Helping women of faith find hope and healing after emotional and spiritual abuse

Sign up to get new articles and podcast episodes sent directly to your email inbox.

I will also send you a free PDF copy of the first chapter of my book, Is It Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Marriage as well as the first chapter of the brand new companion workbook. It’s like a super-charged therapy session!

How to Know if Your Marriage Crosses the Line From Normal to Abusive

by | Mar 29, 2018 | Articles, Emotional Abuse, Learning, Popular Posts, Waking Up | 19 comments

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 He 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 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 undevaluing 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 erroneous 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 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 prevalent 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 It

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 don’t 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 how to heal), and they need someone in their corner.

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 and gender hierarchy. These beliefs are based on agenda driven propaganda taught in our seminaries, and they 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. It’s like deprogramming from a cult.
  • Sign up at the top of this website. I write 1-2 articles on my website each month. More importantly, I’ve got a juicy, wholesome, healing membership group called Flying Free (you can get on the waiting list HERE) that will change your life and jump-start your progress. The women over there are absolutely incredible. You are not alone!

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.

What about you?

19 Comments

  1. A

    Hi. I don’t want to share my name, but this is my situation and I don’t know how to get out of it and I need some advice. I am a 21 year old married woman and I was emotionally and physically abused for 10 years (8-18) by my step father. He finally left when I was a senior in high school and by that point I was dating my now husband. We got married at 20 and have been married for a year. The night we got married, I knew I made a mistake. He changed into a completely different person. To give you some background, both of our families have grown up as very conservative Christians. Because of the abuse as a child, I can recognize the same traits of an abuser and my husband pretty much qualifies for most of those traits. He is more emotionally abusive, but there is still some physical abuse. These past 2 months have been horrible and very scary. We had an argument that was so bad that my husband had to be taken to the hospital because he was burning himself and threatening to kill himself and blame me for it. He has always been very depressed and socially awkward but these 2 months have been the worst he’s ever been. He was admitted to the psychiatric ward at the hospital and they have diagnosed him with bipolar 2 (which doesn’t have the manic episodes). The reason for our fight was because I told him I was leaving him. Now, my family does not agree with my decision to leave him, even though he has been very abusive, because of their Christian beliefs. They believe that I should give him a second chance to fix things because he “was not able to control himself and what he’s done because he’s bipolar.” I’ve told them that it doesn’t change what he’s done and how he’s hurt me, just because he is sick. I have 6 different serious mental health problems and I never use them as an excuse or crutch. But they’re expecting me to give him a free pass just because he’s bipolar and because we made a vow “for better or for worse” under God. But I have given him so many chances to get the help he needed but he just flat out refused every time. He has severely hurt me, both emotionally and physically. He pushed me away and hurt me so much that I can’t even hear his name without being scared and tensing up. I don’t know how to get out of this situation because I don’t want to lose my family, but I need to look out for me and my safety. I need some advice about what the godly thing is to do. Please help because I’ve exhausted every option so far and have tried to explain where I’m coming from so many times but no one is hearing me, so I’ve turned to the internet for some help. I’m supposed to be meeting with him this Friday, but I don’t know what to say or do because he said if I ever leave him, he was going to kill himself and it was going to be all my fault. SOS.

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      I’m so sorry – this is a horrible experience you are going through, and sadly, all too familiar for many women here. I address a lot of your questions in my book: Is It Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Marriage: A Christian Woman’s Guide to Hidden Emotional and Spiritual Abuse. It’s on sale in the Kindle format this week for $2.99.

      The short answer to your question is that NO – it is not ungodly to leave an abuser. It is ungodly for your abuser to abuse you – and it is ungodly for your family to enable abuse and threaten to abandon you if you take responsibility for your own life and safety and health and get away. It is godly to tell the truth about reality. It is ungodly to lie, cover up, pretend, and enable gross and negligent sin.

      I go into far more detail about this issue in my book, so I encourage you to get it. You can get the first three chapters free by signing up at the top of my website. I hope and pray that one day you will fly free – as all God’s children were created to do. (((HUGS)))

      Reply
  2. Christie duran

    Can you send me the 10 red flags pdf you talk about in summit please. I can’t find it

    Reply
  3. Sheila

    I would have never thought that my thyroid condition may be linked! Just left a 23 year marriage for the sake of my kids and grandson. He keeps saying this is a 3 month separation. I keep thinking nope – he needs to think longer than that.

    Reply
    • Terri

      This. I have had a terrible time with thyroid energy depletion, and I had begun to wonder if it had something to do with my marriage. It has been so hard for so long. Nothing overtly abusive, most of the time, and certainly nothing physical (*that would be too overt for his image), but I have noticed this: When he leaves on business trips for several days, my energy level and morale immediately rise. My confidence and self-esteem seem to self-correct and normalize.

      And then I think, “Well, now I’m feeling pretty good, and I know what’s what, so now I can handle whatever he wants to dish out when he comes home.” But it’s relentless. Re.lent.less. And before long, even when I stand up to him, I’m back to hardly being able to function in daily life.

      Reading this article was something else again. My three boys are young and energetic and I thought they were part of my fatigue, but when they’re gone, I miss them–when my husband is gone, my energy goes up and I’m able to handle the boys just fine. It’s not the boys.

      Reply
  4. Stephanie Ross

    Freshly out of a 20 year emotionally abusive marriage. I felt like I had died inside in the weeks following my marriage vows. I spent all this time hoping things would get better. I am angry at myself for not awakening sooner. He never loved me. I didn’t exist as part of his life. But the saddest part of all, is this feeling of being rejected. I am happy to be out of the marriage but it hurts too.

    Reply
    • Rising

      You have loved deep. You have given so much of your life to a relationship you hoped could mend and be well and healthy, and happy.. When times were really bad, you probably reached in deeper for more forgiveness, more love, more, more, and more of yourself, because you just wanted it to get better, and you would give anything to mend what was broken.

      You have given, given, given. Now it is time to rest, rest, rest your heart. Nurture and care for yourself as you would a tiny delicate seedling, breaking free and finding root in the new soil beneath her. Your self care, your gentleness and love toward yourself, will be a balm to your broken aching heart.

      It hurts to give everything, all of your heart, all of your strength and energies, all of your mind, all of your whole being to someone you hoped to live your life with, and then to be tossed aside as if you are nothing, as if you never were anything to them at all.. I know that hurt. Mine too was 20 years of hoping things would get better, hoping he would wake up and stop hurting me. But he never did.

      The love that you gave so willingly for 20 years was recorded in heaven. You chose to love and hope, and that took great courage and strength to do.

      Be gentle and kind to yourself. You have been through a lot. You did the very best you knew how at the time. And now, you know and understand more, and you will do even better.

      Hugs

      Reply
    • Andra

      I am so sorry. I can only speak from my own experience but it helped with the feelings of rejection when I realized there was something very deep and broken about HIM that caused him to reject my love. It has absolutely ZERO to do with you. How sad that these men do not know how to cherish real love, sacrifice, and compassion!

      YOU are worth SO MUCH MORE than he has led you to believe. It isn’t you he has rejected…it is the very things that you mirror from God Himself. So, really, when these men reject their faithful, godly, loving (though imperfect), empathic wives, they are really rejecting God. I know we aren’t prophets like Samuel was but we have been messengers in these men’s lives for them to forsake evil and love the light. So, personally, I feel I can identify with Samuel when God told him, “It isn’t you they are rejecting. It is me.”

      Reply
  5. Milagro Castro

    Just happen to bump into your page. I believe its God lead. Ive been married for three years. My first four months of marriage was amazing. After that its been down hill. My husband started yelling, screaming when ever I wanted to docuss cuetains things or issues that I wanted to address. But it would turn into A screaming match. He brcame verbally abusive, calling me names, cursing, saying disgusting thing to me. Always twisting things, lieing making decions without my involvement. He slammed me to the fall, pulled my hair etc. My escape was sitting on a park bench for hours, crying out to God. It gets so bad that I wanted to kill myself. He throw me out severals times. I always returned. Theclast time he threw me out he took all the clorhes out of the dresser and threw thing everwhere. Its been two months since I left, im living with my daughter we have no children together. I fear him. His caused so much hurt. He contently texts me to go back. He threaten me by saying his leaving to the army, moving to Texas, or divorce me, taken me off the apartment lease, etc. At this point I trully don’t care what happens. The respect, trust is gone. He always says, Im sorry but continues to verbally abuse me, promising to change for two years. It just gets worse. He also yells and screams at his mom. You can’t tell what to do, his always right. Please help me heal. Ivhave noone to talk to but God. I know that opening your articles was an accidental. Devine appointment.

    Reply
  6. Lizbeth Abreu

    Thank you so much! Your website help me a lot, the books the videos you recommended from Patrick Doyle. I was feeling alone when the priest didnt support me. He supported the abuser instead of me, l had to change my Church because he joined it and no change he keeps the same no repentant. Thanks again God bless you!

    Reply
  7. Debby

    I wrote this. Wait, no. YOU wrote this. But…I wrote this. 30 years of this. First 2 decades were a mass of pain and confusion. The last decade, same thing, BUT, I found people like YOU, Natalie! People who spoke TRUTH about my “marriage” and validated what I was going through. Every few months, a new revelation until I finally, finally understand what I am dealing with. I have been separated for the last 9 months (I bought a 5th wheel! You should have heard THAT ridiculously manipulative conversation! But I was firm and I was educated and he could NOT prevail against me!) Most peaceful months of my life. Since this is the third time being completely away, and there were at least a dozen “mini” separations in a separate room, I can FINALLY say, “Gee, there seems to be a cycle, a pattern here. Maybe I need to NOT jump back on the hamster wheel!” Now I am facing divorce and even though it is SCARY and TOUGH and I so do NOT know what my future looks like, I am finally at peace.

    Reply
  8. Ava

    I suffer from a housemate/former boyfriend, who is verbally negative, vulgar and purposely slanders me constantly.

    There is a 22 yr age difference. I believe he is autistic (undiagnosed).
    He is crude & rude w/his toxic verbal derogatory remarks that constantly flow from his mouth.

    Yet, w/out a housemate I would be homeless, as I live on SSDI.

    Reply
  9. Christy

    Perfectly written Natalie, as ever!

    I would say that sometimes these clues are so very covert that a woman might not even think they’re happening. One of the most important things is to find someone trustworthy to help give you perspective. When you’re in an abusive marriage, you may not always see it.

    Reply
  10. Jennifer Chavers

    What made u get into this area of emotional abuse ?

    Reply
  11. Rebecca Farris

    Five years after realizing what I was dealing with and three years out, after reading tons of books and articles, the description at the beginning of this article matched my experience so well, I found myself walking away and breathing before being able to continue.

    GOD BLESS you for taking on the task of helping women. This issue is so much larger than we know of. In the even smaller group of homeschooling, it’s rampid.

    Reply
    • Natalie Hoffman

      It’s good to know I’m hitting a nerve! (In a good way, of course!) I’m glad you are flying free now!

      Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 50 Scriptures That Will Help You Communicate - Valerie Murray - […]  Flying Free website. […]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.