For a long time, my marriage was in dire straits, but I didn’t dare tell a soul. My husband and I were Instagram-perfect as far as anyone knew, and I intended to keep it that way. However, as the months wore on (and COVID kept me from scheduling my life full of distractions), I finally had to face up to our problems. I read a lot of marriage self-help books and I spilled my deepest secrets to a few trustworthy friends to get their advice.
In the midst of my research, one question kept cropping up over and over again: Is he abusive?
I had multiple friends ask me that very question after I described some of our marital drama. Over and over again, I would flip through the pages of marriage self-help books, and they would assure me “these five easy strategies will get your marriage back on the road to recovery…unless he’s abusive. This doesn’t apply in cases of abuse.”
But what if you don’t know whether or not you’re in an abusive relationship?
In my limited experience, I thought abuse looked like a woman trying to cover her black eye with makeup in the scene of a Lifetime movie. I thought it looked like getting shoved down the stairs while pregnant or calling the police in the middle of the night to intervene when an alcoholic gets angry. I don’t think I realized that physical violence is only the tip of a very large iceberg. And just because he hasn’t been violent yet doesn’t mean that he won’t resort to bodily harm in the future.
There are actually many emotional patterns and behavioral red flags that signal abuse whether or not physical violence is present:
- He calls you names, such as “stupid” or “worthless,” or uses sexually degrading terms.
- He mocks and belittles you.
- He tells you no one else would ever want you as a partner.
- He pressures you to do things you do not want to do.
- He threatens to leave and/or take the children.
- He controls who your friends are or how often you visit your family.
- Disagreeing with him will cause negative consequences.
- He may even use scriptures from the Bible to keep you under his control.*
Anyone may have a spouse who has said or done something from this list at some point (or perhaps you’ve even been the perpetrator before during a low point), but the key is to identify a pattern of behavior. This isn’t a one time occurrence — this is something that happens on a regular basis.
Domestic violence advocates often refer to the Power and Control Wheel to identify different categories of abuse. Notice that physical and sexual violence are on the outside of the wheel; it’s usually a pattern of behavior from the inside of the wheel that occurs before (or concurrent with) anything physical that takes place:
Sometimes the first indication of abuse is the way that you feel. My primary emotion was confusion. If you had asked me what was wrong, I would have had trouble identifying the exact issue with my husband that made our relationship feel so unsettling. I also found myself rapidly spiraling into a depression driven by low self-esteem and shame. I believed the lies that my husband told me about who I was as a person, and I started to feel worthless — like I couldn’t do anything right.
Marriage counseling won’t work for a woman in an abusive relationship because counselors typically want to deal with each individual marital conflict separately and assign responsibility/blame to both parties. Until the counselor recognizes that each conflict is a piece in a much larger pattern of behavior and begins to identify the tactics being used as abusive, the wife will be made to feel as if she is partly responsible and can somehow prevent those conflicts from occurring again. However, abusers thrive on conflict and control, so this isn’t likely. I remember all too well the feeling of “playing a game” in which the rules were always changing. I tried so hard to please my husband and avoid saying or doing things that would upset him, but after some time I realized that I could never be successful because he was always moving the goal post.
For example, my husband would spend a lot of time on his phone in the evening after I put the children to bed. I would come to the living room and try to engage him in conversation, but he would rarely look up from the screen and only offer the briefest responses to my questions. One time when I tried to gently request having some one-on-one time with him without his phone, he retorted back with, “I’m actually really glad that you mentioned that, because I’ve noticed that you’re on your phone a lot lately, and it’s becoming a really big problem. Who are you constantly messaging on your phone? Are you talking about me?” Suddenly, I found myself in the hot seat trying to explain and justify my own phone use, and he successfully avoided having to deal with the issue that I originally wanted to discuss. He also ensured that I would hesitate to bring up the issue about his phone again for fear of appearing to be hypocritical since I also enjoy spending time on my phone.
The end result was that I started using my phone less, and he started using his phone more. I doubled down my efforts to engage him in conversation in the evenings, and he doubled down on staring at his phone and occasionally even refusing to respond to me at all (as if I hadn’t even spoken). He also began getting annoyed with my attempts at conversation and criticizing me for asking him stupid questions about his day at work that he didn’t feel like answering. When I switched tactics and stopped asking him questions about his day (in an attempt to avoid making him angry), he moved the goalpost again and complained that I had no interest in him or his life. “Do you even care about me or what my day has been like? Can you even pretend to act like a loving wife? Most guys wouldn’t put up with this.” I apologized to him for my behavior right and left, and I was caught in an endless cycle of feeling like a failure.
This is, of course, just one small example of the pattern of blame-shifting and coercive control that was happening under our roof. This type of power dynamic was evident in every single aspect of our married life: our financial decisions, raising our children, and even our sex life. For a long time, I tried my best to play his game, hoping that somehow I would “win” his love in return. When I eventually realized that I was only ever going to lose, I decided to leave him. It was terrifying to make that move, but I am so thankful to be away from that toxic power dynamic, and I’m thankful that it never escalated into physical abuse.
If you think you’re in an abusive relationship (or perhaps you have a friend or family member who is), there are so many resources out there to educate yourself and identify these patterns of behavior. Once you’re able to step back and label the tactics being used by an abuser, it becomes so much easier to begin healing from the mental and emotional trauma that you’ve been through.
These resources are a great place to start:
- Glossary of terms/behavior patterns
- Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft
- Is It Abuse? by Darby Strickland
- The Divorce Survival Guide Podcast with Kate Anthony (she also offers an online seminar course helping you answer the question, “Should I stay or should I go?”)
- Boundaries and Safe People by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
- The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans
- Watch Maid on Netflix
*List is adapted from Leslie Vernick’s book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage.