Are You Just Imagining and Over-Reacting?

Recently we were asked about the possibility that a victim is overreacting and exaggerating, and in fact her husband isn’t an abuser after all. I suspect that just about every abuse victim spends some time going back and forth with thoughts like these. Doubts. What if she is wrong? These are the kinds of things that go through her mind.

Well, once again let me draw on Steven Tracy’s book, Mending the Soul [Affiliate link]. Here is one, pervasive, marker of the abuser that is virtually always present:

Pervasive Denial of Responsibility

In the twelve years my wife, Celestia, and I have worked with abusers and abuse victims, the single most consistent characteristic we’ve seen in abusers is their utter unwillingness to accept full responsibility for their behavior. I have rarely seen abusers confess to abuse unless there was crystal-clear, overwhelming evidence of their behavior — and even then they’d typically minimize what they had done and shift the blame. Over and over Adolf Eichmann declared he was not criminally responsible for the murder of millions of Jews in Nazi death camps, for he was simply “following orders.” Rapists sometimes blame victims for dressing seductively. Date rapists invariably say the sex was consensual. Physical abusers blame family members for making them mad. Several times I’ve heard child molesters say the child seduced them into having sex. One time I heard a molester, who was later convicted for raping two children, tell the jury that the children held him down and forced him to have sex with them. What made this denial even more outrageous was the fact that the children he molested were five and seven years old, and the man was a full-grown adult who weighed over three hundred pounds. Needless to say, the jury didn’t buy his repulsive blame shifting, but it does demonstrate how extravagantly abusers deny responsibility. Similarly, spiritual abusers customarily offer biblical justification for their abuse. When caught red-handed, they will (if pressed to the wall) admit to some inappropriate behavior but will fixate on the sins (real or imagined) of the other person. In short, most abusers have an utter inability to fully own their sin.  [Emphasis added.]

Tracy, Steven R. (2009-05-19). Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse (Kindle locations 691-704). Zondervan. Kindle edition.

There it is. Is he always right? When you point something out to him, does it ricochet right off of him and come back and hit you in the form of a verbal denial and blaming on his part? Is it always your fault by the time the conversation is over? If so, be assured, you aren’t imagining and you aren’t over-reacting. This is absolutely abnormal and wrong. There is no way that in any relationship one person is always right and the other always wrong. Think about it. It is impossible.


[March 30, 2023: Editors’ notes:

—For some comments made prior to March 30, 2023 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to March 30, 2023 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to March 30, 2023 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (March 30, 2023), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]

26 thoughts on “Are You Just Imagining and Over-Reacting?”

  1. About a month before leaving my former husband I began recording my experiences in the marriage. I’m glad I did because if I ever have doubts about whether I was imagining it or exaggerating I can refer to my 16 pages of notes and re-live all the bad times. I know I was justified in leaving and obtaining a divorce. I was very careful not to exaggerate or lie in my notes and now I know I have an accurate record of my marriage.

  2. Maree, you were a wise lady to make and keep those notes! I didn’t make extensive notes while my last marriage was extant. But I do have two letters my husband wrote to me after one of his “off the rails” episodes, written during his “penitent” self-exile in the spare bedroom.

    The first letter consists of a paltry confession of about 5 percent of what he’d done the night before and ending with a sly denigration of me. The second letter (written because I wrote a reply back to him demanding he be a lot more specific about what he’d done and said to me that awful night) was a bit more confessional, but didn’t admit all, and in it he promised “never to try to enforce his will on me again.”

    I am really glad I have these two letters from him, as I can read them whenever the doubts come back.

  3. Wow….well….this is something I struggle with all the time. Thinking maybe I am over-reacting or making things seem worse than they really are.

    their utter unwillingness to accept full responsibility for their behavior….

    Completely, 100% what I face daily. When I left my husband initially he never took responsibility for anything that led up to that. The terrifying outbursts of anger, the fighting, the subtle threats. Even when we “discussed” it over the years he never saw he was to blame for any of it. Still doesn’t. When things go wrong he is never at fault. It is always my fault. This post was so well timed. “Mending the Soul” is definitely on my “to read” list.

  4. Anytime I start wondering if maybe it wasn’t so bad, I remember him telling me he had no conscience — and that just answers all my questions. Anytime since then that I have confronted him with that statement, he refuses to comment. He will say in an email that he doesn’t know why he does what he does (then later acts like he doesn’t understand why I am so mad) and when I say “because you have no conscience, like you said”. He will not respond. That is all I need.

  5. This very thing is what about drove me to insanity. To be treated by the general populous like I was within “normal” parameters and to be feeling with him like I was crazy. Kept thinking that if I could just change “my” perspective it wouldn’t bother me. Even had a well-meaning brother and sister in the Lord tell me that if I better understood who I was in Christ that what he said would not bother me. A well-learned lesson with them that those who have not walked this road do not “get it”….no matter how well-meaning.

    Sounds like “Mending the Soul” should be added to my list too. Though it will have to wait until I’ve gotten more settled after that whirlwind move….which I couldn’t have managed without many faithful saints helping me. So much “stuff” to purge in more ways than one. God is so gracious to be revealing His merciful hand towards me and there is a freedom that is washing over me that makes me want to shout from the highest mountaintop for all the world to hear….”How GREAT is our God!!!”
    Bless y’all.

    1. Sheryl – your insights here are very helpful to us, and all our readers. It seems to me that if a wife, for example, were actually exaggerating and falsely “framing” or “misunderstanding” her husband, then she probably would not be in the mental and emotional chaos you describe here. But where there is confusion and feeling crazy and all of this fog and doubt, there is abuse. And as Maree and Jodi pointed out, holding on to some historic “anchors” either in a journal or in some other way, is very helpful when we start to wonder if we are the problem ourselves. This is not grudge-holding or unforgiveness, it is clinging to reality and refusing to be overcome with the deceptiveness of evil. Christ restores our joy!

  6. I totally relate to all these comments. Sheryl — I understand the wonderful feeling of freedom from the oppression — living in peace and safety. Kudos to you for standing firm and walking away from the abuse. HALLELUJAH!

  7. I think it is especially difficult in the cases of spiritual abuse. This is the thing that drove me almost insane. I had a similar experience to Sheryl. I had been going solo to counseling (he would not), and luckily my (Christian) counselor pointed out the manipulation and spiritual abuse that was taking place. Because the only physical outcome of the spiritual abuse is usually yelling, there was nothing to show how battered & beaten down my soul had become. So happy I had guidance and kept journals during that time. It is still so difficult to trust completely. On the mend, and confident that with Christ’s help, I will learn how to trust & be more discerning.

  8. I was told I was exaggerating all the time no matter what I said, first by my mother and then the husband. Eventually, I just shut up which I suppose is the point. One of the last things I remember the estranged yelling at me was “it couldn’t have been that bad!”

    Well yes, by golly, it was indeed that bad.

    I kept a journal like Maree but it took me over five years to finally see things clearly because by that time (three decades in) it really didn’t matter in my mind how bad things were as I had accepted the husband’s talking point that it was all my fault anyway. Honestly, if it is that bad, and it’s your own fault, then there’s something wrong with you and you deserve what you get. Right?

    Once out, I was a physical and emotional wreck. I cried night and day, sometimes choking on my own tears. I cried my eyelids inside out (never actually saw that happen before — didn’t know it was possible). I would lie in the bathtub at night in a catatonic state, staring at the shower head and counting the drips fall. I couldn’t eat, avoided sleep at all costs because that’s when the scary stuff showed up. I checked the locks on the doors compulsively and jumped every time a car drove by. I swung between periods of wild elation at being able to have a quiet cup of coffee to curling up on the bed in a fetal position an hour later. And all the time, I could hear the husband’s voice, listing my faults, recounting everything I’d done to disappoint him, all my failures as a wife and mother.

    No matter how hard I tried, I could not sort things out. Was it really that bad? Was I over-reacting? Was I overly sensitive? Mentally ill like he said? Had I ruined his life, poisoned his children against him, imagined everything I thought I knew from his drinking to his infidelity to the physical and verbal abuse of the kids?

    One prayer came to mind — “The Lord judge between me and thee while we are apart from one another.” I could not get clarity. I also knew I could not physically make myself return even if Gabriel himself showed up with the papers. I was done. Finished. All wrung out, unable to go on.

    Thankfully, in my heart I also knew Who could make sense of things and I could trust Him to judge because, honest to goodness, I really did want to get better. If what the husband said was true, I wanted to change. I was no longer afraid to throw myself into the hands of God and let Him reveal the truth because no matter what God might find, there was no worse hell than the one I was in right that moment.

    There also came this point where I knew that even if I was just an overly emotional, high-strung, over-reacting witch of a woman that it no longer mattered. I could see the shape I was in and knew I had no business going back into that situation even if it was all my fault. If I was this sick, messed up woman, then I had no business trying to be a wife. If I was as horrible as the husband said, then I was exactly where I needed to be. Out, away from him and no longer contributing to his misery.

    And with that bit of twisted logic, I could finally rest.

    Let me just add that God did move and He did clear away the fog. Not all at once but one little miracle at a time. Divine intervention is a marvelous thing but it’s generally gentle and kind to hurting souls —

    —A friend calling to say that she knew me and I didn’t have to tell her anything. She’d known me for fifteen years, she knew my walk, my witness, that I loved the Lord and if I left, she knew I had good reason.

    —A book recommended on a totally unrelated blog that explained verbal / emotional abuse (charged to the husband’s account no less).

    —A Christian counselor who started his career in law enforcement and totally understood the danger we were in and the mechanics of abuse.

    —A neighbor coming over and telling her story and seeing myself clearly for the first time. Much easier to see the truth in another’s misery.

    It took a year. It hurt like crazy. Thank God for His infinite mercy and care during that time because honestly, I don’t know how anyone gets free without Him.

    1. The deception is so incredible. As you look back on it, it is clear now. No one who is really as much of the “witch” as he told you that you were, would react in the way that you reacted in the end. Being so devastated and confused. Witches (male and female) are generally very confident in who they are and are the ones who go on the offense against others, not on the defensive position that you were playing. So in other words, your abuser, rest assured, has never spent any sleepless nights, or curled up in a fetal position as the reality of who he is comes crashing down upon him.

      And yes, was it all that bad? I don’t know what does this, but there is something that sets off this program in our brains that punishes us for “thinking so badly” about someone. It whacks us upside the head and shames us for daring to be so judgmental. The whole thing must be a fiction created by our own mean, unforgiving self. When that happens to me, I have to run the anti-virus program that replays the facts of the abuse as they really happened. That is why a journal, like both you and Maree mentioned, is a valuable tool.

      1. I don’t know what does this, but there is something that sets off this program in our brains that punishes us for “thinking so badly” about someone. It whacks us upside the head and shames us for daring to be so judgmental. The whole thing must be a fiction created by our own mean, unforgiving self.

        Pastor Jeff, I just talked to my counselor about this very thing today. That I’ll be starting to see things more clearly about how husband treats me and how I feel about it and him and then WHAM! I’ll suddenly be overwhelmed with panic and anxiety, thinking….how dare I think that way about him, passing judgment, etc…. Maybe it IS all me and I’m just a nasty, selfish person like he thinks I am.

        I wish I could turn that “program” off!

      2. Yep, I know it well. We can get better at shutting it down though over time. So that’s encouraging.

    2. Ida Mae, I just want to (((((HUG)))))) you and thank you for putting into words that dreadful time post-separation when I didn’t know what was true and what was false and I was virtually catatonic, like when you were watching the drips from the shower head. Transfixed. Mind so overflowing that it was like the blood vessels in my brow could break and bleed out under the skin from all the cogitation that seemed to go nowhere.

      Crying your eyelids inside out! I haven’t known that one, but your testimony makes me believe it. I’m sobbing in sympathy right now at my kitchen table.

      With me, the crying, the ginormous primal cry that sat in my belly for years, I never got it out. It just sat there, undigested, like a stone. I cried heaps, yes, but that crying wasn’t the stone coming up. It was weeping over the many subsidiary things. The big stone just sat there, implacable and un-dislodgeable for years. I don’t know how it finally went. Only God knows that. In His mercy He must have gradually diminished and dissolved it without my being aware of it. I think He knew it would have hurt too much for me to be aware of its dissolvement.

      1. “Crying your eyelids inside out” — not sure that’s the technical term for it. Upper eyelids so swollen and puffed out you can see the underside of the eyelid for about a quarter inch or more with the eyelashes actually higher up. Looks nasty. 😛

        But yeah, never cried like that before in my life. Like it had built up for all those years and had to go somewhere.

  9. So here is one for you. How does it work that the abuser says, “You always blame me for everything!”? When I try to address a problem, of any kind, he begins saying the above. Is that what I am doing? How do I know the difference? I certainly know that I have fault in the marriage. I have no problem owning my “sin” in my marriage or life in general. This is an area that my head gets really twisted over.

    Also, my pastor said to me, “Do you really expect your husband never to yell at you again?” Maybe I just have no idea what normal is and I am expecting too much.

    1. J. – good questions and they have good answers. Here they are: 1) Whenever you have a person who never accepts blame, who always throws the blame back on you when you try to bring a complaint to them, you can immediately and confidently conclude that it isn’t you. No normal, healthy person consistently refuses to accept criticism. Think about it — do you ALWAYS blame him for everything? No. Those are distorted, twisted allegations made to confuse you. 2) Disregard what your pastor says. You can confidently do that because his words demonstrate that he is participating in the abuse by minimizing it. That is what his statement is — a minimization of your husband’s abuse of you. The answer to his question? YES, you DO expect your husband never to yell at you again! That is what Christ expects of him. You are not expecting too much.

  10. This forum [post] is two years old. However I would like to say that some of the replies here have been very helpful for me. Thank you all so very much. Even reading about the tears — the months of tears. That is one of the things I have been afraid of — how will I cope with the “emotional fall-out” of leaving. While your experience made me sad for you, it gave me a sense of courage, too.

    1. The emotional fall out of leaving is better than the life-sucking drain of daily emotional fall outs for the rest of your married life. At least the fall out from leaving will eventually subside (as I have experienced). It has not gone away completely after a year and a half, but it is so much better than the DAILY mental and emotional battle of “what’s gonna happen today?” And the going to bed at night hurting, hurting, hurting AGAIN….wishing for a way out….hoping tomorrow won’t be this way….praying for God to do something….crying, disappointed, crying, hopeful yet hopeless, crying. It doesn’t ever stop or get better. It is perpetual.

      I had the emotional dam break after leaving. I had a couple of horrendous emotional breakdowns, and many other less dramatic meltdowns. But healing is now in progress. The emotional fall out from leaving leads to healing that is necessary — like pulling the scab off the infected wound. Finally the deeper healing can come, and it’s SO much better than the phony appearance of healing on the surface. The saying “no pain, no gain” truly applies here. Of course it’s gonna hurt. You just have to decide which pain you prefer to live with.

      Jesus will help you cope with your pain. In fact, He will not just help you cope, He will deliver you from it. It will take time and it will hurt along the way, but to me, the slow process of healing with THE COMFORTER is faaaaaar better than the daily dose of pain that will continue indefinitely in an abusive relationship.

  11. This post is so helpful. Understanding that my husband’s behavior is a pattern of behavior helped immensely and so adding this understanding will help me stop the constant wondering of “is it all me”?

    As far as blaming my husband there have been so many times he accused me of blaming him when I hadn’t blamed him. He says that so often that I think others have begun to believe I blame him for everything. Funny though I’m not a blamer. My children and friends have pointed out how tactful I am and I’m always willing to give others the benefit of the doubt.

    But he’s always ready to blame. The screw fell out of the chair the other day and he blamed me for breaking it. He uses anything to make me look bad. It’s to the point that it’s ridiculous.

    I made a mistake 5 years ago and wrote him a letter detailing the things he did that were hurting me. I didn’t understand he was an abuser at the time. I wrote the letter in charity. I thought he didn’t understand and would honestly not want to be that way. I wouldn’t, which I guess is why I’ve been torn up inside all these years wondering if it’s all me. I wrote a letter because whenever we’d fight I’d end up not getting to say anything and listening to him for hours. If I tried to speak he’d accuse me of being rude and selfish. That letter was a switch that turned him from trying to cover his abusive behavior to not bothering. Where before he’d only use my words or actions towards him as fodder for his abuse (then apologizing by blaming me). I can now literally be doing nothing like sitting at the kitchen table and he will spew nastiness at me for sitting — because I haven’t gotten his lunch, I forgot to pick up his shirts at the cleaner, his back hurts yet I’m sitting, etc. If I am doing something then I hear about how I have time for everything but what he needs done which just proves how selfish I am. He doesn’t apologize for these outbursts and can turn around a few minutes later and talk about stuff as [if] it didn’t happen.

    I started a journal of sorts a few months ago because with all this new information about abuse swirling in my head I couldn’t think straight. I’ve printed out a number of the posts here and wrote comments on them and wrote letters to myself detailing particularly bad incidents. I realized one day how much I’ve left out. I’m so, so used to his abuse that it has to be really bad for it to even make it into the journal! I need to write up something that makes it clear that this behavior is all the time! And he never is sorry.

    I had to stop apologizing several years go even when I truly believed I’d hurt him because he was so patronizing about it. And then he’d just use the apology against me. A normal, loving person doesn’t do that.

    1. It might be good for you to create a secret email address and send yourself copies of your notes and journals as documentation. This would allow you to access the info if it were ever destroyed.

      1. I used to write letters to my husband (similar to your journaling). I would gently, lovingly address my concerns about his behavior toward me and the kids — angry outbursts, yelling, cursing, slamming doors, hands in fists when he would talk, threatening comments, furious looks, aggressive body language. Sometimes I would give the letters to him; sometimes I was too afraid to, figuring it would set him off even more. I would stash the letters in places around the house….in my Bible, in the file cabinet in my “special” file, under the drawer in my jewelry cabinet. It was documentation for my mental health.

        I once pulled a few of them out and gave them to him. They had been written with a period of years between them. We had hit a spot in our marriage / family where I had to “prove” to him this was “REALLY” a problem. I thought by seeing the dates on these letters — written 5, 10, and 15 years apart — that he would see it truly had been a long time problem. I COULD NOT GET HIM TO SEE IT WAS A PROBLEM!!! Even though I had these letters stating factual episodes of the repetitive behavior all he could focus on was, “Why are you keeping a record of my wrongs? The Bible says you are not to do that. You are obviously harboring unforgiveness. You need to get rid of this record of my wrongs.” In guilt I threw them away. How I wish I had kept them now as I go through this cycle of questioning whether it was as bad as I think it was.

        The fortunate thing is that when I moved away last year, I did find 2 more letters and they are just as telling as all the ones I had gotten rid of. It is so wonderful to have those 2 letters to refer to when I doubt. I also have 3 adult children who can attest to the way it was. I hate to bring it up with them, but they are also there if I need a reality check.

        Why do we question ourselves when we KNOW that we KNOW it WAS that bad. Why do we even wonder???

    2. Annie, have you done research into Narcissistic Personality Disorder? These people can be very abusive and caustic with their tongues. It is a key that finally unlocks the door of confusion for many of us who suffer because we just cannot make logical sense of their continuous hurtful behaviors. Not all abusers are NPD, but I believe all NPD people are abusers of some type.

      1. Thank you for the suggestion. I’ll have to do that. I don’t really understand what that is.

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