What Is Mental Abuse in a Marriage?

Unfortunately, mental abuse receives far less attention than physical abuse. Mental abuse can be just as devastating as physical abuse, however, particularly in the context of an intimate relationship that relies on trust and respect to function properly 1. Mental abuse in a marriage is one of the most devastating forms of abuse.


Mental abuse is most likely to occur when your spouse is in a position to dominate you. In some cases this dominance is financial, such as when you are financially dependent on your spouse. In other cases the dominance is physical; even when the abuse is purely psychological, physical intimidation is a form of mental abuse even when actual physical violence does not occur.

In other cases, the dominance may be rooted in personality types. An aggressive personality, for example, may find it easy to dominate you if you prefer a passive approach to conflict resolution.

The Abusive Personality

Abusers are usually quite insecure people. They exhibit a tendency to project their own shortcomings onto their spouse, and use it to justify "punishment." Abusers tend to lack empathy for other people, and as a result, see love in terms of possession rather than intimacy and respect. Most abusers refuse to admit that they are ever at fault, although some abusers will respond to criticism by making token admissions of small shortcomings as a form of temporary tactical retreat.

Characteristics of the Abusive Relationship

Life with an abuser is characterized by constant criticism over matters of small consequence, false accusations, threats and malicious humor. According to psychologist Steven Stosny, founder of CompassionPower in Washington, D.C., this behavior is designed to make you feel unworthy, fearful, ashamed and mentally unstable.

The abuser, although domineering, will expect you to meet all of his emotional needs and will often blame you for his own bad moods or emotional upsets 2. An abusive spouse will seek to control your friendships, your comings and goings, your attitudes and your thoughts.

He will deliberately trigger crises and then blame you for them. He may try to confiscate your cell phone or ATM card, or may break into your email account. If you confront him, he may insinuate that you are dishonest, that your memory is faulty or that you are mentally ill.


The first stage of abuse is characterized by a breakdown in communication. Tension builds along with abusive behavior such as threats, sarcasm, ridicule, manipulation and various forms of intimidation.

When confronted or faced with the loss of the relationship, the abuser may attempt an insincere but tearful reconciliation, ask for forgiveness, and resume the abusive pattern shortly thereafter. Abusive relationships are often characterized by frequent breakups and reconciliations.


Mental abuse is designed to produce feelings of low self-esteem in order to render you easier to control. The late Dr. Janet Gerringer Woititz, author of "The New York Times" best-seller "Adult Children of Alcoholics" and former professor of education at Montclair State University, reports that victims of mental abuse find it difficult to trust others even after the abusive relationship ends 1.

Since lying to an abuser is often necessary for emotional survival, victims may find themselves lying to others as well, even when there is no need for it 2. Abuse victims often fear authority figures and suffer from indecisiveness. Victims of severe mental abuse often exhibit symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), just as combat veterans do.

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