What is Emotional Spousal Abuse?

M.C. Huguelet

Emotional spousal abuse is a form of domestic violence in which a husband or wife continually harms his or her spouse psychologically. While this abuse is not physical in nature, it can be equally damaging to the victim as other forms of domestic violence. This type of abuse usually involves using words to control a victim, undermine his or her self-worth, and create an environment of fear and helplessness. There are a number of ways in which victims of emotional spousal abuse can find the help and support they need to escape from their lives of abuse.

A spouse who is an emotional abuser may constantly criticize the other spouse's appearance.
A spouse who is an emotional abuser may constantly criticize the other spouse's appearance.

Many people associate domestic abuse solely with physical violence. There are other, non-physical forms of abuse which a husband or wife can inflict upon his or her spouse, however. Chief among these is emotional spousal abuse, or the continuous psychological harm of a spouse.

A spouse who is an emotional abuser may intentionally humiliate the other spouse in front of their children.
A spouse who is an emotional abuser may intentionally humiliate the other spouse in front of their children.

A spouse who is an emotional abuser strikes with words rather than fists. He often uses various tactics to undermine his victim’s self-worth. For instance, he may constantly criticize his spouse’s appearance, intelligence, and performance of domestic duties. He may also intentionally humiliate his spouse in front of their children, extended family, or friends.

An emotionally abusive spouse may threaten to use physical violence if his or her demands aren't met.
An emotionally abusive spouse may threaten to use physical violence if his or her demands aren't met.

Often, an emotionally abusive spouse will seek to create an environment of fear for his partner. He may threaten to use physical violence if she fails to fulfill one of his demands, sometimes breaking or throwing things to add emphasis to his threat. If the couple has children, the abuser might threaten to take them away or harm them.

An emotionally abusive spouse may forbid the other spouse to have any contact with family and friends.
An emotionally abusive spouse may forbid the other spouse to have any contact with family and friends.

Another common characteristic of emotional spousal abuse is the creation of a feeling of helplessness in the victim. The abuser may insist on having total control over household finances, thus making the victim financially dependent on him. He may forbid her to interact with her family and friends or to participate in activities outside of the home. Barred from contact with the outside world, the victim often feels as though she has no support system to whom she can turn, and escaping from her abusive marriage begins to feel impossible.

As time passes, emotional abuse may escalate to physical abuse.
As time passes, emotional abuse may escalate to physical abuse.

Escaping emotional spousal abuse need not be impossible, however. There are a number of ways in which victims of this devastating form of abuse can find the help and support they need to rebuild their self-esteem and begin to live more positive lives. Victims of this type of abuse should consider talking to a trusted loved one, consulting an abuse hot line or website, or visiting a victims’ support center or shelter.

Emotional spousal abuse should never be tolerated.
Emotional spousal abuse should never be tolerated.
Spousal abuse is often connected with alcoholism.
Spousal abuse is often connected with alcoholism.

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Emotional abuse is a living hell. I constantly walked on eggshells. The signs were there, but I accepted the excuses and adjusted as much as I could. At first I defended myself, based on none of it making sense. I tried to make sense and created excuses in my mind. I then ignored it as much as possible. I gave her everything she wanted and let her control as much as she wanted, but no matter what, it was never good enough. There is never compassion. And as a victim, I was not allowed to complain.

We have a child together and I started to see her abusing our daughter. It started very notably when she turned around a one-year-old and since then, she has wanted our daughter to behave a certain way, forcing her control. Most of it was through yelling or going off to another room and just leaving my daughter alone. I helped her through all the challenging milestones.

One day – a day I will never, ever forget – my wife went into a rage and slammed my daughter to the ground. This happened on Father's Day in 2013. What led to it was my daughter (not yet 2) was having a normal – not earth shattering – fit. The day before I saw my wife losing control and tried to offer help, but she started to scream at me. My wife was attempting to force my daughter to sit cross-legged.

My daughter had to go to the hospital, but I had to convince everyone that it was an accident, but no one wanted to hear what I said.

I wanted to take her to the police, but I was scared if I did and there wasn't enough proof, it would only make things worse. I continued for another year, this time stepping in more, but I paid dearly for protecting my daughter. I took the emotional blows for her. My wife became more and more emotionally abusive and would threaten me physically, shove and occasionally throw things and destroy my property.

When I had enough, I started talking to a counselor and my wife asked me why. I told her it was because of her abuse of me and our daughter. She went into her usual abuse, saying I am weak and I can't handle a woman, that I don't know what abuse is that I could not prove that the incident happened with our daughter. She kicked me out.

My counselor called child protective services because of what I said happened to my daughter. That was a bit of a shock to me. What was more shocking and what I had no idea about were the lies and acting that she would do. In the end, even though she had gone to the emergency room that day, CPS said that because there was no permanent damage, the incident never happened.

Now I am without my daughter for six months. She is still being allowed to visit as often as my wife pleases, so long as she is in control. If we argue and I say or do anything to upset her, she makes seeing our daughter difficult.

I have no clue what to do. The biggest moment that I saw with my own eyes was dismissed as though it never happened. I can never erase that from my memory: the screaming, out-of-control rage and the thought that my daughter's arm was broken. I wish to god I could simply make it go away and that I did not see the evil come out but I can't.

I've been wiped out financially by her over time. I can't run because I have no doubt my daughter will suffer. I have such a rough battle ahead.

You don't want to be where I am or worse. Don't kid yourself: it is never about hoping it will change or that you can take it. It gets worse and worse. The good times are an illusion and trick you into thinking maybe it will work out. The next day could be a carbon copy but then when you start begging, pleading and appeasing, it does not matter.


@anon331553: I have to ask you why you're still with this waste of space and air?

I'm overweight myself, and I'd rather spend the rest of my days alone than with the abusive, controlling, jerk of a dirtbag you've found yourself with.

Get out of there, girl! You're worth more than that! If you need help, look up the National Domestic Violence Hotline and contact them. They can help you get our of this situation.

Don't allow yourself to be a doormat any longer. Leave that jerk and his drunk girlfriend, graduate from college, get a great job and have a great life!


The man I live with constantly bullies me and puts me down. I mean, everything out of his mouth has a sarcastic remark or a twisted sentence of one kind or another. Everything. I can't even remark about the weather (literally) without him saying "I already looked up the weather, (obscene name)." Oh yeah, he doesn't address me by name anymore is another thing. He calls out "Hey!" or "Hey" followed by an obscene name.

We haven't had sex in weeks and he informed me he's not touching me again, and that he has "other means" of satisfying himself now. He keeps telling me I'm "out of here" soon, but that since I'll "take anything" just so I can be in a relationship with him, he can call me back to live here anytime.

I'm getting sick of being kicked out of his house and scrambling to pack and leave. He has repeatedly told me I'm too fat and unattractive and that I'm lower than what people expect of his "usual standards". He tells me he's embarrassed to be seen with me.

He sabotages my college studies by not allowing me to use his computer when he's home, not letting me stay up to study for exams at times, forcing me to do chores for him when I need to do homework, instead.

Why he would want me to fail out beats me. I have to rely on my phone alarm to wake me for early classes because when I ask him to make sure I'm up before he leaves, he won't check on me.

He often talks about a woman he's still in love with and seems to think he has a future shot with again if he "comes into money" again. He goes to her house still, and out drinking with her. She sometimes calls wasted drunk after we're in bed, asks him to come over, which he does, and stays until he comes back to dress for work.

I am nothing but a maid, laundress and errand girl. He doesn't take me anywhere and I can't interrupt him or talk when he gets home and gets on the computer. I really only get a chance to have any kind of conversation as he's getting ready to sleep. Even then, he's bitter and belittling. He does many more things to mess with my head and is escalating lately, like leaving a shotgun shell by my coffee jar yesterday morning.


Using a formal term "Emotional spousal abuse" suggests that it constitutes a crime absent physical contact. It doesn't.


I have been married for 11 years. I have a physical disability in my one leg so I limp when I walk. I met my wife through a common friend while I was doing my medical training. She lived with me for six months before we got married. Our parents were not happy with it. Her parents were even trying to stop our wedding but because of her wishes, they accepted me.

There was some confusion and lack of communication among both parties during the wedding. My wife and I started fighting soon after about the “poor” behavior of my family with her during the wedding. She kept complaining about my family and had become so bitter that it started affecting our daily life. Our physical intimacy also suffered but we had good sex life.

We had a child, and I thought she would be busy with the care of her. But nothing helped. We are financially secure, but she just looks down upon me. She has developed emotional intimacy with one man overseas and talks to him about everything personal. I never know about those things. She talks to him in my absence on phone or skype. I came to know about it and confronted her. She just said that I was worried just because he is a man.

Our intimacy has died down. She makes our kids sleep with her so that I can’t come close to her. Now she said that physically disabled people have low self esteem to cover up for their actions.

I am reasonably successful in my career and never suffered from low self esteem. Sometimes I think she is right that I am only concerned because that intimate person is a man. I need help and some guidance.


what are the signs of being verbally abused?


I don't know if what I'm going through is emotional abuse or if it's just me.

My boyfriend, whom I'm living with does things regardless of my feelings then turns around saying it's nothing or I'm being overly paranoid. Like the time he cheated on me. I've begged him to tell me it's over if he just doesn't love me, but he still says he does but he continues to do things that hurt me. Like he'll get mad and leave me at alone for no reason. Or say embarrassing things in front of people. It makes me want to die because I'm so ashamed to let anyone else know how I feel. I just don't know what to do. Help?


@shell4life – I know what your friend was going through. Once I turned eighteen, I was ready to leave home and start married life with the first and only boyfriend I had ever had. When you do this, you don't know that anything better is out there.

I endured years of mental spousal abuse, because even though he had never physically hurt me, he did say that he would kill me if I ever tried to leave. Many times, I thought about packing up my stuff while he was at work and sneaking out, but I was too scared that he might come home and catch me.

After about three years, I couldn't take it anymore. One morning after he left for work, I packed a small suitcase and called my mother to come get me. When I got to her house and told my big brother what was going on, he told me he would go back with me that night to get the rest of my belongings, and he would make it clear to my husband that he should never contact me again.


Everyone usually thinks of the wife as the victim of emotional abuse. However, I know a husband who endures his wife's cutting words every day. She is horrible to him, and he just takes it.

No matter what he does to help her out, she tells him he did a terrible job of it. She constantly makes harsh remarks about his line of work, saying in front of their friends that he isn't educated enough to earn a good salary, and he will always be an underachiever.

She always reminds him that she makes more money than him, so she should have more say in the big decisions. She tells him that he's fat and sloppy looking.

I know that he doesn't love her anymore, but he just stays with her because he is a man of his word. He says he has learned to tune her out, though I don't see how that's possible.


Emotional abuse in marriage is even more damaging than in regular relationships. The victim often feels trapped by the vows she took, and a divorce would mean changing your last name back, starting a new life, and a bunch of other complicated stuff.

I think the best thing for someone in an emotionally abusive relationship is to get out of it fast, regardless of the complications it would cause in life. It's better to deal with starting over than to live miserable for the rest of your life.

Often, an abusive spousal relationship can be prevented. There are always signs of this behavior before you get married, and the other partner needs to realize that this abuse will not go away. It will only get worse.


The problem with emotional abuse is that it brainwashes the victim. This is why many women stay in abusive relationships. The husband really makes them believe that they cannot escape him.

My best friend of many years married a man who abused her emotionally. He started doing it even before they said their vows, and I tried to warn her. She didn't care, because for one thing, she was ready to get out of her dad's house, and she also had never had a serious boyfriend before, so she thought this was how it was supposed to be.

He refused to let her see me or even talk to me. I found out from her brother that her husband wouldn't let her go anywhere, even with her family. He tried to make her feel worthless and totally dependent on him, and he succeeded.

After seven years, she had finally had enough. She got the courage to leave him, and though he begged her to come back, she had wised up. She is now married to a sweetheart.

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