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By Katie Bailey, MA, LPC

Emotional abuse is real. Sometimes a spouse is destructive, belittling you, making you feel crazy, or even limiting your financial access or social contacts.

Unfortunately, when we live our lives thinking that the emotional abuse is our own fault, it affects our lives in numerous ways. We feel worthless, beaten down, crazy even. This could lead to us feeling isolated, depressed and anxious. Continuing to believe that your spouse’s abuse is your fault could lead to panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, and of course could affect your relationships with others.

I’ve worked with many women dealing with emotional abuse from their husbands over the years. Most of the time, they don’t even realize it is abusive, they just know it doesn’t feel good. Sarah came into my office seeking help for anxiety and panic attacks. When she came in to my office, she explained she had times where she couldn’t breathe, felt tingly all over and her heartbeat really fast. She struggled to get out of bed and take care of her two young kids. She rarely took them out of the house. She didn’t bother taking care of anything around the house because her husband always criticized her efforts. Unfortunately, all this did for her was reinforce the lie that she couldn’t do anything right and kept her paralyzed in her anxiety.

Eventually, she wound up in a place where the anxiety kept her from enjoying anything in life. But the truth is, it’s completely normal for women battling emotional abuse to feel suffocated or stuck. Emotional abuse is tricky because you can’t see it. There are no bruises or broken bones. It’s easy to feel like you are the one going crazy.

It’s true that emotional abuse in our relationship can confuse you and steal your joy. However, when we see others overcome something similar, it can inspire us to make the changes we need to find confidence in our own voice and find freedom. When we take similar steps, it is entirely possible to advocate for yourself and reclaim your sanity.

Keep reading to see how one woman starting seeing herself differently, found her own voice and starting living in freedom again.

SARAH’S HUSBAND CONSTANTLY CRITICIZED, DISRESPECTED AND IGNORED HER

Before scheduling a session, Sarah fought to get through every day. Her husband, Jeff, often told her she was stupid or worthless. He screamed and swore at her. He would often pressure her to do things she didn’t want to do. If Sarah questioned Jeff about anything he did, he would blow up at her. Jeff didn’t let Sarah have access to their bank account, and made her ask for money to go to the grocery store. If Sarah tried to express how she felt, Jeff told her she was too sensitive and left the conversation.

Sarah often found herself feeling alone and hopeless. She was afraid to tell anyone else what was really going on in her marriage. Living this way impacted Sarah’s ability to be productive, care for her kids, or even feel safe and relax in her own home.

Sarah’s other relationships were also affected. Because of her fear to tell the truth about her marriage, she isolated herself from her friends and family. She carried the burden alone.

Right before Sarah called my office, she had had a fight with Jeff. Their one year old had an ear infection, and was fussy all day. Sarah spent the day at the pediatrician and trying to soothe the baby to take a nap. Jeff came home from work and saw the dirty dishes in the sink and the laundry undone and lost it. He yelled at Sarah, calling her lazy, saying she was worthless and hadn’t accomplished anything all day. Sarah tried to explain she was caring for their child, but Jeff wouldn’t listen. He told her she never accomplishes anything. Sarah felt hopeless after this fight. She wondered if Jeff was right, maybe she was worthless and couldn’t do anything well. She decided to seek help because she knew she needed to be able to care for her kids and she wondered if she was the problem.

When Sarah came in to my office for her first session, she expressed feeling hopeless. She said the tension in her house was unbearable and her anxiety impacted her sleep. She felt like she was losing her mind, and that she wasn’t good for anything. Together we explored the behaviors Jeff exhibited most often. We also discussed the difference between normal conflict in a marriage and abusive behavior. By the time Sarah left my office that first day, she felt a sense of relief. She wasn’t alone anymore, and she was beginning to understand that Jeff’s treatment of her was not okay.

As we continued therapy, Sarah knew she wanted help with finding her own voice and not allowing Jeff to steam roll her. She wanted to understand what was her responsibility to fix and what was Jeff’s. Sarah also knew she needed help coping with her stress and anxiety.

We created a treatment plan to address Sarah’s goals. First, we identified coping skills Sarah could use to manage her anxiety. She began putting the kids in the stroller and taking them on a walk around the neighborhood for exercise. She made play dates with other mom friends to have other adult interaction. She learned to knit, enjoyed it, and did that a little every day. Then we worked on learning about boundaries. Sarah worked on her view of herself, knowing she is valuable, and her voice matters. She grew in confidence in stating her own opinion and feelings. We learned how to best address Jeff and set limits with consequences. We also made a safety plan for Sarah and her kids in case things didn’t go well at home. By the time Sarah left, she was more confident in herself, could stand up for herself and her children, and could recognize when and how to set boundaries.

SARAH VALUED HERSELF AND LEARNED TO VOICE HER OWN FEELINGS AND SET BOUNDARIES

When Sarah and I sat down to work together, she believed she was worthless and that she was overreacting to Jeff’s outbursts. We often discussed the difference between a marriage in a difficult place and a truly abusive, destructive marriage. Sarah came into therapy weekly at first and eventually every other week. As we worked toward her goals, Sarah started to feel empowered and free, no longer living trapped in lies. Sarah’s new confidence emboldened her to recognize she should not be treated like Jeff was treating her. Sarah realized that Jeff’s words were devaluing her as a person and tearing her down. She grew stronger in her ability to advocate for herself, set consequences in place and not take responsibility for Jeff’s poor behavior.

Sarah and I outlined ways to measure her improvement. We kept track of how many hours a night she slept, how many panic attacks she had, and how many days she interacted with other adults. We also measured how often Sarah was able to stand up for herself and leave a conversation when Jeff was being emotionally destructive. Sarah said she knew things were getting better when she wasn’t crying all day and asking herself if she was losing her mind. I told her we would know we made progress toward our goals when she was living believing she is loved and valuable and not allowing others to mistreat her.

When I work with clients like Sarah I use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as a guide. We identify the lies playing on repeat in the client’s head and how they got there. We replace those lies with truth and describe how living in truth brings change. We also work on boundaries, and clarify what she is responsible for and what is not hers to handle. I like for clients to read the book “Boundaries” by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. This book is essential to learning why we need boundaries and how to set them appropriately. My favorite way to help clients get results is to teach them about boundaries and role play conversation setting them, so clients grow more confidence.

After several weeks of therapy, it was obvious Sarah was making progress. She looked lighter and more rested when she came into my office. Sarah started to see improvement in her overall mood and daily functioning. She was enjoying activities more, and wanted to spend more time with her friends. While arguing with Jeff was still painful, she was able to leave when he began to yell and put her down. Sarah also was able to see that Jeff’s behavior was his responsibility to fix, not hers. She knew she had to focus on her own behavior, that she couldn’t change her husband’s words or actions. After several weeks of Sarah practicing setting boundaries at home, Jeff noticed the difference in his wife. He could no longer control her with his angry outbursts. Sarah told Jeff he needed to stop yelling and swearing at her and that she needed access to their bank account. She told Jeff if he couldn’t make these changes, they would have to separate because she could not allow him to continue to devalue her or scare the children. Jeff didn’t like Sarah’s boundary, but agreed to go to his own counseling to learn new skills to interact more appropriately with his family.

Sarah knew she was ready to leave therapy because she was enjoying her days again. She truly believed she was loved and valuable and began to live like it. While she was sad things weren’t wonderful with Jeff, she recognized she couldn’t change him and was only responsible for herself. She was pleased he was seeking counseling, and was hopeful for the future. We created a plan for Sarah to keep journaling her emotions, stay connected to her friends and keep setting her boundaries. By our final session Sarah felt confident she could keep up the changes she’d made in her thoughts and behavior.

LET SARAH’S STORY INSPIRE YOU TO BELIEVE YOU ARE VALUABLE AND MAKE CHANGES IN YOUR MARRIAGE

Although you struggle with lies in your head, like you are worthless, stupid, or useless, you absolutely can learn to replace these lies with truth that you are valuable and loved. Now that you’ve seen what is possible for other clients similar to you, use that hope to help you find the strength to seek help for yourself. You have the opportunity to pluck those lies right out of your head, take responsibility for yourself, and not own other people’s bad behavior.

Achieving freedom from emotional abuse will bring relief and peace to your world. You absolutely can learn to change the lies repeating in your head and change your behavior to protect yourself and your sanity. Lime Tree Counseling can help you learn these skills and begin to live life as you were meant to live.

Contact us today to set up a free phone consultation or to schedule an appointment. We are here ready to help you on your path to healing.


Also check out these related articles:

Am I In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship?

The Lies In Your Head (Yes, You Can Make Them Go Away!)

Why People Say “I’m Sorry” Too Much

10 Signs of Depression