Is Your Husband Abusive? Be Careful of “Abuse Creep”

Is Your Husband Abusive? A litmus test and a warning about using the word too cavalierlyA few years ago a friend whispered to me that she was leaving her husband. He was emotionally abusive towards their kids, and she couldn’t run interference any longer.

My heart went out to her. I had never witnessed that type of behaviour from him, but who knows what goes on behind closed doors? And so I hugged her, and assured her I would stand by her side.

Fast forward to the present day, and that horrible, abusive father now has custody more than half the time. As soon as the separation was finalized, my friend willingly sent her kids to this “abusive” man. Meanwhile she’s setting up house with another guy.

I have known so many women in horribly abusive situations who needed to get out, and perhaps because of that it irks me even more when we throw the word “abuse” around so cavalierly to justify our own actions. If her husband was so abusive that she had to leave to protect the kids, why did she so willingly hand them over?

Many of you email me with problems that you’re having in your marriage, and I often see people using the word “abuse” when I wonder if that’s what they really mean. On Monday, my post about what to do when your husband’s a bad stepfather, a little discussion broke out in the comments about that exactly. One commenter said that I shouldn’t take women’s labeling of behaviour as abusive at face value, but should say something to the effect of, “if you wouldn’t leave over it, it’s not abusive, so don’t call it abuse.” I think she’s right in general, although in this particular case the letter writer did comment that she also felt badly about using that word. So I’m NOT writing this post about that letter writer. I just thought it was important to bring up, because I think we do treat the word too cavalierly.

Women Sometimes Label Husbands “Abusive” Because They Want the Moral High Ground

What happens when a friend tells you that her husband is abusive towards her, or towards her kids? Chances are you react the way I did with my friend: you sympathize. You feel horrified. You want to help.

Hopefully you’ll also ask some prodding questions and find out what behaviour, exactly, is abusive. But we know in this society that abuse is a horrible, horrible evil, and so when we use that word, we automatically get the moral high ground.

Please hear me: I am absolutely not saying that abuse doesn’t happen. As I wrote, there is way too much abuse in Christian homes, and we often use the word “submission” to justify it. Abuse is real and should never be tolerated.

But at the same time, we have to be careful of labeling things as abusive so that we can win an argument or get people on our side, because that happens, too. We’ve started labeling normal, albeit unhealthy, methods of dealing with conflict as abusive. If he yells, he’s abusive. If he manipulates, he’s abusive. If he’s jealous, he’s abusive. And as soon as we’ve done that, we’ve dropped the atomic bomb on his reputation and on our ability to work through this issue calmly. Now some people who yell and manipulate and are jealous are abusive, but not all. And I think we’re too quick to use the word.

How Do I Know if My Husband is Abusive?

(I’ve updated this section since I wrote it first)

Most women who are being abused are so downtrodden that they find it really hard to do anything about it. They think they deserve it; they don’t know what to do. So let me offer a litmus test for whether or not it’s abuse:

If you say he’s abusive, but you stay with him and leave your kids with him, then that should be a signal that something’s not right and you need to take action. Either he is abusive, in which case you need to leave; or he isn’t, in which case you need to stop slandering him.

Please note that I am not saying that if you stay with him that means that he’s NOT abusive. Many women stay with an abusive husband when they should get out. What I am saying is that if you say your husband is abusive, that, in and of itself, is a signal that YOU MUST NOW DO SOMETHING.

(Note: Please see update, below)

If he is abusive, I know that’s really hard. It’s hard to get help. You feel helpless, and you feel like you deserve it. But please, reach out and talk to someone! Call the abuse hotline. Even call the police! But do something, for you and your kids.

If he isn’t really abusive, then you need to stop calling him abusive and start looking at healthy ways to resolve conflict.

Again, as soon as you use the word “abuse” without doing something concrete to leave, that is a signal that you are in the wrong and need to take action.

Let’s reserve the word “abuse” for things that are so dangerous that leaving for your protection, or your children’s protection, is necessary.

You Are an Adult; Act Like It

There’s an additional danger to this “abuse creep”: when we start thinking of ourselves as “abused”, when we are not, then we feel helpless, as if we’re victims, and we often fail to draw healthy boundaries to stop dysfunctional behaviour.

Sometimes we create this dynamic where we don’t draw the line when a spouse is acting inappropriately. That’s usually what we start to term “emotional” or “mental” abuse. Someone yells, or they’re controlling, or they’re belittling. We don’t know how to handle it, so we label it abuse. Now, this very well could rise to the level where it is abuse (that’s why you need to ask other people to help), but quite often it’s just unhealthy patterns.

And too often we do nothing except fret about it. You don’t want to rock the boat. But sometimes you have to stand up and do the right thing!

If your spouse is yelling, mocking, or belittling you, say firmly, “I won’t sit here and listen to you talking to me like that. When you’re ready to have a healthy conversation I would love to participate, but until then I’m going to another room.”

If your husband won’t let you have access to money, then go to the bank and demand a debit and credit card off of the accounts. If the accounts aren’t joint, ask your husband to make them joint. You do have rights to communal property.

If your husband demands an accounting of where you’ve been and whom you’ve been with constantly, don’t give it to him. If he insists, tell him you’d be happy to do so in the presence of a third party, like a counselor, who can mediate and help you figure out if he’s being overly jealous or not.

I’m just saying that often when we say “my husband is abusive“, what you really mean is “my husband is acting in a way that makes me sad and upset and I feel like I can’t do anything about it.” I understand the feeling, but nobody else is going to fix your relationship for you. Sometimes you need to step in and set proper boundaries and start taking the initiative so that the dysfunctional patterns are fixed, rather than getting worse.

Of course, if you’re scared to do any of these things because you think he may get violent, then you have a bigger problem and you really do need help. Please get it! But in many cases, I think, women are just so scared of conflict that we don’t speak up, and then when we hear him yell we call it abuse when it’s really just that neither of you knows how to resolve conflict well.

Abuse should never be tolerated, and if your spouse is abusive, then please get out and protect yourself and your kids. But when we start labeling all unhealthy behaviour as abusive, we’re not helping our families; we’re hurting them. Abuse is awful, but so is refusing to take responsibility to do your part to fix unhealthy relationship patterns. So, please, resist the urge to point fingers, and start building a better marriage.

Have you ever seen the word “abuse” get tossed around inappropriately? How do you figure out if it’s an abusive situation or not? Let me know in the comments!

(This post has been updated from its original version).

UPDATE: Friday morning: Okay, I’ve been thinking about this over night, and I know why I was uncomfortable with part of it, and I’d like to clarify.

I have a dear friend who WAS abused in her marriage, but she never left. Why? The abuse wasn’t constant; it was sporadic. It was mostly yelling and belittling, though he was also very physically intimidating. Her pastor thought she should leave, after counseling them both for a while, and told her to call him, night or day, if she ever needed help getting out. But she didn’t leave, mostly because of her children, and not wanting to disrupt their lives. She agonized over that decision, though.

Her husband passed away, and she’s now safe and fine. But I do understand that there are cases where it is truly abuse where you don’t leave.

That doesn’t change the fact, however, that many women SAY their husbands are abusive when they’re not. So I guess what I would say is that if it is truly abuse, then you’re definitely THINKING about leaving, for your own safety, and your children’s safety, even if you can’t leave or won’t leave right now. But if you’re only thinking about leaving because you don’t like him and he makes you angry, or you think he’s treating you badly, then it’s not abuse. And I still maintain that we should reserve that word for what is truly awful, because it has such a stigma attached to it that once you level it at someone, it poisons everything.


  1. Do you any scripture to back any of your actions listed in the second half? Your advice seems to be so beyond Scripture, I don’t even know what to say. It’s all about how the wife can then control the husband just because she doesn’t like his actions, when we are told to submit to our husbands.

  2. I’m really struggling with today’s post. First, because the only time I see the main tenant of teaching towards christian wives, submission, it’s only in a negative light. An abusive man is going to be abusive whether you submit or not.

    But even more troubling is not one mention that women are just as likely to be abusive. Almost every single survey to men and women finds this to be true. And I can tell you from sitting in on my pastor husbands counseling sessions this is more than true. Yelling, manipulation, jealousy, these are things that go both ways but only acknowledge when the man does it and we only call it abuse when the man does it, why is that? Don’t be fooled by arrest records, cops in most areas have to take someone in when a domestic dispute call is called in and they almost always take the man even if he is not the offending party. There are probably more women being physical with men than vs. versa because men know they can’t get away with it, at least those who come thru our counseling doors seem to indicate this. Sheila, I’m not trying to be hard but this blog is very polarizing…we are good, they are bad. Not true.

    • Julie, I’d absolutely agree with you about women being abusive. I’ve seen it, too, and the studies certainly bear that out. You’re right, I should have mentioned it.

      My intention was to address something specific that happened on Monday when a woman had labelled her husband abusive. That’s what I was trying to get at: that we women shouldn’t label men abusive unless they really are, because I see A LOT of that in the Christian church, and it’s wrong.

      It’s not meant to be a post on abuse as much as it is a post on the dangers of calling someone abusive when they are not. In that case, it really is pretty much just women calling men abusive, and not the other way around.

      Women being abusive is likely a topic for another post, on how we often let anger get away from us. I’m not trying to duck the issue; I just can’t deal with everything in one post, and this post was really meant to be about women labeling all negative behaviour as abusive, not whether or not only men are abusive. Does that make sense?

      • Sheila, I guess it does. But honestly, your response to me was worded much more strongly than your post. My point was this, you don’t get to label your husband abusive if you are doing the same thing or if he is reacting to you. For example, let’s use Amy’s example below: I will take the kids. Tens of thousands of men are threatened with this every week. But no one labels that abuse because it is not a man doing it. If you are yelling at him and he’s yelling back, you don’t get to call him an abuser. If he’s responding to manipulation in response to your manipulation, again you don’t get to call him an abuser. Apply the same standards to yourself that you apply to him. He may be bigger, but you have every other advantage possible. The courts, the culture, the church, everything else is on a woman’s side and we use that to our advantage as you state to get the moral high ground. And it’ not right.

        • I agree, Julie, but I hope you also see the impossible situation I’m in! :) I have you telling me I’m too easy on women, and a whole lot of other people telling me I’m too hard on women, and all in one post! It really is impossible to write something that will satisfy both sides. I tried really hard to do that, and both groups are telling me I’ve failed, and I guess I’m just rather down about the whole thing.

          You are passionate about one side; a lot of people are passionate about the other. I believe both sides have valid points, and I tried to come up the middle, and in the process I seem to have ticked everyone off! To be honest, I wish I hadn’t have written it.

          I believe what I said, but it’s just hard when everyone is always sure that I didn’t stress their issue enough. Hope you understand.

          • Sheila, I’ve been following these comments on and off this morning between homeschooling kids!! I think this is the awesome thing about your blog is that it brings out these totally sensitive (sometimes taboo) subjects. I think this is a hot topic for people because if they have been in abuse there is almost nothing you can say that is right (to them) after their trauma. That kind of trauma can take a lifetime – or never – to heal. Its a hard one. But its still a good thing to bring up and I like your gutsy-ness!! Hope you don’t really regret writing it! :)

          • Thanks, Steph! I needed that.

      • Carol Plum-Ucci says:

        Lundy Bancroft, in his best-selling spousal abuse book, WHY DOES HE DO THAT? (INSIDE THE MINDS OF ANGRY AND CONTROLLING MEN) addresses this gender issue clearly. He says he does not take wife abuse as seriously as husband abuse because, statistically, only 2% of men feel really threatened by a yelling, screaming insulting woman. Men may find it annoying and sad, but women, conversely, almost always find these men extremely threatening.

  3. Thank you for taking the time to address this issue! There does seem to be a lot of people claiming abuse of some sort. I have even claimed emotional abuse, but would rather try to work things out instead of giving up on the relationship. When you get the chance, a topic of interest would be the types of abuse and how it affects the relationship.

    • my only worry was how you were so ready to believe that she was exaggerating about her husband, simply because you’d never “witnessed” him being abusive. A lot of abusive men have a public face and a private face. Also, I don’t think the fact that he has custody over his children means she willingly “handed them over”. Custody battles are horrendous, and unless you were privy to all the legal wrangling, maybe you shouldn’t assume she was that willing to hand them over?

      • Laolu, those were exactly my questions. I know for a fact that several people have made false assumptions about my leaving my husband, because I chose not to spread our issues around, and because he said stuff to them that led them to believe something very different happened. His public persona is not abusive, and people who only see him in social, public settings have a hard time believing it. So I know there are some dear, well-meaning people who think that I “kidnapped his kids from him, and he has no idea why I left.”

        They did not see my 8 year old standing in the hall, crying, shaking, and begging me to help him because he was terrified of what his dad would do to him because he got his freaking vocabulary cards out of order. His father never beat him. He just terrorized him and threatened him. The did not hear me lying to my friend about why i couldn’t come out with her, because I didn’t want to “talk badly” about my husband. They would never believe the words that flew out of his mouth and landed on me and his children.

        Honestly, though I know that some people misuse the word, I do not believe that that is the bigger issue. I think we can start talking about that with more authority when we as a church stop sweeping abuse under the rug.
        Margaret recently posted…A DoorMy Profile

  4. Sheila,
    First off I want to say how much I absolutely love your blog and all the information you offer women, but (there’s always a but in there, isn’t there?!) this morning’s post really bothered me. From what you have written it is very clear that you do not have any real knowledge of what abuse is nor have ever been around someone, a friend or family member, who has been in an abusive relationship.
    There is so much I could comment on, but do not have time.

    “Please note that I am not saying that if you stay with him that means that he’s NOT abusive. I’m just saying that YOU are acting badly in this situation, because if he is abusive you should be leaving and you’re not.”
    Wow, just wow to this.
    I was in a 20-year abusive marriage. Two decades of my life I stayed. And yes, I left our boys alone with him on occasion. And yes, he was abusive to them as well. Why did I stay? Why did I act badly in that situation by not leaving if he were truly abusive? The reasons are extensive and some are allusive as well. You stay for fear of raising children on your own and as a stay-at-home-homeschooling mom for years that fear was real. Having to get a job after not working for years, you wonder how you can possibly provide for yourself and your children. You fear if you take the steps to leave or just walk out that he will do whatever he can to destroy you. You fear that he will try to take your children from you…my ex used to come up behind me while I was on the floor playing with the kids and whisper in my ear that if I ever tried to leave him he would take the boys…there was no way in hell I was going to risk losing my boys to him. You fear that no one will believe you as abusers can be masters at hiding what they do at home…they are the perfect Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and often people are surprised when things finally come out. You fear God hating you for leaving your marriage because too often well meaning Christians tell a woman in an abusive situation to just respect and submit more and he will change, and that since God “hates divorce” you cannot do that expect in the case of adultery or abandonment.
    And the reasons go on and on.
    It is not so black and white in why women stay and don’t leave abusive situations, but it is very common for women, especially with children, to stay and stay way too long.

    Here are some resources for anyone who thinks they may be in an abusive relationship and/or to those who want to learn more about abuse:
    Love Isn’t Supposed To Hurt, Christi Paul
    Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, Lundy Bancroft

    And I agree that the word “abuse” is thrown around way too lightly these days, but in cases where it is real women need to be supported and gently helped to find their way out. Please don’t put anymore condemnation on a woman who is scared for whatever reason to leave…it’s just not always that easy. Ask my family who tried so hard to get me to leave my situation and who rejoiced greatly once I found the courage to do so.
    Amy recently posted…Warm oatmeal, foggy mornings and finding your wingsMy Profile

    • Amy, you are totally right. I think I slanted the article one way because that’s what was happening on the blog on Monday, but I think there’s also the other side that I didn’t give enough credence to. Thank you for so thoughtfully bringing that up, and I’m going to go update the post now to do something about it!

      • I fully understood where you were coming from in this post and knew when I read it that it was in regards to the post on Monday, so yes, there was a slant in that direction.
        I suppose this will always be a hard topic for me because for years I heard the whole submit more, respect him in all things and stop making such a big deal out of it.
        Thanks, Sheila.
        Amy recently posted…Warm oatmeal, foggy mornings and finding your wingsMy Profile

        • Amy, I’m so sorry that you went through that. I think the church has a LOT to answer for in telling women that if they just submit more abuse will stop. That’s really Debi Pearl’s take, as I wrote about here, and it’s totally wrong. I also think that the more people label things that AREN’T abusive as abuse, the more we’ll stop thinking abuse is so bad. It’s kind of like calling politicians we don’t like Nazis. They’re not Nazis! They’re just wrong, and maybe they even have evil intent. But that doesn’t make them Nazis. And the more we throw that word around, the more it loses its power.

          Abuse is horrible, and I want the word to retain its power. So I want people to stop using it unless it really is abusive. And I think many women really need a third party to help them negotiate that, while others really are using it for their own gain, which is sad.

  5. I think a distinction is in order. If one spouse is hitting or physically harming the other, I don’t think a litmus test is needed, and I would think that a woman who is in that situation is so emotionally scrambled that she can’t think clearly about what to do. There is also the issue of safety in leaving – like the need for shelters to be in secret locations, etc.

    I understand what you are saying about emotional and mental abuse. I agree that these terms are thrown around too much, but I don’t think the litmus test would work for these either. People who are legitimately abused probably wouldn’t have the objectivity to see what is happening. I guess I would say that anyone who thinks they are being abused should seek outside help right away from a qualified person to help them sort it out.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  6. I agree with anonymous, above. I agree with you that the term “abuse” is thrown around carelessly sometimes. But telling women they are in the wrong for not leaving a legitimately abusive relationship is unhelpful at best. Victims of abuse have many reasons for nor leaving and probably already feel as though it is their fault. The victims who leave are tremendously brave, but telling those who haven’t left that they are the problem and they are acting badly is victim-blaming.

    • I understand, Courtney, and that isn’t my intention. But at the same time, if you are being abused, you NEED TO GET OUT! If you stay, you ARE in doing wrong because you’re allowing yourself to be treated that way, and likely allowing your children to be treated that way, too. I’m not trying to make women feel badly, but I think we all need to say, as loudly as we can, GET OUT!!!! Really. And then we need to come alongside those we know who are being abused and help them get out. I think the more people say, “You need to get out!”, the more we give these women permission to overcome their fears.

      I don’t want to make people feel badly, but I don’t know what the alternative is when the status quo is dangerous. They HAVE to change the status quo, and no one else will do it for them.

      • Perhaps we disagree on what we should say to those in abusive situations to encourage and empower them to escape, but I appreciate you tackling the subject. It is so complex, and we need more education and advocacy about this. Reading all of the comments here has me thinking: if churches, communities, and we as individuals were to get more involved, speak out, and do more to expose the tragedies of abuse, maybe women would be less inclined to trivialize it and use the term “abuse” lightly.

    • I was actually wondering if physical conflict is ALWAYS abuse? Is that just the one thing that is automatically abuse? I’ve been talking about this lately with a woman who says her husband is not violent or abusive by nature…but lately the conflict levels have made it so that he shoves her down or throws something that bruises, or grabs her arms hard. What IS abuse in this way? If you’re not bleeding or limping, etc….or seriously hurt is it just bad conflict skills? Really wondering and would like input.

      • I would say that’s abusive, but I think that’s where a person talking to someone who is trained in this is very helpful, because sometimes that can give people clarity to leave when they need to.

        Sometimes the leaving isn’t permanent, either; sometimes it’s a separation so someone can work on their anger issues. But there really isn’t a reason to hurt someone ever.

      • I am appalled at men who push wives. Leaving bruises by throwing things is abusive. The bible says this, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5 NIV). What did Christ do? He took the beating that we deserved so that his bride (us) could spend the rest of our lives with him.
        It boils down to this. Men should be sacrificially giving (even to the point of physical pain and death) to their wives. But nowhere in the bible does it call on women to do the same. Women are to be in subjection to the man, but the man is to be a servant leader, sacrificially giving himself up. Not acting like a child, pushing and hitting his spouse, the beautiful bride he is supposed to protect! Love, lead, guide, and protect. That is what men should be doing. If a man is not doing that, and he has chosen to hurt his wife physically or verbally, it is not her responsibility to stay and take boyish tantrums which result in their harm.

  7. As the survivor of abuse, in family and in marriage, I can tell you that telling someone to ‘get out’ is always easier said than done. The old “devil you know” axiom is so very true. A woman, or a child, or a man in an abusive relationship has to survive. The abuser needs to keep them controlled. This leads to isolation. This leads to false faces and often false lives. The man who smiles at you in church on Sunday may also be the weekend binge drinker who broke his daughter’s arm and blamed it on a bike accident. You don’t know. We have a culture that still embraces the idea that what goes on in a home stays in that home – good or bad.

    A friend of mine wrote a while about about shooting our wounded as believers. We would rather NOT know the bad stuff, we would rather NOT deal with the truth that someone can ‘seem’ normal and be an addict, an abuser, a manipulator.

    There is no ‘litmus’ test. There are signs. Many signs. I stayed for 7 years, trying to make things better. Trying to keep someone happy, who was only happy he was hurting me. I got VERY good at hiding what was going on out of fear. The few who knew were either afraid to help because of fear of him, or didn’t know what to do. I ran away with an over night bag and my dog. If I had stayed I would have either lost my life or my mind.

    I have advocated and worked with abused women, men and children. Their stories have some similar structures and patterns. There are strong people who get broken and stay broken. There are weaker people who get strong and stay strong. There are people who think they are weak, who are broken and become stronger in the broken places. Abuse is complex and intolerable.

    As a church body, as a body of believers in Christ, we have a chance to show God’s love and grace to abused families. But so many churches and organizations don’t want to get involved. It is messy, it can be dangerous. It doesn’t follow a set of steps to success. It will have them sheltering a family against someone who by all appearances on Sunday mornings is a model father and husband. Or perfect mother.

    It is not so easy to say, “GET OUT” when you don’t know how, or where to go, if you can take your kids or your cat, the dog. Can he find you? Can she convince people to make you come back? How do you answer the question, “Is it really THAT bad?” or worse, “God wants you to stay.”

    We need to talk about abuse, and about better relationships and for that I am thankful for this post and the comments, and resources. It isn’t simple. And we have, as a body of believers, a long way to go but we are working on it. And that is a blessing!
    Shanyn recently posted…Guest Post: Carey Scott, Lord Help MeMy Profile

    • I agree with this. It’s easy to say “GET OUT!” But how is this accomplished if the church or people who are supposed to be advocates won’t actually….I dunno, step in and actually offer concrete help?

      • Amy, I agree. The church needs to be better at offering help. At the same time, even if the church ISN’T offering help, it’s still incumbent on the woman to get out, especially if there are children involved. I’m not saying it’s EASY; the right thing to do rarely is.

        However, even if the church doesn’t have help, almost every community in North America does offer abuse shelters, and so there is help available. It may not be the best; but it is there. If you have any links or resources to abuse hotlines in the U.S. I’d be happy to put them up, since most of my readers are American (and I’m not!)

        • Thank you for being willing to add to and correct this post. I agree with all the points Amy made (and realize you do also, even if that wasn’t reflected in your initial post). The problem all too often in our beloved churches is most really are not equipped to fully handle abusive situations because very often behind the abuse lies a person with psychiatric problems, addictions, etc… And they are masters at hiding these things from their church family. These men and women often need professional help and won’t seek it out until you stop tolerating the abuse. Submission does not mean you allow yourself to be mistreated or allow your children to be abused. Boundaries in Marriage by Cloud and Townsend is a great Christian resource.

  8. Sheila, I want to start by saying that I am a huge fan of your posts! They have significantly helped me work through issues in my marriage and have sparked healthy changes.

    This post left me a little uneasy, but I could not figure out why. Seeking more clarification, I decided to do a google search on the definition of emotional abuse – which is a very real and damaging form of abuse. I just wanted to share a couple of links with you. Some of the behaviors that you mentioned as examples of poor conflict resolution are actually some of the warning signs of emotional abuse.

    Thanks for bringing our attention to some of these issues,

  9. I usually love your articles but I found the title of this one misleading. If in doubt if you or a friend is in abusive please read ” love isn’t supposed to hurt” it has a better definition and ways to help

  10. I find this post informative and refreshing, and I agree with one small caveat: You mentioned something about not giving a husband information if he is “demanding” it. I think we may have to more clearly define “demanding”. My husband (a wonderful man) wants to know where I am and with whom I’m spending my time, simply because he loves me and for safety reasons he wants to be aware. I give him that information out of respect for him and don’t consider his want/need to know as a demand.

    These are tricky waters to navigate, and terminology can be tough in discerning the real situation being described. I’d just like to say kudos to you for delving in here and opening eyes to a vitally important topic.

    • Very good point, Lisa! Being controlling and jealous and limiting a wife’s freedom of movement or freedom of association is a hallmark of abusive behaviour, which is why I mentioned it. But I, like you, tell my husband where I am and who I’m with all the time. The issue really is only when the husband is jealous and forbids the wife from talking to friends/family or even cashiers at stores, etc.

  11. Thanks for a great article! I personally know women who leave their husband’s under the excuse of ’emotional abuse’, and I can’t know everything, but it seems to me that it is often an excuse for not wanting to work things out. My mom stayed in an ’emotionally abusive’ marriage for years with her husband, and while it wasn’t pretty, all of us kids are thankful she did. We feared them separating more than anything. In their old age they are getting along much better, fwiw.
    I think us women have to really be careful not to call unkind or unchristlike behavior “abusive”. Totally got your point!
    Kay (A Ranch Mom) recently posted…Beef Recipe #4 ~ Latin Beef Stew (crockpot-friendly!)My Profile

  12. I totally understood the whole point of your post and I totally agree with it – if a woman is being abused, she needs to something about and if she isn’t being abused and yet she is accusing her husband of it, then she needs to STOP! I think some are just making extra-irrelevant-to-the-point-of-your-post points – they really had nothing to do with your point in your post.
    I agree that women need to do something if they truly are in an abusive relationship and I feel as though your post helps to give ‘permission’ to do something. If a husband is sinning against his wife by abusing her and she sits by idly thinking “Well, this is what submission is all about.” That is a tragic distortion of biblical womanhood. God did not create any woman to be a doormat, and God holds us women responsible for the way we think, we live, the choices we make, the way we use our bodies and present our bodies. Women will be held accountable to God for not taking action in truly abusive situations, regardless of how hard it is to do so.
    My husband and I have been listening to some stuff on marriage and the gospel by David Platt. Here are some things he had to say on the issue, “There’s a manual on church discipline from the second century that says, “If there is a man
    who is abusing his wife in the church, the pastor should take two stout elders and visit that home.” Take that brother out back with some stout elders and have a talk about manhood.” I LOVE this idea!!
    He goes on to say, “Man is not the ultimate leader: Christ is the ultimate leader, and man leads in a way that reflects the loving authority of Christ. Man’s primary responsibility is to lead, and man is accountable to God for two things, mainly here, based on what we’ve seen. One, man is accountable to God for protection of his wife. Clearly, he is held accountable in Genesis 3 for not protecting his wife from the Adversary. A husband is head of the wife, but not the ultimate head because Christ is the head of the husband. Christ is the head of all of us, so biblical womanhood is not saying, “Whatever my husband tells me to do, I’ll do it no matter what he says.” Biblical womanhood has a discerning spirit that is inclined to submit to her
    husband but is further inclined to submit to Christ. If her husband wants her to do something that goes directly against the Word of Christ, then she will yield to Christ over him. So, biblical womanhood is not leaving your brain or your will at the door of marriage, and not putting the will of your husband before the will of Christ.”
    Abuse could be anything that is contrary to God’s plan for marriage. A husband failing to protect his wife, physically, emotionally, spiritually – to me that is abuse.

    • Thank you so much, Aimee. Yes, I hope and pray that some woman reading my post now does feel permission to leave a truly abusive situation. That would be wonderful.

      I would LOVE to see that manual on church discipline from the second century! That sounds so interesting, and really fascinating.

      • The Westminster confession also indicates that a first commandment sin is to make men the governors of our conscience and lives.

  13. Sheila,

    I have been in an abusive relationship, and had to escape. I wanted to support your article because it is true. I have heard so many women complaining about their husbands and rarely speak out. If you have ever been pushed against a wall with a hand around your throat, or your access to money taken so you cannot escape a situation, you know what abuse isn’t. Yes I said isn’t. Living in fear of the one you love is wrong. As you are writing your blog for women in general I do not understand the outcry. I gave up after the 3rd “BUT”. You were not writing an article on women abusing their spouses, this was a blog spot about women complaining about their husbands idiotic behavior and slapping the abuse tag on it. It was very clear you were writing for a specific purpose, you laid out the parameters, and clarified that real abuse needed dealing with. I am sure if you wanted to write an article dealing with the abuse of men, you could, but then what would you call your site?

  14. I ran across this post through a facebook link. Looks like it has generated a lot of good conversation.

    As someone who lived in an abusive marriage, and left recently, I have some thoughts. I don’t say this to be accusatory, because each of us is responsible for our own actions, but it was exactly thoughts like this that kept me from leaving my abusive marriage earlier. For 10 years, I *always* defaulted to “well, it’s not that bad. Well, I don’t want to misuse the word abuse. Well, i don’t want to falsely accuse my husband.” Heck, if I’d thought much about the subject, I probably would have written a blog post much like this. “Just because you don’t like things your husband does, doesn’t make him an abuser.”

    And because of this I still struggle with whether I was right to leave. Verbal and psychological abuse are particularly insidious. He never beat us. So he can say “Well, why are you terrified of me? Did I ever beat you? What did you tell the children to make them afraid of me?” He can say “See, your name is on all the accounts. How is that controlling?” Never mind that I found myself lying to my friends to cover the fact that he’d taken my car keys and hidden them, and told me I was stupid to have lost them, because he didn’t approve of me setting them down on the counter when I left (intead of hiding them from imaginary potential robbers. I then had to start hiding my keys, purse, and important papers from *him*, lest he take them and accuse me of losing them). He never beat the children. But he would make them sit beside them and harangue them about not working hard enough in school or not being able to answer his questions, and he would sneakily pinch them. Hard. Over and over. I confronted it when I saw it happen but it happened way more often than I knew, and they only revealed it to me when we left.

    However, no matter *who* I tell what actually happen, they confirm that he *was* abusive. These are people who *love* marriage, and people who *love* him. These are not man-hating marriage-hating bitter hags, you know? They want marriages to survive and thrive. They believe that the best family structure is a husband and wife parenting together.

    Why didn’t I stand up to him as you suggested? Well, I did. I tried every way from Sunday to stand up to him, and to stand up for my children. I tried showing him how he hurt me. I tried being blunt and honest. I tried being “mean” back to him. I did call the police the one time he threw something (at my head, while I was holding the baby). The police did not arrest him because I was at the time too afraid to press charges. I thought it was “not that bad” and didn’t want to ruin his life by getting him jailed for one “little slip up.” I was met with accusations that *I* was crazy and abusive. I was met with mind-games–denials that what he’d just said he had never actually said. I was met with strong, confident claims that I was an idiot. He knew I lacked confidence, and he carefully tended my garden of fears and insecurities all those years, and I came to believe him that I was forgetful, crazy, stupid, and useless. And I came to fear the look in his eyes and the words that were sure to follow, and the sneaky punishments if I dared to speak up. And when I left, he moaned and groaned about how I never communicated with him about how I felt and how I thought I was mistreated. Even though that was an OUTRIGHT LIE (besides talking and crying, I had written him letters, and attempted to get counseling through church), I still struggled to remember that it was a lie, and battled my own self internally constantly since we left, as to whether I really tried hard enough and whether he really was abusive.

    As i said, this is not to accuse you. I just wanted to relay a little bit of the perspective of one who has been abused, and used to think the way you think about it. Through most of our marriage, I’d waggle my eyebrows at women who stayed, or went back, when there was abuse. *While I was being abused*. Because I didn’t think it was “that bad.”

    And it’s important to note about children, it is *very* hard to remove custody completely from a father unless there is a long pattern of recorded physical abuse *of the children*. I have avoided seeking divorce for this very reason, because there is a good chance I could be legally forced to let them go to him for periods of time. How would I fight that? I have no record of his abuse of them, because it was primarily psychological and I was afraid at the time that accusing him of abuse to the authorities would cause *me* to lose the children, since we lived in the same house at the time. Now that I’ve left, he’s had no opportunity to abuse them, and i can’t retroactively prove anything. Please, please, PLEASE be cautious of judging people from a seat outside of their situation. It is often so much more complicated than anyone can imagine.
    Margaret recently posted…A DoorMy Profile

    • I feel like your story is so similar to mine. Just change a few details. It’s making me cry-I’ve never been able to describe what I went through in a way that makes sense-I feel this reeling disequilibrium when i try to put it in words. You’ve described the mind games so well. I need to try to tell how I ended up co-dysfunctional, co-abusive.

      Shortly after our wedding, I realized my husband had a porn addiction. I was devastated. I was hopeful God would see us through it. He refused to go to counseling. Years of dysfuntional, mutually unsatisfying sex life. He gave me less and less of his time. An accidental pregnancy, but we were hopeful and happy. Baby’s born, his career is taking off, we move away from family for his job. He gets disillusioned because money doesnt satisfy my need for intimacy, and he starts throwing pity parties. More and more anger. We buy a house, have another baby. More anger, more complaing about evrything I do and don’t do. His career keeps consuming more and more of his time. I am chronically depressed, doing my best to honor God as a mother and a wife, trying to be positive and find the good in my situation, while it keeps getting worse and worse. He is angry frequently, but particularly when I try to get him to stop complaining and tearing everyone down, and find some things to be grateful for. Then he starts punching holes in the walls, and breaking doors. When friends and family come to visit and ask what happened, I lie to them and say he is working on fixing this or remodeling that. I get told how grateful I should be to have such a handy guy.

      I can hardly sleep at night. I feel nauseous frequently and break out in rashes because of the stress. I’m too tired all the time, have little enrgy for my kids, and ignore my friends’ phone calls more and more often. I need his help around the house and with the kids more and more, which, of course, makes him angry. Yelling at me, telling me this MY job because I don’t make any money. Slapping the kids faces over teeth-brushing. The manipulative retorts when I would spend, literally, HOURS-almost EVERY DAY- trying to talk things out, explain my hurts and frustrations, making direct requests that my needs be met or that he please stop things that broke my heart or my children’s, reasoning, reading scripture to him, imploring him to be kind, exhausting my entire vocabulary trying to be understood, only to be met with “Well, maybe if YOU wouldn’t ______” or “MAYBE if YOU would _______, then I could!” Years and years of being told that he would love me better, make time for our family, if I were good enough, and I was never, ever “good enough.” But as long as I kept my mouth shut about our problems and smiled most of the time, I was “A wonderful mother and a fantastic wife,” and “The best thing that ever happened to him.” No, he wasnt abusive (….most of the time…), he just had a hard childhood.

      Years of lies, a decade of neglect, dozens-no, hundreds-of broken promises to me and the kids, constantly spending all the money before I could pay the bills…but those were just bad habits. Everything in me hurt so bad I begged God to let me die, so I was just a psycho who overreacts to everything. I got married knowing it would be hard work and lots of sacrifice, but I felt like I was watching myself, my principles and morals and discernment fall apart, crumble into something unrecognizable. He would call me names, I would call him names back. He would mock my tears and explanations, so I would figure “what good is trying?” and scream at him. He scared me, with his growling at me (yeah, really) and the murderous look in his eyes, so I would throw things at him to keep him away from me. He would back me into corners if I walked away from a fight, and stand over me and scream belittling things at me, so I would hit him on the arm or the chest to…I don’know. Show him I wouldn’t be intimidated anymore? Does that even make sense? How does someone act like I acted? I don’t know. What was wrong with me? I don’t know. Why didn’t I just leave? Because I was a failure. And things would surely get better if I could pull myself together and stop expecting “so much” from him. And if I was a good enough Christian.. After all, he was a great guy, as everyone we knew was so fond of reminding me when I would get depressed and complain about him. And it’s not like he hit me. Except, of course, for the times he did. But I had developed such a warped sense shame and guilt that I couldn’t even tell which way was up. I didnt see my marriage as abusive. If you had asked me bluntly, I would have said no. Dysfunctional, absolutely. I knew SOMETHING was wrong. But abusive!? No.

      It took my husband, of all people, calling his own behavior abusive before the scales fell from my eyes (but, then he subsequently denied that, too).

      • I’m so, so sorry Anonymous. Please tell me that you got help and got away?

      • Dear Anonymous, I’m having a hard time telling if you are out of that abusive marriage, but it sounds like it from how you wrote the first paragraph.
        I pray you and your children have left — it not, GET OUT NOW!

        Your story is similar to mine and to this day, even after being divorced for almost 4 years, talking about my abusive marriage or reading others’ stories still triggers in me some hard emotions.

        You are loved so much and God does not want to see his children suffer needlessly.

        Amy recently posted…Tuesday ThoughtMy Profile

  15. I have heard the word abuse thrown around way too much. Not only in the context of marriage…
    Sheila it’s clear that you never have been in the situation and you’re not likely to be. I think a better litmus test would be: do you find yourself constantly defending him to your friends and family for his crappy behaviours? Are you terrified of him? Do you routinely lie to friends and family about what goes on at home because you’re scared of his reaction? Does he always find a way to make everything your fault? More along these lines. Looking at the mental states that these commenters mentioned.

    But yes, I agree calling every little thing you don’t like abuse needs to stop. It’s kniving, manipulating and cowardly.
    The other word that need to stop being overused is “depressed” when you’re really just feeling a bit blue.

  16. I believe I have commented here before on my abusive marriage and that I am now divorced as a result. I’ve read through the comments and see that many people have addressed the issue of it not being so easy to leave. I know that one well. But I also wanted to address the issue of allowing your children to go with an abusive man, that man being their father.

    I brought information to the attention of the social worker assigned to our case. And it was ignored. Never explored. They are looking for police reports. Hospital records. I didn’t have those. So my complaints and documentation fell on deaf ears. My ex fought for, and was granted, joint legal custody. Since no one listened to me, there was/is nothing I can do. I am required by law to put my children in his car for a certain number of hours a week – I am grateful for no overnight visits. I pray for their safety – body, mind, and soul – as they drive away. Just one minor example: he told my daughter recently that she was not allowed to have, much less express, an opinion of her own. While I know many people would not see that as abusive, I know it crushes my daughter. I’m the one who has to pick up the pieces he’s broken and put them back together as best I can. He makes fun of them, including my autistic son who doesn’t even realize that he’s the butt of some of the jokes. It breaks my heart. But until I can produce police reports and/or hospital records, no one is going to listen to me, and he will retain some form of custody. And the law will require me to keep sending them with him.

    Is he abusive? Yes. Is there anything I can do about it? No. I teach them strategies. I pray for them. We pray for him. It’s all we can do.
    Heather recently posted…BlessedMy Profile

  17. Sheila, I agree that there’s a huge difference between someone acting like a jerk occasionally and abuse. The difference is in the person’s mentality — are they trying to harm you or to help you? Do they want you around because they like you or because you have something to offer them (or they feel obligated)? Are they basically selfish or are they interested in you (even a little)? I’m fine with people being jerks (everyone has bad times in their lives) but I’m not fine with people trying to destroy me. There’s a huge difference.

    Example: my father in law (not married to my MIL) is a huge jerk. That’s just part of who he is — my husband is a lot like him too. They’re just super blunt and generally have negative opinions about things, and everything they think comes out of their mouths. But once they realize you stand up for yourself and care about something, you’re in with them for life. :) They have a huge soft spot for anyone in need but simultaneously have a huge problem with authority, which makes for an interesting time.

    As a contrast, my MIL is super duper nice (she’s actually really fascinating… I would have loved to be her friend and learn from her!) UNTIL you do something she even slightly disagrees with (including important things [religion] and stupid things [loading the dishwasher]). At that point, you might as well be dead to her, UNTIL she wants something from you [babysitting… family around at Christmas…money…for you to sit at the hospital with her for hours while she checks herself into the psych ward…etc.], and then the whole cycle repeats.

    There’s a MASSIVE difference between these two types of people — I’m not hugely attached to my FIL or my MIL, but one treats me with basic human respect (and he loves my husband dearly, which is really all I’m looking for in an in-law) and one sees me as a commodity to be used. When someone only wants to take what you have from you, that isn’t a sustainable relationship model.

    Of course, it can be incredibly difficult to know what to do in the midst of a conflict with someone. It’s hardest because you usually want to love the person treating you badly. It’s not like you got kidnapped and were abused by some stranger — it’s more of a gradual slide into abuse. That’s why it’s so hard to pinpoint, and to make matters worse, you won’t always see it when you’re in the middle of it. Things unfortunately have to get really bad before you really see what’s going on. And if you’re relying on your abuser for anything (which they make sure you are), it’s almost impossible to just pack up and leave. It CAN be done, but it’s an uphill battle for sure, and if other people are anything like me you’ll question your decisions forever AND other people will say you should just make up. If you were truly being abused, you don’t need to make up. You need to forgive your abusers and stay the heck away.

  18. I love your blog, and I enjoyed this post. Tremendously. But, what I enjoy the most is your willingness and humility to put yourself out there and to learn from your readers. We can’t possibly experience every situation in life, but God does give us the wisdom to place ourselves in another’s shoes and to learn through what they are going through. You have taught me so much about how important marriage is to God, and for our benefit, and for that I just wanted to thank you. Thank you for your humility and wisdom to learn from us, your readers, even when our life situations are so very different. Blessing to you!
    The Baby Mama recently posted…Day 29: Loving Your Husband Through Loss and GriefMy Profile

  19. For those of you who are following the comments by email, I just left an update at the bottom of the post I wanted you to see:

    UPDATE: Friday morning: Okay, I’ve been thinking about this over night, and I know why I was uncomfortable with part of it, and I’d like to clarify.

    I have a dear friend who WAS abused in her marriage, but she never left. Why? The abuse wasn’t constant; it was sporadic. It was mostly yelling and belittling, though he was also very physically intimidating. Her pastor thought she should leave, after counseling them both for a while, and told her to call him, night or day, if she ever needed help getting out. But she didn’t leave, mostly because of her children, and not wanting to disrupt their lives. She agonized over that decision, though.

    Her husband passed away, and she’s now safe and fine. But I do understand that there are cases where it is truly abuse where you don’t leave.

    That doesn’t change the fact, however, that many women SAY their husbands are abusive when they’re not. So I guess what I would say is that if it is truly abuse, then you’re definitely THINKING about leaving, for your own safety, and your children’s safety, even if you can’t leave or won’t leave right now. But if you’re only thinking about leaving because you don’t like him and he makes you angry, or you think he’s treating you badly, then it’s not abuse. And I still maintain that we should reserve that word for what is truly awful, because it has such a stigma attached to it that once you level it at someone, it poisons everything.

    • Sheila,
      I appreciate you taking the time to re-edit, add to and/or change this post after reading all of our comments.
      This is a very tough subject to tackle and as I originally said in my comment above, even I as an survivor of an abusive marriage, knew you were writing about women throwing the word abuse around to condone leaving a marriage.

      Abuse is very real and the dynamics of it are not so black and white. Just getting out of an abusive marriage, setting boundaries, or trying to communicate with an abuser are not easy and sometimes just cannot happen.

      A true abuser sees life in a warped way, they truly have a problem and possibly even a mental illness which makes communication and boundaries unlikely to change their abusive ways.
      And leaving a true abuser is not simple. As in my case, I had become so conditioned to believe I was stupid and incompetent, and told repeatedly by the church that it was my lot in life and I just needed to be a good Christian wife submitting and respecting more so one day I would receive a huge crown of glory, that after 20 years, getting out was very hard.

      Thank you again for tackling this and allowing everyone to express their opinions and experiences…after all, that is how we learn and hopefully grow.
      Amy recently posted…Warm oatmeal, foggy mornings and finding your wingsMy Profile

  20. Hi Sheila,

    Kudos to tackling such a sensitive topic. I’d just to day, I was looking forward to your answers on the “How do I know if my husband is abusive?” part (hence the title of the post) however it came up as a little lacking or vague as to WHAT is abuse, exactly? The post and addresses what to do WHEN you are abused but doesn’t exactly define it at best. What I think would be helpful would be how to differentiate the abuser from someone who’s not. I’m really looking forward to this post (or series on this topic) as I have encountered some abuse in my past.

    As to how to address abuse, I think when my life, safety and emotional health is already in danger that would already serve as valid reasons to leave.

    • @ Cherley

      One of the problems that arises during Christian conversations about nonphysical, psychological abuse is that the Christian community has largely failed to present a clearly defined Biblical definition of that abuse as well as signs and symptoms of it. As Christians, we often depend on the world’s definitions. However, the worldview and the Christian view are totally different. Therefore, it’s understandable that the word “abuse” has become so loaded. As a result, some have labeled certain behaviors as abusive without a clearly defined basis to do so and vice versa.

      The King James Dictionary defines abuse as “to maltreat, misuse with bad motives or for wrong purposes as, to abuse rights or privileges.” Webster’s Dictionary lists ” to deceive; to impose” as an additional definition. Abuse knows no gender. Both men and women can be abused; both men and women can be abusive.

      Some signs and symptoms of chronic, prolonged abuse:
      Mocking: Pr 22:10, Pr 9:7
      Harsh treatment: Col 3:19. See Gill’s Exposition for definition of harsh.
      Exposing to foolish behavior: Pr 14:17A, Pr 14:7, Pr 22:24-25
      Provoking to anger: Col 3:21
      Failing to provide for: 1 Tm 5:8
      Refusing to work (idleness): 2 Thes 3:6-15
      Misleading: Pr 16:29
      Greed: Pr 15:27
      Sowing seeds of discord: Pr 6:19
      Lying: Pr 6:17
      Bearing false witness (slander): Pr 6:19
      Plotting evil against: Pr 6:18
      Drunkenness: Ep 5:18, Ro 13:13, Pr 31:4
      Tearing down rather than edifying: Pr 14:1B
      Causing strife: Pro 26:21, Pr 15:18A, Pr 28:25A, Pr 29:2, Pr 16:28A, Pr 21:19, Pr 19:13, Pr 27:15

      • I would agree that both men and women can be abusive, and that this list shows the things that the Bible definitely calls wrong. The problem I have is that, according to this definition, every single one of us is abusive, and every single one of us is being abused. I’ve done all those things on that list; so has my husband. But we have a very loving marriage.

        I think we need to find a way to differentiate between a relationship where there is occasionally harm done and sin (which is virtually all of us) and a relationship which is honestly dangerous and the person needs to get out.

        • @ Shelia

          I definitely agree with you. That’s why I stated CHRONIC and PROLONGED, and I believe it’s rather important to read the accompanying verses because they really do shed a lot of detail on the subject.

          My point is to have a Biblical framework as to what constitutes abuse rather than a mere secular one. You could go to a secular site that addresses abuse and find each one on the list, but without any Biblical reference. I’m personally an abuse survivor and child protector. Therefore, when someone is doing these things against you on a CHRONIC, PROLONGED basis to the point that it jeopardizes your well-being and/or that of your children it’s abuse.

          I can not stress enough that the verses help shed light on the issue. That’s not to say that in some cases, counseling can’t help because it can if both parties are receptive. I believe you have addressed conflict resolution in past posts. However, we know that not everyone is not willing to be accountable or change. That’s when the abused party needs to think about other options liking leave as you addressed in this post. However, as some noted, that’s easier said than done.

          With that being said, as a reader of your blog, I serious doubt that you have done EVERY one of the things on this list or probably even most. For example, as a wife who strives to be loving, I doubt that you have “plotted evil against your husband.” Some might be able to dismiss these works of the flesh lightly, but those who have experienced them as a result of CHRONIC, PROLONGED abuse are likely to understand the devastating effects these things can have on a person’s well-being.

  21. This article was meant for me. I love reading everyone’s opinion. My husband is generally nice but he does have “jerky” moments. I feel down when we argue like once or twice a month and he tells me at the end of the discussion “i don’t see you putting money on the table and you’re not helping me out financially that’s why I’m mad.” So is this abuse or just frustration from a husband?

  22. Sheila, I would encourage you to read the book, “Why Does He do That?” You do not seem to understand the abuse cycle. My heart is breaking for all those women who read this type of advice and stay in abusive marriages. The fact of the matter is their husband broke their marriage covenant at the first act if abuse. ;(

    • Carrie, I totally agree. But there is a problem with labelling ALL angry behaviour abusive. Everybody gets angry sometimes. By that definition I’m abusive, my kids are abusive, etc. etc. It has to be something with characterizes the sum total of the relationship and puts someone in harm–either psychological, physical, or sexual. Not all bouts of anger do that. Not all bouts of even belittling do that. They are absolutely wrong, but I think we need to draw a clear distinction that while some ways of behaving are sinful and absolutely wrong, it does not justify breaking up a marriage over. And calling someone “abusive” and then turning around and not fighting for custody doesn’t seem logical.

      An abusive person is someone who manipulates, cajoles, belittles, yells, and controls, and this characterizes the total sum of the relationship, so that the other is walking on eggshells, changing their behaviour to try to placate another, and often going into a tailspin donwhill.

      Not all bouts of anger do that. It’s like what one of the commenters said above: when you have been really abused, it really irks you to hear women call their husbands abusive because they get in loud fights sometimes. There is a difference. It has to be the total sum of the relationship, so that you really are being harmed by staying.

      I’m not saying the other behaviour is right; I’m just saying that not ALL sin is abuse. Sometimes it’s just sin, and it needs to be dealt with that way.

      Oh, and by the way, I have a Master’s in Sociology specializing in abuse. So I have read the literature.

      But what I saw there, in study after study, was that when you define abuse too broadly, it loses its meaning and it ceases to be a helpful term.

      Some behaviour doesn’t rise to the level of abuse, but it still needs to be dealt with. By calling it abuse, we almost say, “the best way to deal with it is to end the relationship.” That doesn’t seem to be bringing Jesus’ power of redemption onto a relationship where people coming alongside this couple and mentoring and praying for them would be far more appropriate and helpful.

      And what I have seen in the Christian church, again and again, is the tendency to define it broadly, because we say that abuse is an acceptable reason for divorce (as indeed it is). A woman who wants to get out of a marriage, then, has an incentive to label her husband abusive. I’ve seen close friends do this (as the story I told above), and I just think that we need to be careful. Some women need to get out. We need to recognize the cycle. But sometimes it isn’t abuse, and it’s just unhealthy ways of resolving conflict, and that needs to be dealt with, too.

  23. Sheila,

    I always say when you’re getting shot at from both side you are probably onto something important.

    I’ve followed you long enough to know you are not giving abuse a pass – you have been clear in the past that abuse is never acceptable and calls for immediate action.

    As to the current point, I think you put it very well last year when you said “…in Christian circles, the only justification for leaving tends to be adultery, abuse, or addictions. Many women close to me have tried to “blow up” their husbands habits to fit with one of these things.” This is certainly a valid issue, and lying or exaggerating to justify what you want to do is wrong.

    My concern is crying wolf on a societal level. When things that are not abuse are called abuse, real abuse is not taken as seriously as it should be taken. I know men who think all claims of abuse are exaggerated or fake because they have seen multiple examples where claims of abuse were false. Those who lie and exaggerate make it worse for the women (and children, and men) who are really being abused.

    Before someone tells me I don’t know what I am talking about, for more than a decade I served on the board of a ministry that helped abused women. I know what some women have suffered, and I know of women killed by an abusive husband. It is because I know and care that I am with Sheila on this.
    Paul H. Byerly recently posted…Your Husband is not…My Profile

    • Thank you, Paul. That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say. Real abuse is real abuse; but not all bad behaviours rise to the level of abuse, and the more we say they do, they more the word “abuse” means nothing.

      I have a follow-up coming on Monday (maybe I’m a glutton for punishment!) where I explain all this in detail and hopefully put the matter to rest.

  24. Hi Sheila,
    as you elaborate on this for Monday could you further define what you would consider true verbal abuse? This is something my husband and I have discussed countless times because he basically says there is no such thing. However I feel like this is just his excuse to get mad and say whatever hateful things pop into his mind. I feel like my husband is verbally abusive because hewill say thing like “I will celebrate the day you die.” In front of our children. However based on your article he certainly has bad conflict resolution skills, but I feel like his words are damaging to myself and my children. My 5 yr old had already told me things like she is never getting married because she doesn’t want her husband to yell at her the way daddy yells at me. I try to explain that not everyone yells but I feel like his words are really having ill effects on her. I truly don’t care about getting people on my side or having moral high ground, my concern is for my children, to the point where I did leave once. He promised to stop but it continues, and honestly now I’m confused about what action I should take. Is this just angry and bad behavior that I should stay and pray through? He does a lot for our family with regard to cleaning and playing with the kids and other husbandly duties, but he gets mad (and pretty often) and goes straight to whatever hateful and hurtful words he can fling my way.
    Any advice you can give would be helpful, now I just don’t know what to think.

  25. I’ve been in a relationship for 32 years now with a bullying man. He’s hit me once 30 years ago and lately is getting physical again. He can’t control his temper and as he gets older it seems to be getting worse. I wonder if he’s sane sometimes. He has no medical so. even if I could get him to go, we can’t afford a therapist. I have faith that the Lord keeps me safe and I give the problem to him. The book I’ve read lately that I think is helpful is How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong by Leslie Vernick.

  26. Sometimes women stay because it’s easier to protect the kids when they do stay. If they leave he gets court ordered visitation and there is no one to protect the little ones. It’s not as easy as it sounds especially when you cant “prove” the verbal/emotional abuse or manipulative behavior.

  27. chocolate says:

    So what about the woman who is physically abused? This article is trash. I look for counsel for dealing with a man who has physically abused me on rare occasion and I find this? Is he not abusive? By your standard, i guess not.

  28. spiritualsandwich says:

    I was with my husband for 20 years. During that time he was mean, uncaring, neglectful, condescending unempathetic, and manipulative. I went to bed by myself for most of 14 years. He would not go to counseling with me and I was told I had the problem. So I carried on the best I could. Despite asking him to read literature, talk to me without the tone, change his ways, writing him letters/poems, being kind and gentle to him to show him the love of Christ, speaking kindly after he was mean, forgiving him, nothing changed. I told him on several occasions I would leave if he didn’t stop talking to me like that. One day I went to him for emotional support,I thought I would try because that’s where I should go. He told me he was reading the Bible and saw nothing of it in me. At that point I had nothing left to give, I was spent. I told him I wanted a divorce. He suddenly joined my church, contacted my family and friends whom he never cared for, arranged his baptism secretly, wanted counseling and pressured me to stay. He did not take any responsibility for his actions and threatened my immigration status, filed for divorce with a view to sending me home without my children. He also threatened my financial security because I could not work here. He divorced me, while asking my parents about reconciliation. To this day I am so confused about him, but God is not the author of confusion. I don’t walk on eggshells anymore and I have more peace emotionally. Spiritually I feel like a failure. He is now dating, 10 months after the divorce. I still feel bad because I could not take it anymore and I wanted out but you’re not supposed to give up on your spouse. Abuse, I don’t know. What I do know is that it was a psychologically, spiritually and emotionally unhealthy place for me to be.

    • I think what you’re describing is very much emotional abuse, as I talked about in this post. It’s the PATTERN that is significant, as I said, and in your case the pattern was very damaging.

      I’m so, so sorry that you had to walk through this. So sorry.

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  1. […] suppose I’m a glutton for punishment, but last week’s two posts dealing with abuse drew so many comments and got me all riled up, and I thought something […]

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