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Emotional Abuse: Worldly Psychobabble or Biblical Reality?

Posted on 1/11/2012 by Leslie Vernick

Physical abuse is obvious. A black eye, a broken arm, a fat lip is evidence that something is dreadfully wrong in a relationship.  Emotional injuries are not as easily discerned but the effects can still be deadly.

November 11, 2011, ten year old, Ashlynn Conner, hanged herself after being repeatedly

 bullied at school. The kids called her a slut, told her she was fat and ugly.  Ashlynn begged her mother to home school her but her mother refused.  Later her mother said she didn’t realize it was that bad.  Ashlynn chose death rather than face another day of emotional battering.

Christian and biblical counsel has been woefully inadequate identifying and treating emotional abuse, especially when it’s within a marriage and family.  I continue to be dismayed by pastors and counselors who refuse to acknowledge its reality and its severity. By our silence we empower the emotional bully to continue his or her sinful behaviors.

 Several years ago while on a short term mission’s trip teaching and counseling church leaders, a missionary approached me for help. Her husband was a pastor, they were church planters from the States. Over the past year they had been in Christian marriage counseling but nothing was changing.  Her husband regularly threatened her, demeaned her and disrespected her. He always had a reason, a justification for his mistreatment. If only she were more helpful, more loving, more submissive. His sinful behavior was always labeled as her problem.

Because his wife wasn’t totally innocent or sinless (as no spouse is), there were things she could work on to be more helpful, more loving and more submissive. Sadly the counselor focused on just that, “her problem” without ever acknowledging that the way her husband treated her was abusive.  Never once did her counselor challenge her husband’s excuse making or his blindness to his own behaviors and attitudes. Never once did her husband show a shred of genuine repentance or even remorse over hurting his wife. 

His wife finally broke down and confided to me that she couldn’t live “like this” any longer. Suicide seemed like her only option. She tried getting help but her perspective or feelings were never validated, not by her husband or by her counselor.

Many of us grew up singing the nursery rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” But it’s not true nor is it biblical. Proverbs asks who can bear a crushed spirit?  (Proverbs 18:14).  Ashlynn couldn’t.  This dear missionary wife couldn’t. The scriptures are crystal clear. Words are powerful. Words can indeed heal but words can also destroy.  Proverbs warns, reckless words pierce like a sword (Proverbs 12:18).   (For other example of the power of words read Proverbs 10:11, Proverbs 11:9,  Proverbs 12:25, Proverbs 16:24, Proverbs 25:11Psalm 52:2-4, Matthew 5:21,22).

Research shows that emotional and psychological abuse can be more harmful than physical abuse can be and its effects longer lasting and more damaging.  Emotional abuse systematically degrades, diminishes and eventually can destroy the personhood of the other. Most people report emotional abuse more painful and traumatic than physical abuse. One only has to read reports of prisoners of war to begin to appreciate the traumatic effects of psychological warfare and abuse of one’s personhood. When the abusive behavior is perpetrated by someone who promises to love and cherish, it is even more devastating.

Within a marriage, an emotionally abusive relationship isn’t usually defined by one single incident of sinful or abusive behavior but rather by repetitive actions and attitudes that result in either tearing someone down or inhibiting his/her growth, usually accompanied by a lack of awareness, a lack of remorse or repentance and a lack of significant change.

Emotionally abusive behaviors and attitudes aren’t always easily recognized, especially if one’s family of origin contained similar elements.  They include raging, criticizing, ridiculing, demeaning, belittling, withholding (money, sex, attention, and/or other necessities), restricting (freedom of movement, choices, or another person’s emotional expression), isolating (from family, friends, and/or peers), threatening (to harm self, others, or objects of affection such as child, pet or property), abandonment, coercing, accusing, and ordering. These overt actions communicate that the personhood of the other is not valued or important, even if or when declarations of love are expressed. 

Emotional abuse can also be more hidden and covert. Ignoring someone over time conveys the message “you don’t exist” and may be one of the most unrecognized yet serious forms of emotional abuse. Regularly minimizing someone’s feelings, thoughts, desires, or needs as well as other subtle non-verbal cues of disgust, disapproval or disdain diminish the personhood of the other. 

In addition, repeatedly denying someone else’s reality (such as saying, “that didn’t happen, or “you took it the wrong way”), or denial of the abuse (“I didn’t do that,” or “you’re crazy”), negative labeling, and chronic deceit can also be part of the abuser’s repertoire and can make someone feel confused and uncertain of what’s real or true. The victim often feels as if he/she is going crazy.

We all know God hates divorce, but God also hates when someone deals treacherously with one’s spouse (Malachi 2:14-16). He also hates a proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift in running to evil, a false witness who speaks lies and one who sows discord among brethren (Proverbs 6:16-19), which are all part of an abusive person’s arsenal to get his or her own way and gain power and control over another person.

As biblical counselors, let us strive to be godly peacemakers and never pretend to heal the wounds of God’s people by superficially promising peace, peace when there is no genuine or lasting peace  (Jeremiah 6:14). 

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Leslie, Thank you for the

Thank you for the insightful article. After reading it I was rather moved by how much this is not talked about.

If we do deal with people who have been emotionally abused or even our selves what are some good steps to start helping them become free?

Saw your blog in search of a

Saw your blog in search of a therapist for my nephew. Your words caught my eye immediately. The story re-told of the woman married to an abuser was so close to my own that if you changed the word counselor to church elder it would have been identical.
The rest of your blog then mirrored the words I've been screaming (figuratively) for the last 20 years.
I hope your schedule is booked cause I feel confident you are one of the ones that could really help.
ps,your list of hurtful behaviors did not include the constant expression of exasperation. I hated that one.

While I concur generally, I

While I concur generally, I have a question. Where do we find "abuse" in the Bible as it is defined today? As I have studied the Bible, I see much that is termed suffering either for righteousness or for wickedness; the former not deserved and the latter the consequences of wicked actions.

In the Malachi 2 passage, as I have studied this through the years, I have read the act of divorce as the act of treachery toward the wife on ones youth. I would need to see exegesis that supports the reading you are suggesting, that the treachery is "abuse" or whatever and not the selfish act of divorce. Do you have access to such an exegesis of this passage?

In the larger sense, I struggle with the concept of abuse as we speak of it today and the repeated concept of God's people and servants suffering. Is it the same thing or are these two realities mutually exclusive?



He is more possible to

He is more possible to describe himself as adaptively next the path of least resistance than as a victim living under the thumb of someone extra great. In my knowledge, emotionally abused men.