Traumatized woman arms outstretched red dress

(©Jenny duBay / Bologna Italy)

One of the things I’ve learned after years of working in the field of domestic abuse recovery may seem surprising to many people:

Although individuals can admit they’re in a difficult relationship, they often don’t realize that what they’re experiencing isn’t ordinary martial challenges, but is intimate partner violence. This is especially true when the abuse is covert and there’s no physical violence present. However, “violence” doesn’t always take place on a physical level—as a matter of fact, aggression that’s sly and hidden tends to be more damaging than the overt, physical forms of violence.


(1a) of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy

(1b): an instance of violent treatment or procedure

(2) : injury by or as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation OUTRAGE

(3a): intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force

(3b): vehement feeling or expression FERVOR

(3c): a clashing or jarring quality DISCORDANCE

(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Every marriage has challenges, and every couple will get into disagreements from time to time—perhaps even frequently. Disagreements, even if they get out of hand, aren’t themselves a sign of abuse.

The true markers of ordinary challenges versus coercive abuse can be seen in how those differences are handled and resolved, and whether or not mutual self-giving exists in the relationship. Situations of power-over—where one spouse attempts to dominate the other or consistently prove the other wrong—are both red flags. Remember, abuse is a pattern of behavior, not a one-time event.


The first thing you need in your awareness toolbelt is often the most difficult—you need to trust your intuition. If you lack an internal sense of safety around our spouse—which isn’t limited to physical safety, but manifests even more profoundly as a lack of emotional safety—consider that to be another huge red flag. Also, think about who you were before you met your spouse—including your sense of self, your enjoyment of life, your levels of anxiety—to how you currently feel. Are you more empowered now, alive and vibrant through mutual shared love and growth? Have you stepped into your true self through the support and love of your spouse? Does your spouse bring out the best in you, and help you on your path to holiness (CCC 1641)? Or do you frequently feel depleted, confused, overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated, angry, depressed, anxious, hopeless, or numb with grief?

Other questions to consider:

  • Do your marital conflicts end in loving, peaceful resolution, or do they tend to be circular, with no real resolution taking place?

  • Do the same issues keep coming up again and again, even though you do your best to appease and try to make things right?

  • Is there open communication in your relationship? Do you feel like you can talk to your spouse—openly expressing emotions, discontents, concerns, share your joys, etc.—without the need to walk on eggshells?

  • Do you feel confused or unloved after encounters with your partner, or at peace due to a satisfactory resolution that you both mutually agreed upon?

  • Does your spouse tend to focus on who wins or loses an argument, or are conversations focused on peaceful resolution?

  • Is there a sense of complete safety and comfort with your partner, even during conflict or tough times?

  • Are there any secrets or lies in your relationship? If you’re the one keeping secrets, why? Is it because you’ve done something wrong, or because you don’t feel safe enough to share?

  • Do you feel you can dialogue with your spouse, or do conversations make you feel as if you’re being talked at rather than talked to or with?

  • Is there mutual self-giving in your marriage or does the relationship feel one-sided (i.e. you’re giving your all and trying your best, but he isn’t—so nothing is changing or improving)?

  • Do you find yourself questioning your sanity or goodness, or do you have a solid sense of self? How does this compare to the way you felt before meeting your partner?

  • Can you detect a repetitive pattern to conflicts, or are they just occasional disagreements that eventually get resolved?

  • Has there ever been any physical violence in your home (this includes not only physical violence toward you but also toward pets and even inanimate objects—remember, punching holes in walls is domestic violence)?

  • Has your spouse ever called you disparaging, demeaning, or hurtful names? If so, was it a “one and done” instance, with apologies and reparation quickly made, or is this a pattern of behavior?

  • Do you have clarity of mind, or do you often feel confused, hazy, uncertain of yourself? Are you now distrustful of others, or the world in general?

  • Do you feel a desire to self-isolate?

  • Is your partner humble enough to admit when he’s wrong, and not repeat any offensive or hurtful behavior, or do you experience frequent blame-shifting?

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Abuse is a behavioral pattern. Disagreements tend to be one-sided, with confusing circular talk, blame-shifting, and gaslighting. Standing up for yourself doesn’t result in clear and healthy boundaries, but more excuses, coercion, and trauma.

Once you know what you’re up against, you’ll know how to proceed. If you’re in a conflicted marriage, but one that doesn’t involve abuse, there are many Christian and secular resources out there to help you learn how to rebuild trust and intimacy (contact me if you’d like a list of resources).

If, however, you suspect your marriage may be more than just “difficult,” and that abuse may be present, it’s crucial to find out more about domestic abuse and to seek help and healing. You can reach out to me (I’m a trauma-informed Catholic life coach), search for other coaches or counselors by using your preferred keywords in an online search, or join a trusted and secure support community such as Hope’s Garden (if you’re a man and looking for an online resource, Hope’s Garden will soon be opening a community called Men of Hope—I’ll update this article when it becomes available). I also highly recommend reading as much as you can—see my recommended reading list for my personal suggestions.

Other helpful articles that may clarify whether or not your marriage is “difficult” or actually abusive include:

And, as always, feel free to contact me with any questions.


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