top of page

Emotional Abuse

The Silent Epidemic in Christian Marriages

Relationships in our society today are suffering. Unfortunately, this is never truer than in Christian marriages. Failing at just about the same rate as those of unbelievers, believers are finding themselves weighed down by feelings of emptiness, inadequacy, and guilt. But they don’t know why.


Their husband is a good provider, moderately drinks and isn’t on drugs. Yet, she doesn’t feel loved or safe. So, the counsel is to pray more, have more sex, and serve more at church. The problem is, this doesn’t change how she feels.


Invisible Wounds


There is little disagreement as to what determines physical abuse. Many bruises, dislocations, and sometimes broken bones are clear indicators. Even when the injuries seem minor, like a sore arm or small cut, incessant incidents speak loudly.


The problem is, the wounds of emotional abuse are invisible. So easily hidden, the affects are unseen. Yet, it is still a punishing practice cutting deep into the heart of the victim. Unseen doesn’t mean insignificant. Physical abuse is obvious on the outside, but emotional abuse does equal damage on the inside.


What is Emotional Abuse?


Defining emotional abuse goes deeper than listing a series of behaviors. Of course, there are common habits, but it includes the motivation behind them. Mainly, there is a deep-seated need to control. And the result is non-physical behavior intended to isolate, dominate, and frighten.


One important note, however, is this conduct has nothing to do with infrequent hurtful comments, sometimes-selfish responses, or being self-centered on occasion. We are all sinners and no one is perfect.  However, an emotionally abusive person will have a persistent pattern of heartless behavior.


Characteristics of the Emotional Abuser


The abuser has typical traits. Most often it is the husband, and his worth is frequently tied to his performance, image, or personal charm. His motivation for control comes from a profound feeling of insecurity and includes a fear of losing approval from others. Thus, everyone sees him as a great guy.


They aren’t witness to the cruel behavior. They don’t notice he has no empathy and only sees things from his perspective. More importantly, no one knows he continually acts without thought or regard for his spouse.


Abusive tactics include intimidation; put-downs; criticism that shames or humiliates; harsh control of finances; jealousy; and gaslighting. All these actions leave no physical marks. Yet they hurt and traumatize a wife. Over time, this environment leads the woman to believe she is responsible for the failing relationship. And since she believes it is her fault, she thinks she can change it. Yet, nothing she does improves anything. And the abuser continues the behavior leaving her afraid, humiliated, and miserable.


The Impact on Christian Marriages


Abuse in any form is wrong. Most pastors and/or biblical counselors would automatically tell a woman she doesn’t have to stay in a relationship where she is regularly punched with a fist or worse, with a blunt instrument. Yet, this is not the advice they give when a woman is continually beaten with words.


Part of this stems from a belief system which implies headship gives men a power position over women. Many Christian men choose not to practice this as authoritative and act with love and honor. However, there are other men who take this principle as a license for control.


Also, the Bible doesn’t use words like “emotional abuse.” So, this behavior runs rampant, being silently destructive, difficult to prove, or just ignored by Christian leaders. Consequently, if an abused wife seeks counsel from her pastor, she may often be misunderstood, even disbelieved; especially if her husband is considered a “good guy.” She’s dismissed as just a complainer.


Signs of an Emotionally Abusive Marriage


The emotional abuse occurring in Christian marriages can differ between relationships.  However, there are some common behaviors that include:


·      Belittling: This can be criticism, insulting nicknames, and verbal attacks.

·      Threats: This is any threatening behavior which instills fear.

·      Blame game: The victim is accused and criticized, and can never do anything right.

·      Control: The abuser uses manipulation like guilt, shame, or fear to control their spouse.

·      Withholding: Refusal to express affection or give attention is used as a form of punishment. It can also extend to finances and isolation from family and friends.

·      Religious abuse: The abuser will often justify their conduct by using scripture incorrectly. Demanding submission means the victim must tolerate the destructive behavior.


These are just a few of the characteristics of an emotional abuser. Yet, the victim may not recognize the behavior for what it is. Gaslighting creates doubt and the abused frequently questions their own emotions and perceptions.


Biblical Truth about Abuse


Although the Bible does not use typical words that describe emotional abuse, it does address behaviors associated with it. Following are just a few places where it is condemned.


·      Proverbs 12:18: “Reckless words are like the thrusts of a sword, cutting remarks meant to stab and to hurt.” Hurtful words are as damaging as a knife stabbing the heart.


·      Proverbs 18:21: “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.” 


·      James 3:10: “but the tongue is not able to be tamed. It’s a fickle, unrestrained evil that spews out words full of toxic poison.” Words can be like poison.


Not only are cruel words condemned, the dynamics behind emotional abuse is rebuked.


·      Abuse is the opposite of love. John 15:12: “Love each other as I have loved you.” Romans 13:10 (a): “Love does no harm.”


·      Abuse is a form of oppression which God hates. Psalm 11:5: “The Lord examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion.”


·      Abuse distorts God’s purpose for marriage. Ephesians 5:28-29: “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church.”


Domestic violence is especially cruel because it occurs in a place God intended for safety: the marriage relationship.  Designed to encourage the mutual growth of His image-bearers, it is instead a prison of pain.


Separation or Divorce


The biggest issue when dealing with an abusive spouse is understanding what the Bible really says about separation and divorce. Because the meaning of covenant as referenced in Malachi 2 is indistinct, many claim, “God hates divorce.” So, many Christians believe divorce is not an option and even a sin. But that is not what God said and nowhere else in the Bible is that phrase repeated. In fact, Jeremiah 3:8 indicates God, Himself, is divorced. He divorced Israel.


Part of the misconception is tied to the debated belief by some scholars the marital covenant is an unbreakable commitment. Other Biblical scholars believe the covenant is not “just” a commitment, but is also an obligation with responsibility and action.


This commitment was faithfulness to promises exchanged by a man and a woman as their covenant obligations. But when the marriage was abandoned by promise-violating sins, the covenant was shattered, becoming null and void. The entire book of Malachi is about breaking promises, and this is what God hated in chapter 2. God doesn’t hate “divorce.” He hates the breaking of the covenant agreement which leads to divorce. So that begs the question, where is the line and when is it crossed? When does emotional abuse break the bonds of the marital relationship?





The Bible views all violence as an offense against God. Again and again, it is associated with wickedness and denounced as “detestable to the Lord.” Proverbs 6:16-18: “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.” Several other passages in the Bible make it clear God strongly condemns abuse. (Psalm 73:6; Romans 1:28-31; Exodus 22:22; Isaiah 10:2) Paul even goes so far as to encourage distance from someone exhibiting abusive behavior. 1 Corinthians 5:11: “Don’t even eat with such a person.”


There is no easy answer for knowing when abusive or destructive behavior becomes grounds for separation or divorce. However, taking the position divorce is not an option is wrong. Clearly throughout Scripture, God takes the side of the abused. And, ending a destructive relationship is not prohibited.


Every person is an individual before God. And anyone who has experienced abusive and sinful behavior will have to contend with the impact of that abuse. Thus, deciding to stay, separate or even divorce will not be easy. Only God and the victim truly knows what goes on behind closed doors. So that is the place to start, asking God what is best for their situation. God promises to give wisdom when asked, and He will answer that prayer. Psalm 32:8: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.”




bottom of page