Spouse Suffering Emotional and Spiritual Abuse

QUESTION: You published an article entitled When Should a Married Couple Separate. In it you stated, “Some spouses (men and women) suffer from repeated emotional beatings or live in a marriage that causes them serious spiritual vulnerability. They need to flee for protection just as strongly as those experiencing physical abuse.” Could you give me some specifics. I feel strongly I’m suffering under this…Please help me.

ANSWER: Hmm. Well, I guess I should be used to making people mad by sharing my views, so here goes…

Start by Understanding Physical Abuse

Before discussing emotional or spiritual abuse, let’s consider physical abuse to see if there are parallels.

When it comes to physical abuse, views differ about what “is” and what “isn’t.” I’ve heard spouses justify negative physical behavior with statements such as “I didn’t hit him, just pushed him” or “She hit me first and I just let her know what that felt like as I made her back off” or “All I did was grab her and hold her so she had to listen.” In my opinion, a person doesn’t actually have to hit another to physically abuse, and the things just mentioned are physical abuse. If, for example, a man used his physical size to intimidate his wife, causing her to fear physical harm even though he never touched her, I see that as physical abuse.


While the threat of violence may not land one in the emergency room with a broken bone, it can be terrifying. Holding a person against her will, pushing, cocking a fist as if to hit, picking up a potential weapon, backing a person up by being aggressive, and other similar actions are just wrong. In short, my view of physical abuse in a marriage is anything that one does to create fear, dread, or flight in the other spouse.

One of my friends was whipped by her husband as he used a belt on her in front of her children because she “disobeyed” him. Any reasonable person would see that as abuse. Correct?

Fascinatingly, sometimes they don’t. At least not to the point that the abused person has a right to do something about it.

Many years ago a lady told me that her husband tried to kill her every time he got drunk. When I asked how often he became inebriated, she told me it occurred every Friday night. Just the Friday night before our conversation, he had turned on a burner on their gas stove and tried his best to push her backwards into it so that her hair would catch on fire. He teen son came into the room, realized what was occurring, and literally beat his father off of his mother. She told me that it was all she could do to stop her son from killing his father in his fear and rage. When I asked her why she stayed with her husband, she replied that the leaders in her congregation told her that she had no right to leave unless he committed adultery. I advised her to tell them they were free to live with the abusive drunk if they wished, but that she was leaving him and leaving that church.

God called us to die to ourselves and to die to sin. He didn’t call us to die at the hands of an abusive spouse.

What About Self Defense?

There are times when a person may have to resort to physical action in order to defend self or others. However, there is a difference in self defense and retaliation. If a woman, for example, were to slap a man, he may be justified in backing away or even in catching her arm as she swings, but to hit her back isn’t an act of self defense, it is an act of retaliation.  Self defense protects from harm. Retaliation gives harm in return. Far too often I hear a husband or wife try to excuse retaliatory physical action as self defense. In my book, retaliation possibly may be understandable in the heat of the moment, but it isn’t right and very likely should be categorized as physical abuse.

So What About Emotional or Spiritual Abuse

Using physical abuse as a basis, perhaps I can describe what I mean by emotional or spiritual abuse.

The short version is that anything that one spouse does or says that creates fear, dread, or flight in the other is unwarranted. While it is true that most of us at one time or another may say something crude, angry, or even insulting, the behavior I see as abuse typically is repeated behavior. As with physical abuse, one act could be enough to warrant fleeing for safety. However, with the emotional / spiritual abuse I describe here, it is much more likely to demonstrate itself multiple times.

If, for example, a wife constantly barraged her husband with criticisms to the point he dreaded being in the same room with her, I see that as emotional abuse. If a husband so undermined his wife’s self-concept by repeatedly correcting her, chastising her, or controlling her, I see that as emotional abuse as well.

Some time ago a lady walked into one of my workshops and could not look at me as I spoke to her. As I witnessed the interaction between her husband and her, the reason for her timidity became obvious. He acted as if he was her warden rather than her husband. It was nearly constant:

“Sit up straighter.”

“That’s not how you pronounce that word.”

“Do you ever think before you talk?”

I was very proud of her when at the close of our workshop she turned to him and said in a voice the entire room could hear, “If you treat me with respect and as an equal, we’ll save this marriage. If you ever try to run over me again, you’ll see me walking out the door.” She meant it. He got it. Today they are as happy as can be, each treating the other with respect.

It can also happen in spiritual realms. I’ve witnessed wives trashing their husbands’ spirituality. I heard one man tell his wife that she would go to hell if she didn’t “obey” him as the Bible said she should. Interestingly, his idea of obey had little comparison to a loving marriage – it was more like a master and slave. Another man would quote 1 Corinthians 7 to his wife to point out to her that God was going to punish her because she didn’t fulfill him sexually. It didn’t take a genius to figure that she couldn’t stand the dictator and the thought of being in bed with him was more than she could take.

Should a person being abused spiritually or emotionally stay with the abuser as long as the abuser doesn’t commit adultery? Of course not. To the gentleman (correction: the arrogant guy) who quoted 1 Corinthians 7 to control his wife, I went further into the chapter and showed him that a believer is not required to stay with an unbeliever. He replied that he indeed was a believer. I let him know my view: A follower of Jesus is one who seeks to be like Jesus, not just one who can quote scripture and show up for Sunday school. He asked if I were questioning his relationship with God. I subtly (well, maybe it wasn’t so subtle) that he should be asking God that question and that if he allowed himself to hear God’s answer, it might not be what he would want to hear.

Rather than my giving more examples of spiritual or emotional abuse, I would appreciate comments from readers about what they have seen or experienced that they believe to be spiritual or emotional abuse. If that conversation gets started here, it should be an interesting dialogue for the next few weeks.




  1. Suzy

    Joe Beam, I love you. I have always been thankful for the message you bring.

  2. Robin

    What about spousal neglect? One Saturday morning, I fell, hit my head (blacked out for a minute), and was bleeding profusely. My husband was griping about how clumsy I was, and that he had planned to go to Home Depot to buy fertilizer for the yard, but instead he was going to have to take me to the hospital!!!! I came home with seven staples in my head. He brought me home from the hospital the next year after a bad bout of pneumonia, and just left me in bed so sick still that I had to fly to Phoenix to stay w/ my dad until I got better.

    Both my parents, separately, came to me urging me to divorce him, as they couldn’t stand to see the way he ignored me and my needs. Wouldn’t that also qualify as abuse? Also a lot of passive-aggressiveness.

    And although I don’t like being single, it’s better than living in a house with someone I secretly hate.

    ps: say hi to Alice!

  3. Grey Area

    So what would be your opinion regarding a marriage where none of your descriptors are present but one spouse is unemployed for 8+ years working toward the “dream” while other spouse pays all the bills?

  4. Linda

    Robin–I so agree with your wise parents! My opinion is that abuse is present when calling a wife “clumsy” and ignoring caregiving to an ill wife. None of us always encourage and nurture our spouses, and none of us is perfect…yet the actions you are describing are not occasional bad days but consistent patterns. Find someone who cherishes you! And be valued, uplifted and wanted by your loving birth family until he finds you.

  5. June

    Allowing yourself to continue to be abused eventually wears you down so much that you feel worthless. I know because I did just that for many years. Can you change the abuser? No, but God can. But for God to work requires that you put boundaries in place and reprecussions for violation of that boundaries and mean them. It is hard when you have become so accustomed to being abused that you have no concept of your value. But do it, it will either save your marriage or it will keep you from being irreversible harmed

  6. JUdith

    My husband takes away my prayer beads saying that the practice is making my egoistic habits surface. He does this without saying anything. When I ask about the beads, he says he is doing it for my spiritual good. He will not permit questions about why and says, “That’s enough. NO need to talk about this. Your ego is your problem.” I feel frustrated and disdain toward him. I feel crazy, too and my craziness serves to confirm his original claim that I am egotistical. Please help me.

  7. Afraid to say

    I left my husband about 2 months ago and moved across town. His controlling and emotionally abusive behavior had just gotten to be too much. I always suspected that he was somehow spying on my personal laptop. He would know things he shouldn’t know and bring them up in a very subtle manner. I confronted him about one particular comment and he said I forgot to erase my internet history so I made it easy for him. First of all I always remember to erase my history because I am already paranoid and secondly why is he on my computer to begin with? So, here is where it gets good. The other night very late I was home all alone. I did something quite shameful online webcam chatting with someone from across the world. I felt really awful about what I had said and especially what I had done. Not 5 minutes after the “conversation” ended I received an email from my husband. All it said was “What are you doing? God is watching you” I was FREAKED out. I emailed him back calling him a jerk and that I always suspected he had a way to spy on me. The next email was worse than the one before it. It said “well, if I am a jerk what does this picture make you” and it was an exact screen shot of the entire conversation I had including photos of the web shots. Let’s just say they were less than attractive photo’s. I had been willing to try to make things work. I was willing to continue to endure his constant critical comments and have faith that he would change. I now feel this marriage is over. He has convinced me to contact the folks at Love Path which I have done. He wants me to go to one of the seminars coming up and I told him I would consider it. I am leaning more towards no than yes as past history has shown me that one month of good equals several weeks of bad and this roller coaster ride has to stop before it crashes and takes my heart and soul with it.

  8. MIchelle Davis

    What do you consider grounds for an anullment? We are in counseling, but I have prayed about what has transpired between us over the past year (before we married in Dec. of 2011), and because of my kids, ages 11 and 14, I see I have probably lost you by now, so my main concern is that my heart and my guidance from my Father tells me to end this new marriage, but I do not in many ways want to accept that. If this relationship continues to be overall negative and harmful, do you think that I should seek annullment? Although very difficult to break this new family up, I no longer see that it benefits not just my husband and me, but my children. Please also know that I have contributed to this marriage in very destructive ways….ways that are painful, confusing, abusive.

  9. Lilli


    I’m not clear if I’m being spiritually/emotionally abused. My husband appears very spiritual and close to God, having devotions every day. But he has in the past year and a half or so become very adamant about him being the head of the family. A value I don’t disagree with, but I feel forced into submission by him. He makes the rules in cleaning the house and I children’s behavior but merely sits back and watches as I enforce it all. He does work and I am stay at home mom. I do do all the work at home: cooking, cleaning, bills, filling taxes, oil changes, getting cars to the shop.
    My biggest example was last night. I did something my husband had told me not to do (playing a computer game). We had a heated discussion at the end of which I apologized. But I added “would you not treat as a child” and he responded in a raised voice “if you stop acting like one.” I told not to raise his voice at me. Something he always forbids me to do when we talk. But he told me he could if he wanted to because he was head of the family. I honestly can’t remember exactly what I said next be his response was “THIS IS MY HOUSE”. I told him it was my house too, but he said no it was his house. It got much more heated. Then we apologized. But I feel trapped and like I have to obey even when I disagree because he is head of the family. I feel as a Christian woman I’m not free to leave. He even tells me I have to have sex when he wants because he is head of the family… He attempted to have sex with me one night when I was sick and crying but said ” if your just laying there with your stomach rumbling I don’t want it.”

    So since he seems close to God I don’t know?!

  10. ES

    Emotional abuse is very destructive. Your Love Path series was amazingly powerful for my boyfriend and I. I was about to marry him but came to realize that he was an abuser who had a borderline personality disorder. He pretended to be an authentic Christian and he used emotional, intellectual, physical intimacy and spirituality to manipulate, condemn and interrogate me in order to control me and meet his own self-serving needs. At least I was able to see this before we married and I was able to painfully end the relationship and save myself and my children from a life of emotional turmoil and trauma. Emotional abuse is never ok…
    thanks Joe for allowing us to share our journeys…its helps the healing.

  11. Savedwon

    I have been married for 14 years . I’ve been w/ this man for 24. He is a missionary. He is in a school for the supernatural . He wants me to partner up with him and. R his helPmate & it’s his way or the highway. He was very physically abusive in the past . Now it’s just 24/7 emotional , spiritual abuse we hate each other . I would give Anything to GET AWAY!!
    I have no $ . He has no $ . He gives his $ to the poor. We have been asked to leave 3 church’s because he put his ministry before his family . I don’t care any more we obviously don’t love each other . He is very mentally abusive and makes everything I do wrong . He asks me if he corrects me if I am doing good . Joe , it doesn’t matter . Nothing I do is right . What should I do I have no money he’s been married three times before five children none of them want to see him . He hasnt seen them since they were babies .and now I have no friends because my friends don’t want him around and they don’t want to know that I’m with him because of the abuse so much what I supposed to do where do I get money I’m 60 years old. I want a man to cherish & adore me , he is on Vicodin for pain for years and now he’s do righteous and holier than thou. The guy. Ant w en pray effe cticely for any one . He would leave me if he could . I would ha e left 15 years ago . We were checked out , lost my job that paid alOt and it’s been down hill ever since. I need to get out and have a new life . I don’t care if it’s alone . This is NOT a Christian marriage in any sense of the word . It’s a nightmare
    trainwreck. I hate my life !!! I cry out to God . Nothing . I have KLOVE radio . That’s the only thing that saves me as I can drive in my car and praise Jesus and how he works in all our trials . I’m not discouraged as much as desperate to leave . I have work and ale about $100 a week . Can’t get out on that . Won’t go to a shelter . I used to work in one . That’s too scary . I need good counsel . I have no family & no where to go. .i wish I was dead
    Most of my days . I see no light at the end of the tunnel . NO one in my church can help us . It’s way I et their heads . So I stopped going . I can’t talk to anyone . The look at me incredulously ! Like no that didn’t happen . He was on a pen dating web site for 2 years with 6 profile pictures. It was disgusting when I asked him what he was doing , he told me a man needs to know he is still attractive . I’ve been told he is a Narcissist & sociopath . He’s been in jail 71 times . We have been asked to leave towns . He was thrown out of his house he just got on the beach in Mexico. Because he beat up the property manager.
    We have even thrown out of at least 20 houses . He gets in fights .
    I can’t stand it . I feel worthless , broken , hope deferred makes the heart sick. All the time. If I could get a job and make enough $ I would be gone yesterday & not look back . There is no chance for any future. I’m so empty , hurt , lost . I have no idea who I was or am or will be . All I know is Jesus loves me I’m a happy , vivacious , beautiful woman . My friends all hate him & he is not allowed to come any where I go or visit they hate what he is done to me they hate how he’s ripped out my heart and hurt me they see the pain in my eyes &my tears .. what should I do?
    Can anyone help me ? This is sincere. Can anyone out there gel me??