Emotional Abuse: The Abuse Beneath Abuse

This is a very frank article concerning emotional abuse towards women.  Sadly this is a reality that is all too common in our nation today.  Allan

Abuse in the context of an intimate relationship involves a persistent pattern of behaviors. It is not simply a mistake, an isolated incident or a sudden loss of control. The husband, who engages in this style of relating, misuses his wife for selfish ends and violates her dignity and self-determination. While he may not intend to be abusive, he does intend to achieve the goal that motivates all forms of abuse: to exercise power and to control.
Physical abuse can leave bruises, break bones and cause various permanent, structurally based impairments, like hearing and memory loss. These observable signs of impact signal the need for healing, assistance, protection, and safety. In contrast, emotional abuse is characterized by invisibility and great subtlety. It leaves no obvious mark that would call attention to injury, danger or the need for intervention. Its impact, however, is insidious and Barbara W. Shaffer pervasive as it perception, cognition, identity, and the woman’s very soul. Although abuse comes in varied shapes, sizes and intensities, every form, as we will see, has an emotional component.
*Definition*
What exactly is emotional abuse? Emotional abuse is, foundationally, an attitude of entitlement and profound disrespect that discounts at every turn the inherent right of the other person to dignity, separateness and autonomy. The other person is seen, therefore, as only a contemptible object. Out of entitlement and disrespect spring the various overt behaviors that use anger, violence and/ or contempt to induce fear, guilt and shame. The other person is thereby controlled, punished, or demeaned.1 For example, one husband defended his history of spraying his anger all over his wife in various ways because of “marital privilege,” (i.e. – that’s what she was for and he had the right to do it). In addition to the blatant manifestations of emotionally abusive behaviors, there are those that are more covert and subtle, such as oppositionalism, irritability, unwillingness to be pleased by anything, indifference and refusal to engage in the relationship with good will. All of these exert power and control by negatively impacting the atmosphere of the relationship. There are no prevailing feelings of acceptance, peacefulness and safety.
*Consequences*
The effects of emotional abuse are cumulative and increase over time. The main attack is on her sense of self—who she is and what she can do. Self-esteem and self-confidence are typically worn down. She is confused about what is real and true. Is she who he says she is? Is she stupid, lazy, a failure as a wife? Can she make good decisions? Are her perceptions correct? She also engages in self-blame and turns her anger inward. There is often depression and the accompanying lack of concentration and motivation. She feels helpless, hopeless, worthless, unlovable, and very anxious. Sometimes she is angry about the injustices anddisplaces her anger onto others or onto God.
If the relentless barrage of negative messages from the abuser takes root, one of the fruits produced is increased dependency on the abuser because she believes she is an inadequate, incompetent person. Blaming herself and her deficiencies, she will tend to minimize the abuse, excuse the abuser, and even accept her suffering as what she deserves. What is real and true has faded away, and lies have taken root.
*Forms*
Every type of abuse has an emotional component. For example, physical abuse, whether it is in the form of pushing, slapping, punching, restraining or barring her exit from a room, obviously creates fear and shame, even terror. Behaviors that carry the atmosphere of violence, such as punching the wall, throwing things or driving recklessly to scare her, also generate fear, anxiety and dread, as they may be the precursors of physical abuse inflicted on her. Emotional abuse is inherent in physical abuse.
*Marital sexual abuse* demeans and corrupts the most physically, emotionally and spiritually intimate relational experience a husband and wife can have. She is treated like a sex object who is there for his convenience. She may be awakened roughly for sex; sexual parts of her body may be physically attacked; unwanted objects may be inserted into her vagina; or her breasts may be brutally squeezed until she says or does what he wants.
Forcing sex is emotionally, as well as physically, abusive! Instead of growing out of the spiritual, emotional and relational unity of the couple, sex that is forced represents the selfish, entitled exercise of power and control. If she is also forced to perform sexual acts that she believes are immoral or that are disgusting to her, that humiliating violation of her principles has the effect of breaking her psychologically and demoralizing her at her core.2 The shame that results permeates her view of herself and her value like a relentless cancer.
*Verbal abuse*, or using words as weapons, is another major means of exercising power and control and creating fear, guilt and shame. Like brainwashing, words that are demeaning, blaming, harsh and attacking wear down the mind and spirit. Criticizing, name-calling or “joking,” especially in front of others, create shame and embarrassment. Particularly heinous is “gas lighting”—the effort to manipulate situations and then deny the manipulation.
For example, a woman could not find something she had carefully put in her jewelry box. Her husband told her that she had never had that object in her possession. She later found it in a box of nails on a shelf in the back of the garage. A similar tactic is history revision—the denial that certain events took place or the insistence that certain events did take place. These latter two types of verbal abuse create intense feelings of confusion, along with the fear that she is losing her mind.
Emotional abuse is inherent in verbal abuse. Moreover, since words usually precede and accompany physical abuse, words can become an emotional substitute for battering. So if criticism used to signal the onslaught of a physical attack, critical words generate fear of an attack and thereby alter her behavior and emotional state as though she had been hit. Though he may have stopped hitting her, his words have an immediate, controlling impact on the emotional level.
*Financial abuse* is another form of maltreatment that has an emotional component. What usually happens is that money is tightly controlled and financial decisions are made unilaterally, by decree, without meaningful communication. For example, if a woman is required to “turn in” all the money she earns or “turn in” money given to her as a gift or inheritance, and then she is given an “allowance” or she must ask for any money she wants to spend, she is being treated as though she were a child. Or she may have to account for every penny (literally) she spends at the grocery store every week. She may also be kept in the dark about financial matters that concern her and her future (investments, retirement plans, savings), or her name may be kept off the deed to the house or other assets. Decisions concerning how much is spent on what and when are typically made without her input.
*Time control* is a final area where there can be a pattern of emotional abuse. Time is similar to money. Must she account for every minute of her time? Does she have minutes or hours “given” to her to run errands or attend Bible study or do the grocery shopping? Are there complaints, whether subtle or overt, about how much time she spent or how she spent her time? Is she criticized for wasting time by having to go out to pick up the dry cleaning today because she forgot to do it while she was out yesterday? If she has no choices and must give an accounting for the minutes of her day, then her dignity, autonomy and separateness are dismissed. Instead of feelings of support, empowerment and competence, there is only fear, guilt, humiliation and shame.
In all of these situations her dignity and autonomy are dismissed and replaced with demeaning control. Instead of feelings of security and safety, there is only fear, guilt, humiliation and shame.
*Corruption*
Like all sin, abuse in the home, in all its varieties and subtleties, is an equal opportunity destroyer. Some of the costly impact on wives has been clearly shown. Husbands reap alarming consequences as well. If, as Peter said, a husband’s fellowship with God is hindered when he is not understanding toward his wife, how great must the spiritual impact be when he is abusive with her? Every time a husband chooses to use his strength, power and authority against his wife, instead of for her benefit, his heart is further hardened against the Holy Spirit, and sinful attitudes are further solidified in his character.
Children who live in the tension-laden atmosphere of an unsafe home, witnessing and experiencing abusive attitudes and behaviors, are impacted in many ways—fearfulness, low self-esteem, post traumatic stress, etc. It is not unusual for female children to become involved with abusive men as teens and adults and for male children to become abusive men themselves. Spiritual confusion is another troubling effect that is created when children routinely see a parent exhibit pagan relational behavior at home, and then switch to pious behavior at church. Only an evil tree can produce such fruit. When Jesus said that causing a child to sin was an offense worthy of death, was He merely being dramatic or does such a drastic punishment reveal how grave the offense is in the eyes of our Lord?
The Body of Christ is also greatly wounded by the private sin of such abuse. When there is any kind of infection anywhere in the body, the whole body is weakened systemically. Abusive behaviors, and the damaging emotional abuse that underlies all of them, are such an infection. Harboring those who should be counted among the oppressors withholds the medicine, and sometimes surgery, that would free the Body from the insidious, debilitating effects of this evil. To practice, ignore, minimize or privatize the sickness of abuse is to weaken the heart, hands, feet and glory of Christ in this world.
*God Heals*

May the God who hates evil find the Church faithful in practicing and promoting a deep, abiding commitment to live in a way that reflects and honors the character of Christ. Let us submit to His scrutiny and lordship in not only our overt and public behavior, but also our private behavior and attitudes. And let us diligently seek from Him the courage and compassion to cross the sacred threshold of marriage and family to stand for the oppressed, intervene on their behalf and bind up their wounds.
_Barbara W. Shaffer, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist who has a special interest in trauma and abuse issues. In addition to her private practice, she also works with Diane Langberg and Associates. Endnotes 1 B everly Engel. (2002). The Emotionally Abusive Relationship. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2 Judith Herman. (1997). Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books._

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25 Responses

  1. I came to this web site by noticing a Favorite on my wife’s computer while saving a web site on acne for her. I am floored. I have done several of these things, mostly in the past, but the emotional abuse is occurring now. I had only a vague sense of it until I saw the specifics in this article. I think I actually decided to do it without knowing what it was or what it iscalled. I think the physical actions were out of frustration. I know, admit and make no excuse that these actions were and would be absolutely and devastatingly evil. I believe that they may cost me the enternal life of my soul.

    Now here’s the major surprise: my wife has been doing these things to me perhaps for a much longer time. Kind of a chicken and egg development is my initial impression.

    Here is a fairly recent example. In December 2008, I went through a profound depression; losing my will to live. During the first day that visitation was allowed, My wife said, “I love you but I’m not in love with you.” Being emotionally exhausted due to the breakdown, I was devestated by this and within a couple of days lost my will to live.

    During my slow recovery at home and when I began venturing out, complete with agroraphobia, etc., her statements of her feelings for me became more and more negative with daily threats of abandonment, until, sometime in 2010, she said, “the truth is I despise you.” She has stated many times that my depression is not real. She has also balked at driving me to medical attention when I experienced a the pain and dehydration of a textbook major kidney stone attack, calling it an attempt to get her attention. It was in a sense, but I couldn’t drive. She relented only to avoid the cost of calling EMS. The existence of the stone was confirmed by CT; I have a copy of the scan for anyone to see and verify. The second one, a few months later, wasn’t as painful and I was able to drive myself. The doctor chastised my because it could have turned disabling quickly. My follow-up scan showed a third stone forming. I dread that day. So, is her not helping me out a form of physical abuse? Does her denial of the diagnoses amount to rationalization and thus make what is perhaps physical into the “lesser” emotional abuse?

    I had had a very similar breakdown in 1985. My dad stayed with me and through his kindness and nuturing, was able to nearly entirely rebuild myself in less than a year. This time, in 2 years, I am maybe half way there and am stalled and maybe anchored. I am missing my own life.

    We had started having family therapy in 2006 due to domestic violence, requring police intervention. I was fine with this, as I wanted to air our history and issues for resolution. After a while, the therapist, over a few sessions, went through our family one by one, exploring each of us in depth. When my wife’s turn came, she refused to continue visits. The therapist told me that it would be substantially ineffective to continue without the entire family present. I went to individual therapy.

    Our relationship now is very unbalancing. I want desperately to put back together whatever is possible; she refuses even church-offered couples retreats; today’s is because she rather go grocery shopping. It’s a 2 hour retreat plus a 2 times 20 minute drive.

    Basically, I provide about 2/3 of our income; we live comfortably. Her schedule parallels the school schedule of our 15 year-old youngest child. I’m 62. She wants me to take on a mortgage to buy a house in a “better” neighborhood. Our neighborhood is lower middle class. We live a little above middle middle class. I’d rather be safe and without a mortgage. I’ve paid attention to economic cycles and was prepared for our country’s economic crash.

    Our relationship is based on enjoyment of sex together, my providing economic resources and she not leaving in return.

    This is so sick. I’m doing what I can without the direct help of others. I’m glad I got nosy when I saw this Favorite; I wasn’t snooping, I promise.

    Please offer constructive comments. I need some ideas. Divorce is the obvious, but won’t happen at least until our youngest is through college in 7 years, when I’ll be 69 and she’ll be 55.

  2. Craig, Thank you for dropping by and sharing. I’m in no way qualified to offer up advice but I do want to mention just a few things.

    The first is that your salvation is not dependent on you. Your salvation was secured when you entered into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

    The physical violence you mention is a red flag and must be addressed so that your wife knows you will never touch her again. You owe her that.

    I would take care of what I could control. That would mean getting the help you need so that your wife can see you are becoming a new man. That will take time.

    There’s a lot going on from what you describe. I will pray for you Craig.

  3. Craig, praying for you and your wife.

  4. Craig,

    The issues you describe are well beyond the ability of a blog or even most pastors to address.
    If your wife will not co-operate in counseling, there is less hope of positive resolution.
    Based on what you have said, there has been no foundational friendship established in the relationship and that’s the point where I would start working.
    As Erunner has said it’s imperative that you work on yourself and get both psychological and spiritual counsel.
    Do what you can do for yourself and your children and take it one day at a time.

  5. Craig,

    I hope you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior (Romans 10:8-10).

    I personally can’t imagine life without THAT, much less give you hope.

    Second, do you have ANY men of God in your life, say from your local church, you could talk to? If so, THEY are likely your greatest resource. Talk to them IMMEDIATELY!

    You know them, they know you (to some degree) and you should know if their life adds up or not. The anonymity of the internet, in my opinion, won’t help as much as ONE REAL relationship.

  6. erunner, Nonnie, Michael, and james t kirk, thank you for your prayers, comments, and ideas.

    I understand the limits of a blog and the need for being face to face for the best available human communication.

    I believe that Salvation is only by the Grace of God. I also believe that sin separates one from God and His Love. We have called that separation “hell” and given it vivid imagery. I very much wish to be able to (re)realize these things just prior to returning to my sinful ways.

    james t kirk, I do have a question regarding men of God at church. Are you referring to the ordained or the laity? Also, I am not familiar with the meaning of, “if their life adds up or not.” Thank you.

  7. Craig, I believe you are wrong on your idea of hell. I agree with your statement when it is applied to the state of the non believer. It does not apply to the believer however.

    1John 1:9 states that if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness. John 3:16 states that whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.

    Much more could be said on the topic but I hope you see my point.

    “I very much wish to be able to (re)realize these things just prior to returning to my sinful ways.”

    I am not understanding what you are saying with the above statement. Hopefully you could clarify.

  8. erunner, thank you for your response.

    To try to clarify per your comment, “I am not understanding what you are saying with the above statement. Hopefully you could clarify.”

    In the instant prior to an angry retort, I wish that I had the ability to pause to think of the weight of what I am about to do. It’s as though no time passes betwenn the moment that I understand a provocative comment and I jump into rage.

  9. Craig, Thanks for explaining. I think all of us would like the ability you describe as we can hurt those we love badly with our words.

    You mention how you “jump into rage.” Given how you have mentioned past physical abuse I have to think this is terrifying for your wife, wondering if you might cross that line from verbal to physical.

    I hope and pray that you can overcome the anger that seems to be pent up within you. Allan

  10. “james t kirk, I do have a question regarding men of God at church. Are you referring to the ordained or the laity? Also, I am not familiar with the meaning of, “if their life adds up or not.” Thank you.”
    –Craig

    I would say that content of their character matters more than their title. I am a minister, but I KNOW that we as a class of people can sometimes be MORE full of crap and ourselves than “laity.”
    Matthew 23 speaks of these things.

    Odds are nearly certain you know SOMEONE who is a Christian who life “adds up.”

    That is to say, they are “normal”, not weird not “religious;” if they have kids, they treat them well and it shows. They are not hypocrites or overly “preachy.”

    They pay their bills on time most of the time, the closest neighbor who doesn’t know Jesus still thinks they are a decent person and they wear clothes that someone could find at a store nearby.

    There are alot of guys who sound good on the radio/tv/internet but I don’t trust ‘em much more than I can throw them; show me their house, their kids and let me walk through a grocery store with them when the mask is off and I can tell you much more about them.

    Craig, God bless and have a great night.

  11. Thank you folks for your posts. They are sensitive, kind, and helpfulI, giving me some ideas, which was my initial request. May God bless you.

  12. Is it verbal abuse when you tell your husband not to curse at you…like saying the F word when he is angry at you? Or saying F You? I think it is highly unacceptable! He’ll apologize, only to say it again later on. He is a “recovered” alcoholic…about 10 years now. His attitude still hasn’t changed though…he’s still the same cursing, angry, bitter, controling man he was then. If he doesn’t get his way, then he simply pouts or he uses the silent treatment as his control weapon. He’ll retreat into his world…it’s a dance between him and I, I’m tired. I love him with my whole heart. How can I want to punch him in the face one moment (of course, I never do or never will), and then want to get close to him the next (which doesn’t last too long because cursing at me doesn’t exactly foster closeness or wanting to be touched by him)? He DOES have a low self esteem and he did come from a background where he was emotionally, physically, and mentally abused and I feel really bad about that…I did too…but I don’t go around abusing others because of it…I think he uses it as an excuse…I’m tired of it. I’m tired of feeling drained by all the good I do, the ignoring the bad behavior while the anger in me builds up till I can’t take it anymore, then I say something I regret…only to look like I’m the one with the issue. It’s crazy time around here half the time. I’ve prayed till I’m prayed out…I’ll keep praying but there’s a time when prayer only gets so far…and then it’s up to the one your praying for…hence choice. I only pray that the Lord convicts his heart…I do believe he will but when?????? I’m wearing out and wearing thin here!

  13. Sonny, It sounds as if this has been going on for many years. You have every right to expect that your husband would not use that type of language towards you. It’s demeaning and has hurt you greatly from what you’ve shared.

    It would be a good thing if you both could see a marriage counselor to try and improve things. If he won’t go maybe you could see one by yourself??

    I am not a counselor and am slow to offer my opinions as the last thing I want to do is make a bad situation worse. With your permission I will add you to the prayer list. God bless you Sonny.

  14. Sonny,

    As your husband appears to be negative towards professional help, you might try social help. Exposure to the environment that you think is acceptable could influence him to be more like it. This could take many forms, such as socializing with a couple or group or simply going to a place where strangers exhibit respectful behaviors. During those times, you also will feel safer. Perhaps subtle and gradual changes in home decor will also foster respect, through the use of color and texture.

    Sonny, I am praying for you now.

  15. Hi everyone

    I have come here looking for help, hopeful of someone offering some guidance on how to manage my husband. We have been together for just over 2 years, and I am starting to feel like I dont want to be with my husband because of the way he speaks to me. He constantly criticises, argues, challenges and contradicts me. He takes digs at me all the time, and then says ‘only joking’ as if to excuse the behaviour. Examples – if I start speaking, he will walk away, or look at his computer and not give me the respect of his attention; he criticises me saying that I talk too much; he will ask what I have been doing, and if I say cleaning, he will say something along the lines of ‘well i havent been there to make a mess so what have you been cleaning?'; the house is spotless, but he will criticise me in front of other people because I havent ironed his clothes; I recently went to a HUGE effort for his birthday – put up balloons, streamers, arranged dinner, house was spotless, dressed myself up and we had guests… he never thanked me or appreciated what I had done – only had digs at me in front of our guests because I forgot to get candles for the cake I had specially ordered for him… – I could go on and on and on with examples.

    I feel REALLY sad – I actually feel a huge sense of loss and grief that I have SO much to offer and I am being treated so disrespectfully. I appreciate my husband – he works hard to provide an income so I can stay at home and raise our child and I really do think underneath that he is a good person. He does many kind things for me, but our relationship is being totally undermined by his lack of respect for me. I take my marriage vows seriously and have put in SO much effort, but I feel emotionally abused and can feel my self confidence wearing away. The more he continues the more I feel like I am letting go of him and the idea of us having a beautiful happy marriage. Am I a fool for believing marriage could be beautiful and wonderful?

    Do men like this continue to be this way, and what do I have to do to sort it out? Is he likely to become worse over time? How do I get around the ‘only joking’ problem? I am tired of defending myself against him. I have never argued with anyone in my life before meeting him and now find myself arguing back to defend myself and I have never been like this before (he does his best to provoke me). I dont want to become like him by saying nasty things back because I am not like that, but I feel he is pulling me into his world of darkness and negativity.

    Your thoughts, prayers and comments are appreciated, thanks.

  16. 1 Peter 3 (or my faulty interpretation of it) kept me in a submissive relationship to an abusive man for 17 years. The more I submitted the more abusive he became. I cried out to the elders at our congregation and was once again given…1 Peter 3! Eventually I turned away from God, got a divorce due to his infidelities (but secretly glad that I finally had a “decent” excuse to escape!).
    Because I had my back turned on God I became involved with a very intelligent functional alcoholic who TOLD me at the start of our relationship that I am the abuser’s ideal plaything and that I would tolerate any form of abuse he threw at me. For the next four years I suffered until my children’s psychiatrist hospitalised me and “forced” me to leave him. I spent months working on healing and finding God again.
    Through Jesus Christ I found healing and then He brought a man into my life. A true man of God – a leader, a protector and a friend! My new husband adores me and I submit willingly and eagerly to his leadership – not because I must, but because I CAN trust this man.
    My children will always bear the scars of the abusive men in our past, but now God is bringing healing through my husband who understands that a man’s role is to be Priest, Prophet and King to his family. Dinner times are special as the five of us sit around the table and laugh and share. I now measure our family’s emotional health to what is happening every evening around the dinner table!

  17. Thank you for your story. It gives me hope.

  18. Nicollete, Thank you for dropping by and posting. My desire has always been that this blog might be a place that would give someone that dropped by some hope when it was in short supply. Hoping the best for you.

  19. this is me all the way , all my children are grown up ,but my son,and I have problems with him.I don’t want him to turn out like his father ,what do I do , I know it is not to late to help him, please god give me hope.

  20. I need all the help I can get to get out of this relationship,I can’t do it any more, already had a heart by pass.

  21. Debbie, My internet has been down for a few days and hopefully it’s up and running tonight. I apologize for my late response.

    I am sorry for the circumstances you describe and pray the best for your family. I am not qualified to offer counsel but if possible maybe you can receive some sort of counseling for yourself that is sound.

    The above comments offer some wisdom so maybe reading them might offer you some encouragement. Thank you for dropping by and having the courage to share as you have. Allan

  22. Thank-you Allan, I have my good days and bad days, I have been praying forgiveness,for thingsthat I have been having a hard time letting go of ,and it seems to help ,just known that god is there for me.If you don’t mind I will be stopping in and talking a little about what is going on,it gives me great pleasure just known someone is there that is listen to what I have to say.I also have a friend that will go to all-anon with me and she has children,so I think that will help all of us.Thanks for getting back to me.Sincerely Debbie

  23. Debbie, You are welcome to comment at any time. God bless.

  24. I thought this gave me a deeper understanding of what I experienced and what im to do in my healing process because I just left a relationship of bondage.

  25. akeethia, Thank you for dropping by and I hope you are able to find healing for what you have experienced. God bless.

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