Is It Abuse? How do You Accept that You’re in an Abusive Marriage?

by | Oct 27, 2023 | Abuse | 56 comments

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to admit to ourselves when we’re in an abusive marriage.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and before the month was over I wanted to share a letter that I recieved a few years ago in from a reader.

Whenever stories of abuse or sexual harassment scandals occur in the news one of the big questions people are ask is “why didn’t the women speak up earlier?” But the fact is that it is very, very hard to admit to yourself that you are being abused, or that you have been a victim. That’s difficult psychologically. And so instead we keep asking ourselves, what can I do better? How can I keep going?

Listen to this woman:

I’ve been married for 17 years. At first is was good, but over the last 5 years or so, things have gotten harder.

My husband has severe anxiety/depression problems and is on several medications. I have been yelled at so loudly that my eardrums hurt and been put down (sarcasm, joking: “girls can’t do anything right.”).

My husband wanted me to see his counselor because he wanted me to fix my issues with “passive/aggressiveness.” I was afraid to go because he had been seeing this counselor for a long time–years, so I went in expecting to be diminished more and to be told to submit more and accept it because that is what Biblical wives are supposed to do (that was the message my church was giving me.)  

I was so stunned when the counselor said to me on the first meeting, “I am so glad you are here. You must be hurting so much.”

I lost it then. I had thought that what I was experiencing was normal. The counselor helped me learn some coping mechanisms for dealing with the anger, for which I am thankful. The counselor also told my husband that some of the ways he was treating and my children were wrong and abusive. My husband did not like that word abusive and told me the counselor has been lying to him and me and my husband refuses to ever see another counselor ever again. My husband is also against me going to see one for myself.

We have recently moved to a new city due to a change of job for him. It’s good because it got us away from the church (my dad and my mother-in-law both said it was like a cult after visiting us a couple of times).

I have two questions: 

1) I was able to visit my family over Christmas two years ago. That was the first time I had seen many of them. Partly because of money (we live far away and plane tickets are expensive) and partly because my husband said they were a bad influence on me and I wasn’t allowed to visit them except once every 5 years.

I had to go across the country for some medical issues and my brother and dad came there to see me. My husband said that counted as part of the 5 years, so the clock started over. I was so sad. Anyway, with help from a friend I visited my family. They reminded me how much I am loved and I saw how sweet they treated each other.

They encouraged me to set up a savings account for emergencies (my aunt said “in case he goes off the deep end.).  My grandma passed away not long after that and I did set up a savings account in my name only. Since my husband does the taxes, I did end up telling him about it, but now he is furious (understandably) about it. He keeps telling me to use it to pay off a credit card, but I still feel like I should listen to my family, but am feeling guilty because I am not doing what he says. Is this okay to have my own emergency fund? 

2) After being yelled at and having my oldest son yelled at, my desire for intimacy is almost zero. My counselor said this is normal for the type of situation I’ve been in. What has made it worse for me is I told my husband “no thank you” several times. There were a couple of times when I said no, but he would say that was sinning by not giving him what he needed and that it is my fault that he does pornography, he would say that my body is his and his is mine.

I would feel guilted in to pleasing him, but would secretly cry afterwards because I had felt violated. I now cannot let him touch me because I just have bad memories. My question is, is it okay to say no for emotional reasons and how do I let myself let him touch me again because it is hurting our marriage more that I can’t get my mind past this?

First, I am so, so sorry that this woman is going through this. I can feel her pain.

And I want to echo what her counsellor said: Her husband is being abusive. I know that’s super hard to admit to yourself, but let’s lay it out today and look at the ways:

He yells to the extent that he hurts her.

Healthy people may occasionally lose their tempers, and certainly some cultures yell more than others! But healthy people do not yell as a rule, repeatedly, to this extent. This is wrong.

He puts her down and insults her and makes her feel like she is worthless.

A common factor in abuse is wearing the person down so that they feel as if they are stupid. That chips away at their self-esteem, so they feel as if they have no choice but to stay, because they aren’t smart enough or capable enough to function any other way. A healthy person builds up their spouse.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 

Ephesians 4:29

He refuses to accept blame for anything.

When the counselor confronted the husband and told him he was in the wrong, he stopped going to the counselor. That means that he isn’t willing to admit his own sin.

A wise child accepts a parent’s discipline; a mocker refuses to listen to correction.

Proverbs 13:1

He controls who his wife is allowed to talk to and isolates her from other people who may challenge him.

Once he decided he didn’t like the counselor, then she couldn’t go, either–and he refused to let her seek out a different counselor.

He refuses to allow her to see her family, and puts limits on it (once every 5 years). That is classic behaviour of abusers. They don’t want their victims being able to hear the other side of the story, or get another perspective. They want to control that person.

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He gravitates towards churches that are abusive and uses the Bible in abusive ways.

They were involved in a church which people whom this woman love describe as a “cult”. Unfortunately, there are some supposedly-Christian movements that treat women horribly, holding that the most important thing for a woman to do is to submit to her husband, rather than to follow God (in fact, they equate the two). Thus, to these teachers, abuse is not even a valid reason for divorce. Instead, God would honour the woman who is abused and will repay her for her suffering, so she’s just supposed to take it (Here’s a total take-down of that absolutely unbiblical argument that I wrote a few years ago: Submission does not mean lying down and taking it).

Then he uses Scripture to force his wife to agree with him and do things for him (like sex) without any obligation on his own part to love his wife. He is treating Scripture as a weapon, and that is called spiritual abuse. When we pull verses out to force people to do our will, completely absent from any obligation to love on our part, then we are not walking in Jesus’ steps, and we are not following God–even if we’re trying to sound pious by wrapping our words in Scripture.

He controls the money and refuses to allow her any financial independence

Another classic hallmark of abusive spouses is that they retain complete control of the money. That’s why it was so important that her family encouraged her to have an emergency fund–so that she could get out and take her son to safety if necessary. I’m sorry that she told him about the account. Yes, it’s okay to have this money, and PLEASE don’t give it to your husband to use for the credit cards.

He blames her for his pornography use

He cheats on her by using porn and blames her for it–saying that he wouldn’t need to do this if she had sex with him more. He is failing to take responsibility for his own sin.

He sees sex totally devoid of intimacy and love

He has made sex only about his own physical needs, and not about emotional needs or real intimacy. He has completely disregarded his wife’s feelings, and when you do this, you make sex only about you and ruin your spouse’s sexuality. In many ways, this is marital rape.

I have written before on the question, “do you have to give your husband sexual favors“, and I think this applies here.

Those who believe that 1 Corinthians 7 means that a woman cannot refuse her husband no matter what are basically saying that marital rape cannot exist. That is completely and utterly wrong. They are the ones who are being sexually evil by taking something that God made to be beautiful and mutual and turning it into a selfish act. To distort something beautiful and make it evil is not the mark of God; it is the mark of the evil one. And Satan thrives on distorting sex, because it has such tremendous power to bring real intimacy and passion. So he works to ruin it as much as he can, especially by enticing Christians to frame sex in terms of men’s sexual needs.


Through November 6, we’ve got limited edition pink and purple designs on all our biblical manhood/biblical womanhood merch, in honor of domestic violence awareness month and breast cancer awareness month.

When you buy our purple and pink limited edition merch products, we’ll give 20% of the profits to our local women’s shelter (I’m not naming it to avoid them getting unwanted attention), and to breast cancer research through the Canadian Cancer Society. 

If I may be so bold, she is asking the wrong questions. It is not how to make life better despite the abuse; it is what to do now.

She is asking two questions: is it okay for her to have her own money, and is it okay for her to not want to have sex? I don’t think those are the right questions. I think there’s a far more fundamental one, and it’s this:

Given what you know about your situation, can you admit to yourself that this is abuse?

It sounds as if she already knows that it is. Her counselor has told her. Her family has told her. She has believed her family enough that she started to save some money. She feels hurt and angry enough that she is distancing herself from her husband. She knows, at heart, that his treatment of her is wrong.

Maybe some of you are in the same abusive place right now.

You know that this isn’t a normal marital disagreement. This isn’t just about you two butting heads; this is about him trying to control you and not allowing you to have your own thoughts, feelings, and needs.

In fact, any time you do have your own thought, feeling, or need, he makes you sound like the selfish one. He turns it on its head. And you start to question yourself again. Are you really selfish?

No, you’re not. You are a wonderful woman made in the image of God. That means that you are worth something. You were bought with a price. Jesus loved you enough that He died for you so that you could have a relationship with Him. You are precious. And He values you. He made you with your thoughts, personality, gifts and talents so that He could use you on this earth. You are important.

And He wants you to live a big and passionate life. That is God’s will for you.

I know that it’s hard to admit that this marriage, which is supposed to be the cornerstone of your life on earth, is abusive.

But look at the big picture. Ask, “is this relationship glorifying to God?” God is not glorified when we are hurt and stifled and insulted. God is not glorified when a marriage becomes an empty shell, and merely a vehicle for someone to exert their will over another human being. God is glorified when relationships reflect him. The marriage is not more important than the people in it.

If you believe you may be a victim of abuse, please contact your local Domestic Violence Hotline

  • Canada: 800.799.SAFE (7233)
  • United States: 1-800-621-HOPE (4673).
  • United Kingdom: 08 08 16 89 111
  • Australia: 1 800 737 732
  • New Zealand: 0800 456 450
  • Kenya: 0-800-720-072
  • Nigeria: 0800 033 3333
  • South Africa: 0800 428 428

And then I’d point you to four amazing women:

They all have wonderful support groups too.

God wants you free.

If you are not being abused yourself, then please learn about what abuse looks like. We all have friends and family who are walking through this, and they likely need US to call it out, because they may not be able to do so themselves.

When you’re not in an abusive marriage, it’s easy to assume that other people’s marital conflicts are just like yours: minor and only about specific things. But controlling behaviour isn’t like that. When you see it, speak up. Hold a friend’s hand help them cut through the fog and confront their issues.

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Abuse is never okay, and it won’t stop until we all admit it exists, and call it out when we see it.

Have you ever walked through this in your marriage? Or do you have a friend or family member walking through it now? What did you do? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

A version of this post was first published a few years ago, and I’m re-running it today. Some of the comments from a few years ago are still here!

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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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. Ashley

    I find talk about emotional abuse to be confusing at times. A lot of the articles about how you can tell if abuse is going on have to do with the way the possible victim is acting. Do they walk on eggshells all the time, for example. But isn’t that something that could depend on the personality and stubbornness of the individual?

    • Sheila Gregoire

      I think that is a really good question, Ashley! And that’s why I also think it’s really important to get good counsel. In this woman’s case, she had a counsellor who knew the husband and she had multiple people in her own family tell her that the way she’s being treated is wrong. Sometimes it isn’t crystal clear, but often outsiders can see it well. And I do think that God often calls people to speak truth into our lives. Now, that being said, there are definitely certain church communities (like the one that this woman had been involved in ) who really don’t believe in abuse, and who would likely give her BAD counsel. That’s why sometimes it’s important to get an outside counselor.

      I also think that sometimes a couple can, over decades, settle into a pattern of abuse which may not have happened had the victim stood up more in the very beginning. This isn’t the case in all situations, of course, because sometimes we’re married to narcissists who have a genuine personality disorder. But often we’re married to someone who is just very forceful, angry, and controlling. And so the victim goes along and says nothing early in the marriage. The person then gets positive feedback by being angry and controlling (I get what I want) and so they settle into this behaviour pattern.

      If, on the other hand, at the very beginning of the marriage the spouse had said, “I won’t listen to you when you yell. I’m more than willing to talk about this, but I will not speak to you until you speak to me respectfully”, then some of those habits may have been changed.

      • Hopeful

        Thank you for this article. My husband and I have been married for eleven years. We were both born again christians when we got married but drifted away from close relationship with God over the years. And I believe we are in the category where we had settled into horrible patterns of arguing where I didn’t stand up for myself in the beginning (thinking I needed to be a submissive wife, had low self esteem etc. ) and then that sometimes led to my husband becoming emotionally/verbally (a few times earlier on physically , like pushing )abusive.he was also into pornography for the longest time, now three years free of that. I found that admitting to myself that he was abusive was the hardest part. I had never wanted to be a victim and i thought I was pretty strong and independent so to admit that our marriage wasn’t acceptable was terribly hard and humbling. This blog and also the other two Sheila mentioned helped me immeasurably. I came to the point of inevitable separation , when I started sticking up for myself and he at first couldnt handle it. I involved his family and with their support we finally went to counselling. Once he saw that I simply was different and our marriage dynamic had to change or it was over , he changed . Thankfully he truly loves his kids, his family and apparently me. Faced with losing it all, and realizing what he had become I have seen many positive changes in our marriage. He rededicated his life to Christ recently , and we have been studying the bible together and spending lots of time together and I am hopeful. It is so important to acknowledge if you are being abused,and get help!!! Know you are worthy of love, that God loves you and longs to be there for you, even if your husband isn’t. Build a friendship with a godly woman , make a plan, if you are in danger then get yourself and your children to safety. But if your husband isn’t a narcissist, if he is deep down a good guy, dealing with lots of his own pain, then get him help too.and if your marriage has just gotten into a bad pattern then perhaps there is hope for reconciliation. Sorry for the long post, writing this on my phone, hope it makes sense.

        • Sheila Gregoire

          Don’t apologize for how long this is, that’s awesome! Thank you so much for sharing your story. And again–you showed that doing the right thing, even if it’s hard, is often the catalyst for God being able to do big things in someone’s life! And surrounding yourself with support is so important, too. I’m so glad this is your story now!

    • Libl

      Very good question. I live near an area where domestic abuse is very common, but many of the women take pride in being in,a relationship with such hard men, and being strong enough to love them. My husband came from that culture.

      I didn’t know I was being abused until two different friends at two during times told me I was. Part of the reason was culture clashing. His male dominating culture clashed with my uber-submissive culture. Thankfully, the abuse stopped thanks to both of us changing. I stopped being the sniveling doormat I was and stood up for myself. He respected me more for that and realized he was acting like the very culture he got away from.

      • Sheila Gregoire

        That’s wonderful, Libl! I’m glad things are going better for you.

  2. A

    I needed to see this today. I had let it sink in how abused I’ve been and was getting ready to leave and then all of the sudden my husband starts acting like he wants to make things work and will be better. And admitted he did stuff wrong….until I agreed with him and then all of the sudden he was the victim again and I was the one to blame. All the things he’s done to hurt me are because of “my shortcomings”. And he knows he’s hurt my but I’ve hurt him oh so much too by not being emotionally available when he needs me even though a couple weeks ago he was threatening to kick me out and divorce me. And he does the same things in this article too.
    Needed the reminder to stay strong and do what needs to be done.

    • Sheila Gregoire

      I’m very sorry, A. I hope that you have a great group to surround you and help you walk through this!

  3. Flo

    Clinical depression is one of the leading causes for abusive behavior. Depression is often seen as apathy or lethargy, but the person suffering from it would often be prone to pouring his/her anger and frustration onto those “lower in the hierarchy” who are defenseless.

    Victims of such abuse are often very forgiving and understanding, as they see that their abuser suffers, and that that suffering is what causes the abuse. But actually, forgiving and allowing such behavior typically just strengthens the depression…

    • Sheila Gregoire

      Yes! Very good point. And it’s also true that there are times when changing how we react to the abuse can actually turn the story around. Again, that’s not true in cases of real personality disorders, but not enabling depression to go untreated, or speaking up so that the person is prompted to deal with the stress in life, can really change things. But in some cases the controlling behaviour is honestly pathological, and nothing that we do can help.

    • Kadence

      So what do you do? How do you break the ugly cycle? What if you know that the only way to make it stop is to walk out but you know if you walk out that person will cut God of their life completely? If you know that person has threatened suicide so many times & you don’t know what you leaving might cause? If you have begged them to seek professional help for their major depressive disorder but they refuse for both prideful & financial reasons? What if nearly everyone else has turned their back on them & you leaving will mke them even worse to the few (basically 2) other people they have left?

      • Sheila Gregoire

        Wow, that’s tough! But honestly, I think this is WHY we’re supposed to be in a Christian body. Some things we just can’t handle alone, and we’re not meant to. Sometimes you need someone else to go to your husband and say, “what you are doing is wrong, and you need to get help, and we’re going to help you get help, but you can’t treat your wife like this.”

        I think the other thing to remember is that, as hard as it is to accept, you are not responsible for anyone else’s choices. You are only responsible for your own. If you do the right thing, and that person still makes an awful choice, that is not on you. Sure, perhaps if you had allowed the abuse to continue, they may have made a different choice. But then what is happening to your life? You matter, too, and you must do what you know is right. You are not responsible for another, and often people use that guilt that we feel as a weapon.

        I know that doesn’t make it any easier, though. This is a super hard situation to be in. And I’m so sorry.

      • K

        You (and the one or two others) cannot be the salvation of this person. This person must reach out to the Father himself and no one can do it for him. If he chooses not to, he will suffer the consequences of his decision. It sounds harsh but too often we want to “save” others from those consequences and in reality we cannot.

        • Lisa

          If anyone is holding you hostage by letting you know that they’ll walk away from God if you pursue safety, that is spiritual abuse and I highly doubt that this person has a relationship with God to begin with.

          Enabling bad behavior isn’t good for anyone.

      • Shoshana

        Kadence-My mother’s first husband (not my father) threatened to commit suicide throughout their entire relationship. She was coerced to date this guy as a teenager because he would threaten to kill himself is she didn’t. The result was she got pregnant and in the 50s, you married the guy which she did. Throughout the next 7 years and five kids, this guy was a depressed alcoholic who beat her several times. My mom did not have anyone to turn to as her parents just asked “what did you do?” when she had a black eye. No help there. One day, this guy sat around drinking with some neighbors and left beer bottles all over the yard-a big no-no in veteran housing. My mother argued with him about cleaning up the mess for fear the landlord would be mad. This guy gave her the silent treatment for a day, and went upstairs and blew his brains out while my mom was making dinner and all five kids were home watching TV. Afterwards, her in laws blamed her for his suicide and yelled and screamed at her at the hospital. So there my mom was left a widow with five kids and no emotional support from her family or his. In fact, his family refused to have anything to do with the kids after that. The point I am making here is if someone keeps threatening suicide to coerce you into staying-RUN!!! You won’t be able to save them unless they want help, and it’s not worth your physical and mental health or your children’s either. The cop that came that day told mom she “was lucky he didn’t kill you and the kids”. You can’t save everyone.

  4. nylse

    This has never happened in my marriage because I love myself too much and would never allow anyone to treat me in a way the letter writer described over any period of time. So for me, I wouldn’t have married that person once I recognized the behavior and I would stand up for myself. On top of which, there is nothing in the scripture that says its ok for a man to treat his wife the way she has described.
    I wish women knew their innate worth and what it means in all of their relationships.
    Now what? I hope her eyes are opened; I hope she sees her worth in Christ and what that means – that she can speak up for herself even if she disagrees with her husband. I also hope she keeps seeing the counselor or find another trusted person she can talk to. I hope she searches the scriptures for herself and start pouring out her heart to God more so that he can work on her.
    I don’t have the answers except that there needs to be a serious shift for both the husband and the wife for that marriage to make it.

    • Sheila Gregoire

      I know, Nylse! It breaks my heart that some women don’t see their worth in Christ; that they are so precious to God and that He never intended for them to be treated like this. Unfortunately, though, like so many things in life, we have to decide to make changes ourselves, and that’s so very, very hard.

      • libl

        For me, it was the “submit” “win him with your godly actions” and “never speak ill of your husband.” Couple all that with fear and having nothing to fall back on (no job, no higher education, young children, no money) and it is scary to impossible to do anything but try to survive.

        My church affirmed me, but they NEVER spoke to my husband. They would come to me and tell me what he should do. They would tell me their problems with him. I felt like everything was my responsibility.

        And then I was told “you can’t change him, only yourself” and “you dictate how people treat you” “you need to set boundaries.” It just felt like MORE responsibilities on my shoulders.

    • Anna

      I think it’s a little bit naive to think “there no way that would happen to me”. The reality is that abusive relationships DO NOT start out like this, otherwise you’re right, no one would end up in one. They almost always start out looking normal, and over time the abuser gets more and more controlling and manipulative. Often there are some warning signs before marriage, but many times they are subtle enough that the woman doesn’t realize there are red flags, or she has no idea that red flags even exist and she should be looking for them. It’s kind of like the story about the frog put in the pot of water on the stove that’s slowly heated up…he doesn’t realize he’s being boiled to death because the water heats up so gradually.

      I was a police officer, trained in recognizing domestic violence, before I got married, yet I still ended up in an emotionally abusive marriage. In hindsight, I can only identify two potential (and very small) “red flags” before we were married. Nothing obvious, nothing that I would likely even have recognized as a red flag even looking at the checklists out there. It tooks 2.5 years of marriage for things to really fall apart. He’s never hit me, but he’s done some version (less blatant though) of most things the writer talks about. I knew he was controlling and unreasonable but it still took me ten years to figure out it was abuse.

    • Lisa Johns

      Nylse, it’s so easy to say “I would never allow myself to be abused,” and this is something I did say, but what I finally had to realize was that I had allowed myself to be abused for years by accepting all the blame he constantly heaped on me for the issues we had in our household. Even now, in the midst of getting out of the situation, it is hard for me to acknowledge that he made his choices and gaslighted the h**ll out of me to keep me under him. Not only is it hard to acknowledge that you are being abused, sometimes it is hard to even REALIZE that you are being abused! (Covert, passive-aggressive actions and withholding of intimacy in any form are very easy to label as just “dysfunction,” but once you see the controlling behavior behind those actions, you do finally realize that it is abuse, and you can’t unsee that!) So maybe you need to start writing some stuff down for the rest of us. And I’m not being snarky here, I really do think you have good things to share!

  5. Erin

    I keep reading all these posts and still can’t tell about my own marriage. My husband has been depressed and suicidal for 5 years now. He is on meds and seeing doctors now. But he still blames the depression on me and my changing religious beliefs. He is fine if I don’t mention anything he disagrees with but if I do he becomes dismissive and contemptuous or quiet and tired for a few days (which is exhausting since we have 4 kids). He has said he’d rather be dead than divorced. He can be kind but only if I don’t rock the boat. I feel like it’s always eggshells. And sex which used to be fine is now traumatic but without it he is even worse. I usually just do it and then end up crying after because it feels so gross.

    • Erin

      I meant to add that he doesn’t control all the money or who I see so that’s what makes me unsure.

    • Ashley

      To me, the fact that you’re always on eggshells is quite telling. That’s not healthy at all.

    • Libl

      You need to come up with a plan. If he is suicidal, make sure there are no weapons in the house.

      Get to counseling, or at least talk with your physician about this. Pastor, too. You need support. Call a local mental health agency or hospital and ask for help. It is one thing to be depressed and suicidal. It is another to use it as abusive leverage in your family to gain control.

      Start living your life. If he gets moody and quiet, don’t give it credence. Just let him have his stupid pout and go have fun with the kids.

      If he starts talking suicide, call the authorities. Record arguments if you have to to provide proof. Stop letting him use that as leverage. Suicide is scary, yes, but your whole family can’t continue to live under that threat. Getting real help might wake him up.

      If he is threatening suicide in front if the children, and especially if he is holding a weapon to himself, you and the kids need to leave. This is NOT a safe environment. You are NOT responsible for keeping your husband away from suicide. But, you do need to get help. For his sake, yours, and the kids. Either you and the kids need to leave, it he needs to be in a mental health institution on suicide watch if he is threatening suicide.

      I am so sorry you are dealing with this.

    • Anna

      There’s a questionaire you can take on Leslie Vernick’s website called something like “Are you in an emotionally destructive relationship”. You can also google “covert abuse”. The book “In Sheep’s Clothing” is a really good look at more subtle forms of manipulation/control.

      My husband didn’t directly or blatantly control who I could see or finances. Instead he did things like subtly try to isolate me from my family by complaining about them constantly and telling me that I never really separated from them, and telling me I chose my sister over him because I wanted to maintain a relationship with her and he couldn’t stand her. He refused to have a budget while we went deeper and deeper into debt because “you won’t stick to it”, no matter how much I asked. He would sometimes go down my grocery receipts item by item and ask about or criticize many items. I saw all this as unreasonableness on his part, not realizing he was doing/saying all these things (and many others) to manipulate and control me.

    • Lisa Johns

      If he blames his depression on you, if you can’t express an opinion without him pouting, if you have to give him sex when you are feeling devastated by it or “he is even worse,” — if this were a friend of yours or your daughter, what would you tell her?
      He is jerking you around, manipulating you and your children, toggling every switch he can toggle and pushing every button he can push. It is not your responsibility to cater to all this. You need a safe space where you can get some clarity and begin to heal.

  6. Anon Mom

    I’m curious how you would have handled this. Now, my siblings and I are all adults in happy marriages, strong in our faith, and active in our communities.

    My mom married a seemingly great guy – attended church and was baptized, smart, hard-working, good morals, got along well with everyone. It was their first marriage, they had waited for sex, and he had her parents’ blessing – all great things. There were red flags, but those were easily missed or explained away. After marriage, he continued to smoke cigarettes (in the house, car, and around the kids) after promising to quit. He stopped attending church. He began name-calling, yelling, spending money out of spite (to his credit, he never put our family in financial peril; we were upper-middle class). He occasionally pushed us and hit us, though never hard enough to leave a mark for long enough to be classified as abuse in court. We were fortune enough to grow up on a family farm with my mom’s parents and her brother and his family. Had we not had family next door, and a farm we had invested in heavily, my dad would have likely isolated us. He limited our involvement in religious activities and greatly limited the amount of money we could give to church. My parents both had full-time jobs and similar salaries.

    My mom was in a tough spot; she had supportive family, an income and savings that could have comfortably supported herself and children, and the knowledge that she was in an abusive marriage. However, my dad wasn’t abusive “enough” for her to get full custody of us kids. She knew that if she left him, he would get partial (probably half) custody and then us kids would be exposed to things ranging from pornography (very limited at home, as we didn’t have internet access) to more violent outbursts to exposure to unsavory people and alcohol abuse.

    Yes, she could have gotten out of a bad marriage, but it would have been to our detriment. We had family, friends, and a healthy church family to lean on when needed and to counsel us through the more difficult times. My mom, siblings, and I all understand that we lived through abuse and understand why he was abusive. My dad died shortly after we kids reached adulthood, and while none of us are sad that he is gone, we’ve been respectful of the positive roles he played in our lives, we’ve made peace with his death, and we’ve forgiven him.

    How would you counsel someone in a similar situation?

    • Sheila Gregoire

      That’s actually such a good point, and something that so many women face. If they split up, then the husband would get the kids half the time. If they stay, then at least they can run interference and try to protect the children.

      I don’t think there is a blanket answer to something like that, and that’s where I think getting a support system around you and documenting as much as possible is so important. But I totally understand why some women stay. I really do.

    • Evelyn

      That’s so tough. I stuck around until I was sure that my kids could clothe and feed themselves and have good enough judgment to mostly take care of themselves during the time their dad had them. When we moved out, I bought a house within walking distance, and that was extremely helpful to them, though it was kind of creepy to me. Nearly ten years later, my kids are now old enough to decide if and when they want to spend time with their dad, and while I wish they hadn’t had to learn this, they are savvy enough to get what they need from him and ignore him the rest of the time.

  7. E

    This is such a difficult topic! There are so many nuances, making every situation different! When I was having trouble in my marriage a few years ago, I spent a looooooonnnngggg time on the internet trying to diagnose whether my husband was abusive or not. I often wished that he would just hit me so I could say ‘yes, he is abusive, he hit me’, rather than trying to work out all the little ‘clues’ that come with emotional abuse.

    Looking back on that fine now, I think that my husband was abusive. But not in a narcissistic way. Like one commenter above, It was more because I let him treat me like that. I also think that perhaps he doesn’t know any other way of treating people, and I didn’t know any other way but to let people treat me like that. But, me looking for ‘abuse’ as a reason to end the marriage was also wrong. I was looking for a way out where none of the blame fell on me, when really, I had some abusive tendencies of my own. Once we started communicating better, our marriage got better. It’s still not perfect, but it is improving all the time.

    I keep seeing Dr Henry Cloud’s book Boundaries be recommended for people in these situations, and I haven’t actually read it yet, but I think it might need to go on my reading list!

    With the 1 Corinthians 7 scripture about authority over each other’s bodies. That doesn’t just mean that one spouse can take what they want from the other. Guess what, if you gave authority over your spouses body, you can tell them to STOP, and to obey scripture, they should obey that (as that is you exercising your authority over their body). I think that scripture is supposed to demonstrate that sex should be MUTUAL, with two willing and eager spouses getting pleasure from it (even if the pleasure is not always an orgasm, it could be spiritual or emotional pleasure, rather than physical).

    • Sheila Gregoire

      Absolutely to your take on 1 Corinthians 7! It definitely means that you can say stop.

      I do also think that there really are two different kinds of abuse–one where it’s behaviour patterns, and one where it’s rooted in a personality disorder. When it is behaviour problems, I do think that changing the dynamic has the potential to really improve things. I’m glad that you’re getting help, E! And Boundaries is a great book.

  8. Dazed and Confused

    Our church family has no idea of the abuse my children and I live with. It took me a long time to admit we were being abused and even longer to admit it wasn’t “all my fault” like he was telling me. Almost 4 years of counselling, and things are better, but only on the surface. The underlying issues and his sense of entitlement, remain and the cycle continues.

    Why haven’t I enlisted the help of my church family? Because I fear they won’t believe me. I know of many women in my situation who have been shunned by their congregation when they asked for help. My husband has carefully cultivated a good reputation at our church. Image is important to him. When I made the mistake of saying I would go to the elders for help, he threatened to make us stop attending there. We haven’t been members there very long, so I am not sure how the elders would react if I went to them. I really love our congregation and fear losing them.

    Shelia, many women in my situation don’t know how to judge what true biblical repentance looks like in our marriages. That is how we get stuck in the abuse cycle for so long.

  9. Josie Walton

    I had all of this emotional and verbal abuse in my 29 years of marriage before separating after a threat on my life was more than I can handle. I had been so programmed to accept this behavior and to be submissive even though my ex was not a Christian. Divorce is final now but I still cannot get my heart to accept what my mind knows to be true, I was abused and so were my 2 boys. They are grown and do not associate with me and my DIL believes that her father in law was so wronged and I’m the bad one for “creating my own storms” and seems to feed my sons distancing from me. Sometimes the emotional pain of being alone just makes me want to go back into the abuse because I survived for 29 years what’s 29 more. And yes, the ex wants me back because I “mean the world” to him and of course he would then be able to control me and begin the abuse cycle again. How do I move past the questioning myself, when I know it’s absolutely abusive, and dangerously so? And is there anything I can do or say to get my boys to go to counseling ? Or do I just have to watch them come to their own conclusions and watch them beat themselves up (mentally and emotionally) when they realize what they put me through?
    I want a peace of mind.

    • Sheila Gregoire

      Oh, Josie, isn’t that heartbreaking? I’m so, so sorry. It must be so difficult to see your kids turn away from you. There really is nothing you can do with your kids except to let them know that you love them and want to be there for them, but you let them set the ground rules. And yes, that means you have to just watch them make their own decisions. It’s so hard!

      I hope that you can get into a safe church situation at least. And please visit Leslie Vernick’s site that I linked to. It’s so good for people in your situation!

    • Lisa Johns

      Josie, I am so sorry to hear that your sons turned away. My DIL disowned me in the nastiest way possible a few weeks ago, because I was “the most worthless and toxic human being she knows” (or something to that effect — I have made a point of not rereading that text!), and it is so hurtful. Like you, I know that the abuse was real, but also my husband really cultivated a good image with the children and those around us. It’s really, really hard. I too am getting out (it’s not final yet, but we’re getting there), and I’m really working on building other relationships. Fortunately for me, I started grad school in January, and the cohort is a built-in social circle, which I love! I would really encourage you to find a counselor that you click with, and start talking it out. The validation of having someone to listen to it is so helpful, and he/she can also help you work on the reasons why you got in and stayed for so long. And find a group to be part of, whether that is a book club at the library or volunteering at a homeless shelter. There are people there for you, sometimes it just takes a little search to find them. Much blessing to you.

  10. The sheep

    Being domestic violence awareness month, this month has been especially hard for me. On christian radio they are constantly talking about the abuse of women, breaking the silence and all the resources that are available for women.

    After 2 long term affairs by my spouse, we are finally in counseling, however that is going nowhere. There is no remorse, no repentance, and no willingness to right (or really admit) the wrongs.

    Several months ago I began to realize the problem was much bigger than adultery. Things that I have always ignored troubled me and I finally bought the emotionally destructive marriage and from the first words I knew that I was abused. In private, our councillor confirmed this to me and also told me that my spouse has all the markers for NPD.

    But what is so hard, is that I am a man. People don’t know how to deal with the fact that women can be abusers too. Friends and family understand Adultery, they understand the lack of remorse and repentance. But they just skip over emotional/verbal abuse. “it’s not that big of a deal, your a man, look how much bigger you are” I can’t tell you how many times I have said to myself and heard from others, “just keep loving her as Chris loves the church” “Give God time to work” All the while the wolf’s jaws keep tightening on the throat of the sheep.

    I have few options for my kids and myself. Our councilor said that if I was a woman she would have told me to get out a long time ago. But I can’t do that. If I leave, I will be accused of abandoning her and the kids. If I take the kids and leave, I will be accused of kidnapping. My only option seems to be divorce, and because I’m a man, she will most likely get the kids, and then I won’t be able to be the buffer between her and them.

    Emotional abuse is so hard to come to terms with because it makes you doubt your own sanity. How can these things actually be true? Is it really that bad? it’s probably just me! I should just love her more! All the while destroying the personhood of the abused.

    • Anon Mom

      My uncle was in a similar situation, abusive wife, etc. She left him for other men and, yes, got custody of their son for all but every other weekend and a couple weeks in the summer. Their son grew up in an unstable home with abusive men. He’s now a young adult, married with a son, and I fear that he’s abusive to his wife. My uncle remarried a few years after his divorce and has raised 3 other children in a happy and stable home. Those 3 kids all turned out very well. In contrast, my mom stayed in her emotionally abusive marriage and all 3 of us kids are adults with happy families. My dad died several years ago, and we all expected our mom to go back to her happy, youthful self. She has somewhat, but the emotional toll she suffered seems mostly permanent.

      My uncle wasn’t able to spare his son from his ex’s wild and sinful life. My mom was able to spare us kids by being that buffer, but lost herself in the process. There’s no right answer. Surround yourself with Christian friends. Have a few trusted people you can be open with about the abuse and affairs. Document everything. Good luck.

  11. Noémie

    Thank you for this article, it puts words on feelings I’ve been having. I got married 2 years ago, we met at a Bible College. That sounded good. But he has lots of past issues he didn’t deal with. Like smoking weed every day to “help to deal with” his ADHD or lots of anger, bursting for the smallest excuse. Every time I try to say what I think, he shuts me down and calls it disrespect. He not going to church, has no friends, and when I want to go see my own friends, he doesn’t like it. I suggested counseling, couple therapy, or just taking with a friend, but he refuses, and insists on my submission. I feel so stuck…especially with a 1 year old little girl, who notices the tensions going on..

    • Lisa Johns

      Document EVERYTHING, and find a way to live free while your daughter is young. Much easier earlier than later.

    • Lisa Johns

      Also, something I learned recently, marijuana is a hallucinogen and can cause symptoms of schizophrenia which may or may not clear up after discontinuing use. Document all drug use!!

  12. Lisa Manske

    Thank you so much for this very needed post.

    I know too many people who need to read it.

    And I do know some women who’ve gotten out. They’ve all said it was the hardest thing they’ve ever done. And they all wish they hadn’t waited so long to get out.

  13. Nathan

    From way above…
    > > there is nothing in the scripture that says its ok for a man to treat his wife the way she has described.

    While this is true, many people deliberately twist and misinterpret scripture to justify abuse, or at least claim that the wife should just quietly accept it, and even blame herself.

    When somebody tells us “But the Bible says…”, and won’t permit any discussion or analysis of the true meaning, that’s a huge red flag.

  14. Michelle

    For 21 years I didn’t realize I was being abused. My husband has an addiction and has cheated on me our entire relationship. Last year I learned about betrayal trauma. Then I learned that I didn’t have the autoimmune disease I had been diagnosed with 8 years ago. I just had 21 years of trauma that manifested as autoimmune symptoms and complex-ptsd. When I learned about betrayal trauma last year I had to accept that, yes, I was being abused. It was mental and emotional abuse that led to physical symptoms. I had believed all the lies that Sheila fights so hard against. I believed that I just needed to pray harder, and submit more and “respect” my husband more. Nothing ever got better until my husband owned his addiction and started to wholeheartedly search for help and healing. I see how so many women don’t even know they’re being abused. I just finished writing out my testimony (70 pages lol) and I’m just praying other women can learn from my experience.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, wow, Michelle! Are you starting to find your autoimmune symptoms are abating now that you understand the dynamics? I’m glad your husband is working on his issues now.

      • Michelle Cook

        Yes. I actually feel great now. Learning what I have about betrayal trauma and all the resources from my counselor and Facebook pages I follow have really helped me to heal physically as well as emotionally. I honestly feel better at 40 than I did in my 20s and 30s.

  15. K

    Sheila this was such a needed, yet heartbreaking post today. Thank you.

    Please would you consider adding Helena Knowlton to your list of resource people?

    She has a number of free resources for people trying to gain clarity about whether what they are experiencing is abuse here:

    Helena’s specialty is covert (hidden) abuse tactics. Her reach isn’t as long as the resource people you’ve linked to above, but she has a special niche in the abuse community because she deals with C-PTSD – a profoundly deep and life altering form of trauma that regular forms of trauma processing cannot reach.

    Trying to process the wounding that prolonged covert abuse leaves through regular cognitive therapies can actually do more damage – leave a woman with a huge guilt burden because she can’t “snap out of it” and compound what is already there.

    I am not affiliated with Helena – but have been in the hamster wheel for many decades. I needed her.

    These resources may also be helpful:

    And a woman who expanded the Duluth model to highlight psychological abuse – (for her PhD) here:

    Thank you. ♥️

  16. Lynn

    My story is almost exactly like this woman’s, but it was my sister who helped me wake up to the abuse. I confronted my husband, and now he has stopped abusing me. I promised him I wouldn’t leave. But we are now in a loveless marriage, where he is not abusive, but also not fully repentant. We just kind of coexist together. Our church says I have no reason to separate from him now, but I long for a healthy relationship.

    • Lisa Johns

      Don’t ask the church for any good information; they won’t give it. But pray and ask God to show you what you need to know. He will show you patterns that you may not have noticed, and that may help you to make a good decision for you. Remember, the best indicator of future behavior is the witness of past behavior. much blessing to you.

  17. Katy

    Thank you for writing this Sheila. This was me. 21 years married/captive/abused. I am over 5 years freed and with a great therapist have found my sense if self again. It is absolutely true… how incredibly difficult it is to accept you are in an abusive relationship. So, so hard. But that is the first step. I hope anyone in this situation reads this and has the support to take their life back. I am grateful every day that I did.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so glad you’re safe now!

  18. Amber

    So I’ll try to keep this brief. My husband and I came to faith recently. We have 4 children and have had a tumultuous 8 years of marriage. My husband had a pornography addiction and was messaging other women which led to a separation of 6 months and counseling 3 years ago. We really made great progress and I felt hopeful for our marriage for the first time since before we even got married. I would have called it off if I hadn’t already been pregnant because of ongoing issues. Recently my grandfather passed away. While he was in hospice in Louisiana I went to be with my family to say goodbye. My husband stayed with the kids a few days and decided to bring them to me in Louisiana. I wanted my family with me as I grieved and I assumed he would stay so I encouraged it. He was working from home at the time and can basically work from anywhere there is internet access. But he decided to leave back to Texas leaving me with all 4 kids. I had already had 4 sleepless nights and was having a hard time with my extended family who are all heavy drinkers and smokers and just difficult to be around with my children and we were all staying together in a rental home that was rented in my name. I was stressed and overwhelmed and desperate for support in my grief. When my grandfather passed I was all alone with the 4 kids cleaning up an accident from off of the floor in the bathroom. I didn’t feel supported, loved, cared for or thought about at all. My husband was only 2 hours away when we got the call that my grandfather had passed and still he continued on to Texas instead of coming back. Out of all of the cousins I was the closest to my grandmother and I was so disappointed I couldn’t be with her during his passing. I ended up getting very sick at the funeral, I was burned out from the stress and lack of sleep. He had come back just in time for the wake and was distant and unhelpful with the children and with my family. I had no help, no support. In the past I’ve allowed myself to harden and become distant when I’m hurting, but this time I wanted to try to address the hurt differently. So I wrote to him explaining how utterly alone I felt through all of it and asking him how we could do it differently in the future. He promised to do better to be there for me but ever since then I haven’t felt close to him at all. He’s impatient with the kids, he’s impatient with me, he snaps and yells and gets very angry when disciplining the kids in ways he never has before. I’ve lost my temper with the kids before. Having 4 kids in 4 years has been a very challenging task. Especially considering all of his deployments and separations from the military and not having family support. But I’m with the kids innumerable hours and I rarely get that upset. He is miserable toward us every day lately. He just landed his ideal job allowing him to have a great work life balance all while not being here in the house with us while I try to homeschool 4 rambunctious kids under 7. I thought it would help but it hasn’t. It hasn’t helped at all. I don’t feel loved. I don’t feel cherished. I don’t feel cared for. In fact, I’m starting to feel afraid. And I’ve tried explaining all of this to him at length only to be told he has feelings of his own (feeling unseen, unappreciated, disrespected) dismissing my concerns and never apologizing for his actions. It seems like it’s always when I’m trying to communicate something to him that he has some grievance to air. My family lives close by but they are not involved regularly in our lives. For example, my mother called me the other day and asked me how I was doing, she doesn’t call often so I was surprised, I started talking about some things we have going of and she interrupted me impatiently and said she only called to find out what I was doing the next day because she needed me to go to her house to sign for a package because they were going to be traveling again. I just feel like I have no one. I’m the one people come to for help but I feel very alone and like I have no one to lean on. Wow that’s a whole novel I just wrote. I’m just at a loss as to how to get us back on track. My husband knowingly withholds love, he’s admitted it even. I’m a really simple girl. I don’t need much. I’ve consistently asked for the same things in our marriage, to be told good morning in the mornings so I can feel connected in the before beginning all of my duties and to be informed about all decisions that are being made, not even consulted, just talked to. Both of these requests are regularly disregarded. If you make it this far, thank you for taking the time. Please pray for us. My husband is a good man, I can tell he wants to be. Pray for my family. I’m going to be distancing myself from them because it’s become draining and exhausting to always be on call to them and not supported by them myself. And pray for me, that God reveal my sin and selfishness and allow me to forgive as he forgives and see people as he sees them and see myself as he does. Thank you. Thank you.

    • Jo R

      This will probably get deleted or maybe just parts will be edited, but I have to say, your husband is not a good man. He’s an a$$hole. Stop thinking you can rely on him so that you stop setting yourself up only to be let down again.

      If your best friend was living your life, would you tell her to keep trying, or would you encourage her to get out before eight years of this behavior turns into three decades?

      I highly recommend the FB page of “zawnv” along with her (mostly) free content on Substack. MAJOR language warning about her writing, because she doesn’t mince words.

      Here’s one of her FB posts (again, language warning for her post and people’s comments):

    • Nessie


      I agree with JoR that your husband is not the good guy that you believe he might be. Your husband may say all the right things (though he isn’t even doing that) but his actions have shown otherwise.

      Please look into the 4 women/websites Sheila linked to just below the purple Domestic Violence Hotlines box above.
      Anna also commented above “You can also google “covert abuse”. The book “In Sheep’s Clothing” is a really good look at more subtle forms of manipulation/control.”

      Amber, you are not even a decade into your marriage. What you describe is not sustainable, dearheart. You deserve so much healthier. Your kids deserve to grow up in a healthy home with a mom who is not being abused. That fear you feel?? That is the Holy Spirit giving you discernment to this situation. Listen to Him!

      I hope you will look into some of these resources and know that your husband needs to be actively trying to do better by seeing a (safe, healthy) therapist, acknowledging and repenting of his bad behaviors, making apologies, and attempting restitution at the very least. You have clearly communicated your basic needs to feel loved; he has denied all of those to you while blatantly telling you that he withholds love intentionally. That is not just unloving, that sounds quite dangerous (possibly narcissistic- particularly the part about him distracting you with HIS hurts when you share yours ) to me and will only grow and escalate.

      If you can swing it, return to therapy for yourself, too. Your family of origin dynamic sounds similar to some of mine, and you may also be codependent which is part of why you may feel more committed to staying in this current situation.

      Also, no amount of possible sin on your part warrants this treatment of you! Sometimes God’s response is for you to be iron sharpening iron *to others*, which means putting up firm boundaries so they are not enabled to continue sinning against you. And as a “recovering support system to everyone else,” I can confirm it Is Not Sustainable.

      I am praying for you now, Amber. You are loved, you are a child of God and deserve to have a support system in place as do your beautiful children, and Jesus wants you all to live abundant lives. His yoke is easy and His burden is light, which does not sound remotely like your current situation.

  19. Joy Adonai

    Another great resource to add to your list is Psalm82 Initiative. They have a system of identifying abusive relationships through 4 elements of abuse (Entitlement, Control, Coercion, Compliance) and 4 tools of abusers (Isolation, Intimidation, Manipulation, Deflection). They have free articles online and material on Facebook. This is the ministry that helped me see my abusive marriage and walk in freedom.

    This is the old website with all the articles.

    They are slowly moving articles to the new site.


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