How to Protect Yourself from Emotional Abuse in a Relationship
Abuse can happen in any home and in any family. It is not immune to any social economic class, race, religion, or gender. That’s why it’s important that we all know how to be emotionally healthy and keep abuse out of our lives, our families, and our homes. Abuse that is allowed to continue will harden or damage the hearts of those who perpetrate it or experience it.
What Is Emotional Abuse?
The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines abuse as “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.”
The website goes on to state that, “domestic violence includes behaviors that physically harm, arouse fear, prevent a partner from doing what they wish or force them to behave in ways they do not want. It includes the use of physical and sexual violence, threats and intimidation, emotional abuse and economic deprivation. Many of these different forms of domestic violence/abuse can be occurring at any one time within the same intimate relationship.”
Signs of Emotional Abuse
The National Domestic Violence Hotline also lists many signs of emotional abuse. Common traits of an emotional abuser include someone who:
- Shows extreme jealousy of your friends and time spent away
- Keeps you or discourages you from seeing friends or family members
- Insults, demeans or shames you with put-downs
- Controls every penny spent in the household
- Takes your money or refuses to give you money for necessary expenses
- Looks at you or acts in ways that scare you
- Prevents you from making your own decisions
To help you understand what unhealthy relationships look like be sure to read these 10 signs of emotional abuse in a relationship.
5 Ways to Prevent Emotional Abuse in a Relationship:
1. Create healthy boundaries.
Boundaries are limits you place on your own life, things you will and will not allow in your life, and a line that you do not let others cross without consequences. Boundaries aren’t a way to control another person. They’re merely a way to have control over your own emotional health if and when another person should push past your boundaries – a way of telling them before hand what you’ll do in that instance.
If I were riding with a friend or spouse who drives dangerously or is distracted by a phone or something else, my boundary would be that I will no longer ride with that person if he or she is going to make those choices. I cannot control how another person drives but I can control if I ride with that person now or in the future. I can ask them to stop the car and call for another ride, if need be.
2. Learn how to confront boundary violations.
You may also need to confront boundaries violations, even with your own spouse, as soon as possible. Letting inappropriate behavior or wrong actions go or your frustrations to fester could lead to more problems down the road. And it could make setting boundaries more difficult but it’s still important once you learn to have and assert your boundaries.
We teach people how we want to be treated, so allowing something the first time means we usually allow it all the time. Saying no the first time or leaving the situation is your boundary statement that says, I won’t participate in this type of behavior.
Recently, I heard from a female coaching client that after her and her husband divorced, because of abuse, he met another woman. The second wife told this man that she would not be putting up with being abused by anyone. She even gave consequences when he tried to emotionally abuse her. The first wife told me that her ex-husband and new wife seemed to have a better relationship than she had with him – especially since boundaries were asserted right away.
To me, and to the ex-wife, it proved the point that if we don’t accept disrespect from another human, while not being abusive ourselves, then we give that person no other option than to respect our boundaries. They know they can lose the relationship if they choose controlling or manipulative type behaviors.
Divorce should be a last resort consequence after all other avenues have been exhausted but it should be left as an option in cases of abuse and hard-heartedness. You always want to walk away from any relationship with a clear conscience that you did everything that you could do to save your marriage and help your spouse to be a person of respect and integrity. But their choice to try to have power and control over the relationship could lead to the consequence of divorce.
3. Learn how to respond instead of react to conflict.
Don’t just brush things under the proverbial rug and hope they go away. Tackle all marital or personal issues with your spouse or other family members soon after they happen but not necessarily while you’re still angry or upset with someone else or a situation. If you feel you’re too upset to respond in a respectful, kind matter, then allow for a calming down period of time.
Often when we try to have a conversation with someone while we’re still very upset and in the moment, the situation escalates. I know I find it difficult to step away and taking time to decompress and process what is going on. But it is necessary to allow for heighted emotions to dissolve and our self-control to take back over once again.
Allowing our emotions to react and influence our speech is not the healthiest way to deal with conflict. Instead of reacting, learn to respond in a way that you want to be spoken to in return. Often people mirror our response or reaction, which controls and contributes to the conversation. But when we’re able to stay calm and walk away when the other person is not calm, we’re all able to handle conflict in a much healthier manner.
4. Don’t accept or give empty promises – create a plan for making things better.
If the other party chooses to be hostile or arouses fear, you can assert yourself in a calm voice that you will only continue the conversation when that other person is as calm as you are. Stating this before walking away tells them that you’re wanting to have this discussion but only when you’re both calm, cool, and collected.
During the calming down period, or before you address a problem, ask God to work in both of your hearts to soften the situation. Pray that He will give you the words to articulate yourself in an understanding way. Also, pray that He will give you the ears to hear the heart of the other person.
Lastly, when start to work through the problems with the other person ask if you can pray together before tackling the tough topic. Most people find it hard to be angry and hurtful to the other person after you’ve come together in prayer.
5. Learn about the difference between unhealthy and healthy relationships.
We often bring our own upbringing and past relationship baggage into our marriage. If we had a hostile home environment as a child, we may think this is how marriage is supposed to work. The other side to that would be if you never saw your parents work through any issues, we may think they had a perfect marriage and not know how to handle our own marital issues when they come up. This becomes our “normal” when it could be an unhealthy way to interact in a marriage.
I can honestly say I went into my marriage expecting it to be easy. Just commit to staying married for life and everything else will work out just fine. I did all the right things, read all the Christian marriage books, prayed without ceasing for my husband, but never learned how to set boundaries, work through conflict, or even knew what a healthy relationship looked like.
Instead, I learned all of those things after my divorce was final, like so many other couples have.
When to Seek Expert Help and Counseling:
You can learn about healthy relationships by surrounding yourself with people who are emotionally healthy. If you’re unsure what emotionally healthy even is or how to know what a healthy person looks like, then a licensed counselor or expert relationship coach would be able to describe that to you.
In cases of abuse, toxic relationships, or even if you’re unsure, domestic violence and abuse experts advise that only individual counseling be utilized over marriage counseling, especially at first. This allows you time to figure out the health of your relationship. Plus, a party who is trying to have power and control over the relationship will continue to try to control things in couples counseling as well. This leads to more abusive behaviors as the controller manipulates the situation and the outcome of each counseling session. And the abused lives in fear about what he or she is sharing in counseling.
Are You in an Abusive Relationship?
If you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, you have a right to get out to protect your heart and soul from further damage. If you feel you might be abusing or controlling your partner, even just emotionally, you have a responsibility to get the help you need to stop this behavior. Emotional abuse can be just as harmful, if not more so, that physical violence, especially to our next generation who are watching and learning about healthy or unhealthy relationships from their home environment. We can all work together to stop the cycle of unhealthy relationships and abuse.
Jen Grice is a Christian Divorce Mentor and Empowerment Coach, author of the book, You Can Survive Divorce: Hope, Healing, and Encouragement for Your Journey, a speaker, and a single homeschooling mom. She writes full-time at JenGrice.com and empowers women to survive and heal after their unwanted divorce on her YouTube channel as well. Jen believes that through God's healing, grace, and redemption that all Christian women can survive... and even thrive, after divorce. Navigating this foreign territory we call divorce? Feeling alone? Start here!