valued.” 

Jeff sat quietly, looking at me. He already was showing signs of being defensive and prideful, lacking readiness to own weaknesses and receptivity to change. 

“I know it is hard for you to consider yourself abusive,” I continued. “It would be a hurdle for anyone, however it is critical to own the label if it fits. We can’t change what we don’t own, and most of us have blind spots about our hurtful behavior. Let’s talk about the impact of your behavior, whatever it is, on your wife. You’ve undoubtedly noticed how she responds to your actions.” 

“She starts crying or walks away from me,” he said. “She tells me she won’t talk to me and that really upsets me. She seems like she has gotten more depressed over the years. It’s hard for me to think I’m the cause of any of that.” 

“I suspect she walks away because you have flipped the conversation to being about you instead of truly listening to her, owning the hurt you’ve done to her. Do you think you fully attend to her?” 

“I can’t listen when she is so upset.”

“Yes,” I said. “Listening is hard when she is upset with you and is critical of you. But again, you are not going to change what you don’t own. She needs to feel free to speak with you about difficult topics!” 

Jeff and I settled into talking about his marriage and the struggles that led up to her asking for the separation. We talked about his defensiveness and anger, and underlying sadness and fear that he might lose his wife. 

I reminded Jeff of our model for how to approach our wives—that of Christ—“he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8)

The more he talked he gradually let go of some of his defenses. He began to see that the only way to win his wife’s heart—which is what he wanted to do—was to look critically and clearly at his life. 

First, emotional abuse is a broad issue with far-reaching consequences. Emotional abuse is an epidemic in marriages today. It is not limited to physical abuse, but includes emotional power and control. The impact on the victims of emotional abuse includes anxiety, depression and a wide range of physiological problems subsequent to stress.  

Second, emotional abuse is damaging to a person and marriage. No person or marriage can withstand the ongoing trauma of emotional abuse. This “crazymaking” behavior is extremely debilitating and victims suffer “death by a thousand cuts.”  

Third, emotional abuse is fueled by denial and enabling. Emotional abuse is rampant where there is denial and some form of enabling. Denial serves the abuser by allowing them to continue to perpetrate harm while believing they are doing nothing wrong. The victim of abuse often is confused, frightened and at times even experiences “brain fog.” Paralyzed, they are often threatened not to take decisive action.  

Fourth, emotional abuse rarely stops without intervention. “There can be no breakthrough without a breakdown.” Intervention—taking decisive action against the abuse—is necessary to obtain the professional help that can bring an end to the abuse. 

Finally, emotional abuse can stop and be replaced by healthy relating. With decisive and significant intervention many abusers will ultimately get help. They will often resist help initially, but at the risk of losing something important to them, such as their marriage, they will often get help. With depth, intensive help, change is often possible. 

We’d love to hear from you. Are you living in an abusive marriage? Would you like help in learning how to bring about an intervention? We can help. Please send responses to me at and also read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on our website. You’ll find videos and podcasts on emotionally destructive marriages, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.


Publication date: August 8, 2016