Emotional Bullying in a Marriage

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In his "Psychology Today" divorce column, psychiatrist Mark Banschick notes that bullying behavior perpetrated by a spouse is "nearly identical to that found in playground bullies." Bullying in the context of marriage further complicates matters, however, by adding potential legal issues, risks to children's well-being and overall chaos to the family dynamic. The effects of bullying and abuse include lowered self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness, depression and anxiety. In order to minimize these results, you must be able to recognize emotional bullying and be equipped with the information and resources necessary to respond to it.

Identifying Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse can be challenging to identify, since it does not leave a tangible bruise, but manifests itself in a variety of ways. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the National Network to End Domestic Violence provide examples such as name-calling, criticism, isolation from friends and family, damaging property, possessiveness, undermining your parenting, dismissing or denying the abuse, threats of suicide or threats of harm toward you, the children or your pets. Ultimately, if you believe your spouse acts in a way meant to control you, hurt you or damage your sense of self, you are being bullied.

Effects of Emotional Abuse

Emotional assaults, especially over time, can be just as traumatic as physical ones. Injuries range from an inability to trust, confusion and disrupted sleep to appetite changes, physical ailments and substance abuse. NCADV explains that children witnessing parental emotional abuse may become inhibited or aggressive and have difficulty in school. Adolescents sometimes engage in criminal behavior or sexual promiscuity. These are all common effects of trauma and should be managed carefully in order to preserve good mental health.

Coping with Emotional Abuse

Self-care and healthy coping mechanisms are vital to surviving an emotionally abusive spouse. Attend routine medical visits, get proper rest and exercise, eat well and seek support from trustworthy friends and family. The National Domestic Violence Hotline and NNEDV suggest that you access services from a counselor or your local domestic violence program. If you are thinking of separating from your spouse, consult with a family law attorney. Even if you eventually opt to remain in the relationship, you will be empowered with accurate legal information. Many civil lawyers offer free consultations and can provide guidance regarding divorce, custody, child and spousal support.


Because many abusive people do not recognize that they are bullies and instead justify and rationalize their behavior, they will not always agree to work toward change. You may decide that ending your marriage is the healthiest option for you and your family. It is wise to use caution when planning your separation, as even if your spouse has never been physically harmful to you before, the abuse often escalates when the perpetrator senses the impending loss of power and control. Battered women's programs are available for assistance with safety planning.