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Toxic – A Journey through Emotional Abuse – Part 1

In the first part of her two part series on toxic marriages, Zainab Bint Younus clarifies what emotional abuse is and meets brothers and sisters who share their experiences.

“Emotional abuse” is a term that evokes looks of discomfort and feelings of panic amongst Muslims; knee jerk reactions and defensive declarations of “That stuff doesn’t happen to Muslims!” or even “There’s no such thing!”




Before we discuss the issue further, we must first know: what is emotional abuse?

Emotional Abuse: A form of abuse characterised by a person subjecting or exposing another to behaviour that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Such abuse is often associated with situations of power imbalance, such as abusive relationships, bullying, and abuse in the workplace.[1]




Signs of Emotional Abuse[2]:
Accusing and blaming, trivial and unreasonable demands or expectations, denies own shortcomings; domination, control and shame.

Emotional distancing and the “silent treatment,” isolation, emotional abandonment or neglect.

Codependence and enmeshment.




Emotional abuse is, arguably, even more widespread in Muslim communities than physical or sexual abuse is. In fact, many emotionally abusive behaviours have long been considered culturally ‘normal’ in both the East and the West, and continue to be implicitly accepted in many so-called Muslim societies. As a result, many marriages – including Muslim marriages – have and continue to suffer in a deeply unhealthy manner that runs in opposition to the Islamic injunction to live together in love and mercy. The Qur’an and the Sunnah of Rasool Allah SAW, who was the best of creation and was sent to perfect excellence of character, directly prohibit the appalling behaviour displayed by emotional abusers.




The signs and symptoms of emotional abuse are easily written off as someone simply being “oversensitive” or unable to handle the “normal challenges” in marriage.  However, there is a huge difference between the natural friction and misunderstandings that occur in a marriage, and consistent long-term behaviours that strip away someone’s identity and self-worth, leaving them internally broken and battered.




Men and women alike are both perpetrators and victims of emotional abuse, although amongst Muslims, men have the distinct advantage of being able to pronounce talaq if they wish, without the legal difficulties that women face in requesting a khul’ divorce. The role of emotional abuse as a legitimate reason for divorce is an even more sensitive subject, with few imams amongst the vast majority of them accepting it as a reason to grant women khul’.




Due to my own experience in a toxic marriage, and to work towards eradicating the stigma and many misconceptions surrounding emotional abuse, I have chosen to share the stories of others who have experienced emotionally abusive relationships:




Isolation and abuse
It took me a few years to realise [the emotional abuse], as it started very gradually, and built up and got worse as the years went on. I think it must have taken around four to five years for it to finally hit home, after the birth of my second child.




Looking back, at the time, I realised that he had already cut me off from so many people. I had lost all my friends as I wasn’t allowed to keep in contact with them, and he wouldn’t let me make new ones. Visits and phone calls to my family were limited and monitored, so I could never talk to anybody about how I felt or just generally talk about things that mattered to me. – M.S.




I can’t say when exactly I realised he was emotionally abusive. I was in denial and blamed myself for the problems for a while. I knew something was weird when he would go for days without speaking with me.



My ex had severe mood swings and a horrible temper. He could go for weeks without speaking with me, looking at me and definitely not touching me, and nothing I did would soften his heart towards me until ‘he came back.’ He once smashed his fist through a glass door because he was upset with me. He eroded my self-confidence and would call me names, threaten me and say all sorts of negative stuff to me. Then he would wake up the next morning and hug me, almost in tears, saying how much he loved me and pleading with me to stop doing things to hurt him. – H.M.



I actually didn’t realise my ex-wife was emotionally abusive until after our divorce. The entire time I was married to her she had me convinced that I deserved her abuse because I made her do it by not being good enough to her.



I tried many times during our marriage to reason with her, acknowledge her feelings and even begging her to stop. We went to a marriage counsellor but she quit when the counsellor tried explaining to her that she had to change behaviours. She would change behaviour for a day or two at most then revert to screaming, yelling, controlling my movements, communications, etc.



My ex accused me at various times of molesting both my children (one daughter, one son) She informed me a few times that she was certain I was homosexual (alhamdulillah, I am not) but it was all done to break me down. Every wrong number phone was a woman I was sleeping with, every woman in the street was someone who I lusted after and would leave her for. – C.R.



‘Religious’ justification
Everything he did, he’d tried to justify by finding a hadith or some kind of quote from somewhere that somehow supported him. So, because he was too lazy to find a job he managed to find a hadith that said something along the lines of, if your salah suffers because you’re working, then you should reconsider your job. He’d use that as an excuse not to work, saying that by being in an office, he wouldn’t be able to pray at the masjid.




I once asked him to ask the local mufti, is it halal to [remain] unemployed, not helping in the house or with the children, whilst your wife earns the money, looks after the kids, [and] runs the house? We all know the answer to this. He spoke to the mufti and came back home and said that the mufti has told him “as long as you’re happy to spend your money on the family, then that is fine. And you’re happy to do so, aren’t you?” And out of fear, I couldn’t argue the point. – M.S.




Disagreements were not tolerated. A single innocent word would result in him turning his back on me for days on end; if I didn’t immediately figure out what I’d said or done wrong, I was reminded that ungrateful, disobedient wives made up the majority of the inhabitants of Jahannam. My iman dipped so low that I wondered if I would truly burn in Hell for being unable to ensure my husband’s emotional satisfaction with me.



When I requested counselling, I was told that counselling is ‘ayb and haram, and that I was allowing my corrupt Western upbringing to influence me even more. – Z.K.



My ex-wife used Islam as an excuse for her abuse constantly. Her favourite was the topic of lowering the gaze. When we went out, she would only be satisfied if my eyes were on the floor constantly and if she thought there was even a remote possibility of me having noticed a woman, she would berate me in public and force me to take her home immediately so she could scream at without anyone seeing. There were also many examples of physical abuse that went along with this.



If I had turned my head and a woman happened to be there, she would either scream at me or tell me in hushed whispers that “you’re a pervert”, “you’re sick”, “you disgust me” and so on. I was forbidden from watching TV and was constantly suspected of hiding pornography around the house (I never did). While I was being accused of lusting after women and so on, my ex-wife was herself indulging in pornography on a near daily basis which I didn’t find out until much later. – C.R.



Impact on children
I see that the children have very low self-esteem and confidence and my eldest daughter seems to want to be with boys who show worryingly similar characteristics to her father.
My eldest daughter, who was seven years old when we left, suffered guilt, because she often used to ask, “Why don’t we just leave?” He used to get her up in the middle of the night to ask her who was better – him or me? She used to apologise to me in the morning when he was not around, for saying “him.” Sometimes he refused to let the children go to school in the morning, so we would sneak around and try to get out the front door without waking him. – D.S.



We have a daughter and his two sons from his previous marriage lived with us. My daughter was still little when I left, but I felt his first son was affected. He would always cry when one of us was going somewhere, he always asked if the person was coming back. Leaving those two boys behind was very hard for me. – H.M.



I have two children, masha Allah. [My daughter] was only six when we left him, [and my son] was three. But they still remember incidents. Emotionally, he abused [my daughter] a lot, usually through threats of violence. She went through counselling as she was really badly affected by him. She hated seeing him after the separation and would get nightmares and would get really upset or angry. It’s taken a long time, and a lot of professional help, to get her back to normal. – M.S.



I have two children with my ex; they were definitely affected by the emotional abuse, especially my five year old son. He watched his mother tear my shirt off me when I was trying to leave our apartment when she was screaming at me. My ex-wife has turned a lot of her abuse on my son especially, allowing her boyfriend to beat him.
I really scared myself as to how much abuse I put up with. My children meant more to me than anything and when I was by myself I would cry for them and myself. – C.R.




These are just some real-life examples of what Muslim men and women experience in emotionally abusive marriages. The quotes mentioned may sound shocking, over dramatic, or even unbelievable – but this is reality. Some may question why victims of emotional abuse stay in such marriages, or wonder how to deal with the abusers themselves. Part 2 will insha Allah focus on the abusers, factors behind victims remaining in those relationships, and what we can do as an Ummah to combat emotional abuse.




Zainab bint Younus spent over four years in an emotionally abusive marriage and hopes that raising awareness about it means that others don’t have to go through the same thing she did. She regularly writes about taboo issues such as sex ed, divorce and more for SISTERS Magazine and can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and her blog under the handle ‘The Salafi Feminist’.




Zainab bint Younus concludes her series on toxic marital relationships by looking at the way forward to end this oppression.




[1] Wikipedia: the British Journal of Psychiatry and the book Psychological Abuse in Domestic Relations. (by Daniel K. O’Leary and Roland D. Maiuro).

[2] PsychCentral.com: Maria Bogdanos.