Home Blog Working with Clients Suffering Emotional Abuse: How to Help When They Want to Stay In a Marriage for the Kids

Working with Clients Suffering Emotional Abuse: How to Help When They Want to Stay In a Marriage for the Kids

February 10, 2022
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Yeshiva University Wurzweiler School of Social Work Professor Daniel Pollack, MSW, JD was featured in the New York Law Journal with his commentary article, “A Victim of Emotional Abuse Says, ‘I’m Staying in the Marriage for the Kids’ Sake.’ How Do You Respond?”

In the article, Pollack shares insights from several attorneys and social workers whose clients have found themselves in emotionally abusive situations and have resolved to stay with the abusive spouse so the children will not grow up in a broken home. The contributors identified several recurring themes that social workers may find helpful to take into consideration when working with clients in similar situations.

The Insidious Nature of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse does not leave physical marks, which can make it much harder to pinpoint and identify. No matter how subtle it may be, however, emotional abuse is just as real and as serious as physical abuse. In an end-of-year 2020 report, the National Domestic Violence Hotline shared that 95 percent of contacts were experiencing emotional abuse.1 The National Domestic Violence Hotline notes that, although they experience a 2.3 percent increase in contacts received in comparison to 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic meant that some people were unable to safely reach out for support as they were in close proximity to their abusers.2 This issue likely still persists as the pandemic’s impact continues to cause uncertainty.

For those working with victims of emotional abuse, it is important to know the aims and signs of this kind of abuse. Abusers use emotional abuse as a non-physical way to control the victim. Their actions will likely isolate and frighten the victims. In romantic relationship like a marriage, emotional abuse may present as1:

  • Threats
  • Insults
  • Monitoring
  • Jealousy
  • Manipulation
  • Humiliation
  • Intimidation

Identifying the emotional abuse is the first step, but what happens when the victim does not want to leave the abusive situation for fear a divorce will harm the kids?

Helping Clients Overcome Emotionally Abusive Situations

For victims who are in a marriage with children, they often vow to endure the abuse for the sake of keeping the family together, thinking it will be better for the children than growing up in a “broken home.” Pollack’s contributors disavow this notion, and share how legal professionals and social workers can provide support for victims.

Acknowledge the Emotional Abuse

Due to the nature of emotional abuse, it is critical for those working with victims to acknowledge that they are believed. In Pollack’s article, Alisa Peskin-Shepherd, Esq., stated, “When my client is subject to emotional abuse, as an attorney, I first validate that the abuse is real, because so often people think it’s only abuse if the perpetrator leaves a visible bruise. We talk about the bruises no one else can see.”

Likewise, Yeshiva University Wurzweiler School of Social Work alumnus, Debbie Akerman, Ph.D., LCSW, notes that validating the victim is the first step, but that it can take months to break through the years of abuse. “Emotional abuse can render the victim questioning their own reality, sanity and perceptions. In my clinical work with those that have endured emotional abuse, much of the beginning and middle phase of the work involves assuring the client that I do indeed believe them, and that they did not do anything to deserve this kind of abuse,” she shared.3

Validating the victim is important to move on to the next steps to truly helping the client see the negative impact the emotional abuse is having on their children.

Note That an Emotionally Abusive Home Does More Harm Than Good

The argument that a divorce will do more harm to the children is commonly brought up by victims as a reason to stay and tough out the relationship. Chip Mues, Esq., noted hearing all too often that the abuse does not occur in front of the children. “I believe that kids are surprisingly aware of how the parents are treating each other and getting along,” he said.3

Michelle Halle, LCSW, echoed this sentiment. “Children are way more perceptive than we give them credit for,” she said.3

Both Halle and Mues, and other contributors to Pollack’s article, stated that growing up in an abusive home will be far more damaging to the wellbeing of the children than adjusting to life post-divorce will be. Understanding this could be a key revelation to making moves to end the abuse.

Share Resources

Beyond staying for the children, leaving an emotionally abusive marriage may feel daunting or even impossible to the victim. How will they make ends meet? What if their spouse becomes physically violent? What will life look like after the divorce?

Kendall Sykes, Esq., noted, “It is tempting to advise a client who is the victim of emotional abuse to immediately leave the abusive spouse…. We…know that when the abusive spouse realizes they are losing control over the victim, there is greatest risk of physical violence, even when the abuse up to that point has been only emotional and not physical. For this reason, before we talk about filing divorce papers, we talk about a safety plan to mitigate risk factors for the victim and the children once the decision has been made to leave.”3

Bari Weinberger, Esq., also noted resources that can help emotional abuse victims overcome financial hurdles. “When I work with a client in this situation, it’s my duty to educate the client about real and practical ways to create a secure new life. Legal measures such as temporary alimony and temporary child support can provide economic stability for starting over. Because financial abuse often goes hand in hand with emotional abuse, a survivor understanding their rights to support can be a game changer,” she said.3

Check out Pollack’s complete article for all of the advice the contributing attorneys and social workers had to share on this important topic. Read the full article here.

About the Author

Pollack is an attorney and professor for the Yeshiva University Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He has been an expert witness for lawyers in more than 30 states. Since 1980, Pollack has held executive, management, and policy-making positions in social welfare agencies in Maryland and Ohio. Pollack's research interests include law, ethics, and liability; adoption, foster care, child abuse and neglect; wrongful death of children in foster care and residential care; risk management; record keeping; licensing and accreditation; domestic violence, and international social work.

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  1. Retrieved February 2, 20221, from thehotline.org/resources/what-is-emotional-abuse/
  2. Retrieved February 2, 2022, from thehotline.org/wp-content/uploads/media/2021/06/Hotline-EOY-Impact-Report-2020.pdf
  3. Retrieved February 2, 2022, from researchgate.net/publication/355208842_A_victim_of_emotional_abuse_says_'I'm_staying_in_the_marriage_for_the_kids'_sake'_How_do_you_respond