How Emotional Abuse Starts, How To Recognize It & How To Break the Cycle

Ronni, the creator of here.

A more thorough version of this post, which is my own marriage story, was originally published at my blog The Screenwriter’s Wife. I don’t like sharing this, tbh. I don’t like this time in my marriage and I don’t like putting this out there. But it’s the ultimate reason behind why marriage-irl exists & is important to share. So I am, even though it’s hard to. If you’d like to read more (as well as a response from my husband), please see THIS POST over at my blog. 


When my husband and I were friends, dating, engaged, and even in the early days of marriage – I thought I was prepared for any challenge that married life might throw at me. I thought I was a strong, logical, independent woman. I never thought I would’ve been the kind of girl to end up in the convoluted mess I ended up in.

It’s easier now in hindsight to see the slow beginnings of how it all happened:

Early on in our marriage, because I wasn’t as passionate about a particular career path as my husband was of his, it seemed a natural choice for me to take the steady income of a teaching position. After a year in a brick and mortar school, I further transitioned to a work-from-home online teaching position, a position that I enjoyed.

However, I’m already a bit of a homebody and so my social outlets gradually dwindled down only to my husband’s circle of friends. I had no local friends of my own. I was ok with this though. Had it bothered me, I certainly could have made more of an effort to develop friendships. I’m fully to blame for this part.

Alienating myself from others definitely didn’t help what was to come, but in and out of itself was not a huge issue. But about a year after our first child was born, everything changed…

My husband’s company unexpectedly lost their financial backing and he was suddenly out of a job. As month after month of unemployment passed, he found himself struggling with purpose. His morale and self-esteem were low. He questioned himself and his dreams. He didn’t tell me any of this, but I’m his wife, and of course I knew.

Though he was often grumpy and short with me, I knew that these actions were likely a passing phase and I wanted to be a good, supportive wife in this difficult time for him. So I put up with his moods. I tried to be extra kind and sympathetic and strong for him by willingly accepting his cranky criticisms. I figured I was giving him time to work through things, and by not putting up a fight to these early criticisms, I thought was “helping” him to come out of his funk and showing him that I’d always be by his side no matter what life brought us.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead of seeing my sympathy as a lifeline drawing us closer together, he instead capitalized on the opportunity I didn’t realize I’d given him: the opportunity to use me as an emotional whipping board.

It was all very gradual though. Marriage troubles almost always seep in slowly and unnoticed until it’s too late.

We fought a lot. At least a couple times a week. We fought so much because every fight was just a continuation of the last fight; nothing was every truly resolved. In-between fights we could work together on a functional level, so we’d act just fine in public, and no one outside of our marriage knew what was going on.

No matter how our fights started, they always included my husband telling me some or all of the following:

  • That my memory was faulty and unless I could “prove” what I thought was said in a previous conversation, that I was wrong and had no clue what I was talking about.
  • That everything I said was really a subtle attack against him. No matter what I tried to discuss, it was always turned around into how I was victimizing him. If I did not recognize how I was attacking him, it was because my memory and interpretation of situations were inaccurate.
  • That I did not keep the house clean, and never did the dishes or vacuumed or laundry, and this showed how irresponsible and lazy I was and how I didn’t care about our family.
  • That talking to me was like talking to a child and until I could grow up and accept responsibility for my actions (i.e. the state of the house and my attacks on him), that nothing I said was worth listening to.

Then, at some point in the argument, usually when it was at its’ highest convoluted peak, he’d tell me that talking to me was pointless since I was never going to change or grow up. Then he’d leave the room (and sometimes the house) and refuse to talk to me until I apologized. Which I usually did, hours or days later. Occasionally he’d apologize first, but it was usually me.

Overall, I felt so lost, so confused, as though I had no leg to stand on in our relationship. I didn’t understand what had happened to us and I couldn’t figure out how to make things better. I’m a very logical person and the one thing I’ve always relied on to sort things out – my mind – was the one thing he discredited the most. I questioned my own thinking, was I really misremembering situations? Was I really subtly attacking him with everything I said? I live far away from family and I had no local friends to be a sounding board to help me gauge the accuracy of my thoughts. I felt like who I was, and my personality had slowly diminished away.

At the time, I didn’t know that all of these things were warning signs of emotional abuse. I hadn’t even considered that as a possibility – I thought I was too strong of a person to succumb to such things. All I knew was how stuck I was. How convoluted our relationship had become. How trapped I felt. I didn’t want to give up on our marriage and I knew that deep down my husband was still a good guy. But I had no idea where to begin to make things better or even what the main issue that we needed to work on was. Communication skills?  Some way to legitimize and record our conversations so that we could adequately reflect on them and our problems? Something else?

In looking back on that time period, I’m sure that had I gone to a counselor or therapist and shared what was happening in our marriage – and had I previously decided that divorce was an option for me – I probably could have been persuaded that:
a) I was being emotionally abused,
b) My husband would never change, and
c) I should get out of my unhealthy marriage for my own well-being.

But instead, I chose to do two different things:

OurRelationship-Logo-WebsiteTour-11.1.20121) I convinced my husband to do a free online counseling program and though that made only a small chink in our issues and didn’t magically fix things overnight, it was at least enough to take the next step:

2) I stepped out on a limb several months later and started a blog, even though I knew my husband might not like the idea.

During that time when our marriage was really tough and I felt so lost – I could have given up on it. A lot of other people in my shoes probably would have. But I knew my husband deep down, and I knew that he wasn’t always like this, and I knew that the good guy that I married was still in there somewhere. I didn’t want to give up on him and I didn’t want to give up on my marriage.

I knew he could be a better man than he was showing me at that time.

But I also finally realized that I did not just have to sit there and take what he was throwing at me. I did not have to submit to his frustrations with his own life. I didn’t have to give up on him or on our marriage – but I also didn’t have to remain under his emotional control anymore either.  

Once I started exerting more independence for myself, an interesting thing happened. My husband stopped having control over my emotional state. Because I didn’t allow him to. If he started to criticize, I let the criticism roll right off me. I’d answer rationally and calmly if I needed to, but otherwise, nothing negative he said could penetrate my emotions. I told him I loved him and wanted to stay married to him, but I wasn’t going to do this fighting thing anymore. I was over it. We could figure out a way to come to a solution, but I wasn’t going to do the emotional fight thing anymore. In a way, it seemed like I became more cold with him, but in reality, I was acknowledging that my emotions were not affected by him anymore.

And slowly, but surely, things started changing between us. Once he realized that he couldn’t get that emotional rise out of me, he had no reason to continue pushing.


Now, in 2018: It took a couple years of slow growth from there but I can honestly say that my husband and I now have a COMPLETELY different and better marriage than we did back then. We’ve both learned about ourselves, about our pasts and how they affect us, about how we react to situations — and how to communicate and love each other in spite of our sometimes many differences. 

One Response

  1. Livvy October 14, 2018

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