Focus on the Family on emotional abuse

I recently found an entry on emotional abuse on Focus on the Family’s website. The article was clearly intended to help the church to identify, target, and reach out to women in emotionally abusive relationships. What’s ironic is how often parents in Focus on the Family’s brand of conservative Christianity, and especially in the even more conservative Christian Patriarchy or Quiverfull movements, employ the exact tactics described here as they attempt to keep their children in the fold.


What are the characteristics of emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is any nonphysical behavior or attitude that controls, intimidates, subjugates, demeans, punishes or isolates another person by using degradation, humiliation or fear. Yelling, screaming, and name-calling are all forms of emotional abuse, as are more subtle tactics such as refusing to be pleased with anything, isolating an individual from family and friends, and invalidating another’s thoughts and feelings.

Examples of emotionally abusive behaviors include:

Humiliating and degrading

Discounting, distorting and negating

Accusing and blaming


Withholding affection and emotional support

Withholding financial resources

Dismissive, disapproving, or contemptuous looks, comments or behavior

Threatening harm to an individual’s pets, possessions or person

The effects of emotional abuse are often debilitating. They include depression, confusion, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, overwhelming feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and poor physical health.


Your thoughts?

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Contrarian

    We have two people, X and Y, in some type of relationship R. For which types of R do the behaviors listed constitute emotional abuse?

    For example, let’s take R to be the relationship of two commenters on some blog thread. On the internet, humiliation and degradation, discounting and negating, accusing and blaming, and dismissive, disapproving, or contemptuous comments or behavior are all common. If I were to post on Pharyngula as a conservative Christian in earnest defending creationism, I would immediately be on the receiving end of lots of those types of behavior. Would it be consistent to classify those commenters who responded in this way as emotionally abusive?

    I also doubt anybody would find it strange for two strangers (another type of relationship) to withhold affection and emotional support, or withhold financial resources. Any time you pass a panhandler, you’re withholding financial resources. Does this count as emotional abuse? I don’t think so — strangers are not entitled to such emotional or financial assistance.

    So it seems that whether a particular sort of behavior is emotionally abusive heavily depends on the type of relationship the two people are in. The key example here is parent-child. Now I wonder: why do we consider our adult children entitled to, say, affection or emotional support? Or financial support? Apparently, we do, because withholding that support classes as abuse. What’s the reason we consider adult children entitled to that support and not, say, distant relatives? Close friends? Acquaintances? Strangers?

    More generally, what precisely is the dependence of the classification of behavior as emotional abuse on the type of relationship?

    • S. Lane

      I read through the entire series on Focus on the Family’s website, and I noted that there is only one mention (and it is the tiniest, briefest mention) of men ever being victims of emotional abuse. Not that I’m even a little surprised.

      As for using these tactics on wayward children, I think it’s that all-too-familiar Evangelical shift in mindset that happens when absolute rightness and/or eternal souls are at stake. That is, when a man is treating his wife like crap for no reason other than he had a rough childhood, it’s obvious that it’s inexcusable. There are generally no religious factors muddying the waters. However, all bets are off for human decency when enforcing right behavior and salvation are concerned. Those things are trump cards, and they will make any Evangelical hell-bent on righting the situation (to their satisfaction) anyway they can. It’s the conviction of these two things as being immutable, unquestionable, and all-consuming priorities that seems to render Evangelicals unable to recognize improper behavior, not only in situations of emotional abuse/manipulation but in plenty of other areas as well.

      • S. Lane

        Oops that was supposed to be my own comment, not a reply. Oh well, can’t delete it.

    • Rosie

      It’s true that a parent-child relationship is different from a marriage-type partnership (though if you think wives need to “submit” and “obey”, it’s not that much different). However, in my experience, the more parents use these tactics on their children, the more likely said children are to get into at least one abusive relationship once they’re grown.

      • shadowspring

        When I was in training for a teen mom mentoring program, evidence was presented that children raised in authoritarian homes were extremely likely to wind up in an abusive relationship.

        In fact, when my teen daughter wound up in an abusive relationship, that was the light bulb turning on for me. *I* have been an abusive parent? Sadly, the answer was yes, and the rest, as they say is history.

        Three years later, I just finished therapy. My husband and daughter are still in therapy. I have got to be honest: fundamentalist religion was behind every abusive incident my husband experienced, it was behind the huge majority of my abusive parenting, and it was a big source of the depression my daughter experienced leading up to her abusive relationship.

        I really loathe Focus on the Family. They took what was an earnest heart who wanted to do right by her children and turned me into a demanding control freak. I even bought their stupid parenting health manual- the one that calls homosexuality a mental illness. It creeps me out to no end that I own that book.

        We are due for a book burning around here….

  • smrnda

    I’d say that the parent-child relationship is just inherently predisposed towards being abusive because of the difference in power. The adult has so much power and control and even the child’s sense of what is normal, rational, sensible and good is, to a great extent, controlled by the parents. I know lots of people who lived through emotionally abusive childhoods but who never recognized it until later as their parents had more or less made them feel that *abusive* was normal.

    As far as relationships other than close ones being “emotionally abusive” people posting on blogs really don’t have what I would consider a true *relationship* in the sense of something going on that you can’t just walk away from. The relationships worth looking at are ones that a person is heavily invested in, either by choice, birth, or habit. In the US for most ethnic groups parent-child relationships tend to be pretty significant, but other family relationships much less so. I’d say marriages, though they are relationships that one enters into out of choice, are the same way since leaving them is kind of tough because of various barriers.

    I find it silly that Focus on the Family is posting this when they tend to advocate inequality, authoritarianism and punitive parenting. The people at Focus just probably lack the insight to realize that their hierarchical formulas for relationships are just not compatible with healthy, respectful and non-abusive relationships. It’s like allowing someone to be a dictator but saying “well, if a dictator has a good heart, there’s nothing to fear.”

    I have read about a lot of religious residential programs and all of them seem abusive in that there is no limit to the degree to which the programs try to control every aspect of the person’s life and no limit to their belief that a person must submit to the authorities running the program AS IF to God. I think people are entitled to a degree of privacy and autonomy, but most religious ideologies don’t respect this at all – it’s a win or lose game where no tactic is too extreme to use to get people to adhere to the right rules and standards.

    This might be a bit extreme, but I think the family is, by its very nature, a kind of power structure that kids should have an alternative to just because of the potential for insecure adult control-freaks to make live miserable for kids. I think that kids who want to reject their parents authority should be permitted to say, live in some state run facility where they get to stay as long as they don’t break any serious rules. I kind of reaches this conclusion while I was working with kids – as I was not a parent, kids could do what they felt like while I was in control as long as no disasters happened. However, parents tend to demand a bit more and I realized that many parents were just pissed off at their kids all the time since they needed to feel in charge too much; they made just normal kid behavior into a battleground of wills. I don’t see why adults who can accept the idiosyncrasies of other adults or other people’s kids see such a need for absolute control over their own.

  • Saffi

    I called them once and asked them to stop talking about gay marriage and spend more time talking about polygamy, because polygamy gets a lot more mention in the Bible as a family value and it’s an outrage that this traditional form of Biblical marriage is outlawed in America. The woman on the phone kind of balked and asked if I was serious. I told her completely serious. She said she’d hand my suggestion on to her superiors.

    • Eamon Knight

      Oh, you’re evil. In a good way ;-).