When Does Normal Marital Conflict Become Abuse?

Updated 05/13/19
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Domestic abuse comes in many forms. Physical abuse tends to appear as bruises, while psychological abuse warps one's sense of reality. Both teach victims that they are only worthy of love when they are appeasing their abuser. These behaviors are distinctly different from marital conflict, which in many ways is a healthy way to deal with problems in a relationship. 

The Center For Disease Control refers to so-called domestic violence as "Intimate Partner Violence," and defines it thusly: 

"The term “intimate partner violence” describes physical, sexual, stalking or psychological/emotional harm (including coercive tactics) by a current or former intimate partner or spouse. It includes threatened physical or sexual violence when the threat is used to control a person’s actions."

Accidents are not abuse. Being bad at apologizing does not necessarily make one an abuser. While intent behind any action or hurtful language can be difficult to prove, the answer may come in how the actions or words affected their partner. 

Read on to learn more about the differences between healthy marital conflict and domestic abuse. 

Healthy Marital Conflict

Marriage is both a challenge and an opportunity. There will be times during any marriage when forming and maintaining an intimate bond is challenging. Couples who are able to meet the challenges and overcome them become better partners, lovers, and companions. What are some of the challenges that a marriage may face?

  • Conflicting beliefs on child rearing 
  • Differing beliefs on how finances should be handled 
  • Differing sex drives 
  • Health issues 
  • How household chores are divided 
  • An inability to communicate 
  • Loss of trust 

If a couple can handle the above issues without hitting, screaming, blaming and belittling each other then they are experiencing healthy marital conflict. One must have a willingness to work through conflict as it arises; avoiding conflict could easily lead to larger problems in a relationship, with psychological implications that may in turn become a sign of abuse. 

We all communicate and come at solutions to marital problems differently, and we all can be guilty of taking things too personally every now and again.

If your husband enforces a budget, he isn't abusing you, he is looking for a solution to your financial problems. If your wife expresses to you that you have hurt her feelings or she would rather not have to ask you to do something a dozen times with no response from you, she isn't belittling or abusing you, she is attempting to be heard by you. 

Domestic Abuse

Although there are challenges to be dealt with during marriage if you feel as if you are in a constant battle for your marriage you should take stock and put thought into the fact that you may be in an abusive situation. 

There are layers upon layers of the types of abuse one can experience in any intimate relationship. Below are examples of a few that are definite examples of domestic abuse.

  • Hits, punches, or kicks 
  • Screams and yells
  • Engages in name calling
  • Limits the partner's social life, aka time with friends and family
  • Controls the money 
  • Pressure to have sex or engage in sexual acts that make their partner uncomfortable 
  • Withholds sex 
  • Ridicules the beliefs, religion, race class or sexual preference of their partner

False Accusations of Domestic Abuse

Any accusations of abuse should be taken seriously. A company's HR department is required to investigate every complaint, regardless of the circumstances. The same mindset should apply in a marriage. If one spouse mentions that they feel abused, the other should pause before automatically denying the accusations. 

If someone thinks they are being abused, there is something wrong in the relationship. It may not be considered "abuse" in the strict definitions that the CDC or a counselor may lay out, but it deserves to be addressed all the same. Every relationship deserves to know happiness, but that is unsustainable unless we make the sacrifices and engage in the work needed to attain happiness. 

Marrying and expecting there to be no conflict is setting your marriage up for failure. Compromises are not grounds for abuse, though they may create unwelcome feelings that will require reflection. On that note, any time you feel uncomfortable about how you are treated, the best first step is to have a calm conversation about it with your partner immediately. If you cannot come to a solution or agreement, professional counselors and couple's therapists can help guide you both to a healthier place.

As with anything, most situations are not simply black or white; some couples have healthy arguments that include verbal jabs, and others may have problematic ways of physically engaging with their partners. Does that make it abuse? Not automatically, but it is always important to keep in mind the signs. If you feel that you are being abused, you can seek help from the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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