There are distinct differences between an unhealthy exchange and verbal or emotional abuse. Married couples need to understand and recognise the differences. What are some indications of abuse?

My wife, Sarah, and I were in the kitchen of our small apartment. I was preparing to leave for the morning when she asked about my schedule for the day.

“Really? I told you my schedule yesterday!” I barked.

At the time, Sarah and I had only been married for 10 months and had a new baby. I was juggling two jobs and several seminary classes. Stress, sleepless nights and a lack of healthy communication made for a strained environment. We did not fight often, but when we did, it was all-out war.

That morning I snapped because I had been feeling dismissed, overlooked and unimportant, but my expectation was unrealistic. Sarah didn’t remember our conversation from the night before because of lack of sleep and the mental fog from caring for a newborn.

Though my reaction had been unkind, defensive and negative, it was not abusive. Later that evening I recognised my triggers and realised how poorly I had handled the situation. I owned my behaviour and apologised to Sarah.

People often ask me, “When do negative communication patterns become abuse?” and “How do you recognise the signs of emotional and verbal abuse in a marriage?”

Many people exhibit poor communication styles that are not acceptable, and counselling can help. But there is a distinct difference between an unhealthy exchange and abuse. An argument or disagreement can make people feel awful, but that doesn’t make it abuse. Conversely, one spouse may display abusive tendencies, but the other may dismiss or excuse them as part of an argument or disagreement. Married couples need to recognise and understand the differences. Let’s take a look at what constitutes emotional and verbal abuse:

Signs of verbal abuse

Counsellors often use the terms emotional and verbal abuse to describe an abusive relationship that doesn’t involve physical harm. Many people use the terms interchangeably. Though there are slight nuances between the two, I usually include verbal abuse with emotional abuse because the former (e.g., name-calling and demeaning talk) causes profound emotional consequences. Here are some examples of verbal abuse:

– Verbal intimidation: “If you don’t do (fill in the blank) for me, I’ll make sure your life is miserable you stupid (demeaning name).”
– Verbal aggression: “What did you say? Remember what happened last time you said something like that?”
– Verbal humiliation: “Wow! That was really dumb. What were you thinking? Oh wait! You weren’t thinking.” This is name-calling and often happens in public or in front of family.

In an actively abusive relationship, the interaction can be much more graphic.

When a husband manipulates his wife with verbal intimidation, aggression and humiliation, he diminishes her sense of identity, purpose, self-worth and dignity. This type of abuse may develop subtly over time with behaviours such as blaming, shaming, intense sarcasm, sabotage, insults and name-calling. The husband may threaten harm, isolate his wife or refuse to be pleased with anything she says or does. Of course, the wife could be the abusive spouse in the relationship, too.

Verbal abuse can be overt and aggressive, characterised by yelling or making threats. Or it can be subtle, resulting in a form of manipulation called “gaslighting” (see below).

Signs of emotional abuse

While emotional and verbal abuse go hand in hand, some of the warning signs of an emotionally abusive relationship are if your spouse:

– Uses sarcasm to hurt you. In an emotionally abusive relationship, a spouse will use sarcasm to demean, insult and criticise but disguise it as “joking.”

– Demands 24/7 check-ins. There’s a difference between knowing where your spouse is and micromanaging his or her every move. Sarah and I used to text frequently to stay connected, but we went overboard. Now we use an app that tracks location just to make sure the other person is safe.

– Focuses on shortcomings and belittles accomplishments. The food is never right, the towels aren’t folded correctly, the house is never clean enough, you never make enough money. Nothing is ever good enough. When you accomplish something, it’s quickly dismissed, belittled or ignored. Feeling like as if you never do anything right is a hallmark of an emotionally abusive relationship.

– Withholds things to punish you. In a healthy marriage, one spouse doesn’t punish the other by withholding or using affection, sex or money as bargaining tools. That doesn’t mean couples don’t struggle with differences in these areas, of course.

– Goes from hot to cold without reason. If your spouse suffers from significant mood swings and is not dealing with bipolar disorder, he or she may be abusive. You might describe his or her behaviour as Jekyll–and–Hyde.

In addition to your spouse’s actions and communication, your own behaviour and emotions can indicate that you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship:

You’re extremely careful to avoid conflict. You try not to stir up trouble or create problems. Your behaviour may seem kind, compassionate and considerate from the outside, but you sacrifice your own needs and identity to avoid upsetting your spouse.

You apologise when you’ve done nothing wrong. Learning to own mistakes and apologise are keys to a healthy marriage. But in an abusive marriage, it’s lopsided. Far too often you become the one who apologises for everything, even when you haven’t done anything wrong.

You feel sorry for your spouse even when he or she hurts you. If you recognise and agree with the other points, but still rationalise and dismiss your spouse’s behaviour, you may be in an abusive marriage. Feeling sorry for your spouse is a difficult dynamic to understand and process.

Signs of subtle emotional abuse

While overt emotional abuse is easy to recognise, some abusive behaviour is difficult to spot. One type of subtle emotional abuse is known as gaslighting. This is when someone manipulates another person into questioning his or her own sanity. Here are some signs of gaslighting:

  • Your spouse gives you affection then abruptly takes it away.
  • Your spouse insists things don’t happen the way you see them, and he or she always has a different view of reality.
  • Your spouse assigns motives to your actions that go against your intentions.
  • You try to explain how you feel, but your spouse is dismissive and blames you for overreacting.
  • You question your beliefs and opinions.
  • You edit every word before you speak, changing anything your spouse could misconstrue.
  • Your relationship suffers from an imbalance of power: Your spouse calls all the shots in the relationship.
  • Most interactions leave you feeling insignificant or ashamed.

This is not an exhaustive list, and quite frankly, gaslighting can be difficult to recognise.

For example, in an abusive relationship, you might frequently apologise without knowing what you did wrong. But when the abusive spouse is gaslighting, he or she will twist situations to make them seem like they’re your fault. You don’t realise you’re being manipulated until you’re able to get some perspective and distance. Please seek professional help if you or someone you know is in a relationship in which you suspect gaslighting takes place.

Seek help for any abuse

We often rank different types of abuse by levels of safety or severity but sometimes dismiss abuse that is not physical. Any form of abuse — whether physical, emotional or verbal — should not be taken lightly.

Do not use this article as a diagnostic list to help you categorise your spouse as abusive if he or she simply struggles with communication or conflict resolution. Do use it to help you identify if you or someone you know is in an emotionally or verbally abusive marriage and needs support.

Support can come from a church small group, a mentor, a friend, a qualified counsellor or a support group of individuals who are recovering from similar abusive situations.

If your spouse’s behaviour escalates and you begin to feel physically unsafe, explore all of your options to ensure your safety. Ask your pastor or a counsellor about resources in your area. Consult a certified therapist to help you evaluate the situation. Seek support and safety to help end the cycle of abuse in your marriage.

© 2019 Mark Mayfield. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at

Dr Mark A. Mayfield

Dr. Mark A. Mayfield has been a counsellor to at-risk teens, families and couples for more than 10 years. He is the founder and CEO of Mayfield Counselling Centers in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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