What is Emotional Abuse?

emotional abuse

Today’s blog is an excerpt from my book, A Journey through Emotional Abuse:From Bondage to Freedom. To purchase the book, click here.

Please note that this book is written specifically for Christian women facing emotional abuse. Because of this, I identify the abuser as “he” and the abused as “she”. The same principles apply if the abuser is the female and the abused is the male, or if the abused and abuser are the same gender. For simplicity’s sake, I have kept the original wording from the book.

Emotional abuse is difficult to recognize because the victim does not have physical markings of the abuse. And, like all abuse, it is done in secret. Usually, only the recipient of the abuse (and possibly her children) ever hears it. To everyone else, her partner may be the greatest guy in the world! He may behave lovingly toward her when they are in public. He might be an elder at church, or even be the pastor of the church. He may be the life of the party, and the guy everyone calls when they need something—the one they would call when their car breaks down and they are stuck on the side of the road. Because of this, if she ever mentions what is happening at home, people may look at her like she is crazy.

In addition, it is confusing because the abuse becomes more intense over time. A woman would not begin a relationship with a man who called her names on the first date. The beginning of the relationship is always wonderful. Then it deteriorates slowly over time. Therefore, his partner becomes accustomed to his abuse, and she adapts to it. Finally, the behavior is justified or rationalized. The abuser blames his partner for his actions. He is wily and manipulative. He disguises his abuse to make her think she is responsible for his actions, or he is saying the things he does for her own good. He also denies or discounts her perception of the abuse, so that she begins to wonder if it is really happening or if she is imagining it.

Here is a list to help you decide whether you are being emotionally abused, which is summarized from Patricia Evans’s book The Verbally Abusive Relationship.* You may not be experiencing all of these behaviors, but even if you are experiencing one or two, you likely are being emotionally abused:

1. He seems critical, hostile, irritated, or angry with you several times a week, although you hadn’t meant to upset him. You are surprised each time. He may say he is not mad when you ask him what he’s mad about, has “no idea what you are talking about,” or tells you that it is your fault.

2. You never know what will set him off; he is unpredictable. One minute he is loving and tender, the next he is sullen, explosive, or angry.

3. He is jealous. He wants to know whom you have talked to and where you have been every minute of the day.

4. He is controlling. He might control all the money in the family, or tell you and the children what you are allowed to do or say.

5. He is self-centered. He rarely thinks about you or your feelings, but wants you to focus on his needs and feelings all the time.

6. He rarely, if ever, shares his thoughts or plans with you.

7. You are upset not so much about concrete issues—how much time to spend with each other or where to go on vacation—as about the communication in the relationship—what he thinks you said and what you heard him say.

8. When you feel hurt and try to discuss your upset feelings with him, you don’t feel like the issue has been resolved, you don’t feel happy and relieved, nor do you feel like you’ve “kissed and made up.” He may say, “You’re just trying to start an argument!” or in some other way express his refusal to discuss the situation.

9. You sometimes wonder if he perceives you as a separate person, because he doesn’t accept your feelings or views as valid. He seems to take the opposite view from you on everything you mention, and his view is not qualified by “I think” or “I believe” or “I feel.” It is as if your viewpoint is always wrong and his is always right.

10. You sometimes wonder, “What’s wrong with me, I shouldn’t feel so bad.”

11. You can’t recall saying to him, “Cut it out!” or “Stop it!”

His behavior leaves you feeling like you might be “going crazy.” In fact, in their book Stop! You’re Driving Me Crazy**, George R. Bach and Ronald M. Deutsch call this “crazy-making” behavior. If this is happening to you, you may feel that:

  • You are always thrown off-balance. You may be confused, and never be able to get a handle on the problem, though you might spend hours a day trying to figure it out. Your partner may constantly be breaking promises he makes to you and you are often surprised, even though you feel you should expect it.

  • Because of his behavior, you may have “redundant, spinning circles of thoughts.” You may feel disconnected, confused, and disoriented. You may feel lost, wandering around, not knowing where to turn for help. You may wonder if something is wrong, but not be able to put your finger on what it is, or feel that your world has become chaotic, and you cannot make sense of it.

  • He may give you double messages. One day he will say “yes” about a subject, and the next day “no.” When you ask him about it, he will deny ever having the first conversation, calling you crazy, or pretending to be concerned about your mental health. You find you stop asking for clarification about things he has said or promised. You might assume he wants the best for you, but he seems like he is trying to hurt you. You find you often experience the shattering of important dreams.

  • You walk around with an uneasy, weird feeling of emptiness, or feel generally “bugged” whenever he’s around. You feel pushed around and not in control of your own direction. Sometimes you have a strong wish to get away, yet you feel frozen and unable to move. All of this is hard to explain and hard to understand, but you know something is wrong.

  • You begin to lose your self-confidence and start to doubt yourself. You lose your spontaneity and enthusiasm for life, and feel you must always be on guard. You develop an internal “critical voice,” and are reluctant to accept your own perceptions because they always seem to be wrong.

  • You start to feel uncertain about how other people read you, and you distrust your relationships (“Does she really like me, or is she stroking me?”). You start to believe the things you actually do best may be the things you do the worst.

  • You have a tendency to live in the future (“Everything will be great when . . .”). You feel time is passing you by, and you are missing something. You wonder why you aren’t happier. After all, you are with a “nice guy” whom everyone loves.

Does this sound like your relationship? If so, most likely you are being emotionally abused.

The terms “verbal abuse” and “psychological abuse” are often used interchangeably with “emotional abuse.” When these terms are set apart, verbal abuse most often refers to name-calling or yelling. Emotional abuse refers to the abuser putting his victim down, making her feel bad about herself, and saying things meant to wound her emotionally. Psychological abuse (also sometimes called “gaslighting”), refers to the abuser’s attempts to make the victim doubt her perception of events, her memory, and her sanity; i.e., making her think she is going crazy. Check out my blog for more on gaslighting.

Abusers will use other non-physical methods to keep control over their victims. I have written a blog about each of these. Click on the title to read the blog.

ECONOMIC ABUSE—keeping the victim from getting or keeping a job, making her ask for money, giving her an allowance, or taking her money.

SPIRITUAL ABUSE—twisting or distorting biblical Scripture to inflict guilt, or to gain control over his victim.

SEXUAL ABUSE—forcing her to do sexual acts against her will, or physically attacking the sexual parts of her body, or withholding sex from her. This can also include “reproductive coercion,” where the abuser forces a woman to become pregnant against her will (perhaps by hiding her birth control or refusing to use a condom), or he forces her to have an abortion, or he kills her fetus.

I will caution partners of abusers at this point. It would not be wise to take this information and confront your abusers with it.  An abuser’s main objective is to have power and control over you. You do not know how he will react if you tell him you know he has been abusing you. However, now that you know, you can begin to decide what to do about it. Check out my blog that talks about what to do if you suspect you are being abused.

God is not honored when a man behaves deceitfully toward the woman  he is meant to protect.

Jeremiah 9:3, 5-9 MSG says it well:

“Their tongues shoot out lies like a bow shoots arrows— A mighty army of liars, the sworn enemies of truth. They advance from one evil to the next, ignorant of me…. They’ve trained their tongues to tell lies, and now they can’t tell the truth. They pile wrong upon wrong, stack lie upon lie, and refuse to know me.” Therefore, God-of-the-Angel-Armies says: “Watch this! I’ll melt them down and see what they’re made of. What else can I do with a people this wicked? Their tongues are poison arrows! Deadly lies stream from their mouths. Neighbor greets neighbor with a smile, ‘Good morning! How’re things?’ while scheming to do away with him. Do you think I’m going to stand around and do nothing? Don’t you think I’ll take serious measures against a people like this?”

May the Lord bless you all today.


*Evans, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, 24.

**George R. Bach and Ronald M. Deutsch, Stop! You’re Driving Me Crazy (New York:G.P. Putman’s Sons, 1980), 272-3.



This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Andrew Richards says:

    This article, though well intentioned is sadly another example of the way the issue is clouded by a Duluth Model approach – an approach which blames victims and shields abusers on the grounds of gender. As I have experienced firsthand for what was 18 months of hell, psychological abuse is far from limited to male abusers and female victims. Furthermore, as experts in the field such as Dr Elizabeth Celi have indicated, female-on-male psychological spousal abuse is incredibly widespread in places like Australia.

    Framing it in such a gendered manner is highly offensive to those of us who are male survivors who come across it. I would suggest in future that you take a more gender neutral tone with these articles (unless specifically relevant) – especially when male survivors, particularly of female abusers, face even more social stigma when attempting to disclose their abuse, than female survivors of male abusers do.

    • Dear Andrew,

      I am sorry you have experienced abuse, and even more sorry that my blog has caused you additional pain. You make some very good points. Your points are so good that I have made a change to my blog, adding the following toward the beginning:

      “Please note that this book is written specifically for Christian women facing emotional abuse. Because of this, I identify the abuser as “he” and the abused as “she”. The same principles apply if the abuser is the female and the abused is the male, or if the abused and abuser are the same gender. For simplicity’s sake, I have kept the original wording from the book.”

      I agree that it is often even more difficult for male victims to come forward than it is for female victims. Thank you again for your comment, and I applaud your courage in standing up to abuse, and speaking out about it.


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