Learning to Communicate About Emotional Abuse
Abuse is always a heartbreaking situation. No matter what the relationship, it hurts me to hear of one person trying to control or dominate another. This cycle of abuse can be especially painful if you have an emotionally abusive spouse.
Sometimes you want to help people you love, even when they hurt you. Part of you is convinced that you know they can do better and be better, and that this is not the person you fell in love with or married. But the degree to which we can help someone depends on a few important things:
- How safe we feel helping them
- Whether or not we are caring for our own needs
- Whether or not they want to seek help
There is no one right answer to how to stop toxic behavior in a marriage. Some marriages will have more potential for growth and change than others.
Rather than offering one solution, I thought I’d share my thoughts on some of the most frequent questions I get about this. I hope sharing these thoughts will help you find clarity and a path toward healing from emotional abuse.
1. How Do I Tell If They’re Being Abusive or If This Is Just Marriage?
Marriage has its ups and downs. Arguments and fights will happen. And unfortunately, you’ll both say and do things you regret that cause one another pain. But abuse is different than anger issues because:
- It is a pattern of behavior developed over time
- It encompasses all areas of your relationship and how your spouse treats you.
- It is centered around controlling you: where you go, how you spend your time and money, who you are and aren’t allowed to be around, and so on.
As I mentioned, abuse is a cycle. There is often an incident, a fight, or a confrontation that is particularly hurtful, cruel, or controlling. Then the person apologizes, often becoming very affectionate, giving gifts, and doing a lot of things you want to do. They promise it will never happen again.
But over time, as they feel control slipping away, the cycle repeats. If you’ve noticed this cycle playing out, your spouse is showing patterns of emotional abuse.
2. How Can I Talk to Them Without Them Getting More Upset?
The abusive behavior of your spouse is never, ever your fault. Unfortunately, patterns of abuse are often so ingrained that the person who’s abusive will shut down at any sign that they are being blamed or being asked to take responsibility.
Another thing that makes conversation difficult is that abuse is characterized by manipulation, and increasing levels of control. If you have noticed that they are:
- Not responsive when you want to talk about your feelings
- Seeming to get more agitated and unkind whenever you bring up problems
- Threatening you after trying to talk about how you feel
It may not be possible to have a conversation with them about their abusive behavior. You cannot control how they treat you. But you do have control over yourself, and you can and should take steps to keep yourself safe.
3. What Can I Do If Divorce Isn’t An Option?
I want to be clear about something. While I would never say that I “encourage divorce” or “support divorce” as a solution to the majority of conflicts, abuse is not a frivolous conflict or a petty argument. It’s an entire dynamic of control that one person uses over another.
And if you feel like your efforts to work on things or talk things through with your partner are fruitless or unsafe, you are not a bad person for considering divorce or separation to protect yourself. Even if you grew up in a religious home, with a belief that God is against divorce, God’s love for you is vast and deep. He wants you to be safe, loved, and at peace.
If you feel you must stay in your marriage, it is very important that you have a counselor or a trusted friend with whom you can check in regularly. Be honest about your safety with them, and do your best to be open to changing your situation as a way of caring for yourself and protecting your safety.
4. What If I Fear For My Physical Safety?
If you fear for your physical safety, making a safety plan should be your top priority. It’s important to make a plan with people you trust, who will not share your whereabouts with your spouse if you decide to leave.
TheHopeLine works with many support organizations for victims of abuse that are experienced in helping people safely leave abusive environments. They can help you make a plan to leave that minimizes further risk to your safety as much as possible.
5. Should We See a Professional?
Going to a counselor is certainly something you could do for typical disagreements and misunderstandings. But since abuse is about a power struggle, and it tends to escalate when the abuser is challenged, abuse counselors do not recommend seeking counseling with your emotionally abusive spouse.
However, it is absolutely good and appropriate for you to seek one-on-one counseling or group therapy to help you understand and heal from abuse. You can find mentoring for healing from emotional abuse here at TheHopeLine, as well as from numerous therapists and counselors who specialize in post-abuse healing and recovery.
6. What Do I Say to a Counselor?
When you do find a counselor or mentor whom you feel is a good fit for you and your situation, I recommend being as open and honest as you’re able. Simply telling them something like, “I think my marriage is emotionally abusive”, will allow them to ask you the appropriate questions to get you the help you need, and will enable them to help you plan for your safety.
Your counselor will know how to address the situation without putting your safety at risk. They will not share your feelings, fears, or concerns with your spouse.
7. How Can I Understand Them and Why They Do This?
Without knowing your spouse, I can’t say exactly why they’re emotionally abusive. However, in my years as a counselor, I’ve seen some common threads when it comes to why people develop abusive behavior patterns:
- They were abused themselves and they are repeating those patterns
- They have unhealed pain or trauma
- They have other addictive behaviors that align with their cycles of abuse
While thinking about these things may keep you from hating and dehumanizing your abusive spouse, they are no excuse for abusive behavior.
Many people who grew up with trauma and abuse, or who live with addiction, are able to find healthy coping mechanisms and proper treatment. But it has to be something each person wants and takes responsibility for.
8. Should I Feel Guilty for Marrying Someone Abusive?
Sometimes when relationships take a turn for the worse, it’s easy to be tempted to beat ourselves up. But the signs of abuse, especially emotional abuse, can be hard to recognize until they have escalated so much that they are apparent in your day-to-day life.
There is no reason to feel guilty about someone else’s abusive behavior, or about not recognizing it sooner. Take every chance you can to be kind to yourself, and be proud of the fact that you are standing up for yourself and seeking help and understanding in this way.
9. I Know I Need Help. What Do I Do Next?
Recognizing you are in an emotionally abusive marriage is a scary but important first step to finding safety and getting help. If you are in an emergency, or if your life is being threatened, call 911. If this is not an emergency, you can get help right here.
TheHopeLine’s HopeCoaches are trained to be judgment-free, compassionate listeners who will support you on your journey to freedom and healing from abuse. Talk to a HopeCoach today about your marriage, and about how you can find hope after emotional abuse. You can do this. And we can help you along the way.
Blaming yourself for abuse is normal, but there is hope for healing after abuse. Read my blog on healing after abuse and taking it one day at a time.
Photo by Riccardo Mion