Abuse is such a tough situation. We want to speak to all the brave wives out there who are putting on the mask every Sunday and acting like things are OK when every week you live through a cycle of walking on eggshells, explosions, the honeymoon stage and then starting all over again. But abuse isn’t always as obvious as physical threats or violence; there are lots of subtler— but equally damaging— forms abuse can take.
We have a sad but necessary topic for you this week. For the next few episodes we’re going to be looking at abuse in marriage. Today we’re starting with the question, Is My Husband Abusive?
I think one of my biggest fears coming to a topic like this is that there are a lot of times that the “abuse” word gets thrown out there to describe stuff that really isn’t. And there are a lot of times when something should be called abuse and it is not.
We wanted to take this first episode to really help you go through these issues if you think it might be your situation — before we start talking about how to get help in our next episode. One of the things we put together for this episode is an assessment tool so that you can go through a specific set of questions and then evaluate your relationship to see if your husband is abusive. We’ll look at about how you can get hold of that later on.
As you might expect, abuse gets categorized in a number of different ways. I often like to point out that in the simplest terms that when you’re dealing with an abusive situation it’s to do with issues of power and control. You do need both of those things, not just one. There are a lot of us who struggle with anxiety who try to exert a lot of control on the world around us to try to help reduce the uncertainty — that’s an anxiety problem, not an abuse problem. And there are power struggles in marriage too — probably for most of us — but that doesn’t constitute abuse by itself either.
So let’s lay out some groundwork here about the types of abuse in marriage.
Types of Abuse in Marriage
I think it’s good to look at physical versus non-physical abuse. I’ve actually encountered wives experiencing physical abuse and they didn’t recognize it as such because not all forms of physical abuse look like a balled up fist.
Physical abuse includes any type of violence. Going from least to worst seriousness, this can include:
- Throwing something with the intent to hurt or intimidate
- Pulling hair
- Hitting with an object
- Attempting to drown
- Threats or use of a weapon such as a knife or gun[i].
In addition to that researcher’s definition I would include blocking, acting threatening or intimidating by posturing physically.
Types of Non-Physical Abuse
Non-physical abuse can be more difficult to identify. I want to pause here to make one point. A few years ago I came across my first situation where I had a wife asking for help with abuse. To help me make sure I was brushed up on the topic I consulted with a therapist who has written a book on the subject. During my consultation with this therapist and author, she mentioned the case of a woman who had been stabbed several times by her husband, rolled up in a rug and left in a field to die. The woman survived and her words were: the stabbing was awful, but his words hurt me more than anything else.
I think for a lot of us that have been blessed to grow up in safe families where there was no physical violence we often think of the worst kind of physical abuse as being the batterer. And I don’t want to discount that at all. But I just want to raise the point that non-physical abuse is incredibly brutal too, and should not be belittled. The old playground epithet that “sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words never do” is a bunch of baloney, especially in an abusive context. Just keep that in mind if you’re just beginning to learn about abuse.
There are four categories of non-physical abuse described in one of the journal articles we pulled:
- Emotional abuse (which can include verbal abuse) occurs when “a partner tries provoking arguments, engaging in name-calling, making [you] feel inadequate, and shouts or swears at [you][ii]”
- Social abuse occurs when “a partner limits contact with family and friends[iii]”. This is where the partner prevents you having a life outside your relationship, either by manipulation and guilt-tripping, by preventing you reaching other people (not letting you use your phone or the car etc) or by physically stopping you leaving the house.
- Economic abuse occurs when a “partner prevents [you] from knowing about or having access to family income[iv]”
- Psychological abuse occurs when a partner “undermines the security of the victim’s own logic and reason.[v]” These kinds of mind games and manipulation are designed to make the partner feel as if they are losing their mind.
Where this gets tricky is that your spouse’s behaviors can just look like bad behavior. There often isn’t a clear cut line between aggressive or controlling actions and abuse. So what is the difference between bad behavior and abuse?
Are My Husband’s Behaviors Destructive or Disappointing?
Leslie Vernick is a Christian counselor who works with many couples in abusive marriages. I am going to refer to her work because she has good work. But I want to mention this. I’ve been to her website. And in my opinion, which she may or may not want, I think the marketing people have designed her website so that it invites wives to conclude their husbands are abusive. And I think that is a very risky approach and I would urge a great deal of caution.
I have nothing to say in the defense of abusive husbands. Even as a therapist who employs a Rogerian, non-judgment, unconditional acceptance approach, I still have the urge to take abusive men out behind the barn. Even though that probably wouldn’t help them.
Abuse is a horrible thing. But her site makes an assumption that you’ve shown up married to a manipulator. And I just want to caution because we all try to manipulate our spouses. So that’s just a heads up. Her book, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, has some very valuable content for us to look at together.
In there she makes the distinction between marriages that are disappointing and marriages that are destructive[vi].
You may be listening today and you find yourself in a disappointing marriage but one that is not destructive or abusive. There are marriages in which things don’t turn out as expected. You may feel upset that there is not enough romance, that your husband disagrees with you on important issues, or that you don’t feel the emotional connection that you want. If you find yourselves in conflict over these matters, where does it move from disappointing to destructive?
She offers three indicators to help you know if your marriage is disappointing or destructive. You have to take all of these items together.
- The possibly abusive behaviors are repeated over and over again. I like a couple of things she says here. Firstly, emotionally destructive marriages consist of “emotional abuse [that] systematically degrades, diminishes and can eventually destroy the personhood of the abused”. She emphasizes the importance of looking for patterns of behavior. When I work with wives of abusive husbands I call this evidence gathering. He says God has forgiven him and he’s changing? You just watch and observe and see if the systematic behaviors have left or if they’re still present. You see, we’re all prone to individual instances of destructive sin. So you can’t define your marriage as abusive from one single episode of behavior, but should be looking for “repetitive attitudes and behaviors that result in tearing someone down or inhibiting growth”
- On many occasions, there are more than one or two potentially abusive behaviors. So perhaps with the list I gave at the start you saw your husband in one of the examples. Does that automatically indicate abuse? Not necessarily. The other researcher I referred to points out that some behaviors such as name-calling or provoking may not indicate abuse. But a spouse that “engages in many or all of them may be more clearly labeled abusive[vii]”. So ask the question, are there more than one or two potentially abusive behaviors?
- The potential abuser shows the following qualities when it comes to these behaviors:
- Lack of awareness
- Lack of responsibility (often blaming you — if you hadn’t provoked me I wouldn’t have punched you)
- Lack of change
Now you may have promises or indicators of these but we’re looking for evidence. On the other hand, if your husband misbehaves but then demonstrates change, awareness and taking responsibility then his behaviors may not fall into the abusive category.
So take those three indicators together. Does your husband show repeated abusive behavior or more than one type, while showing a lack of awareness, responsibility or willingness to change? If you’re getting solid “Yes’s” on all of them, we may have a situation.
Identifying Patterns of Non-Violent Abusive Behavior
So far we know that abusive behavior is repetitive, involves a variety of behaviors and often comes with a lack of awareness, responsibility, and change[viii].
Let’s look at some specific examples of non-physical behavior.
Porrua-Garcia tal (2016)[ix] developed a psychological scale called The Scale of Psychological Abuse in Intimate Partner Violence. In this scale, they divide psychological abuse into the following categories. There are six of them, and I’m going to list them off. There’s quite a bit here but remember that we have a simplified 2-page assessment available to our much-appreciated supporters. It’s a good tool to help you identify if you’re in an abusive marriage and should seek help. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
So let’s go through these six points on the scale of psychological abuse. Read through these statements and see if you recognize any of them in your own relationship
- Emotional Abuse
- My husband addresses me with insults and mockery.
- My husband invalidates me or makes fun of me in front of other people.
- My husband blames me for things I am not responsible for.
- My husband’s demonstrations of love occur when he wants me to forgive him for some offensive behavior or for some other reason in his own interest.
- It bothers my husband when I express my feelings.
- My husband blames me for almost everything that goes wrong between us
- My husband is affectionate only when it was in his own interest.[x]
- Imposition of One’s Own Thinking
- My husband does not tolerate my disagreeing with him.
- During disagreements, my husband imposes his view of things.
- My husband rejects my way of thinking when it doesn’t coincide with his[xi].
- Imposition of a Subservient Role
- My husband treats me as if I was his private servant.
- My husband makes me do things that went against my values.
- My husband rules my daily life without considering what I wanted[xii].
- My husband makes me grow apart from my friends.
- My husband tries to make us have as little contact with the family as possible.
- My husband keeps me from doing activities I feel like doing.
- My husband keeps me from establishing relationships with the people around me[xiii].
- Control and Manipulation of Information
- My husband manipulates the information he has to give me to suit his own interests.
- My husband does not allow me to talk to anyone about the abusive behaviors.
- My husband has hidden important information from me.
- My husband does not allow me to seek help to deal with our problems[xiv].
- Control of Personal Life
- My husband will not allow me to participate in decisions about our money, debts, or other assets.
- My husband makes me perform or watch sexual practices against my wishes.
- My husband controls everything I do.
- My husband interrogates me and other people around me to find out what I do and I am with at all times.
- My husband controls our money and restricts my use of it as much as possible[xv].
So psychological abuse can take many forms, including everything from direct insults to controlling different aspects of your life and undermining your value and independence as a person. The indicators mentioned above all still apply to psychological abuse— it has to be persistent, take more than one form, and lacking any awareness, responsibility or desire to change in order to be considered true abuse.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this post: a lot of definitions, a lot of specific criteria. So let’s recap. We started with the question: is my husband abusive?
We looked at the types of abuse in marriage: physical and non-physical, and noted that we should never discount non-physical abuse, which can be just as damaging as the physical kind, if not more so.
Then we looked at Vernick’s take on: is my marriage disappointing or abusive. And her three helpful evaluation points:
- The possibly abusive behaviors are repeated over and over again (systematic and repetitive attitudes and behaviors).
- There are a variety (more than one or two) potentially abusive behaviors going on.
- The potential abuser shows a lack of awareness, a lack of taking responsibility and a lack of change.
And finally, the list from the more recently developed psychological scale.
Is My Husband Abusive?
This is a complimentary assessment tool that you can access to right away. Just click the button!
If many of the examples and different kinds of abusive behavior mentioned in today’s post sound all too familiar, or if you think there are patterns of abuse in your marriage, you may be wondering what you can do about it. Should you be hanging in there in the hopes that your husband will change, or are some patterns of behavior too deeply ingrained to ever be altered?
Abuse in Marriage Series
Will the abuse get better? Or is it going to stay the same? Abuse is deeply rooted in a person’s belief systems. In the next post we will take a look at recovery rates to determine how much hope there is for any abusive marriage.
This post is the first of a three-part series on abuse in marriage. Get the other posts here:
[i] Maureen Outlaw, ‘No One Type of Intimate Partner Abuse: Exploring Physical and Non-Physical Abuse Among Intimate Partners’, Journal of Family Violence, 24.4 (2009), 263–72 <https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10896-009-9228-5>.
[vi] Leslie Vernick, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage: How to Find Your Voice and Reclaim Your Hope (Colorado Springs, Colorado: WaterBrook Press, 2013).
[viii] Leslie Vernick; Outlaw.
[ix] Clara Porrúa-García and others, ‘Development and Validation of the Scale of Psychological Abuse in Intimate Partner Violence (EAPA-P)’, Psicothema, 28.2 (2016), 214–21 <https://doi.org/10.7334/psicothema2015.197>.
[x] Porrúa-García and others.
[xi] Porrúa-García and others.
[xii] Porrúa-García and others.
[xiii] Porrúa-García and others.
[xiv] Porrúa-García and others.
[xv] Porrúa-García and others.