Married to an Emotional Abuser

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

We paused our reader series on emotional abuse last month when the results of the U.S. presidential election came down, both because of the overwhelming number of timely emails we posted over Trump’s victory and Clinton’s defeat and because posting stories of emotional abuse right after an especially toxic election seemed a little, well, abusive. This reader also felt the strain of the election:

This summer I left my husband, kids in tow, because of his continued treatment of me. The drinking, the constant attitude, the belittling, the constant commentary (“are you really going to wear that” / “you sound like you are flirting with that guy when you talk like that” / “you can’t be friends with a man; he just wants to fuck you”) and the second-guessing built up and was too much to endure.

It all came to a head during our annual vacation. My husband got it in his head on the 13-hour drive that I was being rude to him, so he refused to sleep with me all week. He started drinking every day at 11 am, and by midweek he was screaming at me that I was a cunt, a bitch, a whore, frigid, an asshole, stupid, and a sheep. He said he wanted a divorce in front of his parents and our two small children. And yet he says he remembers none of it.

Leaving him was a shock. A real shock. He had no idea, he said, that I felt that way. Certainly he “never meant to hurt me and would never hurt me.”

I eventually came back for the kids, and because I really couldn’t break his heart—although I do not love him or want him. He has been true to his word and not cursed at me since the trip, but the other behaviors still exist (and totally exacerbated by this election, believe me).

An older woman writes:

During my 30-year marriage (now ended for five years), my partner blew up inappropriately, belittled me, insulted me, threatened me, bullied me, and isolated me from family and kept friends from visiting. Over the years he became so upset over my two grown, married sons, he even banished them from visiting as well. He was also careless with money and had a disability that nearly ruined our finances.

My innate gift as a singer-songwriter always threatened him, so I kept it buried during our marriage. When I finally resumed playing music at age 60, he tried to make me stop with insults, belittling my vocal abilities and my character for starting music again. But I kept with it and decided to end the relationship. At the same time, I began dating the person I was playing music with.

This next woman “definitely never thought I would be in any relationship like the one I’m in now”:

I did wrestling and football in high school, being the only girl on the team. A lot of people thought I was brave. I’m currently in an Army ROTC program to be an officer in the National Guard after I graduate.

I met my husband three years ago. Our relationship moved very quickly. Within three months, we were living in an apartment together. Almost a year after that, three weeks before I went to Basic Combat Training, we eloped. My family really didn’t like him, but he had me convinced that was because they were bigots (he referred to them as “hillbillies” a lot).

When our relationship went downhill, the constant criticism, belittling, and anger over my career choice in the military chipped away at what I thought about myself. I didn’t even realize that it was emotional abuse until I instant-message chatted with about it. They confirmed it was emotional abuse.

He is currently enlisted in the same National Guard that I will commission into. In the past six months, our relationship has dissolved. He made constant remarks about how mediocre of an officer he thinks I will be. He has stated that I “don’t belong in his uniform.” I am 12 out of 14 in my class, as printed on the accessions sheet, and he would constantly tell me how he “had to call around to get favors” to get me a good placement, because “Do you know how hard it is to vouch for a 12th seed cadet?” There were also threats that if we divorced, he would do what he could to wreck my military career, and by extension my civilian careers.

There was also some sexual abuse. He would tell me he wanted me to walk around with a very uncomfortable dildo in myself so that I could feel the way that I made him feel all the time. He also got angry enough at me one time to hide all the modest underwear I had, leaving me to wear a thong in my army uniforms for about a week.

He has experienced some traumatic events in the military, all of which he blames on the officers involved. Ergo, he took it out on me through impossible expectations.

At the same time, he expected that I be the best officer I could, but still fulfill all the obligations as a wife. He was enraged when I told him I had a mandatory four-month training after I graduate because he wanted me to “pump out a kid” for him as soon as possible.

As recently as two weeks ago, I proposed divorce. After taking my phone (thank goodness my mother sent me an emergency one), he started to spread a false rumor to people in his unit that I cheated on him in our marriage [which is actually a crime within the military]. (I didn’t. He actually cheated on me and gave me an STD). He also threatened to post up very intimate photos of myself in my uniform. (He put one up on Whisper and, thank goodness, I was able to flag it for bullying.) I had addressed this manipulation of my esteem and career with my commanding officer long before this incident, and he has been very supportive of me while I go through this.

My husband is getting better through counseling, and I am getting better too. But while we are currently only separated, I think it is best to go through with a divorce. So much has happened to me that, while I may forgive, I don’t think I will ever be able to fully forget.

One more reader shares her story of toxic marriage:

I’m a 35-year-old teacher with a master’s degree and 10 years of experience in my field. I recently divorced in September after discovering that I was in an emotionally abusive marriage. I recognized there was something off early in on the relationship, but even with my education, experience, knowledge, family, and friends, I didn’t fully realize it until everything finally started to unravel after six years of marriage and two children.

Two years ago, my now-ex told me he wanted a divorce. He said he had been unhappy for a long time, and he was upset that I was prioritizing other things above him. This was not the first time he brought up the D-word. He’d done it once after a trip out of town, because I didn’t reward the trip with having sex with him. He’d done it previously because I wasn’t “excited” about a 14-hour road trip on Christmas Day to visit his daughter from a previous relationship.

In all, divorce came up about once a year. This particular instance, though, it felt different. Thus began our spiral into destruction, where for three months we tried to fix things but they unraveled faster. He would claim he didn’t really want a divorce, and he would beg me to stay when I began packing to move. Then the next day he’d scream at me that he wanted a divorce again, or leave divorce papers on the kitchen counter for me. In this three-month time period, he told me he wanted a divorce nine times; and then talk me into staying again, giving him just “one more chance.”

He would disappear for days then show up angry that I had a (female) friend over. He monitored all my accounts (emails, texts, social media) without my knowledge. He told me I could only talk about our relationship with people he approved (his friends). He cut off my phone service so I couldn’t contact anyone. He harassed me online. He stormed out of counseling appointments cussing at me. He repeatedly locked me out of portions of the house. He drove away in a different vehicle and left me alone in the car 10 miles from home with no keys in February. He changed the locks on the house altogether to keep me from being able to enter.  

That was what made me finally face the fact that this was not normal relationship behavior. I ended up moving out and finally taking the time to work on myself.  And I finally admitted that I was in an abusive relationship.

Honestly, I knew before. I remember within months of our whirlwind relationship—we dated only six months before he proposed—googling “emotional abuse” and “verbal abuse.” The escalation in behaviors forced me to really look at it. I can check off so much of the abusive actions on any checklist, but like he said to me: He didn’t hit me. I do wish he had, then I would have known. But since he didn’t, it was easy to justify away or leave it as a gray area.

The abusive behaviors were mainly about control and manipulation.  There was a constant criticism of me and my “unwillingness to change” myself to be better for him. If I complained about the criticism, I was told I needed a thicker skin.

He told me the reason I was a bad wife is because I didn’t grow up with a good female role model. My mom died when I was 10.

He would get upset about the words I used or the tone, and either scream at me or ignore me for 3 to 5 days until I apologized. If I cried, he told me I was trying to manipulate him.

He once asked if I wanted to go to restaurant A or B. When I said, “I prefer A.” He screamed, “I didn't ask which one you preferred; I asked which you wanted to go to. You can’t even answer a fucking question correctly.” I always felt like I was playing a game without knowing the rules.  And when I screwed up, the punishment was way too severe for the so-called “crime.”

After initiating the divorce last year, I discovered the financial abuse: He had accumulated over $100,000 in unsecured debt. He drained my personal IRA (he works for the company). He also has forced litigation, and continues to use the legal system to punish me for leaving him. He forced it to go to trial. We were finally divorced in September.

Just today, we had yet another hearing because he is moving towards appealing the divorce judgment. I, with the help of family, have spent over $15,000 in legal fees so far. I’ve been told to defend an appeal, which will be an additional $5,000. I have maxed out my credit card and sold off belongings to try to pay for the attorney fees. I am currently driving a vehicle that was donated to me.

He makes twice the income that I do and yet hasn’t paid any of the court-ordered child support. He owes me nearly $12,000 currently in arrears.  

I’ve been in therapy now for over two years. I’m not going to claim to be blameless. There are many things I did that contributed to the dysfunction of our relationship. I have a lot of brokenness from childhood that was not properly dealt with, and I was in no way ready for a marriage. However, nothing I did warranted the treatment I received from him.

Even still, I struggle to know what is healthy and what isn’t. I think that maybe it wasn’t as bad as I’m making it out to be. All it takes is rereading some old emails or messages, or reading over a checklist of unhealthy behaviors to remind myself just how toxic our marriage was. And then be grateful I was able to get out.

Update from another reader with a happy ending:

I wanted to contribute to the series because in my own years of healing from an emotionally abusive relationship, it was reading stories from other people of their own experiences that convinced me that it wasn’t “just me,” that I wasn’t “overreacting,” and that the relationship I had been in wasn’t normal or or okay or “just fighting like all couples do.”

I spent 10 years married to an emotionally abusive man, though it took me most of those 10 years to be able to recognize it as abuse. To this day, he would say that although he did some things wrong, he wasn’t “abusive” toward me.  

He would alternate between telling me he admired my intelligence and berating how stupid I was. When he was angry, which was often, he would throw a fit—screaming at me, breaking things that were important to me, sometimes physically abusing a pet that was dear to me. He’d point a gun at me. He tried to run me over with a car once. He liked to start fights with me in public places because he knew it would embarrass me. He would abandon me at the store or lock me out of the house. He would drive recklessly to scare me, including the time after I was in an accident and he drove me to the hospital (he refused to let an ambulance take me because he wasn’t going to pay for it).

Our finances, which he handled, were always a mess. He’d overspend because he felt like he’d “earned it” being stressed out with work. Then he’d call me on the phone when I was out to eat with friends and tell me I wasn’t allowed to spend a dime on dinner because he thought I’d spent foolishly on something and now we didn’t have any money. I never knew if we had money to spend from day to day. He’d pay for expensive vacations and meals for us, then get angry with me when I needed to buy groceries. We found money to pay for his master’s degree but he spent years convincing me we couldn’t afford for me to get mine. His parents bailed us out of huge financial debt more than once because of his spending, though he always blamed me for our financial troubles.

Because I worked for a religious organization, I knew I would lose my job if I divorced. He knew I loved my job and used this as leverage anytime I considered leaving. He also knew that my family didn’t believe in divorce, as was also true of most of the people in our religious community. He told me that no one would support me if I left, and largely he was right. He also leveraged my faith to convince me that I was not forgiving enough when I’d try to hold him accountable for his actions.

After we divorced, I came across an article on “gaslighting.” It took me several days to read all the comments and stories after the article, but I was absorbed—it was actually a thing! The way I’d spent years doubting my own perceptions of reality because he kept telling me that I had misunderstood, misremembered, or was just “wrong” about my own memories … it was a thing that other people had experienced as well!

The best decision I ever made in that relationship was not having kids with him. I’m now deliriously happily remarried. Five years in and we have never had a fight. We’re also expecting our first child.