My friend recently told me that the way my husband treats me is emotional abuse. We have been married for almost 30 years and the way we deal with each other seems pretty normal to me, but I’m wondering now if it is normal. Do other women get yelled at or criticized as much as I do? I know my husband doesn’t see any good in me at all and never has, so we don’t have a very loving relationship, but how would I know if his behavior is crossing the line and is abusive?
I’m so glad you asked this question because you are not alone on this. I think a lot of people put up with abuse because they think it’s normal.
According to a study from the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, 39 percent of women have suffered emotional abuse by their husbands/partners and this kind of abuse can go on for years for the very reason you described. It is so easy to rationalize, misinterpret or overlook once it feels normal.
This problem is not only coming from men though. Women can also be the perpetrators of emotional abuse and the problem with accepting this behavior as normal is that you are teaching the man (or women) in your life that it’s OK to treat people this way, so they will never change.
We are here (in the classroom of life) to learn about love, and your spouse has some important lessons coming that he really needs to learn. You have (apparently) been selected as the teacher on this one because you may be the only person who can teach him this vital human lesson — it is not okay to be unkind and cruel to other people.
You are not serving anyone’s best interest when you allow him to mistreat you. It doesn’t serve you, your spouse, or your children. It sets a terrible example and gives power to the idea that some people have less value than others, which is not true. All people deserve to be treated with kindness and respect.
Everyone has disagreements with their spouse on occasion, but some kinds of fighting behavior are not acceptable. I believe there are three types of “bad behavior” in relationships and I want you to be familiar with them so you can tell what is okay or reasonable and what is not.
Here are the three categories of bad relationship behavior:
1. Garden variety offenses caused by fear and stress.
When people are stressed, hungry, tired or overwhelmed, they get grouchy and selfish. If, on occasion, your spouse has one of these fear-based, bad behavior moments (and it doesn’t happen very often, like every day or week) then you should just forgive them, understand it wasn’t really about you (it’s their fears about themselves) and let it roll off without another thought. These rare and minor offenses that you should let go without bringing them up and causing drama about them. No one is perfect and everyone will have a bad day on occasion, snap, lose their temper or say something stupid. When your partner offends you with this kind of behavior, don’t make a big deal about it. Forgive them and let it go. You will do this because you want your small “mess-ups” to be forgiven, too.
2. Offensive behavior which happens either too often, is hurtful or harsh. This behavior should be brought up and worked on. It should not be ignored.
This kind of treatment includes: unintentionally saying something hurtful, being inconsiderate or unkind, criticizing you on occasion, talking down to you, or doing something that is basically selfish or thoughtless. If these behaviors show up often (every week) you should have some conversations about it and ask your spouse to treat you differently in the future. (If your partner doesn’t work to change these behaviors, you don’t see any noticeable results, and/or your partner refuses professional help of any kind, you may move this behavior to category three.)
3. Bad behavior that should not be tolerated. (This includes inappropriate behavior from category two that isn’t changing and has become frequent or behavior that has escalated to any of the things mentioned below.)
Also keep in mind that these behaviors toward a child are also unacceptable. If your spouse treats your children this way, you must do something to protect them and get help.
These types of behavior are unacceptable: Calling you names, repeatedly putting you down, comparing you with others to show how inadequate you are, intentionally hurting your feelings, belittling you on a regular basis, ignoring you, controlling you or punishing you for small offenses (not getting dishes washed or something cleaned well enough), insulting you, lying to you, intimidating or threatening you, breaking promises, breaking things, correcting everything you say, cutting you off from your family and friends, the silent treatment for hours or days, forcing you to own responsibility for every problem, checking up on you and being overly suspicious, nitpicking, verbal intimidation, lengthy interrogations or lectures, refusing to honor your requests for time and space, demanding sex, temper tantrums to get what they want, out of control or irrational behavior and physical violence of any kind whatsoever — these should not be tolerated.
If you are experiencing this kind of behavior in your relationship, please don’t accept it as normal and let it continue. You must seek some professional help and do something about this, especially if there are children in your home. I often hear people in abusive relationships say they are staying for their children and don’t want to break up the family. You must understand that even watching this kind of abuse is damaging your children.
Safe Horizons (a website for victims of abuse) says that without help, children who witness abuse are more vulnerable to being abused themselves as adults or teens, or they are likely to become abusers themselves.
The Help Guide Website also has more about the clinical symptoms of emotional abuse that you may want to read.
The bottom line is, you deserve to feel safe and respected in your home. In a healthy relationship you should also be able to have mature, rational, mutually validating conversations about problems that arise. If your partner can’t do that and is tearing down your self-esteem on a regular basis (so you feel miserable and worthless) and you experience fear whenever they are home, you are probably a victim of emotional or psychological abuse. Your rationalizing this as normal makes sense when it is all you have experienced for most of your adult life, but it is not normal or acceptable.
If you love yourself, your children and your spouse at all, you owe it to them all to seek help. It is time for your spouse and children to learn that all people deserve to be treated with kindness, respect and compassion.
I know that change or seeking help sounds scary because ‘the known,’ even though it’s bad, feels safer than the ‘unknown.’ But I promise (and I know this from personal experience) you will grow and learn so much from standing up for yourself. It will be a huge win in the end. There will be some really hard moments, but you are stronger than you think you are, and you really do deserve better.
You can do this.
Kimberly Giles is the founder and president of claritypointcoaching.com. She is also the author of the new book “Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness” and is a popular speaker.