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Emotional bullying: Are you married to an emotional bully?

Emotional bullies are not happy people. Motivated by fear, their insecurities plague them creating a need to command and dominate others to make up for how vulnerable they feel. Controlling others inflates the bully’s ego, masking their self-confidence issues through emotional bullying.

Emotional bullies, instead of fists, bully with words (sometimes loudly). They steal the trust, kindness and respect from a relationship through coercion, manipulation and intimidation. Too often, I see clients who are married to a bully and struggling to break free.

Am I married to an emotional bully? Tell-tale signs you are married to an emotional bully

Bullying comes in many forms, here are the four key behaviours to look out for fro your husband or wife:

Aggression (verbal & physical)

Name calling, critical comments, slamming doors, blaming, accusations, undermining your decisions, arguments from nowhere… the bully has many verbal and physical options to control and dominate. Once they have established the pattern of using anger as a first response, the bully can rule on the fear of anger alone.

Controlling

A bully will use control to limit your freedom. Isolating you slowly from friends and family, they will manage your time and decide how you spend it and who with; then make you feel guilty when you leave them to spend time with them. They will also text, stalk social media and call continuously to check where you are and what you are up to.

Passive aggressive

The silent treatment, coming home late, not helping in the house, withholding sex, controlling finances, undermining your decisions in small, all subtle ways that a bully will use to keep in control of you and the relationship.

Threats

When a bully gets scared of losing you, out comes the threat card. Divorce, moving out, cheating or even harming themselves are just some of the tactics a bully will roll out when desperate.

Living with an emotional bully

Sadly you can spot bullies everywhere: the playground, the classroom, at work and in the home. But what is it like to live with one?

In a functional relationship, both people are equals. In a bullying relationship, there is an imbalance and an uneven distribution of power.

Typically people in a bullying relationship tend to have lowered self-esteem, suffer from depression and/or anxiety, are fearful and feel powerless and trapped. These emotional feelings often manifest physically in addiction, insomnia, changes to appetite and illness.

Leaving a bully

Being married to a bully can be emotionally distressing and the road to separation very stressful but one of the hardest parts is recognising that you are. Long relationships have behaviour patterns within them that are difficult to break.

Start by keeping a written record of your partners bullying for a month. Note down dates, times, situations and how they made you feel. Sometimes when you are living in a situation it is hard to see the bigger picture. Writing it down will show you the extent of your partner’s behaviour.

If you decide to divorce a bully, you will need a strong support team in place. Seek out professional and emotional support from lawyers, counsellors, consultants as well as friends and family on the side.

Sources of support for emotional bullying

If you or someone you know is suffering in a abusive relationship, please do get support. The organisations below have advice and details of who to contact. If you feel scared for your safety, please do contact the police, 

Refuge

Women’s Aid

Mankind

Men’s Advice Line

Broken Rainbow (for LGBT people affected by relationship violence)

Julian is Stowe Family Law’s Senior Partner and is based in our Leeds office.

Contact us

As the UK's largest family law firm we understand that every case is personal.

Comments(23)

  1. spinner says:

    “withholding sex”, “Start by keeping a written record”. This just sounds creepy, so if your partner puts on some weight or for some reason you just don’t fancy them anymore but you stay together for the children’s sake or whatever reason but you really don’t want to have sex with them, you are now bullying them by withholding sex and you would tell your clients to start making a written record of each time they were refused sex?

    Will the family court be providing guidance on how many times we should be having sex every month so as we can better judge for ourselves if we are being bullied by our partners?

    • H says:

      I don’t think you are understanding the collective picture. I believe, the suggestion is, collectively, if these things are happening, record them. It is true narcissistic individuals will exact control through sex or withholding it, grey-stoning, gas-lighting, the silent-treatment, et cetra, which are passive forms of aggression and are, in fact, abusive. By logging them with date and time, it gives the victim a clear picture of a pattern and it helps to build your case in the event you must separate or divorce.

  2. naomi says:

    This is where I am, I have been trying to separate for over a year, he continues to bully and control. I have a very strong support group but I also have a child and am financially restrained by him. It is incredibly hard to escape but I am increasingly desperate to

    • H says:

      I feel for you. In the US, there is a tactic called “starving out” which a partner may use to force the spouse to stay in the toxic marriage. Basically, the abusive spouse makes it impossible for you to have any financial freedom, thereby, forcing you to stay or bend to their demands. You may google “starving out” tactic. It’s a form of abuse. I’m sorry.

      • AL says:

        My situation is I’ve had all of the tactics you describe including threats to my children’s life if I left but the police aren’t interested. Upon asking for divorce I was frightened out of the home as the bullying escalated. Two years on I’m STILL trying to finalise the divorce (I got the decree Nisi in Nov 18 but he won’t share his police pension (80 per cent of the marital assets) . We first co habited in September 2004. We have two children. I was main carer and worked a zero hours contact around his career and kids. He earns six times what I earn. I’ve had no money to divorce or legal aid as I have equity. A lot of time has been wasted by solicitors I’ve paid advice about what to do after the D81 and consent order I had drawn up was rejected by the court. It doesn’t seem to be viable in how it suggests the pension is split. Now his solicitor seems complicit in dragging out the court process. Ex lied on form E questions and has submitted a pensions CETV that is 11 months old & this was pointed out but is being used to get the actuary to work in which I’m paying for. Are there some rules solicitors have to follow or are they allowed to be complicit in financial strangulation? I’ve spent £9000 I’ve had to borrow and could be facing double that with no legal aid and minimum wage. Is this not just more bullying that I’m actually paying for now? Can anything be done. It’s nearly Three years Since I started this process and many years plucking up the courage to leave. I’m appalled and staggered at the system. I had little meaningful help. Thank you

  3. Rebecca Harrold says:

    I believe I am in a bullying relationship and I thought I should start keeping a journal. We are in marriage counseling and it has come to my attention that I don’t even recognize when he is bullying. I have a strong threshold for taking a lot of crap and put up with a lot. But when our counselor said she didn’t know if she should call the police as she was witnessing one of our angry outbursts with one another, it dawned on me that I have really been supressing my “fight or flight” response and have basically been giving into him or fighting back in verbally abusive ways just to keep the peace…. I fought back in front of our counselor so she could witness what we go through together on nearly a DAILY basis. I’m feeling sick about all this.

  4. L says:

    My husband took a lot of my clothes. He cut my hair . He is mean to me. How tell his parents how really is ?

    • Mrs Bean says:

      Just leave him , stand up to him & his parents . Go see a solicitor no one deserves this . You are better that that believe I. Yourself get rid of this toxic creep & screw him big time financially. Starve him from you life

  5. Bhargava Ji says:

    It is a great blog post.Helpful and informative tips. I like it thanks for sharing this information with us

  6. Sam says:

    Good article and very appropriate for me as I have just today managed to walk away…and I am shaken shocked n it will take time to recover… I am very appreciative of my mum n step dad letting me stay …n bring there for me … though it’s worrying due to covid …as I do not want to give it to them being a nhs worker…
    But the title says are you married I think it should say are you living with not necessarily everyone is married
    Thanks

  7. Mark C says:

    My wife has epilepsy and comes from a verbally abusive father. I am now in my 20th year of marriage with four children. She constantly shouts and is a bully. I have lost all my friends and most of my businesses have crumbled because I am constantly having to placate her needs from seizures to ongoing insecurities. the constant push back on everything and obsession with religion is stifling. Once I flew gliders, dived in the oceans, sailed and raced motorbikes. Once I have so many friends and family around me. Now I am poverty-stricken and too scared to leave her because I fear for the way she will and is treating one of my four girls. Our house is perpetually and in strife, shouting screaming, it’s awful. I feel drained and don’t want to carry on…Women can be just as destructive and manipulative in bulling and shouting as men

    • Someone who cares... says:

      You owe it to yourself and ALL of your daughters to get yourself and all of them out of this situation. Your wife sounds unwell and needs help. Either insist on you and your wife getting help from a good professional counselor or just leave this relationship for everyone’s sake. As the bible states: The sins of the father (and mother) are revisited on the children. As healthy adults, we must find the strength, courage. and love for the sake of our children (and their futures) to break this cycle of dysfunction or it will repeat for generations. If your wife won’t go to counseling, then go on your own. And if your daughters are old enough take them, too. You can do this. There are people doing it everyday. All the best to you and your family.

  8. Sad and unhappy says:

    I need and want to leave but have nowhere to go, no support and no job.

  9. Zuna says:

    How do u seek help as a male that is to embarrassed to talk to someone…I can’t keep fearing for my life everytime we alone….as a man fearing for my life makes me feel weak

  10. Suffering says:

    I would very much like to leave my wife, who is a massive bully and control freak. She has been through bullying inquiry at work due to allegations of bullying her team (I am not in the least bit surprised), but was found ‘not guilty’ and the victim was ousted (again, I’m not surprised by this corporate behaviour).

    She threatens divorce regularly, and everything is my fault (apparently), even her problems at work are my fault.
    The one problem is we have a young boy, who she neglects now. The only reason he is not neglected, is because I do almost everything for him. If I leave, I know she is the sort of emotionally troubled individual who would absolutely wage war and use the child as a weapon in any way they could to hurt me, and he would not be looked after in the home if I were not there because my wife is one of the laziest people I have ever met. I have no doubt that if we did separate, I would almost never see my child again and she would have no problems disobeying court orders to the contrary. My wife is happy ‘launching the nukes’ in any situation, and she does not care if she is stood at the target location.

    Some people say ‘you can only control the things you can control, and if things goes wrong away from your control after you’ve left, that’s not your fault’. I can’t accept that, as I think it’s more like taking your child to the edge of a motorway with you drunk and practically unconscious wife, and walking away at that point saying the child is in the care of the other parent. You have a pretty good idea of the outcome.
    So, I have to just suck this up until the child is old enough that they probably want to spend time with their dad, and there can be fewer years where the mother is the sole carer and can feed poisonous lies to the child and turn them against me.

    You might ask how I got in this situation? Well, in large part the extent of my wife’s behaviour was hidden from me until our honeymoon. She fell pregnant a month before our wedding, but even from our wedding night, I could tell something had changed. The honeymoon was pretty miserable, despite me trying to put a brave face on it and trying to encourage my wife to have a good time. Since then, it went to rock bottom and has pretty much stayed there. Only 3 years after we were married did she reveal that she previously had to be committed to a mental hospital. When I’ve mentioned this to her family members, they were all casually like ‘oh, I thought you knew’.

    We both work with fairly even salaries. I would be happy to walk away with nothing except my son and take not a penny in support from her in future if only we could just be free of this. However, what will happen from any split is my wife will want to cause maximum hurt and damage to me, and will try and wring me for everything she can get. I would even expect her to consider giving up work to enable a worse financial outcome for me. I would also expect her to move around a bit to make it difficult for me to see my son, so I would have to be prepared to move regularly to try and keep contact.

    It breaks my heart to live like this, especially for my boy. If I thought I was truly the problem, I could just about get comfortable with leaving my child with his mother, who would then be better off without me if it meant a kind, stable, caring upbringing. But (as I now know) my wife has a history of highly abusive relationships, and if I were not there to be the recipient of the abuse, she would just turn to the next nearest target (the child). Even now, she lashes out verbally at him, and I have to regularly pick him up and exit a situation to remove him from something emotionally harmful; I of course get a torrent later when put through the inquisition about ‘why did you take him out of the room!?!’. Our boy loves his mum, but of course he’s too young to see and understand what’s going on.

    • Sally Shakespeare says:

      Thank you for your comments. I have passed your concerns on to our Client Care Team who will be in touch to see if they can offer you any help. Best wishes

  11. Anon says:

    My soon to be ex showed many of the signs of an emotional bully named above. It’s been really exhausting to deal with such a person for 18 years, and yet he is still continuing to do that through the courts by using our daughter to try and destroy me mentally as well as financially. We are still in the process of a divorcing but he is so good at playing the victim in front of others, while he bullies me behind the scenes through whatsapp, sms and social media. It’s been really stressful and above all it has instilled alot of fear in me especially for the sake of my daughter since he is using her to hurt me . And It’s just like no one sees what he is busy doing.
    So I just do not know what to do anymore.

  12. fatima says:

    Well
    My husband is a mental bully and financial too. I have all the responsibility of house, finances and my twin kids. he earns 0 to low. While i am the one paying the house rent, credit card, utilities and when the expenses are not met, he forces me to take more work. Even if i do more and more work, the expenses are still not met.
    Mentally, he is a bully. from a simple thing he can easily dig out a negative thing, even if i ask something simple, he will find the negative. he is always calling me names, misbehave and angry and agressive, not me only but to everyone. Everyone is problematic only he is perfect, this is what he thinks. He controls all the decisions from clothes to house. I wanna get free of this prison. How can i? Even, i wanna leave the kids (this is height). What i should do? I know i can easily survive without him, as i have no love for him.

    • Anon says:

      My husband is an alcoholic bully, I want to leave him but I have so much debt which has accumulated because he doesn’t pay enough to support our children so I’ve used credit cards. He earns 3 times what I do and he has around 20k in savings but if he leaves I can’t afford the bills and pay off the debt so I’m trapped in this situation until I can pay off the debt. A solicitor told me I won’t get any financial settlement if I divorce him as we don’t own a property and have no equity to pay legal fees even though he has thousands in his bank. I don’t know what to do….this situation is affecting mine and my childrens mental well being.

  13. Sms.Abuse says:

    Im scard i get treated with pyshical vilence from ither family menber, everything is my fault i have no phoneetc and have 2 be with yis family menbers all time . Ill never get out

  14. Unknown83 says:

    Advice like this is ubiquitous on the internet and it is misleading. We’ve reached a point now where every other divorcing woman on MumsNet will claim that they are divorcing a “narcissist” or someone “emotionally abusive” because they’ve been convinced that there is more to their breakup than a bad relationship. I similarly was drawn in by the possibility that my soon to be ex-wife was emotionally abusive (from the list above I could count critical comments, slamming doors, blaming (me for her depression), undermining decisions, arguments from nowhere, demanding we live near her family and a long way from mine, coming home late, withholding sex, not controlling finances but spending money we just don’t have even when I suggested we needed to be more careful to stay out of the red, cheating and claiming she has self harmed. She also put on an act when I finally said we were getting divorced.

    But hang on. Is she a nightmare to live with? Yes. Is she a bully? No. Is she coercively controlling? Absolutely not. The reason for that is just because she’s become unpleasant to be around doesn’t make her a bully because she has neither set out to nor succeeded in controlling me. She hasn’t stopped me deciding after repeated episodes of cheating, it’s time to call time on the marriage.

    Too often groups like Women’s Aid are handing out bad advice that doesn’t distinguish between two people falling out and actual domestic abuse. The clue to whether it is domestic abuse is to take stock of your unhappy situation and to work out what power you have to get out of that situation. People who are genuinely coercively controlled have often lost touch with their family and friends, don’t have any access to the bank account, been convinced that they are helpless etc. The article mentions the power imbalance but doesn’t talk about how crucial this is to forming a picture of whether the partner is a bully.

    If you’re like me it’s more likely six of one and half dozen of the other. I listed above the things I could accuse my ex of. She could equally accuse me of doing far less than half of the housework (as I was working full time and she didn’t work), tracking her movements (which I did briefly to end the gaslighting and prove she was having an affair) and asking not to spend too much money (which could easily be interpreted as financial control). Again though, I didn’t do any of that to bully or control her. I did it partly because of the hours I had to do to fulfil her wish to be a stay at home parent, partly to keep a roof over our heads and partly to answer the question “should I leave this relationship?”

    I think many of us would really appreciate better advice on solicitor’s websites about what emotional abuse actually is, to stop frivolous claims in the Family Courts.

    • Sad and unhappy says:

      Thankfully the new No Fault Divorce procedure will make divorcing a bully a bit easier. I can’t take any more.

  15. B says:

    Hi, i think i’m marrying a bully. My husband is really obsessed with my weight. I know i’ve been gaining a lot of weight. First because of pregnancy, i managed to lose a lot after my son is around 1.5 yo. Then i got diagnosed with HNP and i constantly feel pain running through my leg everyday. Sometimes the pain is unbearable, i slowly reduced my activities and i gain weight. The pandemic just make it worse. He constantly made vicious comments about my weight throughout the years. He even “gifted” me a digital scale for my birthday. He blatantly told me that i’m not appealing and he couldn’t even erected because i look like a pig. He didn’t want to have sex anymore and i didn’t even dare asking. Even one time i got hospitalized for almost a month because of pneumonia, and i had this severe pain through my chest, he flipped out when he knew i weigh more than 60kgs. He shout and yell at me at the hospital room, saying how disgusting i am. How i ate like a pig and didn’t even care with my appearance. He told me to look at the mirror. I even have a hard time reminiscing his words, i trembled because it was so awful. I could only cry silently at the hospital room and ended up refusing the food that was offered for me as a patient. Now he signed me up in this diet plan. Initially i lost 4kgs, and this week i gain 500grams and he lost it again. He even told me to weigh on the scale every single day and send him pictures of what i ate in a day. He made me feel so guilty about eating. Now i’ve been skipping lunch and dinner but still i only lost 200grams. I really just wish this would be over. I don’t think i could lose weight as much as he wishes for. And now i know that he targeted i lost 20kgs in this diet. I don’t know what would happen if I don’t make that target because so far i only lost 4kgs. Everyday i’m thinking i just wanna quit living. I feel ashamed telling this to anyone else. On the outside ppl really respect him, they know that he’s a bright man with a bright career, compassionate, athletic. He’s all the good things, but no one knows he’s treating me this way. Even my son got scared, and he feels bad for me because of the way his father treats me. I don’t know where to get help.

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