Arguments are a normal part of marriage or any committed relationship. Abuse is not.

It is easy to tell the difference if you know the telltale signs of abuse.

The ideal relationship is one where peace and harmony always reign or almost always. That certainly should be the goal of every couple.

On the other hand, what cancer is to the body, emotional abuse is to marriages and committed relationships.

Typically, when couples disagree their arguments are about the outcome of a particular issue, such as household chores, spending, annoying family members or friends, and grooming. When these types of issues arise frequently, they characterize a “difficult” marriage or partnership, but not necessarily an abusive one.

Emotional abusers, by comparison, systematically seek to control their partners and every aspect of their partners’ lives. Abusers demonstrate a total disregard for the wellbeing of their partners. In fact, abusers aim to diminish the self-worth of their partners in order to establish dominance.

Over time, some victims of emotional abuse do come to believe that their mistreatment is deserved – which it never is – and that they are not entitled to self-determination.

Left unchecked, emotional abuse will shatter every relationship and most often leave the partner who was abused with deep emotional scars.

When it comes to separating normal relationship squabbles from abuse, the intent of the behavior matters greatly.

In a typical marital conflict, the intent of each partner is get his or her way on a specific issue. If you are being emotionally abused, the intent of your partner is to control you so that you will do his or her bidding. This is a very important distinction to make when evaluating whether you are experiencing emotional abuse or not.

Emotional abusers believe they alone have the right to make all the decisions for both partners. They are the relationship “Generals,” while their partners are merely lowly “Privates.” These “Generals” will go to any length – no matter how extreme – to insure that their orders are carried out.

While couples who fight over a particular matter will usually resolve the issue and resume their normal interactions in a matter of hours or days, emotional abusers can sustain their efforts for weeks, months, and even years.

At first, it may seem that for some unexplained reason, that the abusive partner is in a bad mood. Next, the abuser blames his or her partner for all of their problems. After that, the message is, “If you just do what I say everything will be okay” – which it never is. Finally, after additional incremental steps, eventually the abuser’s message becomes, “Do what I say, or you will be punished.”

It is the gradual nature of the abuse, growing incrementally, that creates the trap. Had the abusive person shown his or her true nature from the start, no partner would have entered into the relationship in the first place.

While it is not hard to distinguish between emotional abuse and the disagreements that arise in a normal relationship, it can be very hard for abuse victims to steel themselves to take actions to end the abuse.

Remember, being abused is inexcusable and never deserved or warranted. Once abuse infects a relationship, it is only a matter of time before it consumes it and possibly the abuse victim, too.

Emotional abusers can reform, although that depends on the abusive person. On the other hand, those who are abused MUST change.

They must begin by acknowledging their abuse. They must make an active choice to fix their relationship or get out of it. And they must embrace their God-given right to live with dignity and respect.

Those who are being emotionally abused will need to devise a practical plan to ensure that their lives now and in the future are good ones, and safe. Doing so often means seeking support from trusted friends and family members, or a professional relationship counselor.

Repairing a relationship that has been battered by emotional abuse is neither easy nor something that can be accomplished overnight. Provided that the abuser has never resorted to physical abuse, no decisions have to be made instantly. (Even one incident of physical abuse is one too many, and the abuse victim must separate herself or himself immediately from the abuser.)

For those who remain uncertain whether or not they are victims of emotional abuse, I encourage you to take my free five-minute, 15-question Emotional Abuse Test. The test is completely confidential and does not require you to provide your email. You will receive an immediate score, as well as my list of 12 steps to take if you are being emotionally abused.