How Do I Know if I’m Being Abused?

by | Sep 27, 2022 | Abuse | 8 comments

How do you know if you're being abused? Let's talk about the signs of emotional abuse and how to recognize if it's happening to you.
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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 Flying Free. Natalie and I have been friends for quite a while, sharing stories and ideas. She runs a community for women navigating difficult and confusing relationships and marriages, and her book “Is It Me?” is our top recommendation for any woman who’s struggling to understand why her marriage is so hard. 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.

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.

See Natalie's Book

Sheila here! I want to interrupt to give a HUGE shout-out to Natalie’s book, “Is It Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Marriage.” Seriously, everyone should read this book because even if you’re in a happy and healthy marriage, it will give you the language you need to be more able to recognize when someone else is in a dangerous situation. Additionally, it’s a fantastic book to buy for someone you know who is struggling and looking for answers but needs someone to walk with them through their grief. Natalie is amazing at doing just that. If this post is resonating with you, please go check out Natalie’s book. We cannot recommend it enough.

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.

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

Natalie Hoffman

Author at Bare Marriage

Natalie Hoffman is the founder of Flying Free, an online sisterhood for abuse survivors that offers classes, coaching, support, community, and so much more for women escaping abusive marriages. A survivor of an abusive marriage, Natalie is passionate about helping others experience the freedom and joy that God wants for them. You can learn more about Natalie's own personal story in episode 53 of the Flying Free Podcast.

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  1. John N.

    Great post, Sheila! I’d love to see, though, this illustration, in black and white, when the alleged abuse is coming from the wife toward the husband, and he that looks, is handled, and the typical reactions that go with it. I feel some of this fits me (though not all!), and it’s too late for us (divorced last year). All the problems were put on me, and I was always wrong.

    I’m sure it’s uncommon this way, but it’s out there, and I never knew just what to do about it.

  2. Jo

    When you realize you are in an emotionally abusive marriage, is divorce the only way out? Have you witnessed situations, when after an honest chat and willingness on the side of the abuser – who may have not seen himself as such, yet it makes sense for him now and he is as much broken by all this, as his wife – is true healing reconciliantion possible?

  3. Laura

    Wow! This sounded like my former (so far only) marriage. It’s just so awful how church teachings and “Christian” advice about marriage have made this worse and think this is normal marriage. When I was married to my ex, we attended church but not regularly and thankfully we did not devour the books. There was one horrible book we (mainly I) read for our premarital class at church. It was His Needs, Her Needs by Willard Harley. I thought that book was sexist and outdated, so I did not finish it. My ex told me the Bible said husbands should be in charge and if I had been wiser, I would never have married him. He did not always demand to be in charge. Thankfully, he insisted I manage the checkbook and pay the bills, but I had to have sex on demand and sometimes he made decisions without consulting me because he thought he was entitled to.

    No wonder so many Christians I know tell me how hard marriage is. It’s the faulty teachings and misinterpretations of the Bible that make marriage sound hard. I’ve asked my mom if she thought marriage was hard. She said that it takes work, but she thought parenting was harder. I hear the opposite from a lot of people, especially single parents. While single parenting may be hard financially, these parents tell me they are much better off raising their child alone because the other parent was unfit and/or a difficult person. This here shows that marriage and parenting advice should not be treated as one-size-fits-all advice that the church just loves to give out

    Thank you Natalie for sharing here. I’ve read your blog and listened to your podcasts. I wish I had discovered all of this 20 years ago when I went through my divorce.

    • exwifeofasexaddict

      His Needs Her Needs was also the one that royally messed me up. It made my (then) husband feel entitled to have a sexy woman to look at at all times. Never mind I was using food as a coping mechanism, and what I was coping with was HIM.

      • Laura

        Throughout my marriage, I struggled with bulimia. After I left, I hadn’t relapsed and it’s been 20 years. My ex believed he was entitled to look at women in fitness magazines and even put posters of scantily clad women in OUR bedroom closet. I ripped them off the wall and he got mad.

  4. Tammy

    I love the material the Natalie provides us with. It really opened my eyes to what covert narcissism is. I had No Clue before coming across her site. I am eternally grateful for her insight and knowledge. It is helping me stand firm in finding a way out. Covert passive aggressive narcissism is not easily detected and it’s very hard to describe because it’s so under the radar. But when I looked at the qualities that narcissists look for, I was literally Every Single One of them. And his behaviors matched up to a lot of the covert stuff. I had to read more books to discover more, but Natalie got me started. I will eternally be grateful. The other valuable book I read was Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft. It describes the many different kinds of narcissists and manipulators so you can identify them more clearly. I am very grateful for this book, as well as Natalie’s.

  5. Abi

    Frankly I’m still not sure I agree with Natalie about everything. I’m struggling to see Scriptural proof that God condones remarriage to a new spouse while a previous spouse is still living. But this that she wrote really resonates with me:

    “If you’ve ever said, “I’m tired of being used and discarded.” And the other person says, “I’ve got some Bible verses for you. Memorize them and be happy.”

    You’ve been erased.

    When you mean nothing to someone or to a group of people, they will erase you the minute you try to appear with anything that demonstrates your realness and your humanity.”

    It’s odd to me that so many Christians who have clout in church settings, have taken so long to see how much erasing and silencing was going on, often in the same congregations. It means so much to me to see the work of the Bare Marriage team and see you asking people to find out how abused spouses are actually treated in their local churches by the leadership. That’s huge.

    • Pam

      My husband had an emotional affair for 3 years and refused to take on board, what he was doing was wrong. After this he admitted to watching porn when he was way on business. But he blamed me for not giving him what he wanted. Later he said that he was in the wrong and understood the spiritual problem with what he did. Last Christmas my Virgin daughter told us she had been raped at uni. The next day I overheard him discuss with his house group leader the spiritual impact of the assault . I exploded.


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