Today we wanted to talk about something really important that has been on our minds for quite a while. You know that here, at The Dating Divas, we are passionate about enriching and strengthening marriages. We are most known for our fun date ideas, romantic gift ideas, and free love notes. However, we know that many marriages are struggling and are in desperate need of much more than a little added romance. That’s why today we’re tackling the tough topic of…
Recognizing & Healing from
Emotional Abuse in Marriage
One of the things we love most about doing what we do is that we get to hear from you, our readers. We love getting your emails and hearing how real couples are improving, strengthening, and even saving their marriages. There’s just something so incredibly fulfilling about being even a small part of that. On the flip side, we also receive heart-breaking messages from husbands and wives who are struggling and suffering and desperate for help and advice. (In fact, it’s the whole reason why we created our Reclaim Your Marriage Program.) Recently, we’ve noticed more and more stories and questions from readers with signs of emotional abuse.
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This is a subject that has become especially dear to us, so we decided to write this post to offer support, hope, advice, and to set a few things straight.
First and foremost, while we totally support and encourage marriage, it’s important to recognize that the general marriage advice we give on our website is for couples in healthy, safe relationships. Once physical or emotional abuse is involved, it’s a different ball game.
As Sheila Wray Gregoire says, “In many emotionally destructive marriages, [spouses] have spent years reading marriage books on how to make their marriages better. They’ve tried everything they can get their hands on – but nothing works, and in fact, things often get worse, because the typical advice doesn’t fit.”
That’s so important to understand. Typical marriage advice doesn’t fit or apply to abusive relationships. I love the way that Leslie Vernick puts it in her book, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage:
“We’ve misdiagnosed a marriage that has terminal cancer and treated it as if it were only suffering from a common cold.”
We often talk about being more selfless and giving in marriage. You’ve heard us say that marriage is not about making yourself happy; it’s about making your spouse happy. We advise husbands and wives to work on improving themselves, not changing their spouse. We’ve encouraged couples to focus on forgiveness and not fairness. We’ve even told you to respond with love when you think “it’s not fair” or “I don’t deserve this.” Now all of this is still great marriage advice for a healthy, safe marriage. (Especially in the entitlement era that we live in.) However, it can be greatly misconstrued and even damaging and destroying to a spouse in an emotionally abusive relationship. Simply being more giving and loving and understanding can enable an abuser; solidifying their dominance and self-centeredness.
The problem, we’ve found, is that many people don’t recognize when they are in an emotionally abusive relationship. It’s so important to recognize that someone does not have to touch you to abuse you. We’ve all heard the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” It’s a lie! We don’t have to hit to hurt. Emotional abuse often leaves bruises and scars on the soul that last a lifetime.
Luckily, there is help and hope. The first step is to determine whether or not you are in an emotionally abusive relationship. As we’ve researched and studied this topic, we’ve spoken with couples who have gone through emotional abuse in their own marriages and asked them how they identified the problem. The same warning signs seemed to come up in almost every answer. Please read through the 20 warning signs below and honestly ask yourself if they apply to your partner. (Keep in mind that we’re not talking about one behavior, one time. Everyone makes mistakes. We’re talking about a regular pattern of consistent behavior. If you always feel like you have to “walk on egg shells” around your spouse, that’s a big red flag.)
20 Warning Signs of Emotional Abuse
Ask yourself if your partner….
- Has a habit of putting you down and constantly criticizes you.
- Name calls and uses hurtful words.
- Accuses you of being “too sensitive” and refuses to discuss how to improve your relationship.
- Corrects or chastises you as if you are their child.
- Says everything is always your fault.
- Blames their bad mood or unhappiness on you.
- Claims to always be right while you are always wrong.
- Humiliates you in front of others.
- Uses guilt-trips to manipulate you.
- Shares personal, private information about you with others.
- Gets angry or upset easily and overreacts to small problems.
- Hit, kicks, or smashes objects when angry.
- Demeans or disregards your opinions and feelings.
- Is possessive of you and isolates you from family and friends.
- Uses jealousy to justify their actions.
- Tries to control your spending, your social media use, your schedule, and/or even what you wear.
- Intimidates or threatens you.
- Withholds affection as punishment.
- Mistrusts and accuses you of infidelity, without cause.
- Sets rules for your relationship that only you have to follow; they don’t.
If you found yourself nodding “yes” to most of those, we highly recommend that you take our “Emotional Abuse Evaluation” at the bottom of this post. As you fill out the evaluation, take careful, personal note of how many you are answering “yes” to and how often these are occurring. Only you can truly know if you’re being abused and once you’ve completed the evaluation, carefully examine what you see in front of you and determine for yourself. (NOTE: This is also a great self-evaluation tool for abusers to use to recognize the patterns of their behaviors when they express a desire to change.)
Remember, it’s important to be completely honest with yourself when filling this out so that you can stop the abuse and heal. If you’ve been denying, minimizing, excusing, and hiding the abuse this can be a hard and scary step – but please know it’s worth it!
If you are in an emotionally destructive marriage, please know that you are not alone, and that there is hope and help available. While it is true that many emotionally abusive marriages lead to divorce, it is also true that many couples have been able to heal their marriages. Every marriage and situation is unique, and the decision to leave or stay should never be made lightly. (If you are religious like me, this is most definitely a matter to take to God.)
What Can You Do?
- Put your needs first. I know this seems like it goes against every piece of marriage advice you’ve heard, but when you are recovering from abuse, it is okay to stop worrying about how to please your partner and start focusing on what your own needs are. Chances are, it’s been a long while since you’ve thought about that.
- Refuse to accept behavior that is destructive and abusive! Set some boundaries. Let your partner know that it’s not okay to yell at you or call you names. When it happens, call it what it is and distance yourself. For example, “You’re yelling at me. I’m going to go for a walk.”
- Stay Calm! When your partner gets angry or calls you names, stay calm! Don’t get angry; simply refuse to join the fight. You don’t need to start offering apologies to calm your spouse down either. Just walk away.
- Recognize that you are not to blame and that you can’t “fix” your partner. It is SO important to realize and recognize that emotional abuse is never your fault. It’s also important to understand that you cannot simply change or “fix” your spouse. That’s too great a burden to place on yourself. Sure, there’s a lot you can do that will benefit yourself and your marriage, but ultimately it is up to your partner to change their own behavior. (If you’re religious, recognize that you cannot be your spouse’s Savior. Luckily, they already have one.)
- See a licensed counselor. A marriage counselor who is trained in emotionally abusive relationships can help walk you through your road to recovery and healing. If your spouse wants to change, go together. If your spouse refuses to go with you, go alone! (If you’re religious, make sure you find a counselor with your same core beliefs.) Support is SO important on your road to recovery!
Are you struggling in your marriage? Check out Diva Central for even MORE great ideas for working on your marriage!
- For Christian readers, we highly recommend reading Leslie Vernick’s book: The Emotionally Destructive Marriage: How to Find Your Voice and Reclaim Your Hope. Leslie has decades of counseling experience but we love that her advice is also biblically-based.
- You may also be interested in To Love, Honor and Vacuum’s post, “Ten Truths About Emotionally Destructive Marriages.”
- Focus on the Family also has a whole series about Understanding Emotional Abuse that is well worth the read.