Is it abuse or just a normal marriage with ups and downs? ©iStockPhoto


"Don't blame yourself for provoking the abuse in your relationship. ln a healthy relationship you can make mistakes, get angry or even be critical and not pay such a high price. You are not the "cause" of your partner's rage or violence and you cannot be the cure." —Alice Laviolette


Recognizing Abuse

For most of us, the hardest thing to do is to recognize that we have been abused and perhaps are still being abused.

Sometimes it can feel scary, intimidating, or wrong to call it “abuse.”

We tend to think of abuse as something that happens to other people, something that only totally depraved monsters do—not something that can happen in a marriage we chose for ourselves, where there have been good times, and with a spouse we once loved very deeply (and maybe still do).

If this is you, please know that you are not alone—this happens to many, many people—and you are not crazy.

You also do not have to call what is happening to you “abuse” yet, if you are not ready for that. You can try something that feels easier:

    • This is not okay.
    • This is not acceptable.
    • This is hurtful behavior.


5 Types of Control and Abuse

  • Physical abuse is the willful infliction of physical pain or injury, such as slapping, bruising, sexually molesting, or restraining. More covert methods also constitute abuse, such as blocking your way, sleep deprivation, physical abandonment, displaying weapons, or giving you drugs or medicine without consent.
  • Verbal/Emotional/Mental abuse is the infliction of mental or emotional anguish, such as humiliating or threatening language and treatment. More covert methods also are abusive, such as lying, accusing, isolating, blaming, denying, demeaning, manipulating through putdowns, or demanding to know where you go and who you’ve spoken to. Gaslighting also falls under this category. (The term gaslighting comes from a 1944 movie and is now used in psychology to mean chronic manipulation in which the gaslighter (the abuser) causes the victim to question their identity, their judgment, their self-worth, and their perceptions of reality.)
  • Financial or material exploitation is another form of abuse, in which the money, credit, or belongings of a spouse are used—or withheld—without their consent. This also includes running up debt, making major purchases, and withholding information about joint taxes, banks, and credit card accounts.
  • Neglect is the failure of a caretaker to provide goods or services necessary to avoid physical harm, mental anguish, or illness:[1] things such as food, water, clothing, shelter, medical care, and a safe environment. In marriage, it also includes withholding affection.
  • Spiritual abuse is the willful use of religious beliefs to manipulate or shame one spouse into giving control to the other spouse, who “lords it over” their partner, rather than giving each spouse the responsibility to follow a loving God above any other person. It is also spiritually abusive to use religious sayings, scriptures, threats of divine punishment, threatened withdrawal of divine favor/blessing, or negative spiritual judgments about your character to make you remain in a dangerous situation. People who claim prophetic authority to tell you what to do with your life, or who claim special knowledge about God’s mind and will that “people like you” don’t have (rather than recognizing your ability to hear from God directly) are also being spiritually abusive. Note that spiritual abuse can be perpetuated by one spouse against the other, but it can also be perpetuated by a pastor, religious leader, or an entire religious community, against an individual whose wellbeing is at stake.

"Betrayal. A breach of trust. Fear. What you thought was true—counted on to be true—was not. It was just smoke and mirrors, outright deceit and lies. Sometimes it was hard to tell because there was just enough truth to make everything seem right. Even a little truth with just the right spin can cover the outrageous." Patrick J. Carnes, The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships


When being around your spouse or wondering what they're doing puts you on high alert, sometimes the pain is so intense and so constant, and the struggle to just survive each day is so all-consuming, that it can be next to impossible to take a step back from the situation and truly understand what is happening.

When you’re in it, it feels inescapable and inevitable, and you can’t imagine that a safer, happier life is possible. Maybe you tell yourself this is just how marriage is, and this is just what it looks like to love someone and be loved by someone. Marriage is hard work—right?

But somewhere deep inside you, a still, small voice says, Surely it’s not supposed to be this hard.

Something’s wrong here.

In that still, small voice, we hear Jesus calling us into greater freedom and release from bondage, though the road to that freedom may be long and challenging. We take one small step at a time, as we are able, and God walks right beside us, leading and guiding and strengthening us to face the next step.

Today we will work on one important step in particular: learning to see and name the wrong behavior as wrong.

Abuse and betrayal are not how marriage is supposed to be, and it’s not the way God designed love to work between a husband and wife. It really shouldn’t be this hard! Something really is wrong!

Furthermore, it’s important to realize that spouses who behave dangerously and abusively in their marriages tend to do so in predictable ways. Your spouse is not the first or only person using these tactics—far from it! In fact, these behaviors are so common that they have names and can be identified.

Victims of abuse often gain immense confidence, validation, and freedom through understanding what abuse looks like and how it works.

This is adapted from the book The Life-Saving Divorce. Used with permission. A list of more than 100 examples of abuse (emotional, physical, spiritual, etc.), and additional information about "gaslighting," the abuse cycle, and the Duluth Wheel, are included in the book.

[1] “Elder or Dependent Adult Abuse,” Psychology Today (4/2/19), accessed 6/29/19, The first four types of abuse are adapted from this article.


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