Morning friend, There is still a lot of confusion and misinformation on whether or not emotional abuse is real. You may be told by your husband or even your pastor that “you are too sensitive. Toughen up. Don’t take it personally. There is no such thing as emotional abuse in the Bible.” I want to show you something different.
On February 17, I’m doing a free webinar on Four (4) Beliefs that keep you Stuck, Afraid, and Miserable in a destructive marriage. I’ll be doing this LIVE two separate times. Please sign up to attend.
Today’s Question: What exactly constitutes verbal or emotional abuse? My husband denies being verbally abusive but I believe he is. I feel it. Can you give me specific examples that are considered verbally or emotionally abusive? He never uses four-letter words towards me but his words, tone, and constant criticism feel emotionally abusive to me. Am I just overreacting or being too sensitive? Does the Bible speak of emotional abuse? My Pastor says it’s not in the Bible.
Answer: Cursing someone out is bigger than just using four-letter words. Cursing someone is condemning him or her as if you’re their judge or even their god. When someone does that he (or she) believes they’re the superior one and as such have the right to cast “judgment” on another’s character, personhood, or even actions in a demeaning or derogatory way. The Bible speaks to this kind of person when Jesus says, “If you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell” (Matthew 5:22).
First, it’s helpful to make a distinction between an abusive incident and an abusive relationship. Since we are all sinners, we are all capable of some verbal abuse. (James 3:2). James also cautions believers that our tongue can be misused as a weapon to hurt other people. (Yes, the Bible speaks of emotional and verbal abuse). James describes it this way. He says the tongue is “restless and evil full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right!” (James 3:8-10). He also warns that if we “claim to be a believer and don’t control our tongue, we are lying to ourselves and to others” (James 1:26).
Therefore, when someone who claims to be a Christian sins and verbally curses someone out, or just says something hurtful, he or she should immediately recognize that he has crossed a line and used his tongue as a weapon for harm. James clearly says this is not right. As does Paul in Romans 13:10 when he says, “Love does no harm”.
Once that line has been crossed, a sincere apology should be given, repentance before the Lord should occur and a strong effort to never repeat that kind of abusive speech should be made. However, when abusive behavior/speech happens again and again and again, then it’s not just simply crossing the line and being a sinner. It is being an unrepentant sinner who refuses to submit himself under the authority of God which begs the question as to whether or not he or she is a true believer.
Here are a few examples of cursing kinds of comments, without using four-letter words. When they are a regular pattern in a relationship, they are considered verbally abusive.
You’re never happy
You’re just like your mother/father
You’re making things up
You love to blame others, don't you?
You’re treating me like …a jerk, incompetent,
You’re a foolish woman
You have a Jezebel spirit
You’re not thinking right
You’re a piece of work
You’re high maintenance
No one else would be able to live with you
You’re the one with the problem
You’re a control freak
You can’t forgive
You’re too much.
You’re not enough.
But cursing or judging/condemning is not the only form of verbal abuse. The Bible (especially Proverbs) talks about slanderers, mockers, scoffers, liars, and revilers. Each of these descriptors has a slightly different definition but they all cause damage to others by their words. The psalmist cried out, “Your insults have broken my heart, and I am in despair” (Psalm 69:20).
Here are a few ways your spouse may regularly use his words to undermine your confidence and hurt you. (Remember any one of us may use these things occasionally, that does not necessarily make them demeaning or abusive. But when they become a regular pattern of communicating, they are destructive and abusive.)
1. Regularly questioning or challenging your thinking and decision making – as if you are not thinking correctly, wisely or Biblically or making good choices.
A raised eyebrow, “Are you sure you want to do that? I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
Questioning your judgment or decision, “What are you thinking?”
2. Subtly undermining your authority or credibility. He/she can do this with the children, or with other people you both know and value.
Mom said you can’t watch TV but you know mom, she’s wrapped up too tight.
I know she seems like a lovely person but you have no idea what I live with at home.
From the kids' eyes, Dad looks like the fun, nice, rational thinking dad and you look like a control freak or religious nutcase or an emotional wreck.
Other people begin to wonder what you are “really like”
3. Misrepresenting what you said to your kids or other people.
For example, telling the kids: “Mom said she doesn’t want to be married to me anymore. She wants to be free to do what she wants.”
What you actually said was: “I can’t stand that you control every decision and thought. There is no room for me in this marriage.”
Or he says to you, “You said you would co-sign on this loan” when what you actually said was “I’ll think about co-signing on the loan”
4. Subtle jokes that hurt and that are at your expense. There is no apology and the jokes continue. He enjoys getting a laugh at your expense.
For example: Making lewd remarks about the lack of sex life or your “prudishness” when watching something provocative on TV.
Make sarcastic fun of your cooking in front of the kids or company.
Making disparaging comments about a weakness you have “he can’t fix anything around here to save his life,” to incite laughter from others.
5. Privately maligning your character to others.
“You have no idea what I have to live with at home.” – saying this to a relative, a church friend, small group leader, pastor, or counselor.
Mommy’s/Daddy’s no fun is she/he.
Mommy’s mean, sick, needs help, trying to make you feel scared of daddy.
6. Shaming, guilt-tripping, and minimizing what happened or your feelings
I can never do anything right in your eyes, can I?
You are so negative. You are always critical of me.
I try so hard and this is the thanks I get?
OR when you set a boundary or say no, he looks wounded, crushed. And says something like – Wow, I thought you were different. You’re so mean, selfish or unloving.
7. Veiled threats
You’ll be sorry. Don’t cross me. There is nothing more said but by the body language, you know that it is a threat.
In addition, there can be disrespectful non-verbal behavior such as a pattern of falling asleep, frowning, ignoring, yawning, and sighing when you’re trying to have an important conversation.
Words impact us and can sometimes infect us with their poison (1 Corinthians 15:33). The Bible is very clear about the power of someone’s words and warns us, “Reckless words pierce like a sword.” (Proverbs 12:18). “Life and death is in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).
Paul tells us to distance ourselves from anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people.” He says, “Don’t even eat with such a person.” (1 Corinthians 5:11).
It’s tempting for someone who is reckless with their words to blame their sinful outbursts on the recipient of their wrath. “You made me so mad.” Or “You pushed my buttons” or “I was so stressed out”
And all of that may be true. People (and life) provoke us all the time and push our buttons. Stress is real, and we do feel angry. Yet when verbal abuse happens over and over again the Bible is clear we need to look within.
In fact, Jesus tells us when ugly words spew out of our mouth, it’s best we pay attention to what’s going on inside of us, rather than blaming what’s happening around us. Jesus says, “Out of the overflow of your heart, your mouth speaks.” (Matthew 15:11)
All that to say, please do not take any responsibility for how your husband talks to you. His tongue and his temper are his responsibility to control. You are sensitive because God made you sensitive and most people are sensitive to harsh, cruel, mocking, sarcastic, critical, and hurtful words. But the question I want to ask you is what are you going to do to take care of yourself?
It’s interesting that Paul encouraged young Timothy not to allow others to intimidate him or treat him with contempt because of his youth. Paul realized that the religious leaders might not respect Timothy but told Timothy not to allow those people or their words to “define” him or make him feel worthless.
Paul himself put some boundaries around those who were seeking to undermine his authority and credibility (see 2 Corinthians 10, 11). Proverbs remind you to “Guard your heart, above all else for it is the wellspring of your life.”(Proverbs 4:23)
Therefore, what do you need to do to protect yourself against the reckless words of your spouse? Leave the room? Put earplugs on when he starts up? Verbalize a boundary and say, “I’m not listening to you when you talk to me like that.”
The bigger marital problem you have is not his words but his attitude that justifies his belief that he’s entitled to use those words to hurt you, to punish you, and to control you. It’s also his lack of empathy for the pain he’s caused you. Instead of caring, he criticizes you as “too sensitive”.
Sometimes when an abused person wakes up to the reality of her situation, she feels her own anger and can start lobbing back some verbal bombs of her own. Don’t let that be you. (Romans 12:21). Instead, learn to walk in CORE strength. BE…
C – Courageously committed to truth, no more pretending
O – Open to the Holy Spirit and wise others to help me grow
R – Responsible for myself, and respectful towards others without dishonoring myself
E – Empathic and compassionate without enabling destructive behaviors to continue
Let me close with the prayer of the psalmist for us all. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)
Friend, how would you describe verbal abuse and what have you done to guard your heart and protect your mind from it?