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 deal with it or 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 address the situation and protect your kids (because kids suffer from seeing you abused, too), 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, or if he has a pattern of speaking to you and belittling you that makes you feel confused and helpless and even crazy, 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.