Emotional Abuse

In this issue we would like to take a closer look at the problem of emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior designed to control another person through criticism, ridicule, humiliation, or threats. It is a common misconception that the term abuse refers only to physical types of violence. However, emotional abuse also leaves “bruises”—it erodes a person’s sense of self-worth and confidence, leaving the victim feeling broken and vulnerable. Here are some examples of emotionally abusive behaviors in a marriage or intimate partner relationship:

• Ignoring the spouse’s feelings or discounting her/him as a person
• Ridiculing or insulting the spouse’s gender as a group, or her/his most valued beliefs, religion, race, heritage, or class
• Withholding approval, appreciation, or affection as a punishment
• Continually criticizing the spouse, calling her/him names, or shouting at her/him
• Insulting or driving away the spouse’s friends or family
• Humiliating the spouse in private or public
• Refusing to socialize with the spouse
• Saying things to suggest that the spouse is mentally unstable or “crazy”
• Keeping a spouse from working, controlling her/his money, or making all her/his decisions
• Refusing to work or share money
• Regularly threatening to leave or telling the spouse to leave
• Threatening to hurt the spouse or her/his family
• Punishing or depriving the children when angry at the spouse
• Threatening to kidnap the children if the spouse leaves
• Abusing pets to hurt the spouse
• Telling the spouse about affairs to hurt or humiliate her/him
• Harassing the spouse about affairs he/she imagines the spouse is having

Our interviews of Adventist women who were abused in their marriages reveals several of these types of emotionally abusive patterns. Let’s listen to the voices of just a few of these women, sharing their painful experiences in their own words (all names have been changed):

“Very early in my marriage I got told that I had severe emotional problems. This went on for many years, and actually before that it was the smirks in the presence of other people—smirks or rolling of the eyes if I said something that he did not agree with or if I did not agree with him on it” (Abby).

“I’ll never forget, one time at work, everybody was supposed to bring ice-cream or toppings to have banana splits and then $.50. I remember I had to beg my husband in front of someone else for that $.50 and my husband wouldn’t give it to me. My friend that was with me told me later, ‘I remember I felt so sorry for you that he wouldn’t even give you $.50’” (Donna).

Alma was married to a pastor. “We would go to the Sabbath School class and if I asked a question, he would [make gestures], just totally humiliating me all the time in public.” Alma describes a time when there was a small fire that started in their home’s kitchen stove. When she called her husband for help, she says, “And he came, and he just yelled at me, and screamed at me, and how stupid could I be. And that became part of the rhetoric, if I stuck my toe outside of a line at all.” “Even to this day, people think he’s the ‘cat’s meow,’ and I’m the ‘crazy wife’” (Alma).

Just how prevalent emotional abuse is among Adventist church members is unknown, but we have some indication of its pervasiveness through a recent survey of 1,431 adults in the North Pacific Union. We found the following percentages of Adventists who experienced some form of emotional abuse in their adulthood with an intimate partner:

The following website gives more helpful information about emotional abuse: