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What is Spousal Abuse?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Spousal abuse is a form of abuse in which someone targets his or her spouse, with the goal of creating and demonstrating control. While many people think of physical violence when they hear the words “spousal abuse,” this type of abuse is not necessarily physical in nature, and in fact it includes a very complex emotional component. Victims of spousal abuse often find it difficult to extricate themselves from their relationships.

Couples of all ages, races, religious backgrounds, and sexual orientations can experience spousal abuse. The abusive spouse uses a variety of tactics to gain control of the abused spouse, including threats, humiliation, physical violence, emotional torment, stalking, and economic abuse. People outside the relationship may perceive the partnership as healthy and normal, with some abusive spouses being very skilled at creating trust and friendliness in people outside the relationship. Abusive spouses are also often able to turn their behavior on a dime; they may be beating the abused spouse at one moment, and calmly answering the door for a policeman in the next.

Abusive spouses often try to isolate their spouses. Isolation makes abused spouses feel like they have nowhere to turn for help, and it also deprives them of the opportunity to see normal relationships. Abused spouses may believe that they deserve to abused, that the behavior of their partners is normal, and that there is nothing they can do to put a stop to the abuse. They often become emotionally withdrawn and shy, but they do not complain about their abuse, and they will excuse or cover up for abusive behaviors.

Some examples of spousal abuse include: economic abuse, in which one spouse tightly controls the finances of another; stalking, in which an abusive spouse constantly monitors a partner; marital rape and other forms of sexual abuse; threats to family members, friends, or pets; emotional humiliation; physical abuse; and verbal abuse such as shouting. Victims of spousal abuse may be targeted with several forms of abuse, accompanied by lectures and reminders that the abused spouse deserves it, that he or she is the property of the abusive spouse, and that he or she should not try to seek help.

One of the major issues with spousal abuse is that it follows a cycle. A spouse in a relationship which is consistently abusive may find it easier to escape, as he or she recognizes that constant abuse is not normal or acceptable. However, abusive spouses usually alternate abusive and loving behavior. An abusive spouse who shoves a partner down a flight of stairs, for example, might present the partner with flowers and an apology the next day, leading the abused partner to stay in the relationship because he or she believes that the abusive spouse is remorseful and has “reformed.” Abusive spouses are also highly emotionally manipulative, which makes them challenging to confront or escape.

Extricating someone from a situation in which spousal abuse or partner abuse is occurring can be challenging. The abused partner may need assistance ranging from psychotherapy to confront the abuse to temporary housing, and the situation can get extremely complex. Parents may fear that custody of children will be awarded to the abusive spouse, that they will not be able to find housing with a pet, that they will be condemned by family members, or that they may face a variety of other consequences which make it difficult physically, logistically, and emotionally to leave an abusive relationship.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon954223 — On May 30, 2014

It should be known that not all abusers are male and not all abused are female, like the pictures on your page suggests. Even Oprah did a show on it a while back. You should be truthful on your site, and not perpetuate a stereotype.

By Chromerock — On Jan 15, 2014

A good support system can help victims of spousal abuse take back control of their lives. Therapy is also crucial to break the cycle of abusive patterns, as often exhibited in victims of abuse and mistreatment.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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