How to Know if You’re in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship (2023)

Since the Lord rescued me from an emotionally abusive husband a decade ago, I’ve spent countless hours in counseling, prayer and study, learning everything I can about abuse and — even more importantly — how to heal.

God has also used the darker parts of my story to help other women who are in or who recently left an emotionally abusive husband.

The more I learn and encounter others with stories of abuse by an emotionally abusive husband or spouse, the more convinced I become that choosing to seek knowledge and understanding brings God’s help and the power to move forward into health, freedom and life.

Thepath to seeking knowledge on abuse starts with understanding what abuse is. Whenthose people affected by abuse see the situation more clearly, they are morelikely to begin healing from the hurt and to help provide safety information forothers.

If you suspect that you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, go to a safe place and call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit them online at Your safety is the most important thing, and they can help you with your situation.

How to know if it’s an emotionally abusive relationship

GeremyKeeton, senior director of the counseling services department of Focus on theFamily, says:

Defining emotional abuse is important. The term “emotional abuse” is too powerful to misuse it in any way. Harm from another person’s selfish mistake or sinful action does not necessarily define abuse. We all cause others emotional pain at times (See James 3:2). And if we were to define everything that is hurtful or even harmful as abuse then we actually detract from the definition of abuse and dilute it. One of the key aspects of emotional abuse is persistent patterns — a system of power and control; a calculated degrading of another person. When this kind of persistent pattern (which includes a purposeful mindset and destructive behaviors) is present, the term “emotional abuse” is accurately used.

In any form, abuse is destructive. However, emotional abuse has been proven to be one of the most damaging types of abuse long term.

In fact, one study looked at survivors of emotional and physical abuse. They found that years after the abuse had ended, the hurtful words and emotional manipulation from an emotionally abusive husband or spouse actually caused lasting damage — even over the physical violence the victims had suffered. An emotionally abusive relationship can also cause long-term mental health challenges, including anxiety, chronic depression, PTSD and more.

Words matter. The Bible tells us that the power of life and death is in the tongue (Proverbs 18:21). Research shows us this is true as well.

Common types of emotional abuse

Thereality is that we are all capable of hurting those around us with our wordsand our actions. We all react out of anger, treat others with disrespect andcan try to control the people around us at times. However, when this type ofbehavior is done repeatedly in a marriage, we need to start asking some hardquestions to determine if it’s an emotionally abusive marriage.

Insome cases, emotional abuse can be mistaken as benevolent control or innocentinfluence. Three types of emotional abuse that are hard to identify are gaslighting,retaliation and projecting. Emotional abuse may include threats, insults,isolation and more, but these three types can be some of the hardest to detect.

The following stories are real-life examples that highlight these three types of emotional abuse by an emotionally abusive husband. Each story will not only help you understand the type of abuse but will also help you see how abuse creates a recurring pattern.

Pleasenote that both the names and identifying details of these stories have beenchanged to protect the victims. Hopefully, each story will help you see thedifference between a healthy relationship and an emotionally abusive relationship.

Before we start, commit to make the call

Ifafter reading the three examples below you’ve gained knowledge, soughtunderstanding and see that emotional abuse is a consistent part of your relationship, it’s time to “make thecall” — to get help.

  • First, call out to God. Be honest with Him and yourself about what you’re experiencing.
  • Second, tell someone else. Talk to your parents if they’re emotionally safe and a supportive source of wisdom for you. Call a trusted friend. Schedule a time to speak with a counselor. Let your situation be known to a pastor. Call the National Domestic Abuse hotline.

But don’t be like the person described in James 1:24, who looks in the mirror and goes away unchanged. Living the same way will never bring change. It’s time to make a call — for yourself or for someone you know. Don’t stay with an emotionally abusive husband or spouse.


Gaslighting allows the abuser toavoid responsibility by denying reality, questioning the abused spouse’s sanityor lying.

Vanessahad been dating Nate for almost a year before she started to notice some redflags that indicated an emotionallyabusive relationship. The main thing that bothered her was how Natewould respond when she’d bring up a past conversation. It started out withsmall things, like the time that Nate said he would come over to fix hergarbage disposal, but didn’t. Problems gradually grew, like the time Nateagreed to pick up Vanessa’s dog from the vet when she had to work late — but hedidn’t. Or the time that Nate had promised to take her nephew on a camping trip— but didn’t.

Ineach of these situations and many others, Nate would tell Vanessa that they “neverhad that conversation.” When she’d remind him that he’d agreed to do each ofthose things, Nate would tell Vanessa she was crazy and was making things upbecause he had “never agreed to do them.”

WhenVanessa pressed the issue, it would lead to a huge argument. And Nate was so convincing that, overtime, Vanessa actually began to believe that she was forgetful, unable to interprettheir conversations accurately or even mentally ill.

Asthe issues became larger, so did Nate’s abuse and lies.

Vanessabegan to write down their conversations, and over the course of a few months,she saw a pattern of her asking Nate to do something and Nate telling her shewas crazy, lying to her, calling her names and more.

Thankfully, Vanessa saw the pattern early. When she addressed the problem with Nate, he promised to change — but he knew what he was doing and didn’t want to stop. His behaviors created convenience for him and control over the person he was in a relationship with. Vanessa wasn’t the first to deal with this from him — she found out that two of his ex-girlfriends had similar degrading experiences with him. Over time the evidence mounted and it became clear to Vanessa that his words and actions didn’t line up, and Nate was making no credible effort for them to — only empty, manipulative promises. He had no intention of changing the pattern, and when his behavior continued to escalate, Vanessa ended the relationship. No underlying medical issues, such as dementia, were affecting Nate. Vanessa was facing unhealthy and destructive heart issues in Nate and choices in response to them that she had to make.

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Am I in a healthy or emotionally abusive relationship?

Gaslightingis an abuser’s attempt to avoid responsibility and intentionally redirect theblame from themselves onto the victim. It’s extremely manipulative and can bevery psychologically destructive to the victim.

Ina healthy relationship, people tend to own their mistakes and genuinely work tobecome better. In an emotionallyabusive relationship, the abuser refuses to own their willful actionsand hurtful reactions and doesn’t want to change their behaviors. Their goal isto control rather than work things out in a healthy way.

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. Does my spouse or significant other repeatedlydeny conversations we’ve had?
  2. Does my spouse continually refuse to takeresponsibility when they’ve made a mistake or hurt my feelings?
  3. Do I often feel afraid or hesitant to bring upissues to my spouse?
  4. Does my spouse continually make me feel like, oreven tell me, things are always my fault?

Make a call

Ifyou answered “yes” to more than two of the questions above, that’s a goodindicator that gaslighting may be happening in your relationship, resulting inan emotionallyabusive marriage — and it’s timeto make a call.


Retaliationcan come in many types, but in its most basic form, it’s an abuser saying, “Ifyou do ‘X’, then I will do ‘Y.’ ” At its core, retaliation is about punishment.It’s a form of manipulation and control — or an unhealthy twisting of whatappears upfront to be a boundary. But really retaliation is someone implying, “Ifyou do something I don’t want you to do, I will punish you for it — and it willhurt (emotionally or physically).”

Itcan include punishing a victim for doing something the abuser said not to do. Inan emotionally abusiverelationship, retaliation can be used to keep victims silent, keep themfrom seeing loved ones or force victims to do things they don’t want to do.

Pennywas very close with her three best friends from college. However, after shemarried Rob, he began to put distance between her and those relationships.

Atfirst, when she would talk about seeing her friends, Rob would suggest that heand Penny should spend time together instead. Being newlyweds, Penny thought itwas sweet that he wanted to spend so much time with her. But after six months,when Penny began to tell Rob that she really needed time with her friends, hismanipulation began to escalate.

Thefirst sign of retaliatory manipulation came when he told her she could go tolunch. But when she came home a few hours later, he made her feel guilty forleaving and they had a huge argument.

The next sign of an emotionally abusive husband came when he texted her nearly the entire time she was out and became furious if she didn’t reply right away. Again, when she arrived home, he told her if she really loved him, she wouldn’t have gone, which led to a disagreement.

Thethird time, Rob told her she could go, but if she did, he would go to a stripclub with some friends from work since he was alone and lonely — it was hisright since her job was to be with him and not other people.

Pennycouldn’t believe that Rob would even say that — let alone follow through on it.It seemed so far out of character from the man she’d married. But after she metwith her friends, she came home to an empty house. Rob came home the nextmorning — having more than followed through on his threat.

Afterthat, Penny didn’t ask to go out with her friends anymore.

How to Know if You’re in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship (1)

Am I in a healthy or emotionally abusive relationship?

Asyou can see, each time Penny didn’t do what Rob said, he retaliated andincreased her “punishment,” until Penny finally stopped challenging him. WhileRob’s controlling actions may seem extreme, many abusers (especially overtime) don’t have a “ceiling” for how high they will go to maintain domination.

Inmany cases, retaliation is designed to hurt the victim where they’re mostvulnerable. In an emotionallyabusive marriage, abusers prey on a victim’s fears and often tell themthat “if they really loved them,” they wouldn’t do something that would “hurtthem so much.” They may even threaten them, their pets or the people they love— even if what the victim wants to do is relationally healthy, like going tolunch with friends.

In an emotionally abusive relationship, retaliation creates fear. In a healthy relationship, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) and there should be a level of safety to do healthy things and to not be punished.

Questions to ask:

  1. Does my spouseoften threaten to hurt me emotionally, physically or sexually if I don’t dowhat they ask?
  2. Am I afraidto tell my spouse how I feel or what I want?
  3. If I dosomething my spouse doesn’t agree with, do they find a way to hurt meemotionally, physically or sexually or excuse their own negative or immoralreactions by blaming me?
  4. Have Istopped choosing healthy decisions because I’m afraid of how my spouse willrespond?

Make the call:

Ifyou answered “yes” to any of the questions above, it’s time to take a look atthe red flags that may show an emotionallyabusive marriage. A healthy relationship involves mutual respect, notretaliation. It’s time to make a call.

How to Know if You’re in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship (2)

Talk to a Counselor

If you need further guidance and encouragement, we have a staff of licensed, professional counselorswho offer a one-time complimentary consultation from a Christian perspective. They can also refer you to counselors in your area for ongoing assistance.
Reach a counselor toll-free at 1-855-771-HELP (4357).

Call Now


Projectionis when an abuser accuses someone else of the negative behaviors that theythemselves are actually doing.

Kyle’scollege girlfriend had cheated on him. While his wife, Brittany, knew that Kylehad some lingering insecurity due to this experience, she couldn’t understandwhy Kyle would continually accuse her of cheating on him.

He’dcheck her phone, texts and email repeatedly, often picking apart emails thather male boss, Ben, had sent her. He’d tell her that no boss “would ever talkto a co-worker like that unless something more was going on,” even though theemails were purely professional. One day, she and Kyle had an altercation afterhe found out she had attended lunch with her team of seven people at work. Kyletold her that it was probably just her and Ben, and that she was lying aboutwho was really there.

Brittanydid everything she could to assure Kyle that nothing was going on, but nomatter what she did, he wouldn’t believe the truth. When she became angry, he’dblame his past or tell her that her anger was a sign she truly wascheating on him. He even told Brittany that if she really loved him and wasn’tcheating on him, she’d quit her job. When Brittany refused to quit, he’d tellher it was further proof that she was cheating. He’d often follow that up with coarselanguage and insults about “what kind of woman she was.”

Kylealso began to require that Brittany have his approval for every outfit she worebefore leaving the house. If she weren’t covered from head to toe, Kyle would callher a nasty name and say she was “looking for the wrong kind of attention.” Heeven wanted her to stop wearing makeup.

One night, while they were out on a dinner date, Kyle saw another man looking at Brittany. When he pointed it out, Brittany waved it off and tried to focus back on their date night. But Kyle exploded. He left the restaurant, taking the car and Brittany’s purse with him. Brittany was forced to navigate her own way home. When she finally arrived back at home, Kyle apologized and said he “trusted her after all.” Their relationship formed into an emotionally abusive marriage over time, but Kyle was an emotionally abusive husband from the start.

Severalmonths later, Brittany found out that Kyle had been cheating on her with awoman he’d met at work.

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Am I in a healthy or emotionally abusive relationship?

While Kyle and Brittany’s story may sound extreme, it’s all too common. Kyle was projecting as well as abusive in other ways. In each story, you can see multiple forms of abuse present.

We all struggle at times with insecurity, but Kyle used his insecurity as an excuse to not only control Brittany but also to deal with his shame over his affair.

Although the affair is clearly a problem, Kyle’s patterns that eventually resulted in an emotionally abusive marriage are, too. Healthy relationships look a lot more like the emotions described in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8:

Love is patient andkind; lovedoes not envy or boast;itis not arrogant or rude. Itdoes not insist on its own way;itis not irritable or resentful;itdoes notrejoice at wrongdoing, butrejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes allthings,endures all things. Love never ends.

Questions to ask:

  1. Does my spouserepeatedly accuse me of doing things that I’m not doing?
  2. Does my spouseact in ways that hurt, isolate or disrespect me and excuse their behavior byblaming their own insecurities?
  3. Does my spousecontinue to use their own past against me or tell me that I’m just like otherpeople who have hurt them in the past?
  4. Does my spousetry to use past events or personal insecurities to control me or keep me fromdoing things?
  5. Does my spousebecome angry or violent when members of the opposite sex speak to me or look atme? Does my spouse accuse me of trying to get someone else’s attention by theway I look, dress or act?

Make the call:

Ifyou answered “yes” to the questions above, there’s a good chance that you’re inan emotionally abusiverelationship where projection is present — and it’s time to make a call.

Final thoughts on these destructive patterns

Gaslighting,retaliation and projection are three forms of emotional abuse that can be hardfor victims to fully recognize and learn to respond to. However, there are alsomore obvious types in an emotionallyabusive marriage where you should “make the call.” These includethreats, insults, dramatically controlling finances or forbidding contact withloved ones.

If you’ve already answered the series of questions above, you should have a pretty clear idea if your husband is emotionally abusive or you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship. Even if you answered “no,” here are some general guidelines that can help you or someone you love pinpoint red flags:

  • It’s abusivewhen the harmful and degrading behaviors are a pattern. Healthy peopleapologize and work to change; they don’t continue to hurt someone again andagain.
  • It’s abusivewhen the motivation is to destroy or injure another person emotionally,physically or spiritually.
  • It’s abusivewhen punishment is involved.
  • It’s abusivewhen boundaries aren’t acknowledged and respected.
  • It’s abusiveif fear is present and capitalized upon by the abuser. If you’re afraid of yourspouse, their reactions or what they will do from day-to-day, you’re likely inan emotionally abusivemarriage.
  • It’s abusiveif you or others are being threatened.

Ifany of these are what you or someone you know is experiencing, it’s time to“make the call.”

God stepped in and rescued me from an emotionally abusive husband. But it all began when I cried out to Him and asked Him for the “truth” that set me free. And He can set you free too.

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