Emotional Abuse: the silent killer in Christian Marriages

Emotional abuse is a feature of all abusive marriages and is far more pervasive and damaging than many people realise. When abuse is solely emotional, with no financial, sexual, social, physical or spiritual abuse along with it,  victims find it immensely difficult to identify what is being to done to them. And most bystanders will be completely  blind to what is going on as well as there are no ‘marks’, no physical injuries, and the abuser imposes very few social or financial controls on the victim that might be ‘give-aways’ to an astute bystander.

The colorless, odorless gas called carbon-monoxide is poisonous to the body; the invisibility of  emotional abuse makes it particularly poisonous to the soul.  There is a good the article about emotional abuse called The Silent Killer of Christian Marriages, by Amy Wildman White. The article downloads as a PDF.

We are also adding a recommendation for The Silent Killer of Christian Marriages to our Resources page.

25 thoughts on “Emotional Abuse: the silent killer in Christian Marriages”

  1. A great article that touches on the very insidious form of abuse that my EHTB used on me….and now his final abuse is complete financial destitution and at this point it looks like he will get away with it through the courts. Tho there is one judge that knows all things and he will stand one day before that judge.
    Thank you for sharing this well written article. What a journey it has been feeling like I was insane. On the road to healing…on the road.

  2. This was a very good article and one that all Church leaders should read and adhere to! Too many times the victims of “ONLY” emotional and mental abuse, are left to deal with the issues alone or are forced to follow the advice of uneducated and uncaring clergy, which only leaves them in the abusive marriage, as it said in the article, feeling trapped. It is time for the mind and spirit to be given as much protection, care and concern, as the physical body is. After all, if we lose our minds due to abuse, it won’t much matter whether we have our physical capabilities or not. I am not diminishing or undermining physical abuse in any way, so please don’t read that into this. I am simply saying that unless a woman shows up with a broken jaw, from my experience, she is usually dismissed as being “unsubmissive” or just a griping wife. Even when there is physical abuse, it seems that the emotional side of it does not get the same earnest and serious treatment it deserves. I think it is time for all of that to change. Thanks Barb, for sharing this with us!

    1. Thanks Anon for your encouragement and helpful words of reinforcement to what the article said. I also want to thank the anonymous lady who reminded me of the article, which prompted me to write this post recommending it.

  3. I first saw this article on another site and now have it on my file of resources. I was going to one day do something with them. So far, I have only sent some to friends. Recently, some articles have been passed on to a pastor, with no feedback yet.

    I am wondering if we could somehow get this sort of material to the average pastor. I realize that we are all from different parts of the world, but surely there is a strategy that we could use to either electronically or otherwise send these sorts of articles to those in the coalface of ministering to Christian congregations? Any ideas?

    1. I agree that awareness raising is essential before people will want to educate themselves more thoroughly on this topic. I would love to hear from pastors who are at the cusp of waking up to how serious this issue is. I’d love them to give us feedback about which approaches and which resources were the most enticing, the most useful, the most off-putting, the most suitable for them as beginners, etc. Then we could shape our approaches to more wisely and effectively cater to such beginners.

      And even as I write ‘beginners’ I know that such pastors would not like to be called ‘beginners’ as they usually think they are not too bad at dealing with domestic abuse. The biggest problem I face when I talk to pastors and leaders is that quite a lot of them think they are getting it pretty right already, and don’t need much further education. And I beg to differ – I want to tell them they need a lot more education – but when I push my point, I come across as too strongly opinionated. I need to bite my tongue and find more diplomatic ways to raise awareness.

      But I know of women who come to this blog who are gently but steadily passing out resources to pastors – links, books, etc. Sowing heaps of seeds in the hope that a few will take root is not a bad strategy, though as time goes on we may find more effective and targeted ways of raising awareness and prompting others to get more involved in the issue.

      When I am on internet and happen across organizations, ministries, churches, pastors, women’s ministry leaders who seem to have a bit of an interest in the topic of domestic abuse, I sometimes send them a quick email with the subject line “Resources for addressing domestic abuse in a Christian context.” In the email I write, “In your work you probably encounter people who are experiencing domestic abuse. You might like to check out these resources to see if they could be helpful in your ministry.” And I give them links to my work and to various blogs that I recommend. It only takes five minutes, especially if I use an email template for the message body, and just adapt it as necessary.
      Wish I could always be that mild and diplomatic in face to face encounters, but I sometimes put my foot in my mouth then and come across as somewhat indignant. 😦

      1. I am here on the internet looking for how to handle emotional abuse. I need help please please, I am breaking down. I don’t want to compromise my marriage and relationship with Christ yet no one around me sees that I need help. Please give me articles to read, I can’t continue this way. Oooh God help me.

      2. Hi, RAO, welcome to the blog! 🙂

        The best way to find articles to read on emotional abuse is to look at our FAQ page. It has a list of the most common questions which our readers ask. Each item on the list will take you to articles that answers that item.

        You said:

        I don’t want to compromise my marriage and relationship with Christ.

        It sounds to me like you are very afraid of doing anything that might be perceived to ‘compromise your marriage.’ Let me assure you that your abuser (your spouse) is the one who has already seriously compromised your marriage.

        It sounds like you are not the abuser, you are the one being abused.

        It sounds like you are feeling like you might be partly to blame. I want to assure you that if you are being abused, you are not to blame. It is not your fault. The blame and fault lie with the abuser. I want to assure you that you are at liberty to take whatever steps you wish to take for your own well-being and safety, e.g., separation, applying for protection orders from the court, divorce, or any other things that might help you build a life of more safety and freedom from abuse.

        I want to reassure you that you will not compromise your relationship with Christ by taking steps for your own well-being and safety. God cares more about individuals than the institution of marriage. God puts the well-being and safety of individuals above the preservation of a sham marriage in which the marriage covenant has been well and truly destroyed by the abusive spouse.

        I think you will find lots of good articles to read at our FAQ page. To go there, click this link: FAQ.

  4. I think it has to start with awareness that the issue even exists. People can be face to face with it and not realize it’s a serious issue until it happens TO THEM (I know this was true of me). As I see it, the problems are that it is such an easy thing for an abuser to hide coupled with fact that the material that does a good job of explaining what to look for and how to deal with it is extra-biblical; it’s really out of fashion at the moment for Bible believing pastors to use such sources. That is, we don’t mind relying on a doctor to fix a broken arm without using information gleaned from scripture, but when it comes to emotions and behavior, going with sources outside the Bible is a touchy subject.

    1. So what I meant to say is- if people were aware of the seriousness of the issue, they would welcome such material. As long as it is marginalized to “something I hope I never have to deal with that happens at other churches”, material like this will be seen at best as “potentially helpful, but not really necessary for my congregation” and at worst as “the fruit of liberal touchy-feely folks who don’t want to trust God’s ability to change people’s hearts”.

      Once you know it’s a real issue, though, this material becomes essential and (hopefully) welcomed. It all must start with awareness, I think.

  5. Dear Barbara,
    I am one that this article about the silent killer helped. As I was reading your comments, I began to realize that the most obvious and painful part of the abuse that I experienced was verbal and emotional. I had denied to myself that there was physical or other kinds of abuse. However, there was one physical episode and occasional throwing or breaking of things. Threats and the other types of abuse were there as well. They were just expressed in disrespectful words and attitudes, so that was what I found the most damaging.

    1. Thanks J Ann. Yes, when we realise how pervasive and painful the emotional abuse was, it’s like the breaking of the dawn. Everything comes into focus and can be inspected in all its detail.
      When my first marriage finally came to an end, I remember going through the thesaurus and the dictionary, making lists of all the words that depict verbal abuse – hey, what else do you expect with a word-aholic!

      Here are some of the words I found:
      opprobrium, vilification, abuse, vituperation, condemnation, criticism, censure, denunciation, defamation, denigration, disapprobation, castigation, disparagement, obloquy, derogation, slander, calumny, execration, lambasting, scolding, fault-finding, bad press, invective, insults, libel, character assassination, flak, mudslinging, bad-mouthing, tongue-lashing, excoriation, contumely, slurs, aspersions; vitriol, venom.

      It was therapeutic, thinking about the meaning of each of those words.

  6. The following is the response of a young adult daughter when she was reminded that her father never hit her mother:
    “My dad may never have hit my mom, but everyday he beat her down emotionally until there was nothing left.”
    Emotional abuse is ABUSE!
    Great article!

    1. Yes, this. Exactly this. He never hit us, but I almost wish he had because then we would have something to point to, something substantive. We were all beaten and bludgeoned every day in every emotional way possible, but my mom got the worst of it, and me as the oldest child who was unfortunately not a boy. I wonder sometimes, if I had been a boy, if I’d have been able to shield the others better, because there is no doubt that there was a strong element of misogyny to all of it, and he ended up with six daughters and only one son (no. 5) – everyone who came before the son had a much worse time of it than the last two girls, like he was somehow pacified by finally having a son, but even they were sufficiently messed up to have serious consequences in their own lives. One of them got into another emotionally manipulative abusive relationship which was more overt, though thankfully she got free of it too, and the other has such a strong fear response that she shuts down and doesn’t talk when people are arguing, with layers and layers of walls so that she never really lets anyone in. I am probably the closest to her of anyone, partly because I know how to have a relationship with someone so closed off – my best friend is even worse that way, and she comes from a very abusive background herself.

      My brother is the only one who never really experienced enough of the manipulation and abuse that he can understand – he’s seen some of it, but the only things that were ever directed at him were deception and gaslighting, so that he would doubt other people’s stories and maintain some solidarity. Fortunately, he grew up honest and smart enough to see through a lot of it, so while he struggles to understand and accept what we went through, he doesn’t doubt or miscount it.

  7. 36 years of trying to hold on to my “Christian” marriage and feeling miserable, alone and unconnected to my husband – a mama’s boy and passive-aggressive personality. His mum told me at our wedding day that his son -my husband- promised he would never have another woman in his life, lied about me behind my back and even when both of my husband and I could hear her, the selfish mother-in-law even tried to slap me for staying away from them and being very quiet, she only stopped when I grabbed a scissor and told her, slap me and she was dead. My husband just stood there. He never defended me even when the mother in law embarrassed me in public. He just dismissed it as a joke. Never did he stand by my side or protect me from my mother in law from hell. She died last December because, the older son took all her money to finance his relationship with a young married woman (he is 63 and the woman 29 with 2 sons with her legal husband). My father-in-law is 94, a minister and totally inept and self-righteous and emotionally unavailable, really selfish creature. So-called Christians behaving worse than any so called infidels. I am tired and am getting off the roller coaster. I had breast cancer in 2006, should have left my dysfunctional marriage but could not cause pain for my twin boys. But now they are telling me to make a stand. My faith in God is not shaken but my trust in men is shaken totally.
    Please pray for me because I have serious decisions to make. Thanks for the article, it is very helpful.

    1. The Safe Place Ministries website is in the process of being updated. We shall keep checking it and put a live link up when we can access one.
      Thanks for letting us know, Marah.

      1. Thank you!

        This was a very helpful article, and I’d consider sending it to pastor-types (I have supportive ones), except for one thing. It concerns me that the article doesn’t explain the dynamic of the abuser who appears to be repentant, and is making just enough changes – to public eyes. They are experts at fooling people. I’m afraid that this article, in not pointing that out, could easily set up the abused spouse for even greater damage in the long run.

        But most of it is really excellent.

      2. Good comment, Marah. Yes, the article is helpful, but I think you are right in discerning who to forward it to because of what the article fails to discuss.

  8. I am so grateful to Barbara and Jeff for the work you are doing on this website. When I was first waking up to the fact that I was being emotionally and verbally abused by someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, this website gave me the information and the courage to first speak up and later take action. As a Christian, I found it especially difficult to speak up and take a stand against abuse due to the teaching I received from the church. Thank you for providing an educated, in depth teaching on the complex issues surrounding abuse and divorce.

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