How can you tell if your marriage is emotionally destructive, or if it’s just a normal level of pain?
I caused a firestorm on Facebook over the weekend when I asked whether we talk too much about how “marriage is hard”, and then when people are truly in emotionally destructive marriages, they don’t realize that something is amiss, because they’ve grown up hearing that marriage is the hardest thing they’ll ever do.
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I’m a big fan of Leslie Vernick’s work, and so today I thought we could walk through how to recognize that you’re in a dangerous relationship, using Leslie’s words from her book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage. Even if you’re in a healthy marriage, I think it’s good to be able to recognize that not everybody is–and help them recognize it too!
I first ran this post a few years ago, but I thought it was time to run it again, as so many people need it!
1. Most Marriages Are Not Emotionally Destructive
If you are reading this blog, chances are your marriage is NOT emotionally destructive. I took Leslie’s 50 question quiz to find out how my marriage ranked, and I answered “never” to every single question. I’m married to a great guy–as many of you are too.
However, even though most marriages are not emotionally destructive, emotionally abusive marriages are over-represented on this blog, because so many of you land here in crisis after a Google search. And it’s important that those of us who are in good marriages recognize that emotionally destructive marriages are all too common, and help those in them–even if they’re not the majority.
2. Emotionally Abusive Marriages follow a pattern
In every marriage people may say cruel things during a fight. They may act inappropriately and harshly. I’ve raised my voice at my husband (though I haven’t called him names). He’s raised his voice at me.
But this isn’t typical of our marriage. Leslie Vernick says that a good marriage is one characterized by mutuality, reciprocity, and freedom. We each try to make it better. If a rule applies to one person, it applies to both (for instance, if one person has to make account for the money they spent, then both do. In abusive marriages, often one person forces this on the other without any reciprocity at all). And both spouses feel free to express opinions, make decisions, and choose how to act–even if in bursts of anger we may occasionally do the opposite.
On the other hand, Leslie Vernick says,
The Emotionally Destructive Marriage
An emotionally destructive marriage is one where one’s personhood, dignity, and freedom of choice is regularly denied, criticized, or crushed. This can be done through words, behaviors, economics, attitudes, and misusing the Scriptures…
It’s characterized by repetitive attitudes and behaviors that result in tearing someone down or inhibiting her growth. This behavior is usually accompanied by a lack of awareness, a lack of responsibility, and a lack of change…
Emotional abuse systematically degrades, diminishes, and can eventually destroy the personhood of the abused.
Eventually the emotionally abused spouse (and either spouse could be abused) no longer feels like “me”.
3. Emotionally Abusive marriages make you sick
The stress from living in an emotionally destructive marriage takes its toll.
The Emotionally Destructive Marriage
Your body feels it. Your stomach churns, your teeth grind, your hands clench, your jaw tightens, your head pounds, your legs shake, and your blood pressure rises. You cry, you can’t catch your breath, and you throw up.
When your husband is near your body starts to shake. Almost all women in these types of marriages experience physical symptoms: ulcers, digestive issues, migraines. And it only gets worse.
One of my best friends left an emotionally destructive marriage recently after two decades of chronic health issues–pain, wounds that wouldn’t heal, and more. She improved overnight.
4. Emotionally Destructive marriages make you crazy
Abusive spouses seek to control their mates through manipulation, anger, rage, and deceit. They play mind games. And then, every now and then they perform acts of kindness to keep their spouses ambivalent about leaving.
But when our personhood is systematically denied and we aren’t allowed to express, or even have, feelings, we feel as if we’re going crazy.
The Emotionally Destructive Marriage
Our emotions always serve a purpose, like the warning lights on a car dashboard. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away, and often ignoring our feelings only makes the problem worse.
5. Most typical Christian marriage advice is exactly the wrong thing to do in an emotionally abusive marriage
To me, this is the most important point. I believe in biblical submission–with a firm emphasis on the word biblical. I do not believe in just plain submission. And yet over and over again in Christian blogs and in Christian books we’re told how submission turned their marriage around. How submission was the key to marital happiness.
That may be true–as long as you’re not in an emotionally abusive marriage. As soon as you are, acting in a typically submissive way only makes it worse, as I shared in this post about how not all advice is one size fits all.
Yet too often we in the church are told that the only proper response for a wife towards her husband is to defer to him–a position that ignores the entire book of Proverbs, most of the Pauline epistles, and how Jesus Himself acted towards injustice.
In many emotionally destructive marriages, wives 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.
I’ll let Leslie Vernick speak to this,
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’ve also misplaced the responsibility for keeping the marriage alive by putting an extraordinarily heavy burden on a wife’s shoulders to somehow maintain a loving and warm relationship with a husband who treats her with cruelty, disrespect, deceit, and gross indifference. It’s not feasible, nor is it biblical…
When you are the only one in your marriage caring, repenting, being respectful and honest, sacrificing, and working toward being a better spouse, you are a godly wife, but you don’t have a healthy or biblical marriage…
In some marriages, trying harder does not engender a reciprocal response. It has the opposite effect. It feeds the fantasy that the sole purpose of your life is to serve your husband, make him happy, and meet his every need. It feeds his belief of entitlement and his selfishness, and it solidifies his self-deception that it is indeed all about him.
6. If you’re in an emotionally destructive marriage, be good, don’t be nice
In every marriage, our goal should be to encourage people to be more godly–and that should be all the more so in marriage because we are the helpmeet.
If we act in such a way that we solidify his self-centeredness (or her self-centeredness), then we aren’t being good or loving.
One woman said to Leslie,
I made our marriage worse by never speaking up, by being too nice, by not expressing my needs, and by accommodating Charlie even at my own expense. I went along thinking that this was my role as a godly woman, a submissive wife, a biblical helpmate.
7. To love your husband in an emotionally abusive marriage is to be concerned about his welfare and his soul
The Emotionally Destructive Marriage
Biblically loving your husband doesn’t require you to prop him up in order to enable him to continue to hurt you. It involves something far more redemptive…
He needs a wife who will love him enough to tell him the truth and to respectfully challenge his selfishness, his self-absorption, and his self-deception.
What can you do to help your husband grow? You refuse to accept behaviour that is destructive and abusive.
The Emotionally Destructive Marriage
When you put your foot down and say, “I will not allow myself or the kids to be treated this way anymore. It’s destructive to me, to them, and to our marriage,” you are not going against God by speaking the truth in love. You are standing for goodness, for truth, and for the healing and restoration of your marriage.
If you don’t know how to do that, Leslie lists some very practical examples of how you can set repercussions and boundaries for destructive behaviour while still making sure you and the children are safe. She talks practically about how to get a team around you for support, how to express to him what you will and will not accept, and how to start a process which can lead to him understanding what being a godly man is.
8. The Bible clearly says that if you are married to a fool, being nice only makes the fool worse
If people are doubting whether women have the “right” to put these kinds of ultimatums to their husbands, then I’d suggest you read the book of Proverbs and look at how God tells us to treat fools. Leslie explains in detail these Bible passages and how they apply to marriage.
And she looks at one example we have of a woman who was married to a fool–Abigail who was married to Nabal in 1 Samuel 25–and how she went against his wishes and was not submissive because she put God first.
9. We are to obey God, not man–especially an emotionally abusive man (or woman)
Following your husband into sin may be submissive, but it is not biblically submissive. Allowing him to berate you and your children may be submissive, but it is not biblically submissive.
As Peter says in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than man.”
10. God cares about the individuals in your family more than he cares about your marriage
Finally, if you’re in an emotionally abusive marriage, know that God sees you and grieves for you. In her book, Leslie shows through Scripture how God feels when His children are physically and emotionally hurt. He cries with you.
And she shows how the verse “God hates divorce” is often used against women in abusive marriages, rather than against the husbands who have made the rift–which is who that verse was directed at in the first place!
The Emotionally Destructive Marriage
Maybe you think that God is more interested in preserving your marriage than the well-being of you and your children, but that is not true…
Joanne realized that her marriage, although important to her, had become idolatrous. Keeping it together was what controlled her, not the love of Christ…
A wife is not a body to use but a person to love.
And finally, let me leave you with this:
Most of you reading this are not in emotionally abusive marriages–but some are. And I want you to know that God cares. That you are not alone. And that He wants you to get help. Maybe that first step is picking up a copy of Leslie Vernick’s The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, which outlines how to identify your marriage, how to seek help, and how to do the hard work of seeing if the marriage can be saved. I encourage you to get it–it will give you hope!
Let me know–have you been in an emotionally destructive marriage? Or do you know someone who is right now? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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This book saved my marriage several years ago. Interactions finally made sense and I learned that my submission wasnt biblical, but it was enabling further abuse. It was the first Christian marriage book that I read that spoke truth. Leslie’s ministry, this ministry, Boundaries in Marriage, and Exposing the Rejection Mindset by Mark DeJesus have brought so much healing.
Couldn’t thank you all enough. It is a lot of work to unlearn this dance & even then your partner must also be willing. This pattern is so destructive and deceptive and can easily be veiled in the church as normal, but the fruit doesn’t lie. It is not a godly marriage.
These marriages have consequences on in-laws too.
My sister had hidden her husband’s abuse for 10+ years, her entire marriage, and while having children. Then something snapped and she started handling it better and we found out.
The fairytale was broken and all the little oddities made sense. My family understandably no longer trusts nor care for her husband, though he is finally trying to be good.
My siblings were trying to heal from this, and I’m the only other girl who’s married. I explained to them that my husband is not like that and told them about his faults(minor league and not an issue), so they could feel safer.
It hit them hard, because he, like most abusers, had a charming personality that had woo-ed everyone but me. They loved his visits! It was a harsh lesson for them about narcissists.
(I found his personality repellent, and just didn’t know why. Actually he had his wife try to get me to like him more, but it didn’t work.)
I’m curious… You said a couple of times in the article that it’s unlikely that the reader is in an emotionally destructive marriage. How do you know? Particularly since the release of TGSR, women in destructive relationships have flocked to your page because *someone is finally talking about it*! And we know that women in destructive relationships are much more likely to seek out marriage resources, so it honestly feels like gaslighting to come here and be immediately hit with, “You’re probably not in abusive marriage.”
I am not personally in an abusive marriage (anymore) and I know that you work very hard to make your resources helpful for every marriage, so I wonder if you might consider editing those bits. It feels like someone is running alongside with a sign saying, “Hey! You don’t need to look! Just keep moving!” And I don’t think that’s your intention at all.
I think Sheila is trying to distinguish between being human and being abusive. I have abusers in my family of origin, dated one, and worked for one, and firmly believe that there is a different quality to abusive relationships.
I feel like I’m reading my old journal. When I was married to my ex, I often felt like things were “off” in our marriage. I wondered if what I experienced was abuse even though he never hit me. Here’s something that really stuck out at me and as I look back on it, I realize how unhealthy and emotionally destructive this was:
“If a rule applies to one person, it applies to both (for instance, if one person has to make account for the money they spent, then both do. In abusive marriages, often one person forces this on the other without any reciprocity at all).” Of course, the rules he had for me, never applied to him. After I got off work or planned to go somewhere when he was at work, I had to “check in” with him. Not necessarily ask for permission, but to inform him of my whereabouts. If I forgot to do that, he would be mad at me for days. Yet, he thought he never had to give me an account of his whereabouts.
I like the link to the Emotionally Destructive Relationship quiz. It’s a great resource to refer back to.
Thank you for addressing this! I took the quiz….I’m most definitely in an emotionally abusive marriage and have been for 27 years. There has not been physical abuse for several years, but there are constant little verbal digs that let me know I’m the biggest deterrent to my husband having fun and living his best life. It’s like being married to a large, petulant child. The normal activities of working, taking care of children, pets, and sometimes parents aren’t done with love and gratitude….just frustration that they interfere with his hobbies. There are daily rants and cursing, and constant reminders that he hates the pets and resents his elderly parent’s need for help. We are in counseling now and have seen some success. TBH, I’m struggling to be optimistic! It’s kinda unpleasant on the best of days, and thinking of living like this for the rest of our lives makes me sad! With that said, I know God still changes people, including me.
Where are the boundaries between emotionally unhealthy vs. abusive and destructive relationships? It seems like it’s continuum, and where a specific marriage falls depends largely on—yes, I’ll say it explicitly—what kind of man a woman is married to.
I’d say that “typical Christian marriage advice” virtually GUARANTEES that lots of marriages will at the very least be emotionally unhealthy. That’s because women are raised basically from birth to notice other people’s needs and meet them, to empathize with others in their various problems and help solve them, feel other people’s pain and enter into to help alleviate it or at least share the burden of it—and all without being asked. Men, on quite the other hand, don’t notice anything that doesn’t affect their own comfort or convenience. So the typical Christian wife, reading these “Christian” books, doubles down on her life-long habits of noticing, empathizing, and helping, hoping, hoping, HOPING her husband will notice and possibly consider the fact that she also has needs and wants that he has to be the one to fill. When he doesn’t respond, then the wife is told that “Your husband can’t fulfill all your needs, so you just need to trust God for those.”
Yeah, that sounds nice and pious and “Christian.” And it doesn’t work. Because if that woman ever has kids, she’s exponentially increasing her workload from just two adults to two adults and all those little people now also in the house. And she’s still waiting for Hubby to notice kids need baths, and help with homework, and being taken to and from their after-school activities, and, and, and… God won’t show up to do the dishes while she’s running the kids through their bedtime routines.
And when all the “Christian” marriage books and advice don’t work, the woman begins to doubt her sanity, her understanding of how the world works, her own thought patterns, and even her own senses. She will really think there’s something wrong with HER.
These authors tell the wife to be quiet and wait for her husband to respond to her meeting his needs…and that’s going to happen when, exactly, since MEN DON’T NOTICE???
Yes! You should write a book! Your thoughts are so true. Thank you for being honest! I relate and have seen this in Christian marriages.
My marriage is emotionally destructive, not in sudden loud outbursts like you seem to be talking about here, but like the slow dripping of water, wearing away the love and intimacy over 30 years. Couples often say their marriage gets better over time but mine is exactly the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, I’m married to a man who cares for me and provides, but emotionally it is like being married to a block of wood. Any attempt at connecting is met with comments that do not relate or connect to my need.
I’m in the same boat. He’s almost non-human. No relating to anything. I’m stuck financially. 😔 Just wanted to give you a virtual hug.
I would say I am typical of a lot of Christian women who took all the classes, read all the books, tried all the communication techniques. I know people think you’d know if you were in an abusive situation, but the truth is—sometimes you don’t. I heard for years that God was more concerned with my holiness than my happiness, so I concluded it was my sin or immaturity making me unhappy. It would never occur to me to go to my pastor, or anyone else in the church, for advice, because I thought my marriage was normal. And yet, I can’t fathom taking that test and answering every single question “never.” I answered 28 of the 50 questions “seldom, sometimes, or often.” And yet I ask myself every day if I’m overreacting. If I’m attributing false motives to him. If I’m the problem. I think maybe we need more descriptions of what a GOOD marriage looks like, because up close and personal, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one.
That’s a great idea for a post, Cynthia! What a good marriage looks like. I’ll put that one in the schedule. I think it’s basically just an emotionally healthy relationship, but I’ll schedule that in.
And please see a licensed counselor. This doesn’t sound like immaturity on your part at all. You likely could really use someone to help you sort through the relationship. And pick up Leslie’s book and follow her on facebook, too. She’s got some great resources.
Follow-up question… how does one go about being a good friend to someone who you suspect is in an emotionally abusive marriage? Particularly if they are in a church that sells the “submit more to solve the problem” and “gossip is sharing anything negative about another person, even if it’s true” lines of thinking?
I think at some point you need to be upfront and say, “I’m worried about you. What I’m seeing isn’t healthy. How do you feel about X?”
But also, what often works best is if the person comes to the realization herself. A young friend of mine knew a woman who she felt was being sexually abused in marriage (forced to have sex right after having a baby, for instance). She didn’t believe it was rape, and so the friend said, “Can you describe what rape is to you?” and the woman had to define rape and sexual abuse, and having to do that helped her see what was happening in her own life.
Thank you, this is helpful food for thought.
Very good topic today and I liked the quiz that Leslie gives. One issue, though. She says…
> > If you answered any question up through question 25 with anything
> > other than never, you are likely in an unhealthy relationship.
This doesn’t feel right. I’ll admit that I get childish and pout and get defensive every once in a while, but I don’t see that this creates an unhealthy marriage. She seems to be saying that unless both people act absolutely perfectly all the time, the marriage is unhealthy. That’s like a teacher handing out a test and telling her students “Unless you get a 100%, you fail the test”.
Nobody is perfect all the time, but Leslie seems to be saying that even the tiniest problem dooms the marriage. That just doesn’t sound reasonable.
I actually would agree with Leslie that anything other than “never” on those questions is emotionally destructive. She isn’t saying it’s abusive, or that it’s something you can’t overcome, but it is something that needs to be addressed. She isn’t saying you can’t pout or be childish sometimes, but here’s just one example: She asked, “Does the person always think he or she is right to the point of arguing with you until you concede or give up?” Now, I could see someone answering, “seldom” or “sometimes” and not “never” and that still doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed. But it does mean there’s a very unhealthy pattern there that should be addressed, and that’s what she does in her book.
And her book really isn’t a “if your marriage is like this it’s doomed and can never be fixed.” It’s just, “Let’s look at emotionally destructive patterns and see how to address them well.” Does that make sense?
> > She isn’t saying it’s abusive, or that it’s something you
> > can’t overcome, but it is something that needs to be addressed.
Yes, this makes sense, Thanks!
Yes. There are a small handful of questions (like “does the person question or challenge your version of events”) that, when answered very literally (like by someone with ASD), will give a false-positive. There IS such a thing as a faulty human memory. If it’s something where the stakes are high (like what the doctor said about treating a loved one) my husband will question my retelling of events if something seems inaccurate. Sometimes I question his. But it’s a give-and-take, not one-sided, and not over inconsequential things.
Sheila has shared the story of Keith back in the day forgetting Katie’s special sunscreen after Sheila asked him to pack “the sunscreen” (Keith got the generic, but not Katie’s specialty sunscreen). I would call this “questioning” or “challenging” Keith, but not in a way that was potentially emotionally destructive.
Yes, yes, yes.
People talk about how hard marriage is and I have been married for 14years now and I just have not found that. Have we had some times when things are hard and we struggle to work through an issue? For sure! But I wouldn’t talk about our marriage as being generally hard work. I have always wondered if maybe we aren’t doing it quite right or if perhaps the worst is yet to come and I’m going to be shocked by it.
Other people I know, genuinely destructive marriages and when they finally have had enough and get advice or leave the advice from people about sticking with things even when they are tough and all marriages having really hard times shows a complete naivety about how harmful some people’s marriages are.
This post has made me cry. I have been married 2.5 years and it started out beautiful, but by 6 months it was on a destructive track. My husband is a gamer and he took his anger out on me verbally and emotionally. We then had our first child and he started calling her cuss words and me cuss words. It came to a point that I left with my daught for 6 weeks and only returned with the promise that he would change. More times than not, her and I would hide in her room or go for long walks to avoid the anger and language that was thrown our way. Right before our 2nd anniversary, his anger towards me got worse and he told me never to leave with his child again because I wasn’t thinking straight. I had asked him if he had actually wanted to be married and that it wasn’t ok that he cussed us out. We went to a safe place and then met with our current pastor. He agreed that my marriage needed help and that it wasn’t healthy. We started doing counseling with him and things have improved some, but my husband only came so that I could have my issues fixed and to make me happy.
I have been advised to leave because it is dangerous for me and, now, our two kids to be in an emotionally destructive home. I am stuck because I don’t want my kids to experience the pain that I have, but I am in a state that doesn’t see emotional abuse as real so in the case of a divorce, I wouldn’t have much ground for getting sole custody.
How do I raise my kids well and protect them from the abuse cycle? How do I love my husband well, but express to him the how unsafe our marriage has been? When I have tried to bring it up in the past he says that our issues was because I was post-partum depressed and wasn’t thinking clearly. He also said that it is normal for marriages to have loud arguments and conflicts. He justifies his cussing and berating me because he says that when I did stand up to him, I was disrespectful and destroyed his reputation so I deserved how he has treated me. He says I am his treasure, but if I bring up things that he disagrees with or doesn’t like he shuts down and pouts or tells me that I am naive or crazy. I just want to do what is right.
Hi Elizabeth, I’m so, so sorry that you’re going through this. Please know that you CAN’T change an abusive person. You can’t convince him that what he is doing is wrong. It isn’t up to you to express our unsafe your marriage has been; you can’t change him. Couples counseling is not actually a good idea where abuse is involved, because it’s not a marriage issue. It’s an issue with him. And children growing up in an abusive marriage is also abuse.
Can you call an abuse hotline about how to get help? And there are apps that you can download that can help you document abuse that can be useful in custody hearings, if it comes to that.
Please seek a licensed counselor for some help, or join groups online. You can find Leslie Vernick’s page on Facebook. Flying Free and Sarah McDugal are also excellent resources on Facebook. Please join some of those groups, because you’ll be able to get advice and help on what to do.
Thank you for posting this. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read in our 7 years of marriage. But nothing seems to make things better. I started to hate myself because i couldn’t understand why I could never make my husband happy. I became obsessed with the idea of being out of this world. I realized my sin at one point and told my husband. I hoped he would be there for me and support me but instead he threatened to take the kids away from me because I am too crazy.
Right now he is mad at me again. He wants me to perform a sexual act that I believe to be sinful. Full disclosure, I did do it with him and felt super guilty afterwards so I told him I don’t want to do it again. He convinced me to try again a few more times and I went along because I thought it would make him happy. But finally one day, during my prayer time I realized that I had made him into an idol and my fear of him not being angry was my only motivation.
I got up the courage to tell him never again. He kept asking me (withdrawing then asking again) to do it but I am standing my ground (for the first time in our marriage.) And now he won’t touch me, kiss me, or talk with me (unless it’s about the kids.)
I told him it’s hurting me and he says that I’m the controlling one because he doesn’t want to be intimate with me anymore and I won’t respect that…
I just don’t know… Is he right? Am I the wrong one? I wish I could just have all the answers and do the right thing to honor God but I don’t know what that is most of the time.
I am a husband, and stumbled across this page. I am married to an abusive wife of 14 years, with whom I have tried to use all the “approved” ways to resolve things. It doesn’t work, and it has made me sick to the point of mirroring her behaviours. I am mentally exhausted at this point, and am physically sick. I have stuck it out for my sons, because I know she is completely incapable of caring for both of them, and yet she continually, personally abuses me, by degrading me in front of the boys, body shaming me, criticizing everything I do, and rewriting history. She has also slandered my reputation to mutual friends. Don’t allow things to reach this point, figure something out, otherwise you will be sucked into the vortex, no matter how strong you are.
James, I’m so sorry this is happening. I feel you so deep though. Truthfully, I used to want to take my life because I thought that would be the only way out of this miserable marriage but I didn’t for our kids. I don’t know what he’d do with them. He often jokes about getting rid of them or putting them up for adoption so for the sake of my girls only, I’ve stayed.
I’ve listened to Leslie’s book twice now. The first time I took the quiz I answered often or sometimes on at least 29 of 50 questions. The second time it was more, even though my husband stopped yelling. It is very destructive, but I often get confused because his main form of abuse is accusing me of doing the same things he’s doing. And if I do, then I have no right to demand he do better. It is major gaslighting, but I have a hard time seeing through it until I spend hours in self reflection and prayer. I spend so much time crying, but then things get back to normal and for weeks I think, “What was the problem? Everything’s fine.” Until the next episode when I’m crying and in emotional turmoil again.