You Married an Emotionally Abusive Person. Now What?

Broken picture frameMatt and Michele, as we’ll call them, had a pretty good engagement period. Matt spoiled Michele with flowers and sweet, little notes. They went to movies, took long walks, had heart-to-heart talks. Why, then, did she have some kind of unpleasant, gnawing feeling inside?

Well, there was the one time that their phone conversation didn’t go very well. Matt had been out of town on business and a friend invited Michele to a party. She never dreamed going would be a problem, but it was. When Matt returned from his trip, he accused her of flirting with other men, not loving him, disloyalty, and more.

‘Tip of the Iceberg’ Phenomenon

Michele has a soft heart. “He is just upset,” she told herself. “He’s insecure. He doesn’t mean anything by it.”

That was her first mistake. These little signs are generally not anomalies. When a person shows you a glimpse of something concerning, don’t overlook it. Don’t dismiss it. While it is true that Matt is insecure and this burst of nasty accusations comes from his insecurity, that doesn’t make it OK to make them.

It appears Matt has trust issues. Perhaps he has seen infidelity or experienced it before. He needed to open up to Michele and explain to her that this is his problem. But you know what? People with trust issues are often afraid to do that. That’s exactly what a trust issue looks like. So he’s stuck: He wants her. He doesn’t trust her. And he’s too insecure to tell her. He’s also too insecure to give up the relationship.

Somehow, he got the distorted view that if he lashes out, her fear of him will keep her in her place. Is that the foundation of a relationship?

Since the answer to this question is obvious (no, it is not the foundation of a relationship), Michele should have taken note. She should have backed off from a potentially toxic relationship. But like so many people, she wanted to overlook what may be the tip of the iceberg.

Once the Knot Is Tied

There were many charming qualities in Matt: He was nice, a wonderful conversationalist, full of dreams and hope, and he did little, loving things for her, like buying her a book she’d been mentioning she wanted to read. He once made a dinner just for her at his apartment. OK, it was takeout, but the thought was there.

So they got married and the good stuff did not go away. Matt still brought her flowers and there were love notes attached. He poured her coffee in the morning and he tiptoed around at night when she was sleeping. The problem was that Matt’s insecurities and anxieties propelled a constellation of destructive behavior. The accusations did not go away, and he added yelling and anger to those. Sometimes he would spice it all up with sarcasm, which he called “humor.”

But the knot had been tied. What is Michele to do? Should she give up on a person she loves even though she feels that, underneath it all, Matt has a good soul? Or should she be the “helpmate” that she wants to be and try to help him overcome this?

The old saying that a person can change only if he or she wants to is partially correct. Usually, people don’t realize that they need to change, and telling them that they do just puts them on the defensive. Nevertheless, there are solid approaches Michele can take.

Making the Decision

Fixing the problem may not be a quick and easy process. In fact, it almost certainly won’t be. Matt may resist the idea that he is hurtful; after all, nobody wants to see themselves that way.

Nevertheless, if Michele tells Matt that their relationship is not working and needs fixing, he may perk his ears up. If he truly cares—and takes responsibility—then he will ask Michele what can be done about it.

At this point, they have several options: see a therapist, clergyperson, or neutral friend; order a self-help marriage course or book; or Matt can join a group for people who struggle with abusive behavior. Enough time must be allowed to pass, several months, for meaningful changes to take place. When people are committed, they will work hard to repair problems. Matt will not only benefit from anger management but needs to overcome his insecurities, recognize when his insecurities are dictating his reactions, and learn to trust people, especially his wife.

While this is a tall order that can take years to fully realize, family members and friends should start to see some changes in three months or so. If you can see that the direction Matt is headed is positive, then the rest should take care of itself with therapy and time. I have seen countless people make wonderful first steps in these areas—if they are sincere about working on themselves. If Michele works on her own hurts—how to express them and be assertive (but not aggressive)—there is true hope for this relationship.

Of course, the possibility exists that Matt will apologize but continue to do the same, old thing. Tears don’t work; when Michele cries, he may say, “What about me?” Begging doesn’t work, either; Matt may just tell her she needs help and should get therapy. Never mind that he is the cause of her distress. He may not seek out help, and when other people hint that maybe it would be useful, he may brush it off.

If this happens, Michele is getting a message. The message is: expect this kind of treatment for the rest of your life. While sad for Michele, she can use that information to learn how to be more in tune with her qualms in the next relationship.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Deb Hirschhorn, PhD, Relationships and Marriage Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Wade

    April 6th, 2015 at 10:31 AM

    I think that what can be the most concerning is that most of the time, let’s say you are in a relationship like this and then you somehow get out of it.
    Ok great, the damage has been done and let’s move on.
    But then what do they do? They go and get involved with this same type of person all over again!
    Why do you do that? If you know that someone is abusive, and after about the third or fourth time you should somehow be able to see this, then I think that you have to start looking at what it is about yourself that attracts this person in the first place and start doing some real soul searching.
    Not always looking at what the other person is doing wrong, but what is going on in your own life that you continue to let this kind of person in time after time.

  • Mercedes

    April 7th, 2015 at 11:46 AM

    That is because something inside you usually as a child came from an abusive home and as older feel attracted to what’s known and you need to work on yourself to get out of that toxic thinking and behavior to then be able to attract really healthy people to yourself

  • Victoria

    April 6th, 2015 at 2:41 PM

    You may not initially see it, but this kind of abuse can be just as harmful and painful to bear as physical abuse can be. These are the wounds that we wear on the inside, not on the outside, so it becomes hard to even explain to someone else what could be going on in your relationship. People tend to not understand what they can’t see.

  • Mercedes

    April 7th, 2015 at 11:43 AM

    exactly! And the hardest is when outside HE seems to be a walking angel and everyone thinks he a dream of a man but inside home he is a monster… So much pain besides what you go through, what people see and judge nevertheless say will never understand your situation and real anguish..

  • Tammie

    May 20th, 2015 at 6:54 PM

    This is so so true.

  • Kalvinder

    April 6th, 2015 at 4:17 PM

    The problem is that I say I don’t like a certain behaviour or the way someone talks to me but they still carry on not because I am
    Not asserting myself or not setting
    Boundaries but the other person thinks they are entitled to do what they want. So the problem is I believe the way people feel
    They are entitled to disrespect other people that they view as inferior to them in some way or maybe that they feel
    Insecure so attack is their way of defending themself but it’s really their insecurity. No matter how much I try not to make them feel
    Insecure it’s their insecurity at the heart of their bad behaviour.

  • Cassie

    April 7th, 2015 at 8:55 AM

    You’re right, some people will never accept their insecurities and faults and choose to change. You have to be strong enough to know that you deserve better and set boundaries with these people. People can act however they want but they also have to live with the consequences of their actions. You have to set boundaries which will create consequences.

  • sullivan

    April 6th, 2015 at 5:03 PM

    You get yourself some help ASAP that’s what you should do

  • michelle

    April 7th, 2015 at 9:06 AM

    Im trying to get out right now. Im terrified and fearful of losing the life we built around our income together,and that would be the animal rescue, but hes got to go. Hes started online dating,a porn fetish,spy cameras in the bedroom and guilt displacement.

  • The Team

    April 7th, 2015 at 3:24 PM

    Thank you for your comment, Michelle. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about domestic violence at and additional information about what to do in a crisis at

    Warm regards,
    The Team

  • Terrell

    April 7th, 2015 at 10:26 AM

    I would think that a clear indication that you are with some sort of abuser would be that you are always finding yourself having to make excuses for this person. He did this because of this or said that because of that. No, you shouldn’t have to be with someone who constantly forces you to fuzz over the truth.

  • Mercedes

    April 7th, 2015 at 11:37 AM

    Well that’s very true but things change very much when there are children involved..

  • fulufhelo

    April 7th, 2015 at 1:22 PM

    What do you do if same family members always they comments about your spouse Past I become angry

  • Kalvinder

    April 9th, 2015 at 5:11 PM

    It’s hard as one even ends up with similar work situations

  • colorofgrey

    April 27th, 2015 at 12:59 PM

    So if I’m the romantic who feels neglected and I’m going to therapy/counseling/life coaching but my wife refuses to go to any of those or even read a chapter in any book, how long do I suffer every day with little to no sleep? 4 years? 40? We never had a “honeymoon” phase and I would do anything for her, but she wouldn’t even read so much as this article for me—–when can a spouse make the decision that no matter how much their spouse says they love you, they really don’t?

  • Silverside

    December 26th, 2015 at 5:09 PM

    I hear you.

    There is another “staple example” that this view does not even touch. And that’s the emotionally abusive female, and how she affects her partner.

    BOTH partners should be responsible for their own thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
    BOTH partners are expected to care for and care about each other and each others feelings.
    Both partners are expected to be self aware, and working on making sure they manage and handle their own emotional and mental difficulties and issues and to realise that they are not finished products but growing human beings.

    I’be spent the last couple of years reading and learning about emotional abuse, psychological abuse, emotional neglect, sociopaths and narcissists.

    It’s such a black and white (physical abuse) world until you read about these things and then you start to realise that these toxic aspects that are happening, the obvious moments this article highlights, are often a reaction to an initial thoughtless or unrealised toxic action.

    A study I read confirmed that half the inmates in one prison for domestic abuse crimes were in fact victims of Avoidant Dissmissive partners who had been emotionally and psychologicaly abusing them. It is mostly unintentional, but so is physical abuse. It’s a toxic reaction to a difficult situation. All abuse should be avoided, and the issues creating that energy / almost outcome, should be looked at (both sides) by both partners and worked on.

    That’s what an issue is. Something that requires attention.

    Those guys just didn’t know to walk away as emotional and psychological abuse is not as obvious as a physical blow. So they stayed and kept trying until they were put in situations that hurt again, or that were destructive or toxic, and they tried to do the right thing and heal that “wound” by managing it only to find themselves being attacked again by emotionally blunt, thoughtless, self focussed, hormonaly imbalanced, abusive partners.

    Bruises can be seen, which is why women get as much help as they do. Okay, I know they don’t get enough help as what they actually need, but if you think it’s hard for women to get help ~ try to get your head around the fact that help for a man practically doesn’t exist.

    He doesn’t even have bruises to file a report with…

    Men are also 3 times more likely to commit suicide than women.

    I guess that’s why there’s not as many of them actively needing help…

  • Roger

    December 27th, 2015 at 6:12 AM

    I’m still in hell, I’ve concented to a fabricated TPO after $17000 legal action defending the truth. She lied about financial status, lied about employment status, met on eharmoney, she has two masters degree, the latter being psychology I’m a recovered alcoholic still sober not a issue and a forklift operator, now PTRS bad bad bad, trying to get away from the evil one, I paid for everything she used sexual reward psychological cohesive tec, had me peged from day dot. Even police supporting her every claim. Trying to hide , need property settlement which I’ve offered just take the 3k a week you’ve saved over the last 9 months cohabitation 5 months marriage your in the matrimonial house i got ousted from and don’t ever want to return to, give me back the rings and it’s finished, now charged with contriviened TPO, SHIT I LEFT IN THE HOUSE WITH ONLY 48HRS TO FIND SOMEWHERE TO LIVE, ALMOST BROKE , JUST HOLDING ON TO JOB , ABSOLUTELY HELL

  • naumai

    May 7th, 2015 at 11:20 PM

    Any abusive relationship is an addiction! BE AWARE OF THESE SIGNS: 1.If you start living only to please! 2. If your original personality has been replaced with charateristics of your spouses 3. Lectures/ranting from spouse major forms of mind control. 4. Loosing your confidence 5. Spouse pushing your friends/family away 6.make sure Quotes said are genuine e.g.”I am nothing with out you” ” you are my life” etc etc last but not least… does your spouse even no you?? E.g favorite colour/food OR DOES HE NOT EVEN CARE! Stop the cycle and do the hardest thing of all LEAVE! show our kids how to respect others and most importantly themselfs! Chuur

  • Jilly

    July 9th, 2015 at 10:43 PM

    Thank you, that is my relationship to a tee & your absolutely right it’s an addiction
    We go 3 days without speaking then one or the other gets in touch
    I’ve finally involved the police to make him leave

  • Sue

    May 8th, 2015 at 1:43 AM

    I feel for Michelle I am also with my husband of 20 plus years and have always covered up his insults etc he’s even made me come home after supposed to working away for the weekend I travelled 145 miles then had to come back again same night due to his behaviour I am now alone with Him n it’s no better really I have to lie to my 2 children when they visit etc if he goes in sulk as he as always done this over the 30 plus years took me away from family broke my heart many times left me come back over n over again now I’m physically unable to do anything due to fibromyalgia angina arthrits etc n I feel trapped once again we rarely talk and if we do it ends up in shouting etc im at my wits end n alone no family wouldn’t want to hurt my kids xx

  • The Team

    May 8th, 2015 at 8:56 AM

    Thank you for your comment, Sue. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about emotional abuse at and additional information about what to do in a crisis at

    Warm regards,
    The Team

  • Minita

    May 8th, 2015 at 6:34 PM

    Nothing in my life hurt me more than my mother’s silence, abuse thrives in silence … Please please let your children know…. You have been strong, but you don’t have to do it alone, find a good support group and build a safety plan that you feel comfortable with sometimes the bravest thing we can do is to let go,had it ever occur to you that the root of your pain starts in his abuse? the body, your container is holding pain, unnecessary holding and silence. I wish you the best.

  • Josie

    May 13th, 2015 at 8:48 AM

    I am out of the abusive marriage. After 30 years together. Divorce was just finalized this January (2015). His abuse still continues. I am now a work in progress :-) I am safe. One of the hardest things is dealing with the anger of our adult children. Because, sadly, I hid it from them and they dont believe me. I go to group therapy for DV SURVIVORS. I can now say that I am a SURVIVOR, ok, sometimes I do slip and say victim—but again I am work in progress for ME.

  • mabusi

    December 1st, 2015 at 7:37 AM

    My husband is very emotionally abusive,from having affairs,saying demeaning thinks.I need help,I really don’t want to lose myself in this.please let me know of any therapist you might know arround Durban.I am so tired.I’m exhausted.I want my life back.

  • The Team

    December 1st, 2015 at 9:07 AM

    Hi Mabusi,

    Thanks for your courage and for expressing your thoughts here. We’re assuming you’re looking for a therapist in Durban, South Africa. It looks like we have therapists listed in our directory in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Pretoria. Here is a link to our page of listings: While none of these listings are close to Durban, you might try reaching out to one of the listed therapists for a referral that he or she might recommend closer to you. Please feel free to return to our homepage,, and click on “International Search” to find other therapists. If you’re looking for a counselor that practices a specific type of therapy, or who deals with specific concerns, you can complete an advanced search by clicking here:

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

    Wishing you the best,
    The Team

  • Shannon

    December 27th, 2015 at 2:41 PM

    I can SO relate to almost all of these posts above. I left a physically abusive husband after about 10 yrs., vowed never to marry again & maybe 4 yrs later fell head over heels with a man but STILL didnt agree to marry him until 5 yrs. after that, while being asked to marry him thousands of times.I thought I was so careful. Long story short, we’ve had 11 beautiful years together & he goes out & becomes addicted to crystal meth while he obviously is having a major mid-life crisis, being 49 yrs.old. He’s started treating me terribly, with hardly any regard to my feelings, I mean REALLY BAD. This has been going on for about 10 months now & its truly killing me, & not slowly. I often believe not waking up ever again is my best solution & that has NEVER been me. I lost my mom recently, & she was my best friend in the world. My depression is completely out of control & I barely leave my bed, let alone my room or my house. Physical chronic illnesses prevent me from working as a nurse ever again, something I just loved & did for 20 yrs. makes everything that much worse. I truly cannot believe how I am accepting being treated by him. My self esteem is below bottom & our fights started to turn violent 4 days ago, on his side only. He didn’t hit me with his hands but broke a plate on my head & cut me good. I grew up in a very,very violent household, my poor mom. He’s so out of control with Meth he’s not the man I married & he wont get help.He was always worth it.Is there any help I can get for him, even if it means jail? Anything would be better than the hell I live in now. Please give me some direction. I’m much younger than him & am so scared to lose him. He was a great husband for all of those years. Is there any hope because I can’t take much more at all. I’m barely hanging on & most days I have no idea why. No idea at all. Thanks for listening(reading😊) Sincerely, Shannon

  • Jennifer L G

    July 4th, 2016 at 7:48 PM

    Oh, I feel so much for Michelle, Jilly, Mercedes, and too many others, like Josie, you scare the heck out of me because I’ve hidden it from my children & I’m afraid they won’t ever believe me! Psychological, emotional and/or sexual abuse is terrible because it is so often done by cowards when no one else is around! I mean, mine knew any physical abuse would be absolutely unacceptable – and *apparent* – to everyone! So that is the one thing he never did. 25 really great years & then 10 of absolute about face and abuse! Get out! There are 3x’s as many male as female psychopaths – they won’t change & they’re dangerous! Just my opinions. Love and best wishes to all you women who need it!

  • David

    November 14th, 2016 at 5:33 AM

    Please read and study up on Narcissitic Personality Disorder to understand this insidious subtle abuse. Knowledge really is power in this situation. Please google it now, no time to waste.

  • Patsy

    April 9th, 2018 at 9:27 AM

    I would like to recommend the book “For the Rest of my Life” by P.H. Freeman available on Amazon. Another example of hidden abuse and control magnified by alcoholism.

  • tahereh

    April 16th, 2018 at 9:59 PM

    I’m in the relationship for more than 2 the first meetings I found out this person is abusive. he shouted at me whenever became angry .I cant stand his behavior specially when disparagement my family. Every time that he became angry I hate him and end our relationship but I cant stand the situation and always I asked him to be with me and he tells me that this relationship is over for me. I don’t know what shroud I do? If I should continue and just try not to answering him or cut this relationship.Please help me.

  • EB

    April 17th, 2019 at 3:15 AM

    I don’t know if this message board is watched anymore, but I hope it is. I think I am in an emotionally abusive marriage, my therapist and mother have told me as much. I can start to see some of the traits listed above. He likes to monologue about himself a lot, when I try to talk to him he gets angry and now even storms off, he likes to make sure I know if I have done something wrong, and seems to love having a dig at me over things he doesn’t agree with (little things like that I want to handstrip the dogs rather than shave, so he constantly whispers to the dogs that they have burs in their fur because of the long hair, lies). I have been self harming for a few years now, and he has never once tried to help me. I just don’t understand. Is he happy? Does he not see that our relationship is clearly toxic? He constantly talks of renovating our home, and by renovating I mean tearing it down and making it unliveable. But surely that means he doesn’t see our relationship ending? How do I leave my husband when there are still good times (every once in a while)? How do I even approach the subject with him without him shouting? I know he wouldn’t physically touch me, but that almost makes it harder to leave.

  • The Team

    April 17th, 2019 at 7:56 AM

    Dear EB,

    If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, you can start finding therapists in your area by entering your city or ZIP code into the search field on this page:

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. You may click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. If you need help finding a therapist, you are welcome to call us. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time, and our phone number is 888-563-2112.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy Team

  • Sidney

    November 7th, 2021 at 4:38 AM

    I’m married to a classic toxic abuser + narcissist and refuse to see or accept it because I enable his behavior and deny it when he does it to everyone else in his life, including people that I betray.

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