How Do You Know if You’re in an Abusive Marriage?

by | Aug 24, 2017 | Abuse, Bare Marriage, Resolving Conflict | 28 comments

How do I know if I'm being abused?
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How do you know if you’re being abused?

One of the hardest parts of blogging is reading so many heartbreaking emails and comments that come in from people in truly destructive marriages. I find myself wondering, why do people treat each other this way? And even more importantly, why doesn’t anyone help?

But one of the best parts of blogging is meeting other people and growing relationships. And one of those women is Natalie from Emotional Abuse Survivor. Natalie and I have been online buddies for quite a while, sharing stories and ideas. I even interviewed her for one of my books! She recently changed the focus of her blog to emotional abuse, and I asked her to write a post for me on the signs of emotional abuse. I’m thrilled to be able to share this with you today, because I KNOW that this is going to open some people’s eyes and put them on the road to healing.

Here’s Natalie:

The Signs of Emotional Abuse: How to know when you're in an emotionally abusive marriage (and what to do about it!)

She wondered if she was going crazy. All she ever wanted was to be a good wife and mom, and she gave her marriage and home all the love, energy, and support she had inside. But something was “off” in her marriage.

No matter what she did, or how hard she tried, she felt like a failure. They couldn’t seem to resolve conflict unless she took full responsibility for everything, including what her husband did, and beg forgiveness for implying he might have done anything wrong.

But wasn’t she supposed to be humble and give up her rights?

Oh, sometimes things seemed fine. They could be okay for days. Sometimes weeks. But then things would begin to fall apart, usually after she had to ask for help, or if she gave him feedback about something she felt was important. This seemed to upset him and turn everything upside down again.

But didn’t all marriages have their ups and downs?

She learned to pick her battles carefully, because once he was upset, she had to endure a tirade of accusations and condemnation. The silent treatment. No favors or help for a while. She felt bad if she wanted to go out with a friend. He would say little things that made her feel guilty for abandoning her family and forcing him to take care of the kids.

But wasn’t she supposed to lay down her life and serve her husband and family?

Sex was horrible. She couldn’t have an orgasm even though she read books about it and prayed for help. She couldn’t relax. He made little comments about her body and her behavior in bed, and she felt ashamed and stupid. When they had sex, he did it and got it over with. She wanted him to. It felt impersonal and disgusting. He complained about her inability to “get into it.” There was no emotional connection.

What was wrong with her?

The burden of parenting alone most of the time was starting to break her down. She was getting short with the kids. Exhausted. Burnt out. When he would start in on her, she’d fight back now, saying sarcastic things she regretted later. He would point out what an angry, bitter woman she was. Unforgiving. Disrespectful. He’d tell her “everyone” agreed with him. She had problems.

She began to hate herself.

He was a good man. He was faithful to her. He took the family to church. He read his Bible every day. In fact, he knew the Bible so well, he could pull out Bible verses to support his various observations of how bad she was. She would weep in church when they sang songs about the grace of God. She wanted to feel that grace so badly, but most of the time, all she felt was the condemnation of her husband—and God too—because didn’t God speak through the authorities in her life, like her husband and church elders?

She was pretty sure God was disappointed in her failed efforts at creating a happy, peaceful home for her husband and children. She often locked herself in the bathroom, crying in hopeless desperation on the floor. Begging God to help her be a better woman. Begging God to forgive her. Begging God for some reason to keep trying.

What happened to the woman she used to be, before she got married? She couldn’t remember. Her small-group leader at church told her that marriage would bring out the ugliness hidden inside. So anything good she was before must not have been real. All along, she must have always been an ugly, stupid, angry, failure of a woman. Her marriage just brought that out, and she must be the kind of woman who couldn’t get her act together.

She wanted to die.

How do you know if your relationship is emotionally abusive?

Is there an imbalance of control in your relationship where your partner erases you or treats you as “less than?”

Does your partner withhold communication and affection in order to control your emotions and decisions?

Does your partner refuse to take responsibility for their actions and attitudes in your relationship by blame-shifting, denying, justifying, and minimizing their behaviors?

Does your partner use deception to control you? This would include gaslighting (saying things didn’t happen when they did), withholding information, mixing truth with a little lie, and creating doubt and confusion in you.

Does your partner use verbal bully tactics to shame, intimidate, and destroy your self-worth?

Does your partner isolate you by withholding finances (financial abuse) or keeping you from building relationships with others outside the immediate family or controlling when and how those relationships operate?

Does your partner disrespect your boundaries? Are you allowed to say “stop” or “no” without suffering emotional and verbal consequences?

Does your partner overvalue their contributions while undervaluing yours?

Does your partner tell you how you think and feel instead of allowing you to think and feel for yourself?

Are certain topics off limits?

Does conflict get swept under the rug, never to be resolved?

Does your partner give orders or manipulate things to go his way?

Is trying to solve your partner’s problems and manage their emotions all you can think about? Do they steal your attention from everything and everyone else, including God, so that your focus is constantly on them? Are they the center of your confusing, painful world?

Do you have a desperate sense of having died, somewhere deep inside?

Emotional Abuse is an Epidemic in Many Religious Circles

Sheila’s got this awesome blog for women where she helps us reach our highest potential as wives so we can have fun, fulfilling, joy-filled relationships. But she recognizes that not every woman is married to someone who wants to work together as a team toward that goal. I’m so glad she not only reaches out to women in normal marriages, but she also wants to help women in abusive marriages.

When an abusive spouse uses the Bible or God to back up their abuse, they are spiritually abusive.

And when churches and church leaders use the Bible to support the abuser and come against the abuse target by pressuring her to reconcile, they are also emotionally and spiritually abusive.

Emotional abuse is an epidemic in conservative Christian circles where there is a built-in belief system that says men are supposed to be in a power-over position related to women. For some men who respect and honor women, and in particular, their wives, these beliefs don’t affect their marriages on any practical level.

However, for the rest of the population, this belief feeds into the underlying attitudes as well as subtle and not-so-subtle behaviors of men toward women. The practical outcome of such attitudes and behaviors is the destruction of women and children from the inside out.

Emotional abuse is particularly rampant because it flies under the radar and is hard to prove. Women in emotionally abusive relationships can be significantly affected by a simple glance, gesture, or slight change in the tone of voice of her abuser—things that would never be noticed by anyone standing near. Even if you did point it out, others wouldn’t believe it was abusive, not knowing the inside, chronic history of the couple.

This is why, when Christian women do come forward to disclose emotional abuse, they are most often not understood or believed. All their husband has to do is present his “innocent” side of the story (which discounts the woman’s experiences and feelings), and church leaders and others all too often dismiss her story as a hysterical, ungrateful wife’s dripping, complaining spirit. Surely it is she who is the real problem in such a marriage.

And of course, the abuser enthusiastically agrees.

So the hidden abuse continues, unchecked, until the woman finally gets to the place where she is falling apart physically. Emotional abuse targets, if not treated, will eventually present with physical ailments including heart palpitations, panic attacks, gastrointestinal issues, anxiety disorders, depression, self-harming behaviors, migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, auto-immune disorders, thyroid disease, and other hormone imbalances.

Emotional abuse is physical abuse of a genius, covert kind.

It has been the most prevalant attack on the female gender throughout history, and it is supported and encouraged in our churches all across the world in the name of God. What a tragic twisting of Scripture. What a slap in the face of Jesus Christ, Who modeled true love and respect for both men and women, equally.

“There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Galatians 3:28

What You Can Do About Emotional Abuse

If this doesn’t sound like your marriage, that’s terrific! You are fortunate to have met and married a good partner. Many people marry in their 20’s, before they’ve had a lot of life experience. It’s a gamble in many ways. Abusive partners may not present as abusers in the beginning. There are several red flags to look for, but many young people have no idea these signs should be taken as serious deal breakers. Emotions have a way of getting in the way of reason.

Here’s what you can do, though. You can bookmark articles like this and websites like mine in case you suspect a friend or family member might be experiencing these things in their marriage, and you can share them at an appropriate time.

You can educate yourself on what emotional abuse is. I estimate that for every five couples in your church, one or two of them are emotionally abusive. And that’s a conservative estimate. Be ready to help them with support, information, and most importantly, VALIDATION. These people are not lying. They are often scared to death to tell someone for many reasons. They’ve got a long journey ahead of them (find out the six stages to healing), and they need someone in their corner.

But what if you ARE in an emotionally abusive relationship? What can you do? Here are some ideas:

  • Learn about the abuse cycle and how your relationship fits into that pattern. There are several high quality websites out there ready to help you figure this thing out. I’ve got some listed on my own website along with some video and book recommendations. Knowledge is power, and much of it is free on the Internet.
  • Begin interacting with fellow survivors who are a little bit ahead of you on the journey. They will be your greatest cheerleaders on the way. They have been where you are, and they know all the pitfalls you’re facing and will face. You know those wagon masters on the Oregon Trail? These women are like that. They are coming back to walk alongside you, answer your questions, and bind up your wounds.
  • Start detoxing from the false teachings about men and women. These beliefs aren’t love-based, Christ-honoring, or building to men and women as a whole. (So much to study here!) It may take some serious rewiring of your brain to start seeing things clearly.

Emotional abuse survivors are some of the most empathic, honest, hard working, intelligent, problem-solving, persevering, responsibility-takers on the planet. I’ve worked with dozens of them, including doctors, business owners, teachers, and nurses. Abusers often select warm, flexible, shining stars to eventually control and suck dry.

The woman at the beginning? She went through some grueling steps, but she got out, and now she is strong and coming into her own.

About the Writer

Natalie is a homemaker, mother of nine, business owner (Apple Valley Natural Soap), writer, and life coach for Christian women exiting destructive marriages. Find her at


Let’s talk in the comments: Have you seen this dynamic in friends’ marriages? Or even your own? How can we help each other? 

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Flo

    I wish there were some Psychology classes as part of the regular high school curriculum: everybody should learn how to recognize at least Narcissistic Personality Disorder…

    • Natalie

      I agree! If people were educated in how to spot this kind of abusive treatment from the beginning, there would be fewer destructive marriages. Our churches need to get involved, and our church leaders need to get educated as well.

    • Tracy

      This is one of the best articles on covert, emotional abuse that I’ve read. Thank you

      • Natalie

        I’m so glad it was helpful!

    • Heather

      What I’ve learned from 39 years of marriage to a covert narcissist is that someone needs to get to every kid graduating high school and explain to them that they have to heal their childhood trauma before going out in the world. Triggers are everywhere. One day you marry, but no one ever told you that if you don’t heal your trauma, you’re bringing this with you for the rest of your life and guess what, your partner is coming with all of their baggage, trauma and issues too.
      (The only reason I said high school was because of maturity level. This might be too young also, but I can dream! 🥰)

  2. Vanessa

    I have been struggling in a marriage in which I have changed and become a better person through counseling, my husband has remained the same..wont seek any counsel for his past.
    I have no respect for him…his Idea of a husband father is working….he has never been a leader and cant take advice..even though his business is failing and we just pay bills….I have never been able to fully trust him, intimately, financially, or emotionally. He has never hit me or verbally abused me…he is very neglectful …cant get anything around the house done….unless its a major crisis… I am 59 and if I left….I do not think I could make it financially.
    I feel between a rock and a hard place.

    • Natalie

      If you choose to stay, you may benefit from learning some “staying well” skills. I like Foolproofing Your Life” by Jan Silvious.

    • Julie

      I understand exactly where you’re coming from. All my husband has ever done is work. He shows me no love and cares nothing about my feelings. He gaslights. I have never been number one. He puts our daughter above me and never stands up for me. I don’t know how I would make it financially either!! Pray for me.

      • Robin

        Julie, I understand completely. My husband shows me love, but it’s his kind of love. My grown children treat me hateful and so does my son’s fiancé. The fiancé has the upper hand on my son bc they have a child together and he don’t want her to take off w him. What is love? What is respect? This weekend he allowed my some to holler at me and sd the f word to me many times, my husband never sd a word. I have gave and gave to help them and they never say thank you. I am on disability and yes I can’t make it financially. I just turned 50 on March 26th. This past weekend got really bad. I researched for places in our area to go to but I found nothing. I don’t want to commit myself bc my children wld never let me see my grandkids. At the end of last year I researched grandparents rights for the state of La. bc I want to see my two grandbabies. If I seek medical help for my emotions, they will never let me see nor b alone w them. My children have blocked me on FB so I can no longer see pics of them. I let my son’s fiancé borrow my car after she blew the motor up in hers and we had drive 6 hours to go get her bc her family wld not, and she kept it for 1 1/2 years, which was not my intention, a couple months maybe but not for 1 1/2 years. I let her borrow it bc she was pregnant and it wld have killed my soul if something wld have happen to her and she couldn’t get medical help. If I had sd something it wld have been WW3. My son never bothered to help w ins. or anything. My son told me that it was never discussed just how long they cld keep it. She wld come n once a month bc she is a diabetic and she wld bring the car to use and tell us that it needs a oil change or new tires, etc…my son was on the pipeline, he’s a welder, and made REALLY good money. His job site was in Pecos, Tx. which is abt 12 hours from here. While she was out there, she totaled my car. They never offered to pay for the deductible or anything. They never offered to pay the ins. either while they had it. He went out and bought a used big f350 , and the transmission went out in it when they both came home for Christmas. Who payed 10,000 for it to get fixed. Us, the parents. We also paid for the wrecker to take it to a shop 5 hours away. We did not know that when they came home he bought a travel trailer from her uncle for 15,000. Then when that job played out, they came home and lived w us for 4 months, they never bothered to help w anything. I cld not get her even to sign up for food stamps for them or WIC for the baby. I finally had enough and kicked them out bc I cld not take it anymore. When I did that, my husband has hated me every since. While I was still working, I gave her 100.00 every time she went back out there after she saw the dr. My sons truck broke dn 2 months ago and he called David,husband, to borrow my truck, he sd yes. He came over this weekend and I asked him abt her adding me to her friends list and he sd she sd no. If I can’t see my kids or grandkids, what do I have? Nothing!! Bc my marriage has been a on and off thing for abt 3 years now. I’m tired! I have always been the giver. David keeps saying, she’s young show here respect and that will teach her how to b respectful. I woke up this morning very numb, like I love nobody!

  3. Christina

    I go thru this and he has also cheated. And talked bad aboit me to people. I don’t understand how a man can be so cruel to the mother of his children. I married him when I was 18 now I’m almost 36. Living in hell.on antidepressants. Been children keep me going but he has made me feel so weak that I feel stuck in this love less marriage. He has told me he doesn not love me he told the last woman he had a affair with that he loved her. We never kiss. He told me that she loved his kisses.he has hurt me in so many ways. Please pray for me thank u.

    • Natalie

      I’m so sorry. Have you called an abuse hotline? They help women who are going through emotional abuse as well as physical abuse. Just Google domestic abuse hotline along with The nearest large city.

    • Phil

      This article cut me like a knife. Vanessa and Christina. Your share cut deeper. As a man who endured pain and sexual abuse in my early teens. I turned out to have the qualities and patterns that are described. I participated in many of the types of abuse described as the abuser. I can tell you that I did not sign up for it. I just didnt know any other way. For that I am sad and very sad for you. By the Grace of God I am not wven close to being that person today. I am so glad you shared here. May God help you make the stand. Stop the cycle and find Love. Peace to you.

  4. Lydia purple

    I think one of the reasons so many people don’t recognize abuse or put up with it is that much of mainstream parenting is basically based on controlling children and demanding obedience from authorities. Often kids are not allowed to question authorities and they also are told to shut down their feelings. If they are upset about our rules they get punished for showing their feelings. They are told that adults know better.

    Society doesn’t respect children as people, if they voice their preference or draw a boundary by saying ‘no’ they get scolded and their opinion is overwritten. Especially in conservative circles where obedient training is so prevalent.

    If we would respect our children, if we would respect women, if we’d respect all people as people abuse wouldn’t be as widespread. But we overwrite a healthy self respect from the very beginning by demanding obedience often through physical force or emotional manipulation tactics… So we create both, victims who don’t know how to draw a boundary when abuse first reared it’s ugly face and abusers who get away with it. It’s sad.

    • Jackie Jones

      Just imagine an already emotionally abusive marriage and then have to stand by and watch your child be abused under the scheme of spare the Rod and spoil the child. Me and my kids have gone through this. I’m working on trying to save enough money to get out. I got educated and felt like I had to leave my church because it’s the culture there. I wish I had learned this before my 12 year old son had to endure so much and my 10 year old daughter had to watch so much. It was only this year that I realized what was happening and told him we couldn’t take anymore.

      He doesn’t know my plans of leaving. It seems like he thinks I will just get over it even though I started trying to get help for us back in February. He says now he wants counseling so he doesn’t lose his wife, not that he wants healing.

      Although he’s been going to church, no one has reached out to me to find out where I am or how I am, after 26 years of faithful attendance. Nearly all of my friends are in that church so I will find another church. I have to because he fits there.

      He’ll find another wife who’s already waiting and ready to step into my role. I’m ready to step out of it. I can’t put my kids through any more. We’ll be ok.

  5. Mickey Garner

    I find this article geared mostly towards women. I am a 59 year old man that just came out of a marriage where my wife was the abuser. I would wager that there are as many women who abuse as there are men. Society just can not accept that fact.

  6. Margaret Medei

    I’m going through this right now. We’ve only been married for a year and a half. Just about everything in this article I am going through it as we speak. I have wanted to die. My husband makes me feel worthless.

    • Sheila Gregoire

      I’m so sorry, Margaret! Do you have a counsellor that you can talk to? It’s very hard to deal with these things alone.

      • Lucy R

        Thank you for this posting! It’s so encouraging to find some help and support. I have been feeling so alone but know that God is with me , cherishes me, adores and loves me, etc.

  7. Oli

    Sheila, do you think you could add something about incognito browsing to this? From my experience emotionally abusive men sometimes monitor their partners internet activity, and sometimes seeing sites or pages advocating leaving abusive relationships can make the situation worse.

  8. Anne Tanner

    Dear Sheila thank you for your website, I have recently recognised my marriage as abusive, a friend has been telling me that was the case for a long time. I know I am a shadow of the person I used to be due to the abuse. It will be our 40th wedding anavsery next year and looking back I think the level of control has got worse. One of the things that causes lots of pain is the jealousy of my friendship with one lady who is the person who give me support. I know leaving would be almost as bad if not worse as my children are convinced I ignor my husband in order to spend time with my friend and they think I am the problem, to the degree one of my sons threatened if I left to be dangling my friend’s door down and asking for an explanation! I am being supported by woman’s aid which does help but I know I need to have coping tactics if I am going to survive with any of myself intact and not being a vacant shadow of myself. It is a constant battle and I often feel,I do not want to go home after I finish work. I know you are likely to advise me to leave but I do not feel able to do that. Any help in how to stay yet become strong would be greatly appreciated.

  9. Carrie

    I am so thankful for people like you, Sheila and Natalie, for taking a stand against emotional abuse. It is because of people like you that I am finally taking a stand against my emotionally abusive relationship of 20 years. However it so hard because my church and Christian family don’t get it. Most of the help I find comes outside of that network, unless it is online. Then there is more Christian support, like you and Natalie. I still don’t understand why….

    • Sheila Gregoire

      I’m sorry, Carrie. I’m so glad that we could be of help, but I’m so sorry that you don’t have more support in real life. Don’t stop reaching out. You will find good people one day! Just like Elijah found when he thought he was alone, God had preserved others that Elijah just didn’t know about. I’ll pray that you find them.

  10. Michelle

    Thank you for your post! It is a tragedy that the enemy is able to destroy families because of the lack of understanding surrounding abuse. Not only does abuse destroy a man and a wife, it continues through generations when the behaviors are imparted to the children. If we want to see strong marriages thrive and divorces decline, Christian leaders and people helpers must understand what abuse is to stop this sin in its tracks and hold abusers accountable. Jesus described the importance of church discipline in bringing sinners to repentance, yet many women find that lacking in pastoral care. We started Agape Moms to stand with people like you to help other Christians identify abuse and kick Satan out of our families! We have posted a variety of tips for abused women to share with their pastors at Keep up the good work!

  11. bobsmusicgal

    This is exactly how my first marriage went – for 20 years I was in captivity to this mentality and his abusive behavior. Once I could truly see what was happening I prayed and begged God to release me – a few months later my husband was dead. Soon afterwards He gave me the most awesome amazing gift in the form of my new husband. What an amazing guy. He had also been in abusive relationships before so we were able to really hash things out and talk about our respective pasts. We brought all that to the Lord and he has healed us and made us into such a strong unit. I am amazed that I get to pour out all my love on a man who truly appreciates and honors me.

    God restores.

    Never lose hope.

  12. Annelie

    Thank you for this educational article I couldn’t stop the tears from running down my cheeks while reading this article, some of the similarities between our marriages really hit closer to home,may God grant me enough strength to find the healing I need,God bless everyone involved .

  13. Jeannette L. McCuen

    Hi, I just wanted to let you know that many of the links in the above article do not work. If they were meant to lead to helpful topics, it isn’t helpful if the links are broken.

    • Connor Lindenbach

      Thanks for letting us know. The guest author of this post changed her domain name, so I have altered the links to direct to her new site at
      I hope you find the advice you are looking for.


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