Do you know a relationship that once seemed emotionally healthy but now looks toxic? Maybe you worry that things in your own relationship have moved past frustrating and you wonder if they are becoming emotionally abusive?
We hear these types of concerns daily. None of these comments sound good, but how can we discern if these behaviors are emotionally abusive? Andrea Matthews in Psychology Today describes emotional abuse this way, “Emotional abuse is a painful and serious pattern of abuse in which the primary effort is to control someone by playing with their emotions.” An abusive relationship manipulates emotions to assert control and dominance. How can you discern if a relationship has deteriorated into emotionally abusive behavior? Consider if these behaviors are becoming commonplace in your relationship.
Demeaning language is a tool an abuser uses to tear others down so they can feel superior. This condescending language dismisses the image of God that every human being carries. An abuser seeks emotional control by poking at our own insecurities and pointing them out to others. Demeaning language should have no place in our relationships, especially in front of other people.
We all contribute to the health (or lack of it) in our relationships. The question is whether we can own our contribution. Abusers refuse to accept any responsibility for how their behavior has contributed to the situation. They defensively turn every situation around to make it sound like the victim is at fault. Comments like, “I would not have cheated if you were a better wife” deny responsibility for their infidelity. We all need to own our sinfulness and bring it to the cross.
An emotionally abusive spouse tries to isolates its victim from their sources of support. An emotionally abusive spouse might try to keep their spouse from speaking with friends or processing with a counselor. Abusers may isolate a spouse by controlling their friendships or movements around town. They demand to know where you are and who you've been with at all times. They might text constantly and demand immediate replies. An abuser might pull internet access or track your phone to exert control by eliminating the input of others.
We all slip into criticism now and again, but it not become the default in our relationships. Constant criticism that seeks to make the other person conform to their wishes is emotionally abusive. It is a means an abuser user to assert dominance and show that they are in charge. It is one thing to complain about behaviors, and another to attack the character of a person. We all complain sometimes, but when it becomes a means of manipulating emotions and self-image, we should take notice and get help.
Physically or emotionally checking out of the relationship can be a weapon an abuser uses to exert their power. A spouse might ignore calls and not respond to texts as a way to assert their control when they are feeling threatened. Withholding affection is a tool an abuser users to manipulate emotions and punish their victim for however they felt slighted.
An abuser might use mind games to keep their victim off balance. The victim gets wooed with loving words only to be suddenly pushed aside by an abrasive comment. They say one thing one moment and deny it the next. You never know where you stand because the person you love can be transformed in the blink of an eye into a hateful monster. These destructive cycles point to emotional abuse.
It is verbally abusive to reduce someone to hate-filled words. Our Savior loves us and calls us by name. Name calling reduces a person from their identity as a unique child of God to a negative label. The names that we are called can cause us to feel shame as they degrade and humiliate. Name calling is a destructive weapon that has no place in our relationships.
Those who threaten are using their power in the relationship in destructive ways. No one should have to feel as though they are walking on eggshells trying to avoid upsetting someone. Threats of punishment or punishment itself leave a victim constantly on edge, afraid of causing offense. This is a blatant misuse of power that does not belong in a healthy relationship.
It is normal to feel guilt when we do something wrong. Our guilt convicts us to behave better next time. Blame and shame on the other hand are destructive tools meant to demean. Abusers use blame and shame to manipulate emotions and shift responsibility for their own actions. God forgives us for our sins and does not ask us to carry the weight of guilt and shame that he has already carried for us.
We are never instructed in scripture to submit to abuse. Jesus gives instructions in Matthew 18:15-20 for how we are to respond when a brother sins against us. Those instructions call us not to dismiss it, but to address the concern directly. If this is not effective in bringing about repentance and changed behavior, we are called to persist by bringing in a third party. We should enlist a wise counselor and seek the healing of the relationship. If there is no accountability and the bad behavior persists, we are called to bring in boundaries to separate ourselves from their abuse. We are to treat them as a non-Christian whom we care about and pray for, but limits are put in place to protect us from their ongoing sin and to hold the abuser accountable. These are Jesus' words for managing conflict and caring for our lives. God cares about our healing and safety.
If you are experiencing struggles in your relationship seek help. Do not place yourself in danger, but seek safety for you and those in your care. God loves you with an everlasting love and you are his beloved child. Seek the guidance of a professional counselor to help you set boundaries to protect you and your family from emotionally abusive abusive behavior.
Dr. Robert Ritzema
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra