Q&A with Geoff: How do I know if my husband is abusive?

q&a with geoff Oct 26, 2022


My husband and I have been married for 34 years. Our relationship has been rocky over the years. I say it is like a rollercoaster: good times are great but bad times are ugly. Over the years the coaster is not so steep but up and down constantly.

I have been staying with my daughter for about six months going home only occasionally. I can’t seem to ever get my voice heard with him.

Every time I try it always comes back to everything that’s wrong with me and how I don’t do this or that. He says he understands why because he tells me I am tired, I’m obese, and I’m out of shape. I am 5 feet, 5 inches tall,  weigh 150 pounds and wear a size 6 or 8. He told me the other day that he had calculated my body fat and that if he had that much, he would weigh 300 pounds. 

He can also be so sweet and kind. He will cook dinner and even bring it to me. He will praise me for being a good artist and being creative but then put me down because I am such a princess, and I don’t want to learn anything. I have lost my confidence and am so afraid of being alone. I think I have finally had all I can take but I still want him. What’s wrong with me? 


I see how confusing and overwhelming it is for you to experience the ups and downs of living with someone who tears you down, builds you up, and then tears you down again. This cycle has clearly taken a toll on you and left you wondering how to move forward. Nothing is wrong with your response to all of this.

It’s difficult to know how to respond when you’re treated this way. However, you’re likely writing because you’re ready to do something different. You have some important decisions to make to preserve your mental and physical health.

Even though I’ve never worked with you or your husband, I’ll comment directly on what I’m hearing you describe in your question to me. I imagine that the distance you’re taking from your husband right now is giving you some relief right now. Six months is a long time to stay separated, so perhaps it’s important to stay with your sense that something serious needs to change for you to return home. 

Are you clear on what needs to be different before you’ll recommit to permanently returning? You’ve described a punishing pattern of criticism, blame and control that would undermine any marriage. Dr. John Gottman’s research clearly identified that divorce is more likely to happen in marriages where there are patterns of criticism, defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling and belligerence.

The damage created by these harmful patterns far outweighs the benefits of occasional kindness from your husband. In fact, Dr. Gottman found that it takes at least 10 positive interactions to undo the impact of one negative interaction.

The negative interactions you’re describing in your marriage aren’t just standard squabbles common to all marriages. These patterns you’re describing are verbally abuse and will absolutely kill your confidence and security in the relationship. When people treat others like this, it’s usually about gaining power in the relationship.

One common way people gain power over their partners is by making them feel worse about themselves. When your attention is turned to your flaws and imperfections, it makes it difficult to see the harmful dynamics happening right in front of you. 

This kind of domination can also create isolation, which leaves you more trapped in these harmful cycles. With your confidence at an all-time low, it’s more likely for you to blame yourself for his criticism instead of expecting him to treat you with respect. When you’re afraid to make waves in your relationship because of his reactivity, you’ll stay silent and become further isolated.

This can lead to increased anxiety, depression and phobias. Notice if these patterns seem to improve when you’re not living with him and experiencing these abusive patterns. 

You deserve to experience respect, peace, and kindness in your marriage. This is a minimum requirement when we voluntarily give ourselves to another person. Not only should you have safety and peace in your marriage but also an equal voice about your needs and preferences.

One common pattern of abusers is to make their partners feel less confident so that they’re less likely to speak up and draw boundaries. This creates a dynamic of unhealthy dependency where the worse you feel, the more you rely on them for self-esteem. This makes it tough to leave the relationship because you’re convinced you can’t make it without him.

Many people assume that physical abuse is somehow worse than emotional abuse. The truth is that all abuse is physical. When our soul is assaulted by another person’s words, silence and control, our bodies immediately respond by going into fight, flight, freeze or fawn states. These states are only intended to last as long as it takes to get to safety.

However, if we’re living with the person who is hurting us, our bodies won’t shut off these reactions and we begin to break down. It’s common for people in verbally abusive relationships to develop serious physical health problems. 

I encourage you to speak with a therapist or professional who understands abuse. It’s also important for you to seek education about abusive patterns so you can recognize them a respond. It can be difficult to admit that you’re in an abusive relationship because no one is all bad all the time.

However, recognize that even though abuse isn’t happening every minute, the fear of future abuse is controlling you every minute. Slow this down and get the right kind of support so you don’t have to return to these dynamics. While I don’t know if your marriage needs to end, I do know that these patterns in your marriage have to end if you’re going to stay safe and thrive.

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