Emotional abuse in marriage is not easy for the victim to identify

18 Nov 2010

The way it works is simple enough to see from the outside: one partner criticizes, humiliates, blames, pokes fun at, and finds fault with the other.  The abuser disregards, and disrespects, their partner’s feelings.  The abused partner feels that something is wrong, but also shoulders the blame, and often feels that whatever happens must be their fault.

From the outside it sounds quite cut and dried: one partner habitually says hurtful things to the other.  How difficult should that be to identify?

It may be easy to spot, with the benefit of detachment.  But think about this: the abusive partner simply sees that his wife falls short of his expectation.  She lets him down.  She is a – constant – disappointment to him.  (Not all perpetrators are male, but for the sake of clarity let us stick with male perpetrators and female victims.)  He feels justified in visiting his anger on her, as often as he likes.

His wife is hurt, baffled, and demoralized.  She married this man.  She wants to do everything she can to make him happy.  Yet her efforts keep falling way short of the mark.

Of course, there is more to it: emotional abuse in marriage is something that tends to start small and grow.

Abusers choose a partner with care.  They want someone they can blame; they need someone who they can make feel small, in order to make themselves feel bigger, better, and more important.

But abusers are not stupid.  They know that no woman is going to sign up, willingly, for a lifetime of ill treatment.  At the start an abuser will be loving – he may even feel, for a short while, that he does love this woman.  However, his love is likely to be short-lived.  Frustration that she cannot be perfect and make his life perfect will soon set in.  And the abuse will start.

Emotional abuse starts in a small way.  An abusive partner will make hurtful remarks and then, when he has upset his partner sufficiently, he will apologize.  He will start saying the “L” word again.  His partner will be so grateful that she will do her very best to forget about the hurtful behaviours; until the next time.

As the couple become progressively closer, and the woman becomes more emotionally invested in, and dependent on, her abusive partner, the abuse will get worse.

Emotional abuse in marriage is likely to be worse than it was when the couple were just dating.  As the marriage progresses the emotional abuse will continue to become more and more serious.  The abusive husband comes to think that he has less and less to lose.  He is well aware that it will take his wife much, much more energy and strength to leave than it does to stay.  Especially if the couple have children.

The abusive husband practises a kind of brainwashing.  After a while, his wife comes to accept that a degree of emotional abuse in marriage is ‘normal’ – or, at least, normal for them.

The abused woman tells herself that her husband has a lot of ‘potential’ – he may not be nice much of the time, but he still could be wonderful, one day…  She remembers the good times – which may, or may not, ever have existed.  She pins all her hopes on how ‘loving’ he can be – or how ‘loving’ he once was.  She tells herself that he has a point: she is not really that lovable, or worthy, or attractive.  She tells herself that, without him, her life is over.

Emotional abuse in marriage is not taken as seriously as it should be.  People cannot fail to grasp the extreme seriousness of domestic violence, because that can result in serious physical injury or death.

The consequences of emotional abuse in marriage may not be that obvious to the naked eye.  Yet emotional abuse in marriage is very harmful to the psychological health of the victim, and of whole families.  It is very destructive.  It is simply a less physical form of domestic violence.  One person is using words to crush the spirit – and indeed the life – of another person.  The damage it causes can affect generations.  The children of an emotionally abusive marriage will, in all probability, go on to be abusers, or victims, themselves.

If your husband says things to hurt and humiliate you, if you are afraid of what he might say to you because of how small and worthless he makes you feel, then you are a victim of emotional abuse in marriage.

Nothing will change, until you change yourself.  Your abusive husband will not be overcome by remorse and shame.  Ever.  He will not finally ‘wake up’ to what a jerk he has been to you.  (He knows and he doesn’t care.)

You cannot transform an emotionally abusive marriage by hanging on in there, loving your partner, and hoping he will one day change.

Get out, get help, and get a life.  Sticking around and taking it, is just giving him carte blanche to treat you as badly as he chooses.


Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.

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