Last week, we got an email from Nathan, although it could have been from almost anyone because many people find themselves in a similar situation. See if you relate to his confusion on what is emotional abuse and what he is doing that fits that description. I can feel his hurt and see his desperation for saving his marriage as he tries to learn how to stop abusive behavior.

Confusion and desperation are common

He wrote:


I am quite confused. My wife is about to file for divorce. Though this is likely to be the outcome of things, it hurts.

This morning she tells me that if there is any chance to save our marriage, I need to learn how to stop abusive behavior. She says that I am emotionally abusive. She also said we need to communicate better, even if we end up apart, because we have an 8 year old daughter.

I can barely comprehend what I need to do. I know I can get pretty upset sometimes and have tried to find ways to control my anger. Even if I acknowledge that I’ve been abusive, it seems that my wife is expressing something deeper than I can understand.

She thinks that what I’ve tried so far is not helping and that I have not fully confronted my abuse and anger issues. I’m reaching out for therapists in my area. I want someone to help me make sense of what I’m doing that is hurtful. Please help!


Learning how to stop abusive behavior

Here is my reply back to Nathan, and anyone else who can relate to his situation:


Hi Nathan,

I’m sorry to hear about the current state of your marriage. I have been there myself. I know it hurts and remember how confusing this can be. On the other hand, it sounds like there may be a glimmer of hope as she’s considering a path for you to save your marriage.

My guess is you are not trying to be hurtful, and that you often don’t even realize you have been until someone tells you. You have described exactly how I felt and said what many others have said. Good for you that you want to address this issue and learn how to stop abusive behavior.

You’ve taken brave actions by reaching out to a counselor and to the Ananias Foundation. Openness to learning, growth, and change is the first and sometimes the most difficult step. Here’s what I recommend—it is basically a quick summary of what we cover in the Change Process on our website:

1. Learn what hurts or scares your partner

Start by learning what you do that hurts her—what she calls emotional abuse. We have a list on our website that are common ways in which our actions harm the ones we love. Even if you don’t mean to hurt anyone, accept the notion that she is feeling hurt or afraid, especially if she’s said so.

If your wife is willing to give you a list or some examples, I encourage you to listen and not argue or defend yourself. Just take it in as good feedback that will help you to find a place to start. If she’s not willing, that’s okay too, and don’t force it—go with what you’ve already heard.

The other recommendation I have is to be sure to focus on yourself. Your wife probably doesn’t do everything right (she’s human, after all), but you can’t change her. All you can do is become a person who responds in the best way possible, and learning how to stop abusive behavior is key.

2. Identify your thoughts

Next, dig deeper into what is happening in your mind to find the root causes. What are the emotions and thoughts that you have before you do or say those things that hurt her? Usually we have a hurt or fear that we are trying to avoid, and in the process, we create some distorted thinking along with it.

For example, I used to get upset and yell when my (now ex) wife would cancel plans with me to do something else. What was really going through my mind is, I was seeing her actions as a message that I’m not worth being with. You are going to have different triggers, emotions, and thoughts, but hopefully you get a notion of what I mean by digging deeper.

If you’re like me, I never considered what my thoughts were before I said or did something—I just said it or did it. Asking myself the question was really eye-opening and great progress toward learning how to stop abusive behavior. We also recommend a journaling process that can help you discover your mindset, even after the incident.

3. Challenge the thoughts that lead to trouble.

Once you’ve identified your thoughts behind behavior you want to change, then practice challenging those thoughts. Some call it stink’n think’n, but what we want to do is fix the messed up thoughts that are leading to our bad behavior. We lay out a process for challenging thoughts in more detail on the website, so I’ll let you look that over yourself.

Getting outside help

A good counselor will help a lot, so I’m pleased to hear you are seeking that assistance. Your individual work will likely create questions you can ask your counselor, and counseling will certainly enhance your own efforts. We have some recommendations about counseling on our counseling page and in this blog post.

A couple of other suggestions: consider signing up for our Weekly Dose of Encouragement, which goes out every Friday. I think you’ll find it uplifting, motivating, and helpful. Also, consider participating in one of our Online Groups, where sharing experiences and hearing others perspectives can help you learn how to stop abusive behavior. We would love to have you be part of one of those groups.

The importance of time and the right kind of practice

I’d like to say, “That’s it! Just three quick and simple steps!” However, I know this process of learning how to stop abusive behavior is not fast or simple.

It takes a while to discover all the ways our behavior is not as good as it could be. Thirteen years later, I’m still discovering ways I can interact with my wife better. It also takes a while to figure out what we’re thinking in those moments.

Self-awareness gets easier with practice, so stick with it. Challenging thoughts requires time and practice, too. Think of it like physical therapy for your brain. It is going to take time and the right kind of practice to heal what’s gone wrong.

I can’t promise that you will save your marriage. The fact that you are starting to accept that as a possibility is good. All you can do is to work to become the best version of yourself that you can.

Progress never moves in a straight line. Expect setbacks, but keep working. Transformation and learning how to stop abusive behavior will become tremendously rewarding by itself, regardless of the fate of your marriage. It will be worth it!


What would you add to what I shared with Nathan? What have you found helpful, or a waste of time and effort? We’d love to have you share your experiences in the comment section below.