The Bible does not use the words emotional abuse, but there are plenty of characteristics of emotional abuse addressed in Scripture. Emotional abuse can take many forms, including verbal assaults, threats, and insults; and non-verbal rejection, neglect, and isolation—when these behaviors are recurring, they become a pattern of emotional abuse. The most common victim of emotional abuse is a spouse, a child, or a friend who loves the abuser and is unwilling to walk away from the situation.
We have examples of emotional abuse in the Bible: Abigail was almost certainly married to an emotionally abusive husband—Nabal is described as “surly and mean,” insulting, and “wicked” by the people who knew him best (1 Samuel 25:3, 14, 25). Also, we see King Saul’s verbal mistreatment of his son Jonathan in 1 Samuel 20:30. The Babylonians “killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes. Then they put out his eyes,” ensuring that the last thing he ever saw was the death of his sons (2 Kings 25:7); this atrocity combined physical abuse with emotional abuse. Delilah’s nagging of Samson “day after day until he was sick to death of it” (Judges 16:16) is another example of emotional, or possibly psychological, abuse. According to the Bible, the actions of an emotional abuser are sinful and not pleasing to God.
The famous passage about love in 1 Corinthians 13 makes it obvious that emotional abuse is wrong. The apostle Paul describes the actions of real love. First, he says love is patient and kind (1 Corinthians 13:4). Emotional abuse is neither patient nor kind but instead is quick to flare up at small offenses. Love “keeps no record of wrongs” (verse 5), but emotional abuse is all about pointing out how another person is wrong in everything he does, so as to protect the ego of the abuser. Love is not rude or selfish or prideful or irritable or resentful—all unfortunate qualities of emotional abuse. Instead, love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (verse 7). Sadly, it is the loving person—the one who loves unconditionally—who is most often the target of emotional abuse.
According to the Bible’s definition of love, should an emotional abuser be silently tolerated? Does love require that one overlook the abuse and “persevere” through the pain? The answer to both these questions is “no.” There are loving options other than tolerating the status quo. Abuse is a learned behavior, and if we allow it to happen and continue, we are in fact accepting it. We cannot and should not accept verbal or emotional abuse, for at least two reasons: it dishonors the Lord and it often escalates to physical abuse.
Abusing someone emotionally is not the behavior of a person walking in fellowship with the Lord. How does a relationship deteriorate to the point of emotional abuse? Somewhere along the way there was a failure to obey God’s commands regarding interpersonal relationships (see Ephesians 5:21). It takes two people to make a relationship, and each side is to have his or her own fellowship with God through Christ and to be actively choosing to honor God and one another. Without that fellowship with God, and without that commitment to honoring each other, there will be a relationship breakdown.
Any relationship plagued by emotional abuse will eventually have to choose one of three paths: one, the abuser admits fault, sees his behavior as harmful, and changes; two, the abused person walks away, at least temporarily; or, three, the abuse is allowed to continue indefinitely, to the harm of both parties.
The abuser will only find healing and forgiveness through genuine repentance and calling on the Lord. Second Corinthians 7:10 says that “godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” The difference between godly grief and worldly grief is repentance. A person who truly understands the nature of his sin will be able to feel grief that leads to repentance and salvation and a clear conscience.
We cannot make choices for someone else. We cannot stop someone’s emotional abuse. That is a choice that the abuser must make. But we can refuse to accept the abuse without arguing or making demands. The most extreme cure for emotional abuse is separation (see 1 Corinthians 7:5). A separation from the abuser can allow time to seek godly counsel from a pastor or biblical counselor so that spiritual balance can be introduced into the relationship and reconciliation can occur.
Regardless of the choices that the abuser makes, we can make the choice to obey God and honor Him in our lives. Accepting the abuse is not the way to go. Refusing to tolerate the abuse while maintaining a calm, spiritual demeanor, and without displaying rancor or contentiousness, will go a long way toward defusing a volatile situation (see Proverbs 15:1; 1 Peter 3:1–2).
The human viewpoint is that we can do “something” to change things. The Word of God tells us that only doing things God’s way brings peace that lasts.