Are you Concerned about Emotional Abuse in a Relationship?

Can you recognize the signs of emotional abuse in other marriages?

Man telling his wife what is she allowed to do.


I was listening carefully to my friend’s story about her daily challenges at home…Why life was so difficult for her? Having the idea of abusive behaviors in my mind,  I was asking her the basic question:

What are the signs of emotional abuse that you recognize?

  • His negative, harsh words about your role as wife and/or mother?
  • Feeling pushed to apologize to him, because you are “always wrong”?
  • Seeing him take pleasure in humiliating you in public?
  • The empty feeling inside you, making you feel that you don’t know who you are anymore?

We were starting a deep conversation about the quality of her relationship, and it was also hard for me. My own memories would pop up in my brain, of similar confusion and deep pain experienced while being previously married. Let me here recover the basic information about abuse:

Emotional abuse is a form of abuse that involves repeated acts of cruelty, intimidation, manipulation, or psychological abuse with the goal of damaging a person’s mental health, self-esteem, and emotional well-being. It can include behaviors such as yelling, name-calling, criticism, humiliation, isolation, threats, or controlling and limiting a person’s freedom.

Yes, I know…it looks like a litany of bad behaviors…All those signs in a marriage, the contract we enter for love? Please, not!

Let me continue:

Emotional abuse can occur in any relationship, including intimate partnerships, and it often happens because the abuser has a need to maintain power and control over their partner. It may stem from the abuser’s insecurities, past traumas, or a desire to dominate. The abuser may use emotional abuse as a means of control because they believe that it is an effective way to maintain power over their partner. Usually, men tend to think that it is their fundamental duty to control their wives in all aspects of their life. Her friends, or relatives, her work, the way she dresses, the projects she has for her own life…all have to be examined under this control system. Is she doing whatever she is doing without challenging his control? Is she asking for permission or subordinating her initiatives to his permission? As he can now not behave in an openly controlling way or risk being called “a Taliban”, he will use the drip-drip method of discouraging anything that pertains to her being acted upon outside of his control. He will use sarcasm, stonewalling, vacillation, or negative comments to diminish the value of whatever she is proposing.

Ask Yourself: Have You Ever Been Here?

Here are Alice’s comments about an incident with her husband:

“At first, he would make ironic jokes about me to his friends; they would always laugh at me, saying I would poison them all with my “lousy cooking.” Then, when I complained about their jokes, he got furious and began yelling at me! He said that I was trying to cut him off from his friends.

From that day on, the sarcastic and negative comments began. He humiliates me and screams at me for the littlest things, whether other people are present or not. Whatever I do to please him, it has no impact on his reactions to me. When he gets totally mad at me, he can be silent for weeks, and I feel desperate and lost. I have nobody to talk to… There are no relatives or friends around me because he has managed to alienate me from the people I love.”

The effects of emotional abuse can be just as devastating as physical abuse and can result in severe emotional damage, a toxic burden that can take years to heal. It can lead to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even suicide. Emotional abuse can also be a precursor to physical abuse, and victims of emotional abuse are more likely to be victims of physical abuse as well.

It is also important for the victim to establish boundaries and assert themselves in the relationship. This can include saying “no” to the abuser’s abusive behavior and seeking help from a therapist or support group to gain the tools necessary to stand up for themselves. This is another experience worth recovering:

I wanted to share it with you… Because of the way I was raised at home, I never really had much self-confidence (even in adulthood). Bad body image, thinking I was too stupid for school, fearing no one would love me… I didn’t have much self-esteem either, as you can see. So, when my husband was making fun of me with his friends, (I was “slow” I was “fat”) I was even more blind to the abuse… because I had been thinking about myself in that harsh, mean way before I met him! It’s been hard to separate my self-criticism from what he creates, now that his own friends have taken the freedom to joke about me… But by baby steps, I learned to recognize what he was doing, and I can see now that it is sheer abuse!

The Cycle of Emotional Abuse

Looking from the outside it is easier to perceive the three different stages of the cycle…it is like you are watching an opera and know there are three different pieces to watch together to understand the story. This domestic opera, named the abuse cycle, goes like this:

The emotional abuse cycle is a repetitive pattern of behavior that can occur in abusive relationships. It typically consists of three phases: tension-building, abusive episodes, and honeymoon.

  1. Tension-building: In this phase, the abuser starts to display controlling or abusive behavior, such as criticism, intimidation, or threats. Tension builds up in the relationship, causing the victim to feel anxious or on edge.
  2. Abusive episode: The tension reaches a breaking point, and the abuser lashes out with emotional abuse, such as yelling, name-calling, or humiliation. This episode of abuse can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.
  3. Honeymoon: After the abusive episode, the abuser needs somehow to repair the hurt, so the wife decides not to leave him. He can do a show of repentance: he may apologize and make promises to never do it again. He may also shower the victim with affection, gifts, or attention, making them feel loved and desired. This behavior is also called “love bombing.”  This is known as the honeymoon phase, and it can be misleading, as it creates a false sense of security and hopes for the victim. Not to mention the huge confusion induced in her, unable to decide if he loves her, needs her, or finally despises her.

This cycle can repeat over and over, leading the victim to feel trapped and hopeless. Each time the cycle repeats, the abuse becomes more intense, causing more harm to the victim’s mental and emotional health.

For example, John and Sarah have been married for five years. John often criticizes Sarah and makes her feel small. This behavior builds tension in the relationship until one day, John blows up and screams at Sarah, calling her names. After the abusive episode, John apologizes and buys Sarah flowers and gifts. This is the honeymoon phase, and it makes Sarah believe that everything is okay and that John loves her. However, over time, the tension-building and abusive episodes start to happen more frequently, causing Sarah to feel trapped and hopeless in the relationship.

 It is important for the abuser to acknowledge their behavior as abusive and to take responsibility for the harm they have caused. This is the most difficult part for him, even when for the abuser seeking help for the behavior is essential. This may involve attending therapy or counseling to address any underlying issues that may be contributing to the abusive behavior.

In some cases, it may be necessary for the victim to leave the relationship completely, especially if the abuse is severe and ongoing. This can be a difficult and potentially dangerous process, and it is important for the victim to have a plan in place for their safety and well-being. Here we have the words of Lisa, a conflicted wife, after moving out of her home and starting her life without abuse:

After reading your book, I made the decision to leave my abusive husband, even though I was terrified. He had kept me down by telling me I would end up on the street, homeless.

Living through those first weeks without him was scary, a couple of times I was ready to apologize to him and ask him to take me back… He also kept texting me and whining about missing me – sometimes I was even wanting to run back and comfort him! With your help I realized, I was not choosing to be alone or be together- either way, I was alone. The question was, was I going to be alone and take care of myself, or be alone taking care of him, as always?

I ended up having to divorce the child in my husband, and the mother in me. Once you can do that, it feels so good to focus 100% on yourself and your needs, and not worry about what your abuser is thinking about you. I have had enough!

What are the Long-Term Effects of Emotional Abuse?

We humans all need to have a secure emotional connection. For women, this is the search for the anchor for our personal development as an adult. Here, we assume that all people around us are developing into maturity…In reality, there are people who don’t know how to process their own emotions and use their partner’s emotions to regulate themselves. They are people emotionally stuck in childhood issues of such severity that they can’t grow up and thus will engage in relations of power and control. For young women who are still learning the ropes of sexual connection, it can be difficult to distinguish real care from emotional control, and feeling loved gets confused with being abused, fast.

It can get to the point when we are not sure what the difference between love and emotional abuse is, can’t recognize obvious emotional abuse signs, or are not told how to do emotional abuse recovery. Those are the most egregious situations when the victim is already so confused that forgets her own identity! We need to share more information about the trauma that long-term abuse produces in the victim.

In conclusion, emotional abuse is a serious and damaging form of abuse that can have long-lasting effects. It is important for victims to recognize the signs of abuse and seek help, and for the abuser to acknowledge their behavior and take responsibility for the harm they have caused. By addressing the issue and seeking help, it is possible to stop the cycle of abuse and create healthier, more fulfilling relationships.

In my book: 

Emotional Abuse: The Hidden War for Power and Control in Your Relationship    

the readers are invited to understand the core notions of emotional abuse and emotionally abusive relationships, and their differences by comparing them with a loving, secure relationship.
It begins with definitions and explanations of why an emotionally abusive marriage happens, then works its way up to help the reader analyze if she is in an abusive relationship. The book supports the reader to find her own thoughts about her personal situation (or that of a friend), together with real, vivid stories of women who have survived abuse and grown from it into full people.

You might think that emotional abuse is easy to spot or define. But the reason so many people suffer from an emotionally abusive marriage is that it is hard to tell what is abusive and what is not, because lots of abuse is framed under “care.” A marriage has to be an equal relationship, but using control between partners destroys this balance and prevents their individual growth. You have to ask whether your partner is hindering your development as an adult by the use of excessive control. You have to ask yourself whether or not the person you love is hurting you. Here is useful information about ways to decide if what you are experiencing is care or abusive control.

The point is that under the mask of a good marriage, a hidden war for power and control is raging…and the victim gets abused by the “loving” partner, while the bystanders are paralyzed on the outside by a common confusion “Is it love or is it abuse? question. Sadly, the resulting paralysis does not help the victim to recover her own sanity in time.

After explaining all the concepts to my friend, I offered her to read my book and promised her to explore together other aspects of the abusive relationship tragedy. We both understood that she needed a lot of friendly support to be able to face the lovelessness of her marriage and be able to plan ahead…

Dr. Nora Femenia is a well-known coach, conflict solver and trainer, and CEO of Creative Conflict Resolutions, Inc. Visit her blog and signup free to be connected to her innovative conflict solutions, positive suggestions, and life-changing coaching sessions, along with blog updates, news, and more!

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